Nothing is normal and everything is bad

Someone more clever than I am made this meme.

Shakespeare had it wrong when he suggested that “our winter of discontent” could be “made glorious summer” whether by Richard III or anything else. At least that’s the way I’ve been feeling about things.

So here we are nearing summer’s end, the discontents of winter turned into the miseries of COVID spring, the angers and unrests of summer, and a numb stumble into a fall of tension, uncertainty, and anxiety.

Blacks keep dying at the hands of mostly white police. American cities are roiled by 100+ days of protest, mostly but certainly not entirely peaceful. California burns.

Millions — 13.6 million as of August — are jobless. Millions more have contracted a dangerously virulent virus. COVID deaths in the United States now top 190,000, more than any other country on earth.

And we learn today that the president knowingly and purposefully lied to the American people about how dangerous this virus really is. He admitted it on the record in a taped interview. And he could still win re-election in November.

Boats keep sinking at Trump boat parades. OK, that one may be a bright spot.

So yeah, I haven’t been writing much. But I’m working on changing that, not because I think anyone has been hungering for my perspective, but because I need to do it to get myself back onto something that feels like a normal track.

Let’s face it. Nothing is normal now. Certainly not in my personal or professional life. Maybe your situation is different.

Anyway, to get back to normal I need to do some normal things. Writing is one of them.

‘You have to dominate …’

National Guard on the streets of Minneapolis (Credit: Start Tribune)

President Trump, in a 45-minute conference call with the nation’s governors today, told them how to handle the waves of protests, some violent, that have swept more than 50 cities across the country over the last several days and nights:

Get a lot of men. We have all the men and women that you need, but people aren’t calling them up. You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you. You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate and you have to arrest people and you have to try people and they have to go to jail for long periods of time.

Six minutes into the call, after recounting scenes he apparently saw on television, and then passing along to the governors rumors his friends have told him, Trump, who spent part of Friday night cowering in the White House bunker while protesters rallied outside, returned to his main theme:

There’s no retribution. So I say that, and the word is dominated. If you don’t dominate your city and your state, they’re going to walk away with you. And we’re doing it in Washington and DC. And we’re going to do something that people haven’t seen before, but you’re going to have total domination.

Before turning it over for questions, Trump again berated the governors for he called their “weakness,” and their failure to call up even more than the 17,000 National Guard troops already deployed in 29 states to confront these disturbances.

I don’t know what it is, politically, when you don’t want to call up people. They’re ready, willing, and able. They want to fight for the country. I don’t know what it is. Someday you’ll have to explain it to me, but it takes so long to call them up. We’re waiting for you. We’re shocked at certain areas. L.A., we’re shocked that you’re not using the greatest resource you can use, and they’re trained for this stuff, and they’re incredible, but you’re not calling them up. I don’t know, but you’re making a mistake because you’re making yourself look like fools.

And some have done a great job. A lot of you. It’s not good. It’s very bad for our country. Other countries watch this. They’re watching us and they say, “Boy, they’re really a pushover.” And we can’t be a pushover. And you have all the resources. It’s not like you don’t have the resources. So I don’t know what you’re doing.

For Trump, strength means putting soldiers on the streets of American cities, to dominate fellow Americans into silence and acquiescence.

But this is far from the first time we have heard Trump speak this way, disparaging those who fail to meet popular dissent with maximum force and praising those who crush protest with cold ruthlessness. In fact, I wrote about it right after election day in 2016:

In a 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump was asked about his impressions of the Soviet Union after an unsuccessful trip to Moscow to try to make a hotel deal:

I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; The signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.

The interviewer pressed him: “You mean firm hand as in China?”

When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.

Read that again. “Put it down with strength.” That’s what the Chinese did in 1989, and thousands died. And that’s what Trump is telling America’s governors to do in 2020. Dominate.

President Trump wants occupying armies on American streets, and he doesn’t understand why America’s governors balk at the idea. This exchange, between Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Trump, lays it bare:

Tim Walz: (24:21)
If I’m still on, the one thing I would say, I spent 24 years in the guard. So one thing I would say is you could do is, a lot of people don’t understand what the National Guard is. And you need to get out there from a PR perspective and make sure that it’s not seen as an occupying force, but it’s their neighbors, school teachers, business owners, those types of things. That’s a really effective message.

Donald Trump: (24:39)
Okay, good. I think that’s a good idea. I must say, it got so bad a few nights ago, that the people wouldn’t have minded an occupying force. I wish we had an occupying force in that. But for some reason, I don’t know what it is, governors don’t like calling up the guard. 

For some reason …

Remote learning: The final lessons

(Credit: Department of Homeland Security)

It’s been five weeks since this impromptu exercise in online teaching about terrorism began, and now we’ve come to the end. So what I’ve asked my students to think about for this final week of class are two simple questions:

  • Why hasn’t there been another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States in the nearly 20 years since?
  • What are the real risks that terrorism poses to the United States, and how should we address them?

One of the ways I get at that first question is by having my students read a piece by journalist Timothy Noah, published back in 2009, in which he lays out a series of possible explanations for why another 9/11 had not yet occurred. Despite being a decade old now, many of the theories he lays out have held up well, others not so much.

