What is Terrorism?

Almost immediately after the mass shooting in Orlando, people classified it as a terrorist attack and the shooter as a terrorist. However, this has me thinking about what exactly is terrorism and why do we call some things terrorism and other things are not terrorism.

My understanding is that a terrorist attack is considered any violent action that is designed to inspire fear against a community and has some political aims. Lately, we seem to call anything terrorism when a Muslim is involved or the attacker makes a passing reference to a terrorist group.

As we understand it now, the shooter in Orlando pledged allegiance or displayed some affinity with multiple terrorist groups, many of which are actually fighting each other in the Middle East. Not all terrorist groups work together in one big happy terrorism family. They have conflicting goals, methods, political aims, and even religious affiliation (Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Hindu, etc.)

So, to classify all terrorists as Muslim terrorists or to immediately classify any Muslim who commits an act of violence as a terrorist is dangerous. When we use the word terrorism, it immediately conjures up the idea that there is an existential threat against our country and our community. It provokes a response beyond that which is normal for a criminal act. Suddenly, we have something to fear, plots and conspiracies that threaten our way of life, an act that is worth going to war for and worth curtailing civil liberties.

So, what is terrorism? I don’t have a great answer. But, I think we need to be careful about using the word terrorism and terrorist to explain the actions of deranged individuals.

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Orlando, Violence, and Security

The shooting in Orlando was terrible. I would say it is unspeakable, but the fact that so much has been written and said defies that term. To say that something is unspeakable means that we simply cannot speak of it. As so often in human history, the most terrifying events are the ones that we talk the most about, perhaps rightly so. I join so many others in expressing sympathy for the victims and their families and friends.

Unfortunately, one of my first thoughts (after the shock of hearing the news) was, “How will politicians use this story to satisfy their own agendas?” True to form, within a few hours, we had raging debates about whether we should have better gun control, better immigration controls, more tracking of people sympathetic to ISIS, bigger walls, more surveillance, outlaw the AR-15, or high-capacity magazines, provide more AR-15 guns to the “good guys”, carpet bomb ISIS and their families, whether God ordained this because the victims were gay (or at least in a gay nightclub), and on and on and on.

I was tired before any of this started because I knew my Facebook feed would soon be filled with half-baked ideas, assumptions, suppositions, and all sorts of other ideas that would do nothing to bring back the 50 victims or take away the pain of those who survived.

Better security = less violence. Or so we are told. However, no matter how much security we have, there will always be violence, at least, as long as we live in a pluralistic, (relatively) free, democratic nation. Conservatives want less government, unless more government seems like it would provide more security. Liberals want more civil liberties, unless fewer civil liberties seem like it would provide more security.

After anything like this happens, my fear is not more terrorism, but more repression at home, more surveillance, more detentions of innocent people, more fear, less tolerance of dissent, less tolerance of difference, less openness to strangers, to outsiders, to the other. Fear is easy. Not giving into that fear and continuing to demonstrate our core values to terrorists is hard.

There is risk in anything and everything we do. To live our lives in fear of everything or to demand ever more security measures from our government is counter-productive. This is not to say that there are not reasonable steps the government (and we personally) can take to protect ourselves and mitigate risks. But to completely upend our lives or accept living in a police state means that we have given up on life. Instead we would be merely existing. Breathing, eating, sleeping, and little else. What would be the point?

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My Politics

Watching the Democrats and Republicans (and to a lesser extent, the Greens) fight over policies has made me think deeper about my own political views and where I fit. In general, I consider myself a moderate that leans liberal, especially when it comes to social issues. However, I’ve been wondering why I think this way. Two things have affected my thinking here:

1. A philosophy article detailing how it may not be possible to change your mind. Essentially the argument was that to be able to change your mind, you had to imagine the actual arguments that would be compelling enough to make you change your mind. And, if you can come up with the arguments compelling enough to change your mind, then you must change your mind. So, it seems to be difficult to ever change your mind, as long as you are familiar with all the arguments and know which one is most compelling to you.

2. The book, “Socrates Cafe”, which encourages us to think like Socrates and constantly examine our assumptions, question our most basic understanding of things, maintain an open mind to new thoughts and evidence, and know that which we do not know.

Both of these readings has led me to question my basic beliefs and where I stand on some political issues, especially as I consider who to vote for in the upcoming primaries. Instead of listing my precise stance on certain issues like the death penalty, taxes, healthcare, national security, immigration, etc., I prefer to stake out some larger principles and any specific policies should match those principles, whether the policies are put forth by Republicans, Democrats, or some other party. If more Americans did this, I think we could avoid some of the partisanship, where a person supports their political party, no matter what policies they put forth.

