Video game wars -The Times vs. Wikileaks

The New York Times just printed a gushing (one might even say jingoistic) report on how the military is using new technology to tap into Generation Y’s social networking skills to nail insurgents and protect American troops, all from thousands of miles away. Read the Times’ account, and you’d think this is mostly an exciting technology, which earnest, freckle-faced youths can use to scrub bad guys while they befriend their tougher colleagues on the ground, via chat rooms.

But as even that article acknowledges, the technology sometimes goes awry, like the time in February when Predator drones in Afghanistan snuffed out the lives of 23 innocent men, women and children — just one of many such incidents.

Well, here’s another perspective on what it means to turn the enemy (or those assumed to be) into pixelated blobs: Wikileaks’ video of a U.S. helicopter annihilating as many as 12 people in 2007 on a Baghdad  street, including two Reuters journalists.

I’m not embedding the video on this site because it makes me feel physically sick to watch it, and there’s really no commentary I can give that will add to its value. You will note, however, how much the clip looks like a short segment of Grand Theft Auto. Right down to the dialogue: After the first round of shooting is finished, a voice says, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards” and another begs a dying man to pick up a weapon, implying that he’d then have a license to kill.

In some sense, this is just a raw dispatch from war. I’ve never been in a war, and I can only assume that its dialogue has been and always will be full of the most unpleasant things imaginable.

There is a particular coldness to this killing, though, and I think the technology has something to do with it. I hardly think we should celebrate it. The military says that rules of engagement were followed. If that is true, that is an indictment of the technology.

To see a sanitized version of the Wikileaks video, take a look at this BBC report on the detention of a US military analyst, possibly for leaking the tape.

Another note on Awlaki

I have to admit, part of the reason I spent a few hours today coming up with my earlier post is that the Times’ account of Anwar al-Awlaki is one of the most frightening GWOT stories to date. The idea that there is this guy out there who fully understands American culture, and may have been at a sort of double agent for Al Qaeda for years, all the time fulfilling the role of reasonable, patriotic Muslim, is very disturbing.

That’s if you believe he’s helping to steer a huge conspiracy that’s responsible for the attempted attacks in the last few months. I don’t buy that. I think he — and his supposed disciples — are symptoms of other factors and forces (as I describe). But the other explanation is less complicated, and possesses that strange magnetism of dread. Interestingly, I think the cause of the crazies benefits from our GWOT-narrative interpretation of events — it gives them power.

Also, just to clarify: I think violence that these so-called mujahideen (strugglers) promote is awful, stupid and reprehensible. I hope my enumeration of things that people are angry about is not misread as an apology for the likes of Shahzad or Stack.

Finally, can you spot the Arabic errors in the Times article? First, there’s the persistent issue of why “Allah” is not translated to “God,” as makes sense. Then there’s the part that uses kuffar as a singular word when it’s actually plural. “Never, ever trust a kuffar,” Awlaki supposedly once said, meaning “unbeliever.” It’s more likely he said, “never, ever trust a kafir,” which is the singular form. A tiny thing, but one you’d think the Times would see, and makes you wonder about their language depth.

“It’s different when they’re Muslims”: the GWOT narrative is still alive

In many ways, the Sunday New York Times long article on Anwar al-Awlaki — the American Muslim cleric who they say inspired the Fort Hood shooter, the underpants bomber and Faisal Shahzad — is excellent journalism. It tells the complicated story of a man who was once considered a model, moderate Muslim after 9/11, decamped to Yemen as GWOT amped up, and is now said to be abetting Al Qaeda. The story is thorough and nuanced, and the breadth of sources is impressive.

But there’s something that concerns me about the whole premise of our collective inquiry into what drove Shahzad to try to bomb Times Square, and it’s encapsulated in this front-page story. There is an assumption that the driving force behind Shahzad and others’ turn to violence is powerful and poisonous rhetoric. This ignores the many other factors — many of them material, not ideological — that likely contribute to radicalization. We thus miss the full explanation for why so many angry men are attracted to the idea of waging random violence on Americans.

The Times story focuses on Awlaki as a man with a power of persuasion rooted in his total comfort with American culture (he was born in New Mexico) and his “beautiful tongue,” as one person described it. I have not watched the man’s sermons, but it seems probable this is an accurate assessment.

The interesting thing, though, is that law enforcement — and to some degree the newspaper — draw the conclusion that Awlaki’s charm and power as a speaker make him exceptionally dangerous, and a prime cause of individuals’ radicalization. His sermons alone are said to have the power to “brainwash.” The article suggests that there is a break — sometimes fuzzy, but very real — between Awlaki’s “benign” early sermons and his (malignant, I guess) later material.

The analysis of Awlaki’s character and influence is flawed for two reasons. One, it implicitly describes two versions of Islam in a special way that Western commentators reserve only for that religion. Two, it mostly ignores all the material and social pressures that are creating terrorists, and thus deceptively and erroneously elevates Awlaki’s power. Let me treat these two main flaws in turn. Continue reading

7 great quotes from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom


Bust of Mandela. Photo by RMLondon. http://www.flickr.com/photos/richardmckeever/ / CC BY 2.0

Everyone should read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography! In fact, you probably already have. But I’m a little late to the game and just did it, finally. Long Walk to Freedom is deeply inspiring. It’s the story of an unbelievably strong man who remained a freedom fighter in every aspect of his life, whether he was free or jailed, whether he was trying to dismantle apartheid or simply trying to get Robben Island’s prisoners access to reading materials. More than that, though, the book is a wonderful model for anyone fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Mandela is a master at balancing long- and short-term goals, making smart compromises, and not letting emotion supersede tactics. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole book is Mandela’s willingness, in the end, to partner — in the service of the greater good — with the same people who stole almost everything of personal meaning from his life.

