Blow, Cohen and Kristof

In “Police Abuse is a Form of Terror” Mr. Blow says it  inspires a sense of outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it.  In “Why ISIS Trumps Freedom” Mr. Cohen tells us that young European Muslims join Islamic State to escape alienation and the unbearable weight of individual choice.  Mr. Kristof, in “Mr. Obama, Try These Arguments for Your Iran Deal,” says the  Iranian deal is ugly and flawed, but infinitely better than the alternatives.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Writing about the wave of deadly encounters — many caught on video — between unarmed black people and police officers often draws a particular criticism from a particular subset of readers.

It is some variation of this:

“Why are you not writing about the real problem — black-on-black crime? Young black men are far more likely to be killed by another young black man than by the police. Why do people not seem to protest when those young people are killed? Where is the media coverage of those deaths?”

This to me has always felt like a deflection, a juxtaposition meant to use one problem to drown out another.

Statistically, the sentiment is correct: Black people are more likely to be killed by other black people. But white people are also more likely to be killed by other white people. The truth is that murders and other violent crimes are often crimes of intimacy and access. People tend to kill people they know.

The argument suggests that police killings are relatively rare and therefore exotic, and distract from more mundane and widespread community violence. I view it differently: as state violence versus community violence.

People are often able to understand and contextualize community violence and, therefore, better understand how to avoid it. A parent can say to a child: Don’t run with that crowd, or hang out on that corner or get involved with that set of activities.

A recent study by scholars at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies at Yale found that homicides cluster and overwhelmingly involve a tiny group of people who not only share social connections but are also already involved in the criminal justice system.

We as adults can decide whether or not to have guns in the home. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, having a gun may increase the chances of being the victim of homicide. We can report violent family members.

And people with the means and inclination can decide to move away from high-poverty, high-crime neighborhoods.

These measures are not 100 percent effective, but they can produce some measure of protection and provide individual citizens with some degree of personal agency.

State violence, as epitomized in these cases by what people view as police abuses, conversely, has produced a specific feeling of terror, one that is inescapable and unavoidable.

The difference in people’s reactions to these different kinds of killings isn’t about an exaltation — or exploitation — of some deaths above others for political purposes, but rather a collective outrage that the people charged with protecting your life could become a threat to it. It is a reaction to the puncturing of an illusion, the implosion of an idea. How can I be safe in America if I can’t be safe in my body? It is a confrontation with a most discomforting concept: that there is no amount of righteous behavior, no neighborhood right enough, to produce sufficient security.

It produces a particular kind of terror, a feeling of nakedness and vulnerability, a fear that makes people furious at the very idea of having to be afraid.

The reaction to police killings is to my mind not completely dissimilar to people’s reaction to other forms of terrorism.

The very ubiquity of police officers and the power they possess means that the questionable killing in which they are involved creates a terror that rolls in like a fog, filling every low place. It produces ambient, radiant fear. It is the lurking unpredictability of it. It is the any- and everywhere-ness of it.

The black community’s response to this form of domestic terror has not been so different from America’s reaction to foreign terror.

The think tank New America found in June that 26 people were killed by jihadist attacks in the United States since 9/11 — compared with 48 deaths from “right wing attacks.” And yet, we have spent unending blood and treasure to combat Islamist terrorism in those years. Furthermore,according to Gallup, half of all Americans still feel somewhat or very worried that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism.

In one of the two Republican debates last week, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina seemed to be itching for yet another antiterrorism war, saying at one point: “I would take the fight to these guys, whatever it took, as long as it took.”

Whatever, however, long. This is not only Graham’s position, it’s the position of a large segment of the population.

Responding to New America’s tally, Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Washington Post in July:

“Americans have accepted an unprecedented expansion of government powers and invasions of their privacy to prevent such attacks. Since 9/11, 74 people have been killed in the United States by terrorists, according to the think tank New America. In that same period, more than 150,000Americans have been killed in gun homicides, and we have done … nothing.”

And yet, we don’t ask “Why aren’t you, America, focusing on the real problem: Americans killing other Americans?”