  1. Respect for all persons everywhere
    • Essentially, what I mean by this, is that we should treat all people with dignity and respect, and enact policies that reflect this. One important thing to note is that I don’t believe that respect and dignity end at our border or even with non-citizens within our borders. I’d also say, for clarity, that I am defining a person as a human that has been born, so unborn humans and animals are not included (not to say they don’t deserve any respect, but perhaps a different level than born humans). This includes respect for different races, religions, genders, etc.
  2. Rule of law
    •  This means that no person is above the law, and the justice system works for everyone, rich or poor. While I think that there are some laws that are immoral and need to be reformed, people must follow the laws and work to change them within the system. This doesn’t negate the legitimacy of non-violent protest, but it is preferable to change the laws through democratic processes.
  3. Economic opportunity
    • I think that people should have an equality of opportunity, that is, there should be opportunities for people to demonstrate talent and move up in companies. People should be able to live at some minimum level by working 40 hours a week.
  4. Personal freedom
    • People should have the freedom to do what they please, so long as they do not interfere with the freedom of other people. Basically, people should not be prevented from acting as they wish, nor should they be forced to act as they don’t wish (unless they are interfering with other people). People cannot have an unrestricted freedom to act (otherwise how do we prevent murder, etc.) but generally speaking people should have many of the freedoms we take for granted now, speech, assembly, worship, etc.
  5. Privacy
    • I think this is closely connected with freedom, that there is a certain level of privacy that we should all expect, but there is no right to unlimited privacy. There is always a certain amount of information that you would be required to give up, just to live in a society.
  6. Equal opportunity in politics
    • Wealth should not be a requirement to entry into politics. Additionally, admission to a particular party should not be a requirement to enter politics. While these probably apply already to most local politics, once you try to enter state or national politics, the barriers to entry are rather high. A true democracy is based on everyone having an equal voice.
  7. Education can solve many problems
    • A broad based education can be a cure to many societal ills, across the world. While not everyone needs or should necessarily attend a 4 year university, there is a basic level of education (and our K-12 education in America is very uneven) that everyone should have and will help ensure economic security, lower crime, better politics, etc.
  8. Military interventions
    • A military will always be necessary, but should really only be used in a just war (see just war theory). War is occasionally justified, but we tend to be too quick to go to a military option in some cases, while letting just opportunities to use the military (during cases of genocide for instance) go by.
  9. Respect for property
    • Property is the basis of society. Almost everyone has some property that they have earned or accrued and we should respect that they can use it how they wish, within reason. This is not an unrestricted right to keep all property, but property should not be taken away from people unnecessarily or without some form of due process. This may also apply to taxation, since that is essentially taking away monetary “property”, even if property is usually thought of as more tangible assets. A certain minimum amount of taxation is required to make a society function, but it need not be excessive.

I realize that this may not account for every situation and I can probably be challenged on any of these points, but these are the general things I look for when evaluating policies and candidates for elected office.

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Bullying in Politics

I’ve started noticing a disturbing trend in our national politics, a trend of bullying. What started with Trump has now spread across the spectrum and all the presidential candidates and their proxies are focused more on scoring some laughs at the expense of their opponent instead of dealing substantively with the issues. There was a Rubio rally recently where he spent most of the time making fun of Trump and Trump’s Twitter feed.

I’m not a supporter of Trump and I think his presidency would be calamitous for America, but I don’t condone this type of behavior from his opponent either. Since when did running for the highest elected office in the land become a punchline? Since when did it become necessary to not only show that your policies are better than your opponent’s, but you have to humiliate them as well?

I imagine we’ll see more and more talk about this phenomenon as Rubio bullies Trump, and the media gleefully seizes onto it to make fun of Trump as well. What happened to the days when you could respectfully disagree with your political opposite? Does anyone remember a time when a Democrat could say, “I disagree with the Republican’s policies, but I know he or she wants what is best for the country. He or she just has a different idea of how to accomplish it.” Instead, Democrats say Republican ideas are stupid, moronic, and they are bigots and racists. And, Republicans say that Democrats are unpatriotic, socialist, leftist, liberals without a brain cell.

Why does it seem that a member of either party can’t possibly appear to recognize that an idea of the other party is a good one? Is there any politician who can qualify as a moderate? When senators get elected, do they have to go through some sort of party-purity training, where they are told, “Here’s what we believe, you can’t disagree.”

One thing that Republicans, or maybe just conservatives in general, have done a better job at, is winning at a local level. Conservative policies are being implemented across the country, by cities and states, while liberals and the Democrats are single-minded on the presidency. If liberals/Democrats want to ever truly change the country, they have to stop being so myopic. And maybe, they’ll find some good ides at a city/state level that they can use the presidency to implement at a national level. Same for Republicans, there are some liberal cities implementing liberal policies that appear to have done some good. With your control of the House and Senate, maybe you can stop blocking Obama and work with him on some issues that he may agree with.