For these reasons, Mandela’s book has lessons far beyond the anti-apartheid movement. I can think of applications from the United States to the Middle East to China and Tibet. Luckily for us, he offers up many quotable passages that provide food for thought. Here are my seven favorite, with a note or two on how I think they have broader applications. Continue reading

Is Ahmadinejad a CIA spy?

By the logic of Iran’s conviction of Kian Tajbaksh, that is a reasonable conclusion. The Iranian-American academic was sentenced to 15 years in prison last week, partly for having been in contact with Gary Sick, an American expert on Iran based at Columbia University. Part of the allegations are that Sick is a CIA agent. In a refutation of the charges, Sick notes that he’s spent more time with Iranian officials than he has with Tajbaksh. Sick asks if they should also be investigated for connections to him. This is an important piece by a guy who is, ironically, sometimes accused by right wingers of being in cahoots with Tehran. Read it here on The Daily Bea(st.

(Now, to return to East African affairs…)

Tintin story or real life? Escape from Dubai

Andrew Higgins’s story yesterday in the Washington Post about Herve Jaubert’s escape from Dubai reads like something out of a Tintin comic: mysterious international wealthy people, treacherous sheikhs, PG-13 violence. Jaubert’s story is offered as an example of the growing number of rich Dubai expats who are running into trouble with the country’s police over business crimes. After their investments with his company went sour, Dubai authorities apparently accused Jaubert — “a French spy who left espionage to make leisure submarines for the wealthy” — of embezzlement. They allegedly threatened him with torture (Jaubert recorded the conversation on his cell phone) and confiscated his passport. So Jaubert decided to escape. He donned an all-black diving outfit, snuck out to the bay in the dead of night disguised in an abaya, swam to and disabled a police patrol boat, rode a rubber dinghy to a sailboat where a friend waited, and sailed to India.

Tell me that doesn’t sound like a plot from Tintin and the Golden Dhow. I mean, how many times have Thomson and Thompson, Professor Calculus or Tintin himself used an abaya as a disguise? And take a look at the lead shot of Jaubert. He looks like he could be a colleague of Rastapopoulos. Continue reading

Fascinating Iran news round-up

My unnamed expert friend provided the following email today. It’s a great summary of the news from inside Iran, and includes some really cogent analysis. In the interest of getting it up immediately, I’ve inlcuded the whole thing, including a few typos and references to things I haven’t posted here. Hopefully you still find it useful…

Nighttime again in Tehran so below is my round-up of news from today. Unfortunately it’s becoming harder and harder to get information out of Iran. The Western press has gone from being banned from covering protests to being asked to leave—today Iran asked the BBC to leave, a few other reporters had their visas expire, and an Iranian reporter from Newsweek has been arrested without charge and hasn’t been heard from in a few days. Couple this with the fact that they’re arresting even more Iranian bloggers and journalists, scrambling satellite TV, cutting of phone and SMS service, and it’s just becoming harder and harder to find out what’s going on in Iran. Still, some amazing and courageous Iranians continue to send updates and take pictures and video, so here’s what I’ve compiled from the past 24 hours.

Is Ahmadinejad actually popular? What should Obama do?

I’m getting a daily digest from the expert friend I mentioned in the previous post and picking out some highlights. Here are some of his thoughts about two of the biggest questions I have: How popular is Ahmadinejad, really? And what should Obama be doing in reaction?

Ahmadinejad’s popularity

Pro-Ahmadienjad poll: There was a pre-election poll carried out by an NGO called “Terror Free Tomorrow” that some of you may have seen mentioned in various articles (they defended their poll a few days ago in the Washington Post). The poll was taken via telephone and purportedly showed Ahmadinejad was twice as popular among the respondents, which is now being cited to show that Ahmadinejad did win the election, and the cries of fraud are unwarranted. I’m including the link to a full debunking of this poll below, but there are 2 major problems with this poll. First, methodologically, the phone survey was of a little over 1,000 people, and just only 57% answered definitely. The rest either said “no comment” or were undecided. That’s a large number of unanswered, and when you weigh that with the percentage that said they did support Ahmadinejad, you get a far less overwhelming endorsement of him. Second, and more importantly, there are political problems with this poll. This poll was conducted around a month before the election, and before the official campaign time began. Unlike American, Iran has no strong political parties, and people will not just vote for someone—say, like Musavi—because he’s a member of the party they identify with. Opinions change and undecided sway much more in Iran than in American. Musavi had been out of the public eye for almost two decades before the official campaigning began, so it’s no wonder he didn’t have more support when this poll was taken. On top of this, his campaign really built steam later in the campaign period, particularly after his June 3rd televised debate with Ahmadinejad when the latter attacked numerous members of the establishment such as Rafsanjani’s family, Musavi’s wife, and others. If you want to read more about this poll, check here.

Continue reading