NSA spyware- who should we be afraid of?

We now know, thanks to Edward Snowden, that America’s National Security Agency planned to use App stores to infect our smartphones with spyware. While we may be outraged by these invasions of our privacy, that has to be balanced with the fact that terror attacks in the US have increased in recent years.

Who is carrying out these attacks? Be honest – you were thinking Islamist cells, right?

Wrong. The latest intelligence assessment, commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security, shows that law enforcement agencies assess ‘sovereign citizens’ as the most serious threat in their communities.

‘Sovereign citizens’ are “carrying out sporadic terror attacks on police, (and) have threatened attacks on government buildings”. Among other things, they formed a 1,000-strong coalition of armed militia-men to face Federal agents in Nevada in 2014.

They are the biggest terror threat in America right now, but have you ever even heard of them?

Also, did you hear about the terrorist who plotted to take out an entire town in New York State last year? No, not Al Qaeda, but Mr. Robert Doggart who planned a violent military-style attack against a Muslim-American community, in concert with nine others. Making the story even more noteworthy, Doggart also ran for Congress last year.

Another case of ho-hum media bias? No. In Doggart’s case, law enforcement officers didn’t send out a press release or hold a press conference. It is a pretty sure bet that if it had been a Muslim planning to take out an entire US town, the story would have been on all the front pages. Doggart did not fit the picture, and so was almost invisible.

Muslims are the folk devils in the 21st Century American narrative, the villains in our frame of ‘threats to our security’. The word ‘terrorism’ is automatically painted Islamic, and ‘Muslim’ is colored with terror. We all see much the same image.

Another example of this automatic attribution of villainy appeared in a Right Side News report about citizen surveillance which said that, although the actions of intelligence agencies may infringe Constitutional rights, “it must not overshadow the fact that these people are our front line at home to protect us from Islamic terrorists”.

Did the Right Side News mean to say that we don’t need protection from anyone else besides Muslims? Of course not, but like many of us, the idea that terrorists can be other than Muslim did not occur to the writer or the editor, and hence there was no fact-checking.

The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center has said that the “development of a US-specific narrative that motivates individuals to violence” is key to the increasing Islamic extremism in the United States.  This narrative includes the automatic, incorrect, and dangerous assumption that the main terrorist threat is from Muslims.


Why were there riots in Baltimore?

The death in custody of Freddie Gray triggered riots in Baltimore recently. Gray’s death was the catalyst, but why was violence the response? We suspect that families in deprived areas like West Baltimore have dysfunctional families and, as a consequence, breed violence. Unfortunately, our beliefs are often driven by out-group stereotypes.

Many of you will have seen the video of the Baltimore mother who, on finding her son participating in the fracas, pulled his ski mask off, slapped him, and forced him to leave.Some commentators this as an example of how black parents need better parenting skills. After all, doesn’t violence towards children teach violence? On the other side of the parenting fence, people saw it as an example of good parenting which, if more black parents did it, would mean less social problems, including street violence.

These are examples of stereotyping that develop from seeing this mother as ‘not like me’, but as someone in need of correction, or as a type all too rare in her subgroup. In general, the more liberal-leaning saw the slaps as bad parenting, while conservatives applauded the mother’s actions and used it as an example of its rarity in black culture. The ‘mother incident’ was a focus for stereotyping that enveloped commentary on the Baltimore riot.

Without those frames, what we see is a mother who was angry. She was angry, no more, no less, not representing anyone else but herself and indeed not representing what may be her behavior at any other time. Indeed, I can imagine myself doing the same, although I have never previously used corporal punishment.

How about if it had been a white mother? What if the rioter had been white?

White males have led and participated in many recent riots in the US. After the 2014 Super Bowl, law enforcement agencies had to respond to over 400 emergency calls and arrested over 100 people for offences such as fighting, arson, theft, vandalism, looting, breaking windows and overturning of cars. City officials estimated damages of at least $150,000 to city properties. An earlier Super Bowