May 26, 2010

Film Review: “American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein”



American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein attempts to explain the motives of one of the most beloved, and hated, academics in recent memory. According to filmmakers David Ridgen and Nicholas Rossier, in order to understand Norman Finkelstein—heralded by some as a voice of moral clarity in the Israel-Palestine conflict, dismissed by others as a rabid, self-hating Jew—we need to turn his childhood.

Early in the film, a childhood friend describes how Finkelstein’s mother had an “extraordinary” influence on him. A Holocaust survivor, Maryla Finkelstein spent her life after the war trying to impart the lessons she’d learned in the Majdanek concentration camp to her children and others. “I am now strictly a pacifist,” we hear her tell an interviewer in her broken English, “and I believe that if you kill, you don’t achieve. With the first killing, you already lost.” Norman remembers how she would react to news reports about the Vietnam War with an almost “hysterical rage.” His brother, Richard, recalls her screaming at the television set.

Needless to say, this rage didn’t escape Norman. We see it in his fiery brown eyes, hear it in his loud, raspy voice as he talks to the filmmakers from his Ocean Parkway apartment. At one point in the film we see him erupt when a college student accuses him of being insensitive to Holocaust victims. “My late father was in Auschwitz, my late mother was in Majdanek concentration camp,” he tells an auditorium of students. “And it is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians.”

In hopes of presenting a balanced picture, Ridgen and Rossier also give time to Finkelstein’s critics. We hear Alan Dershowitz accuse Finkelstein of being “a classic anti-Semite.” “I don’t think he is Jewish,” Dershowitz tells the camera; “as someone once put it, he’s Jewish only on his parents’ side.” The above-mentioned childhood friend says that she sometimes feels he’s a self-hating Jew. “He’s certainly a Jew-hating Jew,” she adds.

But as the film progresses, as we watch Finkelstein endure the character assassination that accompanied his tenure battle with DePaul University, as we follow him to Lebanon for a 2008 speaking tour, the total vacuity of his critics’ accusations becomes clear. For even if we disagree with Finkelstein’s politics—or, like John Mersheimer, with his “overly provocative” language—there can be no denying that this is a man driven, not by hatred, but by the profound moral sense instilled by his mother.

In one of the film’s most powerful moments, we watch him tell an auditorium of pro-Palestinian activists that “Israelis have the right to be there,” that they have “the right to exercise self-determination in what’s historic Palestine.” In another moving scene, we see him speaking at a Palestinian refugee camp, urging his audience, not to take up arms against Israel, but to take up the challenge of being “both principled and reasonable at the same time.” A young Palestinian later tells the filmmakers that, while he’s been “so concentrated on fighting Israel,” Finkelstein has reminded him of the value of diplomacy.

There are many other great scenes in American Radical, which, as should be apparent by now, I highly recommend. You can find a list of upcoming screenings at the American Radical website. Or you can rent a DVD from Netflix or purchase a copy from Amazon.com.

May 23, 2010

Barack the Lesser

Like many Americans, I once held a lesser-of-two-evils theory of politics. Although I don’t like to admit it now, for a time I even supported Barack Obama, even contributed money to his presidential campaign. I didn’t think all that much about Obama, but, as the theory goes, there are bad sociopaths out there, and there are really bad sociopaths, and you need to support the bad sociopaths to prevent the really bad ones from getting elected.

Looking back at the 2008 election, I still think that McCain-Palin were the really bad sociopaths, but I’m now more convinced than ever that none of that matters. For evil is evil. The lesser evil might take you to hell at a slower rate, but they’re still going to take you there. Moreover, as the Obama presidency has proven, sometimes the lesser evil will actually get you there faster.

For almost eighteen months now, Obama has continued the worst policies of the Bush administration. He’s failed to pull American troops out of Iraq.[1] He’s escalated the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan.[2] He’s maintained the Bush policy of spying on American citizens and has continued denying terror suspects many of their most fundamental human rights.[3]

Although McCain-Palin certainly wouldn’t have been better on any of these issues, they wouldn’t have been able to legitimize these policies, which is exactly what Obama has done. As Charles Krauthammer points out:

The rotation of power is the finest political instrument ever invented for the consolidation of what were once radical and deeply divisive policies. The classic example is the New Deal. Republicans railed against it for 20 years. Then Dwight Eisenhower came to power, wisely left it intact, and no serious leader since has called for its repeal…

A similar consolidation has happened with many of the Bush anti-terror policies. In opposition, the Democrats decried warrantless wiretaps, rendition and detention without trial. But now that they are charged with protecting us from the bad guys, they’ve come to view these as indispensable national security measures.

