Not Fighting the Smart Fight

So random police searches of backpacks, purses, and the like on the New York Subway has started. After the London subway bombings two weeks ago, and a botched attempt late last week to repeat the deed, the response seems to make sense. The "authorities" [sic], as they deal with an opponent that self-organizes, is highly motivated, few in number, able to easily hide among migrant populations and cannot be effectively deterred, are doing what they can to keep us safe.


I suspect it is only a matter of time — maybe another attack somewhere — until D.C. Metro Police start doing the same thing. The same logic that applies to the New York subway surely applies to the D.C.-area metro.

But random searches don’t make much sense. It’s a ham-fisted response that fails to acknowledge that not everyone carrying a bag merits a search. I understand why — no one wants to be "accused" of racial profiling. We want to be "fair," to treat everyone more or less the same. If we don’t, therein lie complaints, litigation, press conferences, regulations. Better to give the appearance of fairness, of impartiality, by allowing the long arm of the law to potentially grasp everyone — Mormon missionary, little old lady, Hasidic Jew, college co-ed, white ethnic commodities trader, young Muslim.

Only we know the likelihood that a Mormon missionary will blow himself to kingdom come on mass transit to prove a political point or accomplish a political goal is pretty small. Minuscule. I’ve met very few angry, revolutionary Mormons driven to violence.

As I write this, I understand: I was once Muslim. Not obviously Muslim. I am a giant blond, white guy. I rarely sported a beard, wore a skullcap less often, and almost never appeared in public outside a mosque in a disdasha (the long white robe Saudi men wear) or a khamis shawarz (the pant and long-shirt combo Pakistani and Indian Muslims wear), because big white men wearing long white robes has an entirely different connotation in this society. You would never have known I was Muslim simply by looking at me. That’s something you would have had to have known, either because I told you or because you paid enough attention to figure it out.

I say that, because while I’m loathe to give the state any advice on doing anything (except going out of business) that would have affected me, for the time being we’re stuck with this miserable situation, with Muslim revolutionaries planning mayhem and mass destruction and the "authorities" trying to stop them before they manage. There are good ways and bad ways to do this. No, let me rephrase this: there are smarter ways and dumber ways to fight this fight.

While I see some good coming from the world’s "security forces," it’s generally depressing to watch the globe’s police combat terrorists. The only reason I don’t much worry about this fight is, knowing something about 150 years of terror as a weapon to achieve political ends, those who employ it rarely win. (Okay, I could get killed, a real worry. But then, I could get hit by a bus too…) The stakes are greater this time — 19th century anarchists did not potentially have access to radioactive isotopes or lethal toxins — but utopian political groups, especially those that aspire to change or rule the entire world, have been singularly unsuccessful at bombing themselves to victory.

Nothing about the ideology of al Qaeda (and its franchisees and affiliates), which has kicked around the world for more than 30 years without scoring a significant political victory, convinces me differently. They will not succeed.

But let me add: they will fail, not because of our "best" efforts, but despite them.

In part, our "best" efforts are counter-productive. They can also be cruel. We are at war with Muslims, but not all Muslims. In fact, the struggle is only with a small number of Muslims who have not only embraced a revolutionary political ideology, but have chosen to act on that belief. (And we would likely still be at war even if we gave them everything they wanted.) Our failure to properly appreciate that, to drive ourselves to a frenzied panic, to mull genocide as the answer to our problem, to fear we will lose when clearly we will not, is to create an existential dilemma where none exists.

This is where I think very intelligent profiling would come into play, profiling that focuses on individual Muslims and Muslim organizations as possible suspects without assuming they are all potentially guilty. I don’t like saying that, but as long as it is Muslims who represent a threat to life and liberty, there’s not much choice. To target nation states or whole communities (such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a response to the September 11, 2001 attacks, or to consider an attack on Iran in response to another major attack) in response for the actions of single individuals acting on behalf of a completely voluntary, non-state revolutionary group is the height of foolishness.

It also proves we’ve met an enemy we can’t bomb. And the folks who run the Pentagon don’t know what to do with enemies except bomb them. Those who advocate the Team Bush hard line will eventually have to accept the fight against al Qaeda — as opposed to the meaningless War on Terrorism — is more like law enforcement anyway.

Intelligent profiling, to the extent that police and intelligence agencies are capable of such things, would mean working with Muslims, to the extent that is possible. It would mean focusing on behavior, watching mosques, listening to preachers, keeping tabs on people, places, comings and goings. I have no doubt some of that goes on. But, unfortunately, the "protectors of order" all-too-frequently confuse or carelessly (perhaps purposely) conflict the Qutb-quoting, Jihad-endorsing Imam with the Quaker anti-war activist as equal threats to "order." It’s a waste of their time and resources — and by extension, our time and money as taxpayers — but you cannot seem to convince a lot of these people that both of these things are not even remotely similar.

It also means the police, our wonderful, militarized American cops, would have to learn some manners, have to learn how to be a little polite, have to learn that being in control does not mean yelling, humiliating and clubbing. It would mean they would have to watch — intelligently watch the world — as much as they think they need to beat it into submission.

Frankly, I think it’s more likely that cheese will grow on trees.

I’m not comfortable with giving the state advice, especially when it comes to law enforcement — I don’t like giving the state that kind of power, hate acknowledging they have it, and hardly want to advise them how to use it. I certainly don’t like the idea of knowing that power would have easily applied to me, and might still. In this regard, it helps a little knowing no one will listen to me.

But my office overlooks the very busy intersection of 14th St. and New York Ave. in the middle of Washington, D.C. Not a day goes by when I look out my window and shiver at the thought of a car bomb. I understand and appreciate the stakes. I do not want to go through another terror attack again. Once was enough.

I’ve also been on the other side of this, sort of. In the summer of 1993, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) made me part of a delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Conference in Vienna. At the time, ISNA was contemplating becoming, or least in-part becoming, a non-governmental organization with international standing. I’m not entirely sure what we were there for, but they had me bring along my camera and I was supposed to help document the whole experience.

We took a Lufthansa flight from JFK and had a four or five-hour layover in Frankfurt. I wanted a look around, got into the line leaving the international section to get what little look I could at “Germany.” Security was pretty tight, much tighter than it had been at JFK, but as I came through the line, the security people pulled me aside and subject me to a more thorough pat-down than most everyone else was getting, and pawed through my bags. My clothes? I was wearing a black sweat shirt, an Ohio State windbreaker, black combat pants and my Army jungle boots. I’d not yet managed to get my usual early summer short flat-top, so I was looking pretty shaggy. A camera, lenses, slide film, reporters notebooks a copy of the Qur’an — that last item seemed to shock the young airport guard who first examined my bag.

I wasn’t sure what that was all about, but the security police were extremely polite as they poked and prodded me and rifled through my things. Almost apologetic. And yet very thorough and businesslike at the same time. I’d held up the line, and a whole lot of other passengers were a little peeved that everything had come to a halt as they gave me that very thorough once-over.

It was that way every time I moved between the international wing and the rest of the airport. The last time, they were pretty exasperated ("Can’t you just stay put?"), but airport security did the same drill to me every time without fail.

I clearly fit someone’s profile of something, but at the time, it made no sense to me. I didn’t get a second glance by security types in Vienna. It wasn’t until weeks later, back in the states, I heard while listening to Deutsche Welle that a big white supremacist / neo-Nazi shindig was scheduled for Hamburg or some such that week. And yahoos from all over the world were filtering into Germany, causing more than the usual amount of heartburn for Germany’s "authorities."

So of course I fit someone’s profile. I laugh now when I think of how things could have gone had I gotten that haircut.

The incident proves two very interesting points. First, whatever profile the German police may have developed to identify potential white supremacists seeking to breathe the fine air of the Fatherland can only help so much. (Whether or not stopping yahoos from entering the country is the legitimate job of the German government is a question I will not address here.) Yes, most big white guys dressed in black and wearing combat boots may be white supremacists or neo-Nazis, but not all of them. Treating every white man dressed in black as a possible suspect may be smart; treating every white man dressed in black as already guilty, worthy only of a beating or a head full of bullets, is not.

Second, whatever profile the German police were using only really works when combined with smart, professional, courteous and well-trained police. Our cops are beginning to resemble the benighted and trigger-happy police of many a Third World dictatorship, poorly trained in everything except bullying, eager to charge with guns blazing and contemptuous of the very populations whose security they have supposedly sworn to uphold. They are, increasingly, more like shock troops protecting the regime than they are protecting the peace and securing an order based on liberty.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not sure there is one, not one that will "solve" this problem tomorrow or next year or even a decade from now. We’re going to have to live with the threat of Muslim Revolutionary terror for a long time to come. Our attempts to restructure the Muslim world through invasion and occupation will probably not bear any fruit, and our efforts to publicly humiliate Muslims and convince them they cannot hope to battle Amreeka and retain their dignity and manhood (Guantnamo Bay and Abu Ghraib) will come to nought. In fact, both have most certainly increased the numbers of those willing to fight, kill and die for the cause of Revolutionary Islam.

We have not waged a smart war. We still can. But I think, at this point, it is unlikely. And that doesn’t make me feel much safer.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.