Is the “real problem” question reserved only for the black people? Are black people not allowed to begin a righteous crusade?

One could argue that America’s overwhelming response to the terror threat is precisely what has kept the number of people killed in this country as a result of terror so low. But, if so, shouldn’t black Americans, similarly, have the right to exercise tremendous resistance to reduce the number of black people killed after interactions with the police?

How is it that we can understand an extreme reaction by Americans as a whole to a threat of terror but demonstrate a staggering lack of that understanding when black people in America do the same?

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

What leads young European Muslims in their thousands to give up lives in France, Britain or Germany, enlist in the ranks of the movement calling itself Islamic State, and dedicate themselves to the unlikely aim of establishing a Caliphate backed by digital propaganda?

The honest answer is we don’t know why a 20-something Briton with a degree in computer engineering or a young Frenchman from a Norman village reaches a psychological tipping-point. Zealotry of any kind subsumes the difficulty of individual choices into the exalted collective submission of dedication to a cause. Your mission is suddenly set. It is presented as a great one with great rewards. Goodbye, tough calls. Goodbye, loneliness.

Islamic State has been adept in exploiting the alienation felt by many young Muslims, from the “quartiers” of Paris to the back streets of Bradford. It offers to give meaning, whether in this life or the next, to meaningless lives. The group has benefited from active support by online jihadi preachers and tacit backing, or at least acquiescence, from imams in some mosques who are inclined, in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s words, to “quietly condone.” It has manipulated anger over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, over Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, over Shia ascendancy in the Middle East, over bleak existences on the margins of European society.

Still, the explanations fall short. Plenty of people experience great hardship or prejudice without opting to behead infidels and apostates, practice codified rape on teenage nonbelievers, and pursue the establishment of God’s rule on earth through his chosen caliph and in accordance with Shariah law.

Every effort of Western societies, particularly since 9/11, to curb the metastasizing jihadi ideology that threatens them has failed. Some of the organizations that grew out of that ideology have been hurt. But the ideas behind them, rooted in a violent rejection of modernity (but not all its tools, witness Islamic State’s slick use of the Internet) and in an extreme, literalist interpretation of certain teachings of Sunni Islam, have proved of unquenchable appeal. It’s a long way from Yorkshire to Raqqa in eastern Syria, yet some young British Muslims go. Other recruits arrive from Saudi Arabia and Russia, Libya and Australia. Islamic State has demonstrated very broad outreach.

It is clearly tapping into something deep. Perhaps that something is at root a yearning to be released from the burden of freedom. Western societies have been going ever further in freeing their citizens’ choices — in releasing them from ties of tradition or religion, in allowing people to marry whom they want and divorce as often as they want, have sex with whom they want, die when they want, and generally do what they want. There are few, if any, moral boundaries left.

In this context, radical Islam offers salvation, or at least purpose, in the form of a life whose moral parameters are strictly set, whose daily habits are prescribed, whose satisfaction of everyday needs is assured, and whose rejection of freedom is unequivocal. By taking away freedom, Islamic State lifts a psychological weight on its young followers adrift on the margins of European society.

Mark Lilla, in an essay earlier this year in The New York Review of Books on the French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission” (whose central character, a disaffected literature professor, ultimately chooses to convert to Islam) made this important point:

“The qualities that Houellebecq projects onto Islam are no different from those that the religious right ever since the French Revolution has attributed to premodern Christendom — strong families, moral education, social order, a sense of place, a meaningful death, and, above all, the will to persist as a culture. And he shows a real understanding of those — from the radical nativist on the far right to radical Islamists — who despise the present and dream of stepping back in history to recover what they imagine was lost.”

Lilla concluded of Houellebecq that he sees France in the grip of “a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be. For him, that wager has been lost. And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.”

In Europe, right now, those speaking most ardently for God tend to be Muslims. Some of them have spoken out bravely against Islamic State. A majority sees the movement as a betrayal of their religion. But the jihadi temptation to escape from freedom into all-answering zealotry is there and will not soon be curbed.