While noting that the rotation of power “inevitably results in stops and starts and policy zigzags,” Krauthammer writes that “it ultimately helps create a near-miraculous social stability by setting down layers of legitimacy every time the opposition adopts some of its predecessor’s reforms.”[4]

Had McCain-Palin won the election, we’d still have a viable antiwar movement, not just Cindy Sheehan and her ragtag gang.[5] We’d still have millions of Americans decrying the wars in the Middle East and the nation’s abandonment of the rule of law. But Obama has managed to silence all but a handful of these critics. The moment he gave his victory speech in Grant Park, those who’d spent the previous eight years protesting the policies of the Bush-Cheney regime decided that the fight was over. They suddenly became apologists for executive power and in no time at all could be found defending their man’s broken campaign promises.

So I hope we’ve all learned our lesson. Some of you, I’m happy to see, have concluded that they’re all a bunch of crooks and have completely abandoned faith in the American political system. Others continue hoping—in my opinion, hoping against hope. Well, fine, that’s your right. Hope your lives away if you must. But please, please, remain critical, remain true to your values, and never settle for evil, lesser or otherwise.


Notes

[1] J.H. Huebert, "Mission Accomplished!" The LRC Blog, 21 May 2010; Today is the day Obama promised the troops would be out of Iraq,” Jack Liberty, 21 May 2010.

[2] David Stout, “Obama Sounds Cautious Note as He Sets Out Afghan Plan,” New York Times, 27 March 2009; Scott Wilson, “Obama: U.S. security is still at stake,” Washington Post, 2 December 2009; “The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2010,” New America Foundation.

[3] Charlie Savage and James Risen, “Federal Judge Finds N.S.A. Wiretaps Were Illegal,” New York Times, 31 March 2010; Peter Baker, “Obama to Use Current Law to Support Detentions,” New York Times, 23 September 2009; Matthew Alexander, “Torture’s Loopholes,” New York Times, 20 January 2010; Greg Miller, “Obama preserves renditions as counter-terrorism tool,” Los Angeles Times, 1 February 2009; Glen Greenwald, “Confirmed: Obama authorizes assassination of U.S. citizen,” Salon.com, 7 April 2010; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama wins the right to detain people with no habeas review,” Salon.com, 21 May 2010.

[4] “In praise of the rotation of power,” The Washington Post, 12 March 2010.

[5] Byron York, “What happened to the antiwar movement? Cindy Sheehan hits ‘hypocrisy’ of Left, Democratic allies,” Washington Examiner, 18 August 2009.

May 16, 2010

Faisal Shahzad: Another Case of Blowback

Sometimes it feels like every other post I write deals with the subject of blowback. I really don’t enjoy rehashing these arguments week after week, but here we are, nearly nine years after 9/11, and most Americans still don’t understand why so many in the Muslim world want to kill us. So until people start to get it, I guess I’ll keep at it.

For today’s lesson, I’ll be focusing on Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani-American who attempted to set off a bomb in Times Square on May 1. In the days that followed Shahzad’s arrest, numerous commentators speculated about his motives, with many conservatives predictably placing the blame on “radical Islam.” Scorning the idea that terrorists like Shahzad might be motivated by “political grievance,” Clifford May claimed that such men embrace “a warrior faith dedicated to conquest—with power, wealth, and glory accruing to conquerors.” According to May, such men look back to Islam’s glorious past—when Muslim armies “marched westward to the Atlantic, eastward to the Pacific, and into Europe as well”—and believe that “similar conquests can and should be won in the 21st century—if only Muslims will return to their roots and fulfill their obligation to wage jihad” (“The Long and Foggy War,” National Review, 13 May 2010).

