Terrorism

The Boston Marathon Bombings: Lessons from Passover

Memorial at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing, RobinJP /
Memorial at the finish line of the Boston Marathon after the bombing, RobinJP / Flickr.com

My first marathon ever — 2003 in New York City — did not go according to plan. On the positive side, I would never have guessed that P. Diddy would be running the same marathon and at the same pace for much of it, providing an entertaining entourage to distract me from my exhaustion. On the negative side, my name, which I had taped to my tank top so the crowds could give me much-needed encouragement, quickly peeled off, and I was anonymous in the crowd. My plan had been to run that last mile to the mantra “you can do anything” or “you are power,” but instead, my legs barely moving and my husband and close friend no longer by my side, I chanted dejectedly to myself: “Never again, never again.”

I didn’t know what misery associated with a marathon really was, though, until I heard about the Boston Marathon bombings, which took place one year ago today. On this day, two young brothers set off two bombs at the end of the Boston Marathon. As we waited to understand the damage, I remember thinking about the juxtaposition of the runners’ feelings of accomplishment setting in just as shrapnel began to fly. Then I received the painful — even if relieving — news that my first cousin had been right at the finish line with her husband and baby (born a year ago exactly on that marathon Monday) and had escaped the violence only because the baby needed her nap. We eventually learned that three people were dead, hundreds were injured, and the two suspected perpetrators were associated with radical Islam. I felt disgust and horror.

Moments such as this challenge each of us to live up to the “better angels of our nature,” as President Abraham Lincoln put it. As has been borne out by various terrorist attacks around the globe, terrorism breeds fear — its intended consequence. Too often this fear becomes fear of a religious group. We, as Jews, know intimately the perils of a society surrendering to this type of fear.

In the Name of Security

THE SAD RECORD of human history shows that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception—in criminal justice systems as well as in interethnic, intercommunal, and international conflicts.

The use of torture in such situations—and brutalities that might fall short of torture but are nonetheless brutalities—can have many motivations. Torture demonstrates absolute power. Torture wreaks vengeance. Torture intimidates. Torture punishes. Torture coerces behavior change. Torture harms, and sometimes the sheer (perverted) pleasure of doing harm is enough motivation. And yes, torture is sometimes deployed to elicit information, confession, or “actionable intelligence.” (This was the main ostensible reason why the U.S. tortured after 9/11. But other factors on this list should not be overlooked.)

Torture appears to come all too naturally to fallen humanity. That is a still quite useful theological term that conveys the belief that humanity was created good by a good God but has fallen into sin and thus has suffered disastrous individual and collective damage to its character. Fallen human beings and human communities resort easily to torture.

So one way to talk about the ethics of torture and brutality is to start exactly here—with the historically and theologically grounded claim that torture has more often been the rule rather than the exception in human history, a dark but pervasive aspect of the behavior of fallen humanity. But what if we turn the discussion of torture upside down in what might be a constructive way?

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Drones and Terrorism: Is the U.S. Scapegoating Al Qaeda?

U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot / Shutterstock.com
U.S. Drone, Paul Drabot / Shutterstock.com

Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda? It’s an odd question, I know, but it reared its ugly head as I read about the new reports from Amnesty International and Humans Rights Watch on U.S. drone strikes. The scapegoating mechanism is a very precise instrument that accrues enormous benefits to the scapegoater. By accusing their scapegoat of wrongdoing, a scapegoater ingeniously hides from the reality of their own guilt. Now here’s the weird thing: a scapegoat does not have to be innocent to function as a scapegoat. Scapegoats can be evil, nasty, ruthless, amoral sons-of-bitches and still function perfectly well as a scapegoat. Which is why I ask the question: Is the U.S. scapegoating Al Qaeda to hide from its own guilt?

With that in mind, I invite you to read these few excerpts that raised the question for me, with key phrases in boldface:

[continued at jump]

In Kenya Attack, Weakened Al-Shabab Seeks a Foothold in Kenya

Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo /courtesy Chuck Hagel via Flickr Photo by Erin A. Ki
Chuck Hagel leads the Somali president through an honor cordon at the Pentagon Sept. 20. Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo /Flickr.com

The deadly mall attack in Kenya on Saturday is a sign that the al-Qaida-affiliated group that carried it out has been dealt a blow in Somalia and they are looking to generate headlines with more high-profile attacks in the region, a regional expert says.

The militant group that carried out the attack, al-Shabab, wants to establish an Islamist government in Somalia.

In recent years, however, African Union troops in Somalia have driven the militants out of most parts of the capital city of Mogadishu as a U.S.-supported government there has attempted to establish control over the country. At one time, al-Shabab controlled parts of Mogadishu.

The attack in Nairobi underscores al-Shabab’s organizational skills and their commitment to die for a cause, said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and a professor at George Washington University.

But it also highlights that the group has to rely on high-profile terrorist attacks that generate headlines because they lack popular support and have failed in any direct fights with African Union forces in Somalia.

“Increasingly, al-Shabab has alienated the average Somali,” Shinn said.

N.C. Clergy Seek Release of Senate Report on Torture

Senator Richard Burr photo courtesy US Senate [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Citing the need for transparency in the U.S. record on human rights, nearly 200 clergy and religious leaders from North Carolina are seeking the public release of a 6,000-page Senate intelligence report on U.S. torture of terrorism detainees after 9/11.

The letter, dated Aug. 27 and released to the media on Thursday, was sent from the North Carolina Council of Churches in Raleigh to Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The letter, signed by 18 bishops, including the leaders of both of the state’s Catholic dioceses, stated that in light of conflicts in Syria and around the Middle East, transparency on U.S. torture practices was needed.

On Syria: We Must Use a Moral Compass to Guide Our Moral Outrage

ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image
Demonstrators protest against potential British military involvement in Syria in London Thursday. ANDREW COWIE/AFP/Getty Image

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama said that if Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against innocent civilians, there must be “international consequences.” The president is right. But what should those consequences be?

The issue here, again, is one that we have not decided how to deal with: terrorism. The definition of terrorism is deliberate and brutal attacks upon innocent people — whether by individuals, groups, or heads of state. By that definition, Assad is a terrorist. And terrorists who possess weapons of mass destruction and demonstrate their willingness to use them are most dangerous ones. But how should we respond?

I am in in the U.K., where political leaders last night backed off the decision to make immediate “military strikes” while the U.S. and other nations are considering them. The feeling here is that international and legal legitimacy need to be established first, that the U.N. inspectors should finish their examinations in Syria before any actions are taken, and that all other means of response should be fully explored first. These are good decisions.

Why is there such public “war fatigue” in the U.K. and the U.S. in light of Iraq and Afghanistan — and why is that creating reluctance to more military action? Because wars and military solutions have FAILED in response to terrorism — failed to achieve what they were purported to do.

Islam, Terror Threats, and a God of Power

 Terrorism definition, Dr. Cloud / Shutterstock.com
Terrorism definition, Dr. Cloud / Shutterstock.com

Last Saturday Muslims throughout the world celebrated Laylat ul-Qadr, usually translated in English as the Night of Power. It is part of the month of Ramadan and commemorates the night when Allah came to Muhammad with the first revelation of the Qur’an. The Night of Power is based on chapter 97 of Islam’s Holy Book. The Qur’an has 114 chapters, which are generally ordered from longest to shortest. So, chapter 97 is short enough to quote in full here:

In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,

We sent it down on the Night of Power. What will explain to you what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months; on that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task; [there is] peace that night until the break of dawn.

Stories Worth Telling

Ronit Avni, photo courtesy of Changemakers

IN HER JEWISH school in Montreal, Ronit Avni learned the tragic history of her people. Her Canadian mother and Israeli father had met in the ’60s when her mother was living in Israel and working as a folk singer, often performing for Israeli troops. Her older sister was born in Tel Aviv, but the family settled back in Montreal in the mid-’70s before Ronit was born.

Not strictly religious but committed to the values of Judaism, Ronit couldn’t help but ask probing questions as she listened to the stories of the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948. Am I hearing the whole story? How do Palestinian perspectives differ from what my educators and community leaders are teaching? How can we transform this situation from a zero-sum equation to one that respects the dignity and freedom of all?

Years later, having graduated with honors from Vassar College with a degree in political science after studying theater at a conservatory in Montreal, Ronit trained human rights advocates worldwide to produce videos as tools for public education and grassroots mobilizing.

By the time I met Ronit a few years ago, she had narrowed her worldwide focus to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where her heart was most deeply drawn. She is the founder and executive director of Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli efforts to end the occupation and conflict without weapons of violence.

During the last several years, my engagement in the Holy Land has been significantly shaped by Ronit. Her film Encounter Point, about Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members, land, or liberty to the conflict yet choose forgiveness and reconciliation rather than revenge, gave me hope that peace can emerge from pain.

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Peering in the Dark Corners

JEREMY SCAHILL SPENT years working out his notions of social justice in homeless shelters and conflict zones and among peace activists. In 2007, Scahill’s award-winning investigative reporting made waves when he published Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, a comprehensive exposé on the secret role of private military contractors in the United States’ “war on terror,” which prompted several congressional inquiries. Scahill’s newest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, digs into the obscure underbelly of U.S. covert wars.

“In one of my trips to Yemen, I traveled in the south of the country where most of the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have happened,” Scahill said during a recent visit to Sojourners’ Washington, D.C. office. “I was interviewing a number of tribal leaders. This guy from Shabwa province said to me, ‘[Americans] consider al Qaeda [to be] terrorism. We consider your drones [to be] terrorism.’ I heard that over and over in a variety of countries. ... Many people, in Yemen or in Somalia, would not be predisposed to think of al Qaeda as anything positive. Al Qaeda is a reviled organization in Yemen. ... But there are tribal leaders who are saying, ‘You know, you pushed us into a corner where our people are now sympathetic with al Qaeda.’ After years of traveling in these countries, I really believe that we’re creating more enemies than we’re killing.”

In some respects, drones are simply a new tool of old empire. Scahill’s book title, Dirty Wars (and film of the same name), is partly “a macabre tip-of-the-hat to the dirty wars in Central America, fueled by the United States ... targeting people who are insurgents and claiming they were communists. The new version of this is targeting people who are fighting us and claiming they’re al Qaeda.”

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Tamerlan Tsarnaev Buried in Undisclosed Location

FBI image of Tamerlan Tsarnaev
FBI image of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

An undisclosed community on Wednesday accepted the body of Boston bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev, which is now “entombed,” according to police in Worcester, Mass.

Tsarnaev’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, found a funeral home in Worcester to handle the body, but had struggled to get a cemetery to accept it. The Boston Globe reported that the body is buried in a community outside Massachusetts.

“As a result of our public appeal for help, a courageous and compassionate individual came forward to provide the assistance needed to properly bury the deceased,” read a statement posted on the Worcester Police Department’s website.

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