How Donald Trump would destroy America (and possibly the world)

Published: The Good Men Project (May 19, 2016)

America is in a “boy who cried wolf” situation right now. We’ve grown so accustomed to comparing our presidents with tyrants, or insisting that a candidate’s ascent to power will result in calamity, that even those of us who see an actual wolf in our midst aren’t being taken seriously. The people voting for Donald Trump are well aware of our concerns but – having grown jaded to polemical hyperbole – aren’t able to recognize that the threat is real this time.

Make no mistake about it, though: The danger posed by Trump is very, very real. One may disagree with the policies pursued by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but the hysterical response to their presidencies was always grossly disproportionate. Bush was a neoconservative and Obama is a moderate liberal; Trump, on the other hand, is a man driven more by bold stabs in the dark than any consistent ideology. Assuming he follows through on his proposals, it is quite likely that some of them would cause terrible consequences not only for America, but the entire world.

To explain how this is so, though, we need to stop with the inappropriate comparisons to Hitler (which I debunked in this piece for MSNBC) and instead focus on the nitty gritty of what he has said he would try to do:

1. The economy.

Although Trump makes valid points about America’s anti-working class trade policies, his proposed solutions would be disastrous. As president, he would have the power to increase tariffs on Chinese and Mexican goods by as much as 45 percent. If he did this, those countries would almost certainly retaliate with comparable measures targeting America’s products. The resulting trade war would inevitably increase prices and reduce job growth, knocking the American economy back on its heels only a few years after the Obama administration led us to a precarious recovery. Even more troubling than what we know, though, is what we don’t know. The slightest adverse development can have unforeseen ripple effects in our globalized economy, and because America has been a staunchly pro-free trade nation since the 1930s, it is impossible to predict the full impact of an about-face as abrupt as the one Trump is proposing. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t modify our trade policies to be more amenable to the interests of our working class, but we need to do so responsibly.

2. Global warming.

Trump’s is a well-known denier of man-made global warming, a position that perfectly fits in with his other conspiratorial views (he believes the scientific consensus on global warming is a plot by the Chinese to control the world economy). As a result, when he vows to “renegotiate” the Paris deal in which more than 200 nations vowed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, it’s safe to assume that he would not care one whit about slowing our planet’s dangerous overheating. Unfortunately, the science isn’t going to accommodate Trump’s iconoclasm; as the earth continues to overheat, humanity will face mega-storms, droughts, famines, and the mass extinction of countless species. As Peace and World Security Studies Professor Michael T. Klare wrote last October, “Scientists have long worried that climate change will not continue to advance in a ‘linear’ fashion, with the planet getting a little bit hotter most years. Instead, they fear, humanity could someday experience ‘non-linear’ climate shifts (also known as ‘singularities’ or ‘tipping points’) after which there would be sudden and irreversible change of a catastrophic nature.” As Klare notes, there are early signs that this is already happening, and it stands to reason that if Trump torpedoes an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, that could very well push us past the tipping point.

3. Nuclear war.

Ever since Harry Truman dropped the bomb on Japan in 1945, American presidents have been expected to appreciate the sober responsibilities that come with being a nuclear power. In the 1964 presidential election, when Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was accused of being fast-and-loose about how he’d use our nukes, the threat of nuclear apocalypse helped sink his campaign. More than half a century later, however, Trump has openly discussed using tactical nuclear weapons against the Islamic State, arguing that “I don’t think you’re going to be successful [with Muslim countries] unless they respect you.” Even foreign policy hawks should be concerned by this position, and not merely because Trump has advocated it in places beyond the Middle East (he once told Chris Matthews that he wouldn’t take using nukes in Europe “off the table”). By equating the use of nuclear force with earning respect, Trump reveals an ominous thought pattern – namely that (a) if America is threatened by foreign enemies, it’s because they don’t respect us and (b) we can demand their respect by threatening them with total annihilation. This is the exact mentality that the United States and Soviet Union scrupulously avoided succumbing to during the Cold War, since both superpowers understood that if nuclear nations were permitted to behave this way, the final result would be total destruction.

Regardless of how one feels about Hillary Clinton, there is no sound reason to believe that she poses an existential threat to our future. Trump, on the other hand, has proposed policies that could plausibly result in economic collapse, ecological devastation, and even worldwide nuclear war. Every American voting in the 2016 presidential election is going to have to make one of the most important choices of their lifetime. For once, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that failure here could bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Bernie Sanders is a compassionate, intelligent man who has no clue how to run a country

Published: Quartz (April 6, 2016)

If Bernie Sanders wants to be president, he’ll need to do better than this.

The Democratic senator is doubtless feeling pretty optimistic today, fresh off a primary victory in Wisconsin. And yet a much more telling measure of the candidate’s presidential chances happened earlier this week, during an interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News.

Reading the interview is a thoroughly disheartening affair. As editors plied Sanders with questions about how he would implement his radical agenda, it became abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton’s chief rival doesn’t have many answers.

Take his response to questions about his highly touted plan to break up America’s big banks. After reassuring the board that “the idea of breaking up these banks is not an original idea. It’s an idea that some conservatives have also agreed to,” Sanders was asked how he would go about such an impressive task. Sanders’ subsequent waffling should give even the stoutest Sanders supporter pause.

 As editors plied Sanders with questions, it became abundantly clear he didn’t have many answers. First, he suggested legislation (somehow pushed through a presumably Republican Congress) would do the bank-busting. Then he claimed that his administration would have the authority to force through changes on its own, before quickly contradicting himself and reassuring his interviewers that “the president is not a dictator.” When the Daily News pointed out that a federal court had recently overturned an attempt to regulate America’s biggest life insurer Metropolitan Life, and asked how this precedent might impact his own efforts as president, Sanders conceded: “It’s something I have not studied, honestly, the legal implications of that.”

Sanders was similarly evasive when asked how his “political revolution” might be affected by the realities of a GOP-held legislature. After spending most of his time talking about the revolution already wrought by his campaign, Sanders argued that his presence in the presidential race would result in a voter turnout large enough to retake the Senate for liberals and make gains in the House. (This would still result in a divided Congress, but okay.) He also claimed that a win would “mean that millions of people now want to be involved in the political process in a way that has not previously existed,” somehow compelling Congress to act in accordance with their newly expressed wishes.

Sanders’ worst moments, though, came when he was asked to discuss foreign policy. Because the wording of these exchanges is so important, it’s better to just quote directly from the transcript. Here’s Sanders talking about Israel and Palestine:

Daily News: Do you support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate some of these issues to establish that, in their view, Israel had committed essentially war crimes?

Sanders: No.

Daily News: Why not?

Sanders: Why not?

Daily News: Why not, why it…

Sanders: Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?

And here he is on drone strikes:

Daily News: President Obama has taken the authority for drone attacks away from the CIA and given it to the US military. Some say that that has caused difficulties in zeroing in on terrorists, their ISIS leaders. Do you believe that he’s got the right policy there?

Sanders: I don’t know the answer to that.

And terrorist interrogations:

Daily News: What would you do with a captured ISIS commander?

Sanders: Imprison him.

Daily News: Where?

Sanders: And try to get as much information out of him. If the question leads us to Guantanamo…

Daily News: Well, no, separate and apart from Guantanamo, it could be there, it could be anywhere. Where would a President Sanders imprison, interrogate? What would you do?

Sanders: Actually I haven’t thought about it a whole lot.

Just to be clear, Sanders’ character is not in question here. Sanders is an incredibly compassionate man, one driven by a deep desire to help the disadvantaged and correct injustice. His campaign has created an incredibly opportunity for liberal Americans to push their party to do better on the kinds of issues frequently regarded as taboo in the past, from destigmatizing the word “socialist” to boldly pushing for a national minimum wage of $15 per hour. An American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. 

At the same time, an American president has to do more than simply raise awareness about important issues. A qualified candidate must be able to realistically assess how he or she would implement the policies that they believe to be most important. Sanders was unable to do this during his interview. And his answers revealed a rather shocking lack of knowledge about the many aspects of being president unrelated to his stump speeches, most notably foreign policy. In the process, he raised serious doubts about whether his bid for the White House can, or should, be viewed as anything more than a single-issue campaign.

This brings us to the deeper lesson we can learn from the 2016 presidential election. The presidency isn’t a symbolic title. It is a job,and in order to fill it one must demonstrate a breadth of understanding as well as a depth of conviction. Sanders has copious quantities of the latter. But in the context of this incredibly vital election, that’s simply not good enough.

Right Wing Terrorism and the Obama Brand

Published: The Good Men Project (January 19, 2016)

Since the start of his presidency, conservatives have been quick to lambast Barack Obama for not being tough on Islamic terrorists. Unfortunately for both them and the rest of America, a spoiled rancher and his political cohorts have now provided them with one of their ultimate moral tests – namely, whether their staunch anti-terrorist posturing will hold up when right-wing extremists are the ones with the guns.

As most of the nation already knows, a group of armed protesters near Burns, Oregon broke into an unoccupied building in a federal wildlife refuge and refused to leave. Their ostensible reason for doing this was to demand the release of Dwight and Steven Hammond, a pair of ranchers who set fire to 139 acres of public land to cover up their poaching activities. Although the Hammonds already served time for the offense, a judge recently sent them back to prison when it was determined that their original sentence had been illegally abbreviated. “This facility has been the tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds,” group spokesman Ammon Bundy declared to a local media outlet. “We’re planning on staying here for years, absolutely. This is not a decision we’ve made at the last minute.”

If the name ‘Ammon Bundy’ seems familiar to you, it may be because of his role in another government standoff less than two years ago. At that time the terrorist was his father, Cliven Bundy, who had spent more than twenty years grazing his cattle on public land in Nevada without a permit to skirt the expenses paid by other ranchers in the area. When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finally closed over 145,000 acres in order to round up the livestock and arrest Bundy, the mooching rancher summoned help from a group of right-wing protesters – many of them armed – to defy the federal government. Instead of landing them in prison for armed insurrection and acts of terrorism, Bundy and his followers were treated like legitimate political actors, with the local sheriff negotiating a deal between them and the BLM.

This brings us back to Burns, Oregon, where a popular cliché comes to mind: When you negotiate with terrorists, you only embolden them.

Even if the Bundys had a sound argument to back up their position, their actions would still be unequivocally wrong. When Cliven Bundy allowed armed extremists to threaten federal agents in order to continue illegally grazing on public land, his position went beyond the bounds of civil disobedience and became a direct threat to the American people. After all, a government’s most important role is to protect the physical security of its citizens. By behaving as if their own individual agency should be allowed to trump that of a democratic state’s provided they were sufficiently armed, Bundy’s followers attempted to set a dangerous precedent in which might can quite literally make right in this country. By implicitly acknowledging their legitimacy through negotiation, the government proved them right.

That said, it’s important to note that the Bundys were wrong then – and they are wrong now. Both the Nevada and United States Constitution allow the federal government to regulate public lands, and as such when Cliven Bundy refused to pay his cattle grazing fees because he thought they were unfair, he was defying a legitimate government agency so he could freely benefit from a resource that his fellow ranchers were expected to pay for. Similarly, the BLM is explicitly authorized to protect wildlife in areas entrusted to it by Congress and the President. When the Hammonds destroyed that public land in order to continue poaching (which, obviously, is also illegal), they committed a crime no less serious than burning down a public school or other government building.

There are two cruel ironies at play here. The first is that, even as right-wing extremists insist on depicting the Obama administration as tyrannical, their response to thugs like the Bundys has been unforgivably weak. Because the federal government wants to avoid a debacle like the standoff at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco more than twenty years ago, they have refused to take decisive action against right-wing radicals. If they had exercised their legal duty, the right-wing extremists would have been immediately arrested; had any of them decided to fire shots against federal agents, those agents would have been entirely within their rights to fire back – lethally if necessary. While such an action would have certainly been tragic, it would have reinforced that we are a nation of laws and not simply powerful men, as well as disincentivized future insurgents from testing the government’s resolve. Richart Ruddie, a brand and reputation management expert from Profile Defenders, told Forbes magazine that in many situations like these, the best response is to not bring more attention to an issue and to downplay it’s importance.

The other irony in this melodrama can be traced back to a controversial statement made by Bundy during the Nevada standoff. “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro…” Bundy had declared to a reporter for The New York Times in a rant against welfare programs. “They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.” Aside from Bundy’s lamentable racial prejudices, it is noteworthy that he complained about African Americans receiving “less freedom” at a time when his personal gang has repeatedly brandished weapons against law enforcement officers with impunity. We live in an era when unarmed black men are regularly gunned down by police officers for minor offenses… even, as is all too often the case, when they were surrendering or unarmed themselves. Because Bundy and his crowd are affluent and white, they benefit from a privilege that shouldn’t exist – namely, the ability to pick and choose which laws to follow, then violently defy the state when held accountable – even as millions of non-white Americans are denied basic freedoms that our own Constitution guarantees them.

This, ultimately, is the bottom line. Even if conservatives agree with the Bundys position on federal management of public land, it’s impossible to characterize their recent actions as anything other than acts of terrorism. Like all terrorist activities, they threaten to make the United States look weak and foolish, particularly if we capitulate to or negotiate with them instead of holding firm to the rule of law. If conservatives want to retain their ideological credibility, they will acknowledge this and demand that Obama hold these terrorists accountable, just as they do when those terrorists are Muslim. Should they refrain from doing so, or only condemn the right-wing terrorists with lukewarm language, they will demonstrate that their principles conveniently cease when their own brethren are violating them.

One year after the Charlie Hebdo attack, we are still #JeSuisCharlie

Published: The Daily Dot (January 6, 2016)

January 7th marks the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris that left 12 dead and 11 wounded. As we reflect on the greater meaning of the tragedy that occurred that day, a series of complex lessons present themselves, encompassing many of the most crucial issues facing the United States today—from the importance of defending free speech to the need for pluralism and tolerance toward marginalized peoples everywhere.

After describing the magazine’s long tradition of religious and political iconoclasm, former Charlie Hebdo employee Caroline Fourest recalled in a recent op-ed for Politico how many media outlets “stabbed us in the back: By lying about our intentions, refusing to explain the chronology of events and the context of our actions, and by echoing the same accusations we heard from fanatics themselves.” Even as the Western world united in its horror at the atrocities perpetrated by the Muslim terrorists that day, many also insisted that Charlie Hebdo had committed an atrocity of its own—namely, that of micro-aggressing against a non-Western religious group. “The despicable accusation that Charlie was ‘Islamophobic’ was not only wrong,” Fourest declared, “it had killed and continued to puts its survivors in danger.”

While it’s easy to express sympathy with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as well as express horror at the villainy behind the attacks themselves, it’s much more difficult to appreciate the ideological importance of rallying behind that magazine’s right to offend.

The larger point here doesn’t merely apply to the specific issue of Muslims and Islamic terrorism. At its core, this entails every situation in which the principle of protecting free speech–one that is essential to the success of any liberal democracy–runs athwart the central assumption of those who are politically correct, namely that offensive language should never be permitted. Writing about campus efforts to stifle conservative ideas on race and gender, left-wing pundit Jonathan Chait of New York magazine observes that “they are carrying out the ideals of a movement that regards the delegitimization of dissent as a first order goal. People on the left need to stop evading the question of political correctness—by laughing it off as college goofs, or interrogating the motives of PC critics, or ignoring it—and make a decision whether they agree with it.”

While it’s easy to express sympathy with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, as well as express horror at the villainy behind the attacks themselves, it’s much more difficult to appreciate the ideological importance of rallying behind that magazine’s right to offend.

While it just so happens that Charlie Hebdo had a left-wing political slant, it could have very easily been a libertarian or right-wing publication that was targeted by Muslim terrorists for offending them (see the jihadist threats made against South Park in 2010). In the end, regardless of the philosophy being assailed, it is critical that Americans who wish to honor Charlie Hebdo do so by defending the right of all future Charlie Hebdos to offend whomever they wish, on whatever grounds they choose. If we feel that those positions are wrong or hateful, it behooves us to speak out against them—but, even as we do so, to recall that finding certain views appalling does not justify silencing those who express them. This distinction is all-important in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

Similarly, even as the movement to curb our First Amendment rights in the name of stopping terrorists continues to gain momentum, it’s important for those of us who use social media to embrace that medium’s potential as an outlet for unfettered self-expression. Thankfully, a Supreme Court ruling in June has clearly established that even controversial speech on social media is protected by the First Amendment unless it meets a high preponderance of evidence that it constitutes a threat. Even though the Internet can often stifle freedom of expression by targeted shaming campaigns against those widely deemed to be bigoted, individuals who won’t allow themselves to be intimidated by that type of bullying can find in social media a welcome outlet for articulating their viewpoints on a number of subjects. Although the enemies of free speech can target publications like Charlie Hebdo, they can’t logistically go after every single person who dares criticize them online. Just as it’s important to protect free speech for others, so too is it vital that we vibrantly practice it ourselves.

If we allow the fear-based stereotypes of Muslims to override the objective reality about Muslim Americans, we’ll not only betray our own values—we’ll also give terrorist groups like ISIS exactly what they want.

At the same time, it’s also essential that we be wary about allowing our opposition to Islamist terrorism to devolve into bigotry against Muslims. As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial comments clearly demonstrate, there are many Americans who are either unwilling to or incapable of distinguishing between the specific individuals responsible for taking innocent lives and the roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world as of 2010 (including 2.6 million who live in the United States). Among American Muslims, pollsfind that 48 percent don’t feel their own religious leaders have done enough to speak out against extremism, 52 percent have many non-Muslim friends, and 70 percent prefer the Democratic Party and its liberal political agenda (such as 68 percent believing in a bigger government that provides social services to help the disadvantaged). Although as a whole American Muslims are more religious and socially conservative than the national mean, they are no more so than right-wing Christians in this country.

Indeed, if we allow the fear-based stereotypes of Muslims to override the objective reality about Muslim Americans, we’ll not only betray our own values—we’ll also give terrorist groups like ISIS exactly what they want. “This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for—to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,”explained University of Maryland psychology professor  Arie Kruglanski in an interview with the Washington Post. “Then ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.’” It’s important to remember that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo weren’t purely emotional in origin; the perpetrators, in addition to wanting to harm those who had spoken blasphemously about their faith, also wanted to present themselves to the rest of the world as the face of modern Islam. When Americans indulge in base Islamophobia, we allow that to happen.

These lessons may seem somewhat paradoxical—that is, to simultaneously champion offensive speech while cautioning against the propagation of anti-Muslim bigotry. That said, we live in a particularly nuanced period of history, and the correct answers to the problems that face us can’t be summed up in a single meme or hashtag. It is wrong to condemn billions of people based on the heinous deeds of a few of their coreligionists, and if we succumb to that impulse, we will only empower our enemies while undermining our own values. At the same time, if we go to the other extreme and become censorious toward inflammatory rhetoric of all kinds, we’ll likewise betray our ideals while empowering those who wish to destroy them.

These are difficult times, and as we acknowledge the first anniversary of Charlie Hebdo, the best way to honor the victims’ memories is to accept that fact—as well as the complicated message that accompanies it.


How America’s fears are letting the terrorists win

Published: The Daily Dot (December 22, 2015)

Forget about the terrorists. At his rate it seems like we’re determined through our own fear to allow the terrorists to win.

Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with the rash of school closings that have occurred over terrorist threats. The first (and without question most patently absurd) was the “clock boy” incident from earlier this year, when a 14-year-old Muslim boy in Texas was suspended and held by police for building an elaborate clock that one teacher believed was a bomb. Then, in the aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the city of Los Angeles shut down all of its schools after receiving an email that administrators believed constituted a credible terrorist threat.

Around the same time, New York City’s schools also received a terrorist threat, although they refused to close on the grounds that it seemed (correctly, it turned out) to be a hoax. Finally, a school district in New Hampshire closed on Monday because of a threat that its administrators also feared might lead to a terrorist attack.

While a certain degree of caution is obviously justified in the post-9/11 era–to say nothing of our current ISIS-plagued time–the problem with such excessive responses is that they empower the Islamic terrorists we wish to fight. After all, by definition, a terrorist’s greatest weapon is the psychological grip they hold over the society they hope to coerce into fulfilling their political agenda.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves. Even worse, when those threats are able to have real-world consequence, it demonstrates that any individual or group willing to scare thousands as a way of drawing attention to itself can do so successfully.

Unfortunately, the damage caused by our fear of terrorism isn’t limited to real and imagined threats. In a Virginia county last week, a high school geography teacher instructed her class to practice Arabic calligraphy… and was treated with such a hostile and threatening response from many parents in the area that the school district was, you guessed it, pressured into closing. While one might think the parents would feel embarrassed at having caused the same type of public safety measure normally reserved for the terrorists themselves, many conservatives are already denouncing her and defending the parents who threatened her. Not only does this violate the teacher’s basic civil liberties, but it teaches the students in that area to implicitly associate the entire religion of Islam with fear and violence.

When anyone can simply build a clock or threaten an entire school district and receive national news coverage, it reveals that the terrorists’ panic-mongering tactics have successfully changed how we view ourselves.

Of course, this isn’t to say that our civil liberties haven’t also been jeopardized by the culture of fear. As Edward Snowden exposed two years ago, the National Security Agency began conducting warrantless (and thus illegal) spying on ordinary American citizens in the name of protecting us from terrorism starting shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Before Snowden’s whistleblowing, Americans already had the PATRIOT Act, which was passed after 9/11 to fight terrorism by (according to the American Civil Liberties Union) “ expanding the authority to monitor phone and email communications, collect bank and credit reporting records, and track the activity of innocent Americans on the Internet.” In the process, it acclimated Americans to the assumption that infringements on their liberty which they previously would have never permitted could somehow be rendered acceptable in the face of a sufficiently ominous external threat.

To understand the tragic flaw in this thinking, it’s important to realize that our Constitution wasn’t created by the naïve. Our founding fathers may not have imagined the technological advances that would enable modern terrorism, but they certainly understood that hostile powers from outside a democratic society could theoretically convince its members to forfeit their own freedoms.

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Benjamin Franklin famously observed.

While the context of Franklin’s statement is very different from the milieu of early-21st century anti-terrorism politics, it’s hard to imagine that either he or his counterparts would have wanted federal surveillance of ordinary citizens to become a status quo. Their belief in the primacy of individual liberty was one of the cornerstones of the ideology that built the American republic–and when terrorists are able to effectively compromise it, they have indeed scored an impressive victory over our nation’s values.

Finally, it’s worthwhile to examine GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s recent proposal to ban Muslim immigration. Despite the wave of criticism that it triggered, Trump’s policy actually has a considerable amount of support, with 50 percent of voters backing it when Trump’s name is attached and 55 percent doing so when it isn’t. For better or worse, this type of xenophobia is hardly new to the United States; groups from Germans to the Japanese have experienced immigration quotas and persecution during periods when their nations of origin were at war with our country. At the same time, the various social justice movements that have emerged over the past few decades had presumably put this type of knee-jerk prejudice to rest. When the menace of Islamic terrorism is able to spark a regression in our pluralistic ethos, this too is a major victory for the bad guys we’re supposed to fight.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

Ironically enough, the best way to combat all of this fear-mongering is with the tool that keeps getting shut down–namely, education.

It is through education that our children can learn to view Islam as a complicated religion with over a billion followers, and that while some of them do indeed wish us harm, the vast majority are ordinary people like ourselves. Similarly, it is through education that we can understand that danger has always lurked around the corner in free societies, and that while complacency is foolish because it imperils our physical security, curbing our freedoms and drastically altering our lifestyles to accommodate fear defeats the very goals for which we are fighting. So long as we keep these two lessons in mind, we can continue to strive toward a safer America without destroying America itself.

Of course, for that to happen, we’ll first need the courage to actually keep our schools open.


What the end of the NSA’s bulk phone record collection really means

Published: The Daily Dot (December 2, 2015)

It’s official: The NSA was legally required to terminate its bulk phone record collection program this week. That may not provide much comfort if you happen to use the Internet (and particularly if you communicate using social media)—but it’s a major win worth acknowledging.

If you’re wondering why the government can still monitor what you do online but can’t access your phone records (at least not without permission from your cellular service provider), the reason is a little complicated. Although the National Security Agency has collected phone records since terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the public wasn’t made aware of this practice until the Edward Snowden leaks almost 12 years later. Shortly thereafter, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuitclaiming that the program was unconstitutional, resulting in a two-year legal battle that ended when an appeals court ruled that the NSA’s actions were indeed unjustified.

“Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans,” explained Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch. “We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate.”

Within weeks of this decision, the Senate failed to pass a bill (the USA Freedom Act) that would have reauthorized and reformed Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which had been provided the NSA with a tentative legal foundation for their surveillance activities. Although a separate bill was passed in the summer allowing the NSA a 180-day transition period, the clock finally ran out on the illegal phone collections last week, with the Justice Department announcing that “final temporary reauthorization of the Section 215 bulk telephone metadata program in the U.S.” had expired.

That said, neither the circuit court ruling nor Congress’s various measures (or lack thereof) has any impact on NSA spying besides monitoring and collecting cellular phone data. One program that will remain untouched is PRISM, the notoriously secret initiative implemented in 2007 that empowered the NSA to collaborate with the FBI to directly access user data from major tech companies like Apple,Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, Skype, and YouTube. Today, information acquired through PRISM accounts for one out of every seven intelligence reports. Moreover, as The New York Times discovered less than two weeks ago, the NSA managed to develop alternative methods for acquiring online data after a different surveillance program (known as Stellarwind) was forced to shut down.

Making matters worse, many experts believe the NSA has loopholes aside from Section 215 that it could utilize to allow even more expansive online spying—or a return to phone data collection. For example, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act allows the government to gather intelligence on non-citizens that the government argues can be “reasonably believed” to be outside the United States.

Despite the inclusion of “minimization procedures” to prevent the unintentional acquisition of information about U.S. persons, many civil liberties groups are concerned because the NSA frequently refuses to disclose how it received information that it later uses to build its cases. As Hanni Fakhoury of the Electronic Frontiers Foundations wrote last year: “FISA surveillance was originally supposed to be used only in certain specific, authorized national security investigations, but information sharing rules implemented after 9/11 allows the NSA to hand over information to traditional domestic law-enforcement agencies, without any connection to terrorism or national security investigations.”

Another loophole exists in the form of Executive Order 12333, which was issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Ostensibly created so that “all reasonable and lawful means must be used to ensure that the United States will receive the best intelligence possible,” Executive Order 12333 grants broad powers to intelligence gathering agencies when it comes to how they perform their duties. “Unlike Section 215, the executive order authorizes collection of the content of communications, not just metadata, even for U.S. persons,” wrote former State Department employee John Napier Tye, who specializes in Internet freedom issues, in a Letter to the Editor at the Washington Post last year.

Although people in the United States cannot be intentionally targeted without a court order, Tye points out: “[I]f the contents of a U.S. person’s communications are ‘incidentally’ collected (an NSA term of art) in the course of a lawful overseas foreign intelligence investigation, then Section 2.3(c) of the executive order explicitly authorizes their retention. It does not require that the affected U.S. persons be suspected of wrongdoing and places no limits on the volume of communications by U.S. persons that may be collected and retained.”

None of this means that the expiration of the NSA’s phone record collection program should be dismissed. As the ACLU noted, the mere fact that the NSA suffered any kind of setback is in its own right significant. Staff attorney Alex Abdo pointed out that “this historic victory represents the first time that Congress has scaled back the NSA’s surveillance of Americans since 1978.” Just as importantly, it reveals that ordinary citizens who use the Internet to inform their fellow citizens of controversial government activities still have the power to make a difference—not merely by spreading information, but by ultimately influencing public policy.

At the same time, this is an issue that requires a nuanced reaction rather than a blanketed one. Just as it would be myopic to diminish the importance of what has already been done, so too is it naive to overlook the considerable work that remains. Because PRISM still allows the government to collect personal information on the Internet, and various loopholes could potentially permit a return to phone spying as well, the past could very well repeat itself. Although part of the unprecedented surveillance program exposed by Snowden has been dismantled, an even larger part of it remains untouched.

In a sense, the NSA scandal could be viewed as a metaphor for the complex times we occupy today. Tempting though it may be to react to certain news stories with either an overwhelmingly positive or negative response, the truth is that many of our nation’s biggest problems can’t be solved in one fell swoop. As a result, the only effective way to fully confront these issues is to simultaneously appreciate the significance of progress when it is made—while always remaining mindful when it still isn’t nearly enough.

An aggressive military response is precisely what ISIS wants

Published: Salon (November 20, 2015), The Daily Dot (November 18, 2015)

As the world reels from the last Friday’s terrorist attack in Paris, millions of people have taken to Twitter to share their grief and outrage… and many echoed Donald Trump’s call to “bomb the shit” out of them.

The desire to immediately strike back at ISIS with overwhelming force is understandable. It took under 48 hours for the French military to retaliate for the attack with air strikes against targets in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria. However, it’s important to remember why groups like ISIS mount large-scale spectacle terrorist attacks against Western targets in the first place: to provoke a dramatic military reaction that brings moderate Muslims around the world into agreeing with its worldview. Retaliatory strikes against ISIS will certainly weaken the group, maybe even destroy it, but that type of response is precisely what ISIS is hoping to elicit.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender.”

In his book Beyond Fundamentalism, religious scholar explains that the chief goal of radical Islamist groups like ISIS is to create a “cosmic war” in which human beings act out a religious war they believe is simultaneously occurring in heaven: Fundamentalist Islam on one side and that Western Christianity on the other.

“There can be no compromise in a cosmic war. There can be no negotiation, no settlement, no surrender,” writes Aslan, arguing that fundamentalists successfully framing their grievances as a black-and-white existential struggle allows groups like ISIS to set the philosophical terms of the fight. “In the end, there is only one way to win a cosmic war: to refuse to fight it.”

President George W. Bush reacted to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by engaging in a large-scale military campaign first against Afghanistan and then Iraq. The total cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the American government has grown to a mind-boggling $6 trillion over the past dozen years. There is little doubt that similar military campaigns from Europe would carry a comparably staggering price tag.

“[Bush] responded with precisely the cosmic dualism that those who carried out the attacks had intended to provoke,” Aslan writes.

As thousands of Muslim civilians died in military campaigns led by America and its allies, Islamic extremists fed off the resulting anger and hopelessness felt by those directly impacted or  outraged by the war. Instead of spreading democracy and stifling radicalism in the Middle East, the bombings and other high-casualty military actions wound up having precisely the opposite effect.

America’s intensive military response to Osama bin Laden’s attack also played a large role in creating ISIS today. “Over the years, bin Laden … never made it a secret what he was up to: trying to bait the U.S. into a ground war in his backyard, so that he could defeat us, just as he’d defeated the USSR, in large part by bleeding us dry financially,” writes columnist Paul Rosenberg in Salon.

Not only did Bush’s military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq lend credence to the radical Islamist argument about a holy war between the Muslim world and the secular West, but deposing Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum in the Iraq that ISIS was willing and able to fill.

ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

Furthermore, the Islamophobia spurred by attacks in Paris reinforces the notion that the West poses an existential threat to the Muslim faith. While all of the Paris attackers identified so far have been European nationals, right-wing parties throughout continental Europe are indulging in anti-refugee rhetoric. It’s arguably worse in the U.S., where 25 Republican governors have announced they will attempt to block Muslim Syrian refugees from settling in their states. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have already been reported in both Europe and the U.S.

“This is precisely what ISIS was aiming for–to provoke communities to commit actions against Muslims,” Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland who specializes in terrorism, said in an interview with theWashington Post. “ISIS will be able to say, ‘I told you so. These are your enemies, and the enemies of Islam.”

The crisis with ISIS is complex; charting an ideal of course of action has flummoxed many of the world’s best foreign policy thinkers. But as the West continues to process the Paris attacks, its main psychological challenge will be to avoid the reflexively overblown military response that will play right into ISIS’s hands. It feels gratifying to talk like Donald Trump about “bombing the shit out of them,” but just because we have awesome military power doesn’t mean the right thing to do is use it awesomely. ISIS didn’t attack Paris at random. They did so with the goal of provoking a specific response.

The West needs to think long and hard if it’s best course of action is giving ISIS exactly what it wants.