My heart goes out to all of the victims of the attack in Barcelona. I am saddened to see yet another terrorist attack. These people did not deserve to die. All of these words seem so inadequate, just as they do after every terrorist attack. I often don’t know what to write after these events, so I’ll just throw out some random thoughts.

Any individuals who commit a terrorist act bear final responsibility for their actions. If they die in the attack or refuse to surrender and are killed by police, that seems like justice to me.

There are security personnel in countries worldwide (and yes, even majority Muslim countries for the conservatives out there) who go to work every day thwarting these kinds of attacks. I appreciate their hard work and dedication and the risks they bear. My life and the lives of my family and friends are the better for it.

What is the definition of terrorism? Using violence against civilians for political goals? If that sounds right, then I think every military in the world and every soldier in every military in the world is implicated. Civilians always die in military conflicts. ALWAYS. Is it no longer terrorism simply because the violence is being committed by people wearing special clothes issued by a nation state? Many people see this as a clear distinction, but I don’t – especially when it comes to bombing. I don’t care how precise the bombing is, again, civilians always die.

I know; I know. “But they surround themselves with civilians!” you say. Okay, maybe they share some of the blame then. But it’s also very likely, if there are friendly civilians around, that the targets are very, very far from the US – and unlikely to be an immediate threat.

National self-defense is justified. But I don’t think most of our modern wars fit this definition. Certainly not the second Iraq War, which – no matter the spin by Bush administration officials – was a war of choice. While I supported the war in Afghanistan when the government there wouldn’t hand over the perpetrators of 9-11, we have long lost our way in that conflict. Toppling Libya just led to more chaos.

Reviewing these wars leads me to the fact that we bear some responsibility for this terrorism. We have spent decades manipulating events in the Middle East and destabilizing the region on countless occasions. We were not always the enemy of the people there. But now we clearly are. We need a truly fresh approach. Perhaps that means stepping back altogether. Enough with our reliance on energy from that region. Enough with military contractors benefiting from the endless wars and arms sales there. And enough with our being part of Muslim religious proxy wars.

Underlying much of the Middle East is a long-running analog to the Catholic-Protestant wars of European history. Various Sunni- and Shiite-leaning nations and groups are contending for religious domination. We really don’t have a stake in that fight. Saudi Arabia – the major Sunni power – is a leading sponsor of Sunni terrorism, including Al Qaeda. (A reminder that most of the 9-11 attackers were Saudi nationals.) Iran is a sponsor of Shiite terrorism. I see no particular reason to favor one over the other. We should want BOTH of them to stop. (And if you’re tempted to look back to the Iranian seizure of our embassy, I’d remind you that we are now on friendly terms with communist Vietnam, even after fighting a horrible war there, and that the CIA toppled a democratically elected government in Iran.)

There will always be extremist violence in human relations. There’s no way around that. But as a nation – as a matter of policy – all we can do it contain it in the short run, fight the ideologies that inspire it in the medium to long term, and work to bring a just peace and social stability to all nations in the really long run. Destroying social order from the outside is unlikely to help with any of those goals.

Some long overdue thoughts on Charlottesville

I’ll admit that I’ve been taking advantage of my physical distance from the US to avoid the tragedy in Charlottesville and tend to personal matters. But it’s time for some reactions:

One – The car attack was an act of terrorism, plain and simple. (Just like the left-wing attack on Republicans in Washington was.) In a just world, Heather Heyer would be alive today – as would the two police officers who died in the unrelated helicopter crash while having to monitor the events.

Two – The white supremacists/white separatists/neo-Nazis/neo-Confederates who planned the rallies in Charlottesville are disgusting people. Watch this documentary from VICE News to get a flavor:

(They also happen to be hilarious crybabies when forced to confront the consequences of their actions.)

Three – Pres. Trump should have stuck to his second statement on the events. Just condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists – full stop.

We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

Four – Regarding Pres. Trump’s third set of statements in which he again said both sides were to blame and that there were “fine people” on both sides, let me try to charitable to the president for a moment, even if you could argue he doesn’t deserve it given how he abuses other people online, because:

  • I’m constitutionally built that way. It’s the journalist in me. I can’t help it.
  • I think it’s a better strategy to signal to Trump supporters that might now be questioning his judgment that you’ve carefully listened to them and don’t just dismiss them as bat sh*t crazy.  I believe this can help defuse tense situations and leads to better outcomes.
  • You can find rants about Trump in many other places.
  • There is something to waiting for the facts to come in when these kinds of events occur. Again, it’s the journalist in me. And I praise people who wait for the full information. (Secretary of Defense Mattis impressed me in this way recently.)