One thing most Americans want: stop fighting and get some work done.

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“Telling it Like it Is” – Trump style

I was watching the early returns of the Iowa caucuses last night and I was struck by one particular exit poll that asked caucus-goers how they felt about particular candidates. One quality that was asked of candidates was “Telling it Like it Is”, which (at the time I saw the results) had Trump winning with 67% of people thinking that Trump “tells it like it is”.

I am making the assumption that this means that Trump is viewed as honest and finally revealing the truth of the world to Americans. This, despite the fact that most of Trump’s statements have been declared patently false. So, how do we explain this discrepancy?

I think that Trump appears honest, even if he is not honest. Or maybe he is honest, he just doesn’t care about the truth. Perhaps truth-seeking is messy, quiet, and not always confident. So, neat, loud, confident speech ends up sounding truthful, even when it is not. Truth is now based on feeling, rather than facts.

Is there a way to help others to see that yelling and confidence are not truth, that just because someone says that they are being honest and that nobody else will tell you what you are about to hear doesn’t mean that they have some access to truth that you don’t have? I’m not sure I have an answer. It does make me feel somewhat disillusioned that there is a person who really is telling us the truth of the matter, the way things really are, and we are simply not listening because we don’t like the delivery. Trump has mastered the one-liner (and most politicians try to stick to one-liners) but politics and life is rarely this easy.

I think ultimately all that we can do is continue to strive for rational truth-seeking in our own lives and encourage it in our family, friends, workplaces, politicians, in short, with anyone we come in contact with. Some people will never change or will never care, but perhaps we can slowly help people recognize that a boisterous voice or a catchy one-liner is not necessarily truth.

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Protection of Minorities

I heard a story on NPR recently, detailing the hardships that some members of their Dalit community, traditionally the “Untouchable” caste, have in getting services and attention. The details of the story are not terribly important, and indeed NPR only spent a few minutes on the story. But, what is important is the idea that this was a catalyst for thinking about protecting minority groups.

Generally speaking, most Americans (and beyond, this is not a case for American exceptionalism) believe that everyone should be treated equally under the law. All people have the same general rights, privileges and even responsibilities as a citizen of a particular country. Going beyond that, we often speak of human rights, meaning certain rights that every human carries with them wherever they go.

But, when we have a minority group that either has faced historical or continuing discrimination, is it appropriate to extend greater protections (legally) than other groups. I think there is a distinction to be made here, as to whether we provide equal protection under the law, or whether we attempt to skew the law in favor of some groups to achieve equal results. The second view is essentially how affirmative action is viewed in the US. So, to my thinking, there is one fundamental disagreement here. Have we progressed so far that we can treat everyone equally under the law and therefore everyone is treated equally because extra-legal forms of discrimination do not exist (not interviewing people based on the racial sound of their name, not wanting to hire a woman of a child-bearing age, etc.)?

No. I think it is patently obvious to all but the most naive that some form of extra-legal discrimination (meaning discrimination that is not legal, but is reflected in attitudes, feelings, and actions outside a legal context) still exists, at least in this country. It is impossible to simply legislate thoughts and feelings (nor is that desirable), so we must resort to some legal remedies instead. By affording minority groups, especially minority groups that have historic claims of discrimination, greater legal protections or advantageous policies, we can help ensure that minority groups are legally advantaged in ways that help compensate for their extra-legal disadvantaged position.

The typical affirmative action policies that we have in the US may accomplish some of this, although considering the continuing and persistent gaps in education, wealth, and incarceration, these policies are not accomplishing enough. I am not an expert in affirmative action policies, and when I speak of minority groups, I’m not even necessarily speaking of ethnic groups, although these are the categories we frequently use and discriminate against. While I do not have specific policy recommendations, I think that we should at least agree that there are certain groups who have been disadvantaged at some time (or will be disadvantaged in the future), continue to be disadvantaged extra-legally now and need appropriate remedies to attempt to compensate for this discrimination.

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The Importance of Knowing Things

Last night, I encountered a problem. A series of outlets in my home stopped working with no warning.

My immediate thought was that the breaker must have been tripped. After a quick check of the breaker to find that it had not been tripped, my next thought was that maybe the breaker had simply gone bad. So, a trip to Lowe’s and a breaker change later, still no power to the outlets.

At this point I considered that an electrician may be my next best hope. But, before I did that, I called my dad to ask for advice. He walked me through a process where we diagnosed the issue and fixed it (a loose wire in the first outlet in the series).

This made me realize the importance of knowing things. How things work. It can give you the power to do things on your own, the power to control your own destiny in many ways. How many times have I done something wrong because I was simply ignorant? How many times have I been misled, tricked, swindled because I simply did not know any better?

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