As I discuss in this first video below, Noah’s explanations range from the comforting to the decidedly worrisome. On the comforting side, Noah essentially argues that 9/11 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. Rather than succeeding out of strategic brilliance and flawless tactical execution, the 9/11 attacks worked because of dumb luck. At every one of the many points where the plot could have been discovered or something could have gone wrong, the breaks went in favor of the terrorists. The likelihood of that happening again, he argues, is pretty darn low. On the worrisome side of the equation is the simple argument that another large-scale attack is ultimately inevitable, and it is simply of matter of time until it happens.

Should another large-scale terrorist attack happen in the US, many analysts believe that it will likely involve the use of weapons of mass destruction, or CBRN (chemical-biological-radiological-nuclear) terrorism. Journalist Steven Brill makes this point in assessing US terrorism security policy post-9/11. In the video below I summarize the case made by leading terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman on CBRN. He touches on three main points: Why we haven’t seen CBRN terrorism yet; why it might now be plausible; and why we shouldn’t dismiss the threat.

In the final video, I introduce a contrarian argument, courtesy of Ohio State political scientist John Mueller, who argues that the risks of terrorism for the United States have been wildly overblown (see a short review of his book by that name here), that our overreaction to the risks is more damaging and dangerous than the threat of terrorism itself, and that rational policy making must be based on a clear-eyed assessment of what terrorists actually can do rather than our “worst case fantasies” about what they might want to do.

This week in terrorism history: April 13-19

Freelance journalist Lyra McKee was killed last April while observing this riot in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Easter is the time in the Irish Republican calendar when the failed 1916 Rising is remembered and the long armed struggle against British occupation of Ireland is commemorated. I’ve written about these commemorations and their politicization in Northern Ireland before, here, and here, and here.

So it should come as no surprise that the armed Republican dissident group commonly called the New IRA yesterday plastered their Easter message on walls across nationalist neighborhoods in the city of Derry. The document is an excellent example of the kind of messaging that many armed political groups routinely engage in as they seek to justify their actions, deflect responsibility, and rally support for their cause. Let me elaborate.

In this first passage, the New IRA lays the blame for any armed conflict squarely at the feet of the British government and those who work to enforce British rule in Northern Ireland. And they make the argument that force is necessary to move the needle toward the goal of ending British occupation.

Responsibility for the ongoing conflict rests firmly on the shoulders of the British Government. While British occupation persists particularly throughout those who implement its policies via Stormont, the Irish people are denied their right to national self-determination and sovereignty. Faced with this reality we remain committed to bringing the British government’s undemocratic rule of the occupied part of our country to an end.

While we face an unprecedented health crisis, it won’t be long until Brexit and it’s continuing difficulties for Britain re-emerges. This has reinvigorated the topic of a reunified Ireland. Revisionist agendas and former Republicans turned British politicos endorsing a Border poll will not force the hand of the British establishment. They listen to one thing and one thing only: physical force.

In this next section, the New IRA makes claims about its capability to strike and its willingness to do so. At the same time they warn the public to stay away from “Crown Force,” i.e. police, vehicles in order to avoid becoming collateral damage. This is a clear reference to the killing last April of freelance journalist Lyra McKee, who was fatally shot as she stood next to an armored police vehicle while observing a riot in Derry.

Despite an increased Crown Force presence and a restocked war chest, we have demonstrated again and again that we retain the capacity and resources to continue to strike against those maintaining British occupation. Everyone should be assured that we are united, we are strong and we remain steadfast in our determination to achieve our objectives.

We have repeated often in the past and do so again now; the IRA can strike at will. We warn the public to be aware of this and to remain a safe stance from Crown Force vehicles at all time.

The message of this is obvious: The New IRA will take no responsibility for any civilian casualties that might occur during an attack on the police. That blame they will lay at the feet of the police first, and then the innocent victims themselves.

And now on to this week’s look back at the week in terrorism history.

  • April 13, 2014 — Overland Park, KS: Frazier Glenn Miller, opens fire at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. Three people are killed, including a 14-year-old Eagle Scout and his grandfather. Miller, a retired Army veteran and Green Beret, is the founder and former leader of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Patriot Party, which he ran as paramilitary organizations in the 1980s. He was convicted and sentenced to death in November 2015.
  • April 14, 2014 — Chibok, Nigeria: More than 250 schoolgirls are kidnapped by Book Haram in an attack on the town. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, claims responsibility.
  • April 17, 2004 — Gaza Strip, Palestine: Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, dies in a targeted killing strike carried out by an Israeli Air Force attack helicopter. Two other passengers in Rantisi’s car were also killed, and four bystanders were wounded. Rantisi had succeeded to the leadership of Hamas in the Gaza Strip four weeks earlier after his predecessor, Ahmed Yassin, was himself killed by Israeli forces.
  • April 18, 1983 — Beirut, Lebanon: A car bomb explodes outside the US embassy building, killing 63 and wounding more than 100 others. Hezbollah is responsible for the attack.
  • April 19, 1995 — Oklahoma City, OK: Timothy McVeigh detonates a truck bomb in front of the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and wounding hundreds more. This remains the single deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. McVeigh is subsequently convicted of the bombing and executed on June 11, 2001.
  • April 19, 2018 — Orange County, CA: Police raid the home of a 26-year-old man after receiving a tip from his family that he harbored violent antisemitic views. Upon search of his home, authorities uncovered ammunition, antisemitic literature, a kill-list targeting local churches and prominent Jewish leaders and a document titled “How to Kill my First Jew.”