It is interesting that another foe of the West, President Vladimir Putin, attacks its culture from a similar standpoint: as irreligious, decadent and relativist, and intent on globalizing these “subversive” values, often under the cover of democracy promotion, freedom and human rights.

The great victory in 1989 was of freedom. But every triumph stirs a counter-force. The road to Raqqa is the road from freedom’s burden.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

It would be a catastrophe for American influence in the world if Congress killed the Iranian nuclear deal.

Perhaps because the stakes are so high, the debate has become poisonous. Critics are (ludicrously) accusing President Obama of appealing to anti-Semitic tropes. And Obama (petulantly) suggested that some opponents were “alarmist,” “ignorant,” “not being straight” and “making common cause” with Iranians who chant “Death to America.”

Obama’s rhetoric was counterproductive. As former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told me, “At this point, the president has made it impossible for a Republican to vote for it.” Constituent calls to congressional offices are overwhelmingly against the deal, and with Senator Chuck Schumer defying the White House by opposing it, the opposition is more bipartisan than the support is. That’s tragic, for killing the deal would infuriate many allies, isolate America rather than Iran and ultimately increase the risk of ayatollahs with nuclear weapons.

I’ve already explained why I’m strongly in favor of the deal, and I urge President Obama to start over with his sales job and focus on three points.

First: Sure, the deal is imperfect, but it’s the best way to achieve a goal we all share passionately — preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The great majority of arms experts support the deal, some enthusiastically, some grudgingly. They recognize shortcomings, but on balance, as 29 of America’s leading nuclear scientists and arms experts wrote in an open letter last week, it has “much more stringent constraints than any previously negotiated nonproliferation framework.”

Likewise, three dozen retired American generals and admirals released a joint letter declaring the deal “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

Iran would go from maybe a few months from a bomb to a year away. The agreement doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it may buy us 15 years.

Yes, it would be nice if Iran gave up all its enriched uranium. But isn’t it better that it give up 98 percent of its stockpile than that it give up none?

Everyone knows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel opposes the deal, but not everyone realizes other Israelis with far more security expertise support it. Ami Ayalon, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, describes it as “the best possible alternative.” And Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad, says, “What is the point of canceling an agreement that distances Iran from the bomb?”

Second, it’s true that Iran may try to cheat, but it’s easier to catch and stop the cheating with the deal than without.

Critics sometimes note that President Bill Clinton reached an agreement on nuclear weapons with North Korea in 1994, only to see North Korea cheat. The lesson they draw is that it’s pointless to negotiate with untrustworthy rogue regimes.

I’ve covered North Korea since I was a young reporter in Asia in the 1980s, and the lesson is actually more like the opposite.

That 1994 agreement was indeed flawed, and North Korea violated it. But even so, in the eight years the agreement was in place, North Korea made zero nuclear weapons, according to American intelligence estimates. After the deal collapsed in 2002, the Bush administration turned to a policy of confrontation, and North Korea then made perhaps nine nuclear weapons.

Third, if all goes south, or if Iran is stalling us and after 15 years races to a weapon, we retain the option of a military strike.

I asked David Petraeus, retired four-star general and former head of the C.I.A., about that. “I strongly believe,” he told me, “that there will continue to be a viable military option should Iran seek to break out and construct a nuclear device after the expiration of many of the elements of the inspections regime at the 15-year mark of the agreement.”

To me, this deal is ugly and flawed — and infinitely better than the alternatives. The criticisms of the deal strike me as reasonable, but the alternatives that the critics propose seem unreasonable and incoherent.

So President Obama should hit the restart button. He should acknowledge that the deal has shortcomings but also emphasize that it must be judged not by a referendum on its terms but rather as a choice: deal or no deal.

He can also take steps to reassure doubters. We could boost funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency to make oversight more effective. We could do more to speak up for human rights in Iran and to counter Iranian meddling in the region, especially in Syria.

Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the patriarch of Republican security experts, tells me that he supports the Iran deal in part because it exemplifies American leadership on a crucial global issue. I agree, and for Congress to kill it will not just set back American leadership, it will also increase the odds that Iran gets the bomb.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: