May 15, 2007

There's terrorism and then there's terrorism

It's been that busy time of year where interesting thoughts about potential blog posts are as fleeting as the happy feeling one gets from reading a well-argued paper ("what well-argued paper?" you ask... "precisely, my dears!" I reply). One of those blips that rattled around a bit but got left behind in grade calculations was about the stories on Eric Rudolph, the domestic terrorist, who continues to harass his victims and collaborates with violent groups from jail. Zuzu does a nice roundup:

What's the difference between Padilla and Rudolph? Rudolph has killed two and wounded 117 people in three separate terrorist attacks, while the government has backed off charges that Padilla was plotting to plant a dirty bomb and have now charged him with, essentially, money laundering. But of course, that can't explain why Padilla can't speak to anyone - it took years and the intervention of the Supreme Court before he could see a lawyer at all - and Rudolph can send as many letters as he wants to the Army of God just begging for another abortion-clinic bombing.

Oh, could it be that Padilla is a Muslim, and Rudolph is a Christian?

Paddy at Cliff Schecter did a little reimagining of the article, changing "Eric Rudolph" to "Osama bin Laden" and "Army of God" to "Al Qaeda," and asked whether prison officials would be so sanguine about screening Rudolph's mail if the religions were switched (though, to be (somewhat) fair, the Supermax prison in Florence seems to be a bit lax in the mail-screening department, allowing a number of missives from the 1993 World Trade Center bombers to reach supporters overseas). Her conclusion:

Any of the prisoners in Gitmo get to send mail to their fans?

Terrorism is Terrorism, no matter which God you offer it up to.

Of course, as we've seen time and again, terrorism by Christians against abortion clinics doesn't count. Note that the AP described Rudolph as an "anti-abortion extremist" rather than a terrorist. And that of the victims or their families interviewed, only the people connected with the abortion clinic were concerned about repeat terrorist attacks.

I definitely think she is onto something (as many have noted) about the ease with which people accept the label of terrorist for Muslims and foreigners, but don't apply that label to Rudolph. She points to the targets (abortion clinics, gays) and religion (Christianity), but I think there is also a foreign and domestic element to this lack of identification too. I think there is an assumption that terrorists come from somewhere else. Yes, in this time and place they are assumed to come from a specific somewhere else (the Middle East) and be a specific kind of someone, but in the history of terrorist acts, this is often not the case. Terrorism happens within states, to the people who live there, perpetrated by some other people who live there. And in the region I have spent the most time studying, the "terrorist" was often the state, engaging in seemingly random acts designed to spread fear among the population. Of course, today, when "terror" and "state" are mentioned together, most people think "state sponsors of terror" as in states who fund non-state actors who engage in terrorist tactics. It's easy to forget the application of state terror against its own citizens.

What Zuzu highlights is not just a feminist issue, that religious violence escalating to terrorist acts designed to spread fear in the population and coerce its behavior doesn't really "count" as much when it's done by homegrown actors who target certain groups. It's also an important general policy issue, because blind spots in assumptions about who the terrorists are likely to be leaves holes in the defenses.

And since it's grading time, I'll pitch this as a classic social science/statistics problem of Type I and Type II errors (i.e. false positives versus false negatives). The Type I error is the false positive, too easily accepting that someone (say, who fits our assumptions) is a terrorist when in fact this is not the case. This type, as traumatic as it may be for the person wrongly accused, is in some way, at least in the short term, safer, as it identifies someone for observation or arrest who has a low probability of really engaging in the acts. Of course, casting the net too broadly is inefficient, wastes important resources that could be spent on "real" terrorists, can violate human rights, and not least create longer term repercussions. The Type II error, the false negative, is failing to identify that someone (say, who doesn't fit our assumptions) is a terrorist when in fact this is the case.

At this point, the poli sci rambling should be coming back in line with Zuzu's post, by the way.

By failing to routinely identify Rudolph as a terrorist and subject him to the same standards as those who fit the assumptions, we (as a society) commit several errors. First, we do a grave disservice to the subset of the population targetted by the terrorist acts, by not taking the impact on them seriously and by minimalizing their rights in comparison to the rest of the population. Civil rights activists have done an amazing job documenting the systematic attacks on minorities, designed to coerce them away from being able to exercise their rights. In this case, it minimizes the threat to women, women's health, and the LGBTQ community who were targetted by Rudolph and the organization he has been associated with. His ongoing acts of free soliciatation (which, the article also notes seems to have been permitted to some international terrorists as well) continue the effects. Second, we make the error of making terrorism an identity instead of a criminal act. In this way, a person who doesn't fit the assumed identity, is not identified as a terrorist. I would argue that this is dangerous for the rule of law and basic system of civil rights, in which individuals are not criminals for who they are but because of what they do. Third, we waste resources and generate hostility by making Type I errors. And finally, the attitude Zuzu points out leaves us open to making dangerous Type II errors, overlooking the real dangers right in front of us because they don't match our assumptions.

Posted by binky at May 15, 2007 11:10 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Extremism


And then there is the Posada situation.

Posted by: binky at May 16, 2007 09:52 AM | PERMALINK
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