The logic of terrorism

paulhasson

Nearly lost in the daily deluge of news last week (and almost forgotten already) was the report that an active-duty Coast Guard officer, Christopher Hasson, had been arrested for plotting “to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country.” The federal prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson in prison pending trial minced no words:

The defendant is a domestic terrorist, bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect government conduct.

Rarely do we get to see an example of a case that so clearly fits with the logic of terrorism that academics have long written about and that we try to help our students understand. I want to walk through a little bit of that here, but before I do, let me dispense with two immediate points:

  • As I have written repeatedly in this space, Hasson fits the picture of the typical American terrorist. He is an angry, right-wing, middle-aged white male.
  • Hasson is representative of another dynamic I’ve written about before, the recurring problem of violent white nationalists and other right-wing extremists in the U.S. armed forces.

Prosecutors’ motion to hold Hasson pending trial (the judge in the case ordered him held without bail for 14 days, pending further charges) contains evidence that cuts right to the larger question of the logic behind terrorism. With Hasson, as with all terrorists, the issue isn’t that he holds extreme political views and espouses extreme political objectives, but that he believes these objectives can only be accomplished through violence.

As leading scholars of terrorism like Bruce Hoffman and Martha Crenshaw have long argued, terrorists are often driven by a powerful sense of impatience, that the concerns that motive them are so dire and pressing that there is no time to wait for the slow processes of normal politics to play out. The terrorist cannot sit and wait for the ideas that motivate him to take hold among the wider population.

In making this point, Hoffman and others have drawn on the writings of 19th century Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane and his theory of “propaganda by deed.” Hoffman summarizes it this way:

“The propaganda of the idea is a chimera,” Pisacane wrote. “Ideas result from deeds, not the latter from the former, and the people will not be free when they are educated, but educated when they are free.” Violence, he argued, was necessary not only to draw attention to or generate publicity for a cause, but also to inform, educate, and ultimately, rally the masses behind the revolution.

In a draft email (the misspellings, abbreviations, and strange syntax are in the original) recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson points to the necessity of violence to awaken white America to his cause (emphasis mine):

Liberalist/globalist ideology is destroying traditional peoples esp white. No way to counteract without violence. It should push for more crack down bringing more people to our side. Much blood will have to be spilled to get whitey off the couch.

In September 2017, Hasson wrote a letter to leading neo-Nazi leader Harold Covington, who had called for the establishment of a white ethnostate in the Pacific Northwest. In that letter, also recovered from his workplace computer, Hasson argued that Covington’s dream of a establishing a white homeland in America could not be achieved without violence (emphasis mine):

I never saw a reason for mass protest or wearing uniforms marching around provoking people with swastikas etc. I was and am a man of action you cannot change minds protesting like that. however you can make change with a little focused violence. … We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost. How long can we hold out there and prevent niggerization of the Northwest until whites wake up on their own or are forcibly made to make a decision whether to roll over and die or to stand up remains to be seen. But I know a few younger ones that are tired of waiting

The scholar Ted Gurr, in a classic discussion of terrorism in democracies, wrote that terrorism can emerge when activists with extreme political views lose patience with conventional politics and therefore look for new tactics that will have greater impact. Tactics like terrorism.

If federal prosecutors are right, that’s Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson.

Trump at NATO: Making anarchy great again

(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)
(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)

 

For years now I’ve had students in my international conflict class read an old article by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In it Mearsheimer, a noted international relations realist, predicts Europe will return to the bad old days of unstable multi-polar balance of power dynamics which historically led to wars among the continental great powers.

Mearsheimer was writing in 1990, just as the Cold War was ending, and where others saw a bright, cooperative, and peaceful future, he saw something much darker:

We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy – Hobbes’s war of all against all – is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future …

Peace in Europe during the Cold War was, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, a product of the order imposed by two roughly equally matched, nuclear-armed, superpowers. With the Cold War over, that bipolar order went with it, paving the way for a return to the old, destructive patterns of history.

With the order of the Cold War gone, the states of Europe would once again be forced to put their own security first. Neither the prosperity that comes with membership in a common economic market, nor joint adherence to democratic norms and values, would be sufficient to guarantee the safety of European states in system characterized by anarchy and the requirements of self-help. Nuclear proliferation, at the very least to Germany, was assumed. War was not out of the question.

But the old patterns never actually came back, despite Mearsheimer’s prediction. Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Europe remains peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. And neither the Germans, nor any other European state, has developed nuclear weapons.

The key question I ask my students is why. Why was Mearsheimer wrong?

The answer is simple: Mearsheimer assumed that with the Cold War over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union gone, the United States would abandon Europe and the NATO alliance would dissolve. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Perhaps until now.

President Trump is now in Brussels for the NATO summit, and has spent his time, both in tweet before and in person while there, berating America’s allies, demanding they increase defense spending (they already have), and claiming the alliance is a raw deal for the US that disproportionately benefits Europe while we’re left holding the bag.

Every public statement from the president further undermines confidence in America’s commitments. Every new statement, every new set of plaudits thrown by Trump at Vladimir Putin’s feet, creates a little more doubt about whether we will stand in common defense of our allies. With all this, our allies must think, perhaps they should look to their own security once again.

And so, Mearsheimer might say, begins the return to form.

When it comes to understanding international politics, realists like Mearsheimer suggest that it all comes down to the long game. Given time, the standard patterns of interaction that characterize international relations will reassert themselves, sure as one season follows another. Wait long enough and history, or some close variant of it at least, really does repeat itself.

I hate to think that Trump is making Mearsheimer right after all.

Trump folds

You might want to avoid following this advice.
You might want to avoid following his advice.

 

In what may be the least surprising development in Trump-era foreign policy, the president has backed out of his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Having impulsively agreed to meet with North Korean dictator, without preconditions, raising ridiculously high expectations for the outcome by giving in to his habitual hucksterism, declaring himself a shoe-in for the Nobel Peace Prize, then making impossible-to-meet demands on the Kim regime while offering no concessions, this was probably inevitable.

997E0290-7545-4247-9250-B52A8D51B080_cx0_cy12_cw0_w1023_r1_sAs I told the host of a local news radio program more than a week ago, I would believe the summit was going to happen when I saw the two leaders sitting down at the table together. Now the big question is what will the Trump administration going to do with all those commemorative coins they had made?

The United States was never going to get from the North Koreans what we said we wanted: immediate, complete, and independently verifiable denuclearization. And we had already gone a long way toward giving the Kim regime what it has long sought: Recognition as nuclear equals. That it has also forged closer ties with a South Korea spooked by the beating of war drums in Washington is just gravy.

When I teach negotiation, one of the cardinal rules I try to convey to my students is the need for negotiators to always have an eye on what’s called their “BATNA” — their best alternative to a negotiated agreement. It’s a simple idea. If any deal you could get would constitute a worse outcome then what happens if you walk away from the table, then you should walk. Even at the cost of what looks and feels like humiliation.

I wrote in this space last week that President Trump, due to all of those points raised at the top of this post, and more, had dealt himself an impossibly bad hand to play in a diplomatic game with incredibly high stakes. So rather than play out the hand, Trump did the only thing he could.

Having carelessly built the pot while holding a losing hand, he folded.

We’ll have to wait to see if that really was the best alternative.

Are the Austin bombings terrorism?

FBI agents at the scene of last night's bombing. (AP)
FBI agents at the scene of last night’s bombing. (AP)

 

Four bombs have now gone off in Austin, Tx, over the last 17 days. The most recent was last night, a bomb triggered by a tripwire that left two men injured.

According to the FBI, this “changes things,” representing a significant step up in the sophistication of the device compared to the earlier bombs which left two African-American men dead and a hispanic woman critically injured. All four devices share similarities which suggest they are the work of the same bomb maker.

The first three bombs were all left at residences, disguised as delivered packages. All detonated as the victims were opening or handling them. The fourth bomb was left on a roadside in a different area of the city.

Because the first two victims were black, a 39-year-old construction worker and a 17-year-old high school student, both related to prominent members of Austin’s African-American community, the attacks have raised suspicion that they are racially motivated. The area where the first three bombs went off were neighborhoods east of I-35, the six-lane highway which divides the affluent and predominantly white west side of the city from where black and hispanic residents have historically lived on the east side.

The fourth bomb, however, breaks from that pattern. It was planted in the city’s southwest. The two men injured in the blast are both white.

So where does that leave us? Can we describe these as acts of terrorism?

Four bombs have now gone off, all apparently the work of the same individual or group of individuals. The attacks have left the city on edge, with police urging the public to be alert for suspicious packages. The neighborhood where the fourth bomb went off was placed on lockdown until this afternoon, with residents kept in their homes and school buses ordered to stay away. The identities of the first three victims suggest a possible motivation.

That last is the key to understanding whether or not what is happening in Austin constitutes terrorism or something else. Definitions of terrorism typically focus on several key elements: threat or use of violence; intention to create fear in an audience beyond the immediate victims of an attack; all in the service or pursuit of some political/social/religious motivation or objective.

So that’s what we still need to know about the Austin attacks. Until we find some further evidence of common ideological motivation connecting the bombings, we will have to reserve judgment.