Members of Congress could lean a lot about the problem with rigid thinking, as outlined by former jihadists at a London conference
At the end of June, Google Ideas (a new "think/do" tank funded by Google), the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Tribeca Film Festival sponsored a summit in Dublin, Ireland, that brought together more than 50 former violent extremists to brainstorm ways to combat violent extremism in the world. The participants ranged from former Neo-Nazi skinheads and former Northern Ireland IRA and UDA fighters to former Colombian rebels and former Islamist jihadists. Their politics, in other words, pretty much spanned the spectrum from left to right and represented political, religious, nationalist, and racist movements.
Given the broad range of causes and motivations represented by the participants, I asked Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas and the primary organizer of the summit, if there were any common threads or traits he'd observed in all the former extremists he had worked with to make the summit happen. He thought a long moment before answering. The "formers," he said, had vastly different ideologies, different stories and paths, and a wide range of personalities. Was there something they all had in common?
"They're all extremely fixed in their thinking," he finally said. "Or, at least they were when they were active participants in extremist groups."
It is, perhaps, not a good thing that my conversation with Cohen, and some of my conversations with the former extremists at that summit, have come to mind again over the past two weeks as I've watched the double-debacle of the national debt limit and FAA funding fights play out in Congress -- a "debacle" so egregious that it prompted Standard and Poor's to strip the U.S. of its top credit rating over the weekend. But the parallels are also warning signs worth pondering, as we consider where we want our legislators to go from here.
The former extremists at the Google summit had all walked some very difficult roads of hope, anger, naivete, disillusionment, regret, learning, and growth to get where they are today. But many of them spoke of initially being attracted to an ideology that seemed both simple and clear, and which seemed to provide answers to not only how the world was, but also how to fix it. They were young and idealistic. And there is, they acknowledged, a great appeal to simple, black-and-white approaches that reduce messy complexity to something more manageable, with a clear and "simple" fix.
Both the Colombian rebels and the Islamist jihadists had seen real problems and injustices around them and had initially joined activist or resistance groups in the hopes of creating a more fair and better society. That those ideologies were over-simplistic and naive was a problem, of course.
"We had a very sketchy idea about what this grand Islamic state was going to be," admits Noman Benotman, a former commander in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). "Everybody said, 'Yeah! An Islamic State!' But what's the meaning of an Islamic state? That means, for us, that it will bring justice. It will bring everything. Everything will be nice. Everything will be fixed. Everything will be perfect. But if you ask most of the jihadists, give me a 15-minute lecture about the Islamic state you are going to establish, they will fail. They will talk for maybe two minutes, and you'll wait the other 13."
But the real problem, many of them now say, was not the ideologies themselves, but when those ideologies became both rigid and sacred. Or, as Benotman said, when the ideology became not a means to an end, but an end in of itself; a sacred idol that had to be preserved, intact and uncompromising, at all costs.
"Ideology is a set of concepts and ideas," Benotman explained. "And it's created because it helps any group achieve their goals. Because you need a framework. Liberalism itself is an ideology. And it's extremely useful as a tool, or means. The problem is when [the ideology] becomes not a tool, but the end itself. That means the group starts to act to serve the ideology. To keep it. To protect it. That's the explanation for people who have no tolerance when you're disagreeing with them. Because it's not a difference of tools and means.You're talking about the end, itself. So it's impossible to have a discussion. If you disagree, you are not me. You are the other. You are the enemy."
Granted, there's a long distance between extremist groups willing to employ violence and sacrifice lives as a means of protecting their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent, and legislators willing to sacrifice the credit rating and potential economic stability of a country, or the paychecks of 74,000 contractors and FAA employees, in order to protect the integrity of their ideology, shunning any compromise or dissent. But the ideological rigidity and unwillingness to compromise, no matter how reckless the consequences, echo similarly enough that we should all be a bit alarmed.
As Benotman said, ideology can be a very helpful in organizing people around a shared set of values or beliefs. And as a starting point, it can be very positive tool. But when any group, whether it's a righteous freshman class of Tea Party diehards or any other offspring of a political or social movement, become not only rigid in their thinking, but also willing to risk recklessly for the sake of keeping their ideological underpinnings intact, we should worry. Because ideology, especially in a democracy made up of differing constituencies and viewpoints, should only be a starting point. When it becomes something more rigid than that, it starts to become dangerous.
Abu Muntasir, a soft-spoken London Imam who once served as a major conduit for young Muslims in England wanting to get to the jihad training camps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, told me that when we become righteous in our beliefs, "we are falling short ... before God."
Muntasir, like all the other former extremists at the Google summit, had learned the hard way where ideology can lead if it becomes too rigid, uncompromising, or a sacred end in and of itself. And all of them have walked very painful paths back from those places to give the rest of us a warning, like Dickens' Ghost of Christmas Future, about where our own folly, hubris, and righteousness could lead. We, and all the legislators who represent us, would do well to listen.
Defining common cultural literacy for an increasingly diverse nation.
Is the culture war over?
That seems an absurd question. This is an age when Confederate monuments still stand; when white-privilege denialism is surging on social media; when legislators and educators in Arizona and Texas propose banning ethnic studies in public schools and assign textbooks euphemizing the slave trade; when fear of Hispanic and Asian immigrants remains strong enough to prevent immigration reform in Congress; when the simple assertion that #BlackLivesMatter cannot be accepted by all but is instead contested petulantly by many non-blacks as divisive, even discriminatory.
And that’s looking only at race. Add gender, guns, gays, and God to the mix and the culture war seems to be raging along quite nicely.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
How a re-creation of its most famous battle helped erase the meaning of the Civil War.
"No person should die without seeing this cyclorama," declared a Boston man in 1885. "It's a duty they owe to their country." Paul Philippoteaux's lifelike depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg was much more than a painting. It re-created the battlefield with such painstaking fidelity, and created an illusion so enveloping, that many visitors felt as if they were actually there.
For all its verisimilitude, though, the painting failed to capture the deeper truths of the Civil War. It showed the two armies in lavish detail, but not the clash of ideals that impelled them onto the battlefield. Its stunning rendition of a battle utterly divorced from context appealed to a nation as eager to remember the valor of those who fought as it was to forget the purpose of their fight. Its version of the conflict proved so alluring, in fact, that it changed the way America remembered the Civil War.
Former Senator Jim Webb is the fifth Democrat to enter the race—and by far the most conservative one.
In a different era’s Democratic Party, Jim Webb might be a serious contender for the presidential nomination. He’s a war hero and former Navy secretary, but he has been an outspoken opponent of recent military interventions. He’s a former senator from Virginia, a purple state. He has a strong populist streak, could appeal to working-class white voters, and might even have crossover appeal from his days as a member of the Reagan administration.
In today’s leftward drifting Democratic Party, however, it’s hard to see Webb—who declared his candidacy Thursday—getting very far. As surprising as Bernie Sanders’s rise in the polls has been, he looks more like the Democratic base than Webb does. The Virginian is progressive on a few major issues, including the military and campaign spending, but he’s far to the center or even right on others: He's against affirmative action, supports gun rights, and is a defender of coal. During the George W. Bush administration, Democrats loved to have him as a foil to the White House. It’s hard to imagine the national electorate will cotton to him in the same way. Webb’s statement essentially saying he had no problem with the Confederate battle flag flying in places like the grounds of the South Carolina capitol may have been the final straw. (At 69, he’s also older than Hillary Clinton, whose age has been a topic of debate, though still younger than Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.)
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
Be kind, show understanding, do good—but, some scientists say, don’t try to feel others’ pain.
In 2006, then-senator Barack Obama gave a commencement speech offering what seemed like very sensible advice. “There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he told Northwestern’s graduating class. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us—the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”
In the years since then, the country has followed Obama’s counsel, at least when it comes to talking about empathy. It’s become a buzzword, extolled by Arianna Huffington, taught to doctors and cops, and used as a test for politicians. "We are on the cusp of an epic shift,” according to Jeremy Rifkin’s 2010 book The Empathetic Civilization. “The Age of Reason is being eclipsed by the Age of Empathy."
The retired general and former CIA director holds forth on the Middle East.
ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.
Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:
The Risks of Attacking Iran
Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?
David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. ... I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.
Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?
Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. ... The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site ... and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?
So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. ... If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.
But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.
You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.
There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.
This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.
Many veterans are suffering from a condition similar to, but distinct from, PTSD: moral injury, in which the ethical transgressions of war can leave service members traumatized.
Amy Amidon has listened to war stories on a daily basis for almost a decade.
As a clinical psychologist at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, she works with a multi-week residential program called OASIS, or Overcoming Adversity and Stress Injury Support, for soldiers who have recently returned from deployments. Grief and fear dominate the majority of the conversations in OASIS: Amidon regularly hears participants talk about improvised explosive devices claiming the lives of close friends; about flashbacks of airstrikes pounding cities to rubble; about days spent in 120-degree desert heat, playing hide and seek with a Taliban enemy. Many veterans in the program are there seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.