Contrary to May, it turns out that Shahzad was in fact motivated by political grievances. In a recent New York Times article, Andrea Elliott, Sabrina Tavernise, and Anne Bernard recount Shadhzad’s path to radicalization. Relying on “interviews with relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors, colleagues and government officials, as well as e-mail messages written by Mr. Shahzad,” the reporters show that he didn’t start out as a fundamentalist Muslim. While attending the University of Bridgeport, he “worked out obsessively and, on weekends, hit New York City’s Bengali-theme nightclubs. He loved women, recalled a former classmate, and ‘could drink anyone under the table.’ He showed little interest in Islam” (“For Car Bomb Suspect, a Long Path to Times Square,” 15 May 2010).

It was only after the Bush administration launched its “war on terror” that Shahzad started to sober up. One family member recalled: “He was always very upset about the fabrication of the W.M.D. stunt to attack Iraq and killing noncombatants such as the sons and grandson of Saddam Hussein.” Elliott et al. note that in 2003 “Shahzad had been copied on a Google Groups e-mail message bearing photographs of Guantánamo Bay detainees, handcuffed and crouching, below the words ‘Shame on you, Bush. Shame on You.’”

It was during this time that he started to become more religious, eventually adopting an extremely puritanical and political form of Islam. By 2006, he had become fully radicalized, as can be evidenced by an email he wrote to some friends. After blaming the US government for inflicting suffering on Muslims throughout the world—by supporting Pakistan’s “dictatorship,” by controlling “Hypocrite government in the Muslim world [sic],” by attacking and occupying Muslim countries—he argued that jihad was the only way he and his friends could defend their fellow Muslims:

Can you tell me a way to save the oppressed? And a way to fight back when rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows? In Palestine, Afghan, Iraq, Chechnya and else where. We don’t know the realities on ground as to what the Mujahideen goes through but you would have to agree to the fact that there is a force out there that is fighting the west and is defeating them. (“Email from Faisal Shahzad,” New York Times, 15 May 2010)

Although it’s impossible to get inside of his mind, none of the above evidence suggests, as May and others have claimed, that Shahzad turned to terrorism in order to help bring about a worldwide Islamic government. Rather, it suggests that his botched bombing was a response to US military actions overseas, an attempt to “save the oppressed,” to “fight back.” According to one family member, Shahzad was especially enraged by America’s recent drone strikes in Pakistan, where he was born and raised.

That Muslims feel anger over US military actions overseas, that some feel the need to strike back, should come as no surprise to us. As Congressman Ron Paul often asks, How would we feel if a foreign nation were doing the same things to us? (“Opportunities for Peace and Nonintervention,” LewRockwell.com, 6 January 2009). How would we feel if China or Russia were sending drones into American territory? How would we feel if these drones, though purportedly sent to kill bad guys, were more often than not killing innocent civilians? (“US Killed 700 Civilians in Pakistan Drone Strikes in 2009,” Antiwar.com, 2 January 2010). How would we feel? No doubt we’d be livid. No doubt some of us would respond to this evil by perpetrating evil of our own.

May 10, 2010

Fighting Terrorism, Over There and Over Here

Faisal Shahzad’s attempted Times Square bombing has many people talking about homegrown terrorism—that is, terrorism perpetrated by those living in the United States. Needless to say, such conversations can be extremely unsettling. The thought of jihadists committing terrorism “over there” doesn’t concern most of us. After all, “over there” refers to a bunch of third-world countries halfway around the world. But the thought of it happening “over here” conjures up images of a second, perhaps even deadlier, 9/11.

The good news is that these terrorists have generally shown themselves to be inept. Shahzad, for instance, didn’t know the first thing about bomb-making. As terrorism expert Gary Ackerman writes: “The construction of the device was extremely incompetent. I do not think that this displays any kind of ‘warning’ or ‘demonstration’—jihadists are not known for this type of behavior. Rather it indicates, in my opinion, that either the trainers or their student are grossly incompetent.”[1]

But, of course, there’s no guarantee that we’ll continue being so lucky in the future. In a recent report for the RAND Corporation, Brian Michael Jenkins writes that, although intelligence and law enforcement officials can take certain actions to contain domestic terrorism, “prevention will not always work. More attempts will occur, and there will, on occasion, be bloodshed—as in any armed conflict.”[2]