Okay, all of that said, let’s take a look at “fine people” on the alt-right’s side. Pres. Trump stressed that they were there to protest taking down a statue of Robert E. Lee. They were there to defend a hero of the Confederacy. Supposedly that was the reason for the rallies, and they were flying the Stars and Bars. But regardless of what personal qualities these people have – of how fine they are – they are protesting in support of traitors to the United States – people who became traitors because they wanted to keep slavery in place in the United States. When it seemed that they couldn’t – that they were losing politically – they took to armed rebellion and tried to leave the Union. That’s what those “fine” people are supporting. (And the irony is never lost on me that these people somehow consider themselves the true patriots.)

Five – Regarding the “fine” people in the counter-protests, for the most part, there can be no comparison. You can’t equate people who advocate for white supremacy and Nazism with the people who oppose it. What, were our troops in World War II who were trying to defeat Nazi Germany just as bad as them? Some revisionists might claim that, but I don’t believe any reasonable person ever would. Now, there are lots of people in the anti-fascist – antifa –  movement who clearly are itching for a fight every bit as much as the white supremacists. They don’t see any problem at all with proactively punching Nazis. I can’t get on board with that, because…

Six – I’m a strong believer in the First Amendment. The law and the morality of First Amendment issues are complex. By my interpretation, your First Amendment rights end when you incite violence. But the definition of incitement is slippery. And even if you have a right to speak, I’m not altogether sure you have the right to be respectfully heard. Not every venue is an academic debate. If you’re going to hold a rally for neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideas, it seems reasonable for you to expect to get drowned out by counter-protesters.

But I don’t care for violent confrontations like some of the events before the car attack. Nobody comes off looking good. It’s not civil discourse. It doesn’t bolster the First Amendment. Call me unrealistic, idealistic, or naive if you want.

That said, defending the alt-right activists is awfully hard to do. They were carrying torches like the KKK of old and came ready for a fight in a military fashion. They did so to defend white supremacist views. In any contest of ideas, they should lose.

Seven – Back to Pres. Trump’s third set of remarks. Sorry, no, Mr. President, we won’t be going after George Washington statues. He fought to create the US, not destroy it like Lee did. And regarding slavery, Washington saw the contradiction between US ideals and slavery and freed his slaves in his will. Of course, he still failed to do so when it would have been personally inconvenient for him, and he deserves criticism for that. Jefferson does, too.

Eight – Again, to be charitable perhaps to a fault, here’s a story about how the right sees events. It would benefit liberals to try to get inside their heads a bit more.

Nine – If you want to see an end to terrorism and political violence – and you’re simultaneously the kind of person that gives a lot of weight to the inborn characteristics of people, like skin color, ethnicity, gender, etc. – well, then, it strikes me that the only reasonable thing to do is to go after males. We males sure do seem to do almost all of the violence and killing. The testosterone cooks our brains, I guess. Put the women in charge based purely on their gender and body chemistry.

Ten – But wait, if that sounds like bigotry to you, well, then good. I hope it does. I want to use that example to make a philosophical point about where I think leftist politics needs to go. I think we need to pin our hopes on universalism, not particularism. What I mean is that we need to focus on and fight for universal values – like freedom and equality and economic security for all. I think these are goals that all humans share. Let me get myself in trouble here with my allies for a moment: While leftists justly promote inclusiveness and equality, sometimes it tips over into bigotry, as well. If you blame “white males” for all of the world’s ills, many white males are going to take that the wrong way. They are going to see people blaming them when they individually didn’t do anything. We, as liberals and leftists, need a new message, and I think that message has to be universalist. Look, particularism – bigotry, racism, sexism – is just part of the human condition. We have to avoid feeding it. The only way out is to focus on universalism and not double down on particularism.

Eleven – Not to give in to prurient interest, but this is the most horrible clip of the car attack I found. The video is not that good, but the sound is terrifying. You can hear the thuds of bodies as they are hit.

Twelve – Just to make a point clear, f*ck neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and white supremacists of all kinds.

Thirteen – The long struggle against the bigots and plutocrats and warmongers continues. The long struggle for justice and freedom and equality goes on.