Given all this, I think it follows that we should shift our focus to the root causes of terrorism. In other words, instead of trying to figure out how to contain terrorists once they’ve become radicalized, we should be asking what we can do to prevent them from becoming radicalized in the first place. Jenkins contends that these individuals have been radicalized by US military intervention in the Muslim world: “It is…important to remember that these individuals believe that the entire Islamic community is the target of aggression by the United States, Israel, and other infidel powers. Armed defense, according to this view, is a necessary and personal duty.”[3]

Many other terrorism experts have reached the same conclusion. For instance, shortly after reports materialized last December that five Muslims from Virginia had traveled to Pakistan to seek jihadist training, Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman attributed the past year’s surge in homegrown terrorism to US military aggression. “The longer we’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Hoffman stated, “the more some susceptible young men are coming to believe that it’s their duty to take up arms to defend their fellow Muslims.”[4]

After compiling a database of every suicide terrorist attack since 1980, the University of Chicago’s Robert Pape concluded: “What over 95% of suicide terrorist attacks around the world have in common since 1980 is not religion but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists consider to be their homeland or prize greatly. From Lebanon to Chechnya to the West Bank to Sri Lanka to Kashmir and to Iraq and Afghanistan today, suicide terrorism is mainly a response to foreign military occupation.”[5]

According to Pape’s database, the world’s “five largest Islamic fundamentalist populations without American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists on the order of 1 per 71 million people, while the Persian Gulf countries with American military presence have produced al-Qaeda suicide terrorists at a rate of 1 per million, or 70 times more often.”[6]

Despite all this evidence, some continue denying that terrorism is a response to American military aggression. Writing in Commentary, James Kirchick takes issue with Robert Wright for suggesting that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have increased the number of both foreign and domestic terrorists. Nonsense, responds Kirchick: “terrorism against the United States began long before American boots ever landed in Afghanistan or Iraq; surely Wright is familiar with the chronology of 9/11 in relation to those two wars.”[7]

But as I’ve explained in the past, such arguments fail. While the US has certainly done much to inflame Muslims since 9/11, it also did much to inflame Muslims before 9/11: it stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, imposed sanctions on the Iraqi people, supported Israel in its aggression against the Palestinian and Lebanese people, and propped up various dictatorships throughout the Muslim world.[8]

The bottom line is that most people don’t become terrorists because they hate American democracy or because they hate Christianity. Most people become terrorists to avenge the untold death and destruction being caused by the US military overseas. In other words, people like Faisal Shahzad are attacking us over here because we’re attacking Muslims over there. And until we end this backwards foreign policy, such attacks are sure to continue.


Notes

[1] Gary Ackerman, “Times Square bomber suspect Faisal Shahzad,” Washington Post (4 May 2010).

[2] Brian Michael Jenkins, Would-Be Warriors: Incidents of Jihadist Terrorist Radicalization in the United States Since September 11, 2001 (RAND Corporation: Santa Monica, CA, 2010), 13.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Scott Shane, “New Incidents Test Immunity to Terrorism on U.S. Soil,” New York Times (11 December 2009).

[5] “Scott Horton Interviews Robert Pape,” Antiwar Radio (2 October 2008).

[6] Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House: New York, 2005), 242. It’s worth noting that, even after narrowing the definition of Islamic fundamentalism to include only Salafism, the form of Islam practiced by al-Qaeda, foreign military is still a far greater cause of terrorism than religion. “The five countries with the largest Salafi-influenced populations are Pakistan (43 million), Nigeria (37 million), Indonesia (26 million), Egypt (23 million), and Sudan (21 million). Altogether, these countries account for 64 percent of the world’s total Salafi-influenced population (150 million), but only 29 percent of al-Qaeda’s transnational suicide terrorists (seven of twenty-four)” [Ibid., 117].

[7] James Kirchick, “The Homegrown-Terrorist Threat,” Commentary (February 2010, Volume 129, Issue 2), 19.

[8] See “Love Means Never, Ever, Never Having to Say You’re Sorry” (6 February 2009).

May 3, 2010

Abraham, Israel, Palestine

Writing in National Review, Dennis Prager explains why conservatives like himself are “virtually unanimous in supporting Israel”:

The reason is based on a verse in Genesis in which God, referring to the Jewish people, says to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.”

One need not be a Jew or Christian or even believe in God to appreciate that this verse is as accurate a prediction as humanity has ever been given by the ancient world. The Jewish people have suffered longer and more horribly than any other living people. But they are still around. Its historic enemies are all gone. Those that cursed the Jews were indeed cursed.

And those who blessed the Jews were indeed blessed. The most blessed country for over 200 years has been the United States. It has also been the most blessed place Jews have ever lived in. Is this a coincidence? Many of us think not.

Those who curse the Jews still seem to be cursed. The most benighted civilization today is the Arab world. One could make a plausible case that the Arab world’s preoccupation with Jew-hatred and destroying Israel is a decisive factor in its failure to progress. The day the Arab world makes peace with the existence of the tiny Jewish state in its midst, the Arab world will begin its ascent.

The converse is what worries tens of millions of Americans—the day America abandons Israel, America will begin its descent.[1]

There are several problems with Prager’s argument. First, it seems that he has misinterpreted the Bible. According to all the English translations I’ve found, Yahweh’s promise in Genesis 12.3 (the verse Prager quotes) is to Abraham, not to Abraham’s descendants, not to “the Jewish people.” As the New International Version reads, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.”[2]

It’s true that Yahweh makes promises to Abraham’s descendents elsewhere in Genesis,[3] but even if we assume that Genesis 12.3 is one of these passages, I’m not sure how this strengthens Prager’s argument. For it seems that “the [modern] Jewish people” do not have a closer lineage to Abraham than Arabs do. As numerous scholars have shown, many of the “original Jews” converted to Christianity in the first few centuries of the Christian era, while many others converted to Islam when Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century; and many non-Jewish Europeans and North Africans converted to Judaism during the Middle Ages.[4] In other words, if it’s true that Genesis 12.3 refers to Abraham’s descendants, then it would follow that the United States is just as blessed for siding with Israel as it is cursed for siding against the Palestinians.

But there are other, more significant, problems with Prager’s argument. For instance, take his claim that the Jewish people’s “historic enemies are all gone. Those that cursed the Jews were indeed cursed.” Historically speaking, nobody has been more of a curse to the Jewish people than European Christians. For nearly two millennia, European Christians fiercely persecuted Jews. Jews were frequently banished from their homelands, their possessions often expropriated, their homes burned to the ground; they faced torture, beatings, executions.[5] Although Jews were generally treated like second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, Bernard Lewis writes that this never matched the violence and sheer hatred they experienced in Europe.[6]

But Europe has not ceased to exist. In fact, Europe is thriving today far more than the Arab world. And Germany is thriving as much any other European nation. If “the Arab world’s preoccupation with Jew-hatred and destroying Israel is a decisive factor in its failure to progress,” then one has to wonder why Germany—which just sixty years ago, rounded up and subsequently murdered six million innocent Jewish men, women, and children—isn’t suffering the same fate.

And while Prager claims that America will “begin its descent” if it “abandons Israel,” the truth is that many of the biggest problems facing America today result from its support of Israel. As I argued last month, US support for Israel has engendered all kinds of blowback. For instance, the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing wrote that they were acting “in response for [sic] the American political, economical, and military support to Israel…and to the rest of the dictator countries in the region.” Additionally, US support for Israel played a role in radicalizing Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atta, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-Owhali, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, and Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab.[7]

I don’t claim to be God’s spokesman, but I’m pretty confident that he wouldn’t punish people living in one nation-state simply because their leaders didn’t unconditionally support the policies of another nation-state, especially if those policies frequently violated the basic human rights of innocent civilians. I’d venture to say that God loves all people, Arabs as well as Jews, and wishes that more Americans felt the same way.


Notes
[1] Dennis Prager, “The Genesis Prediction,” National Review (20 April 2010).

[2] “Passage Results: Genesis 12 (New International Version),” BibleGateway.com.

[3] See 13.14-17, 15.18-21, 17.3-8, and 22.15-18.

[4] See Shlomo Sand, Invention of the Jewish People, trans. Yael Lotan (Brooklyn: Verso, 2009), 130-249.

[5] “An overview of the persecution of Jews for the past 2,000 years,” Religious Tolerance.

[6] Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

[7] “It’s the blowback, stupid! (part 3)” (5 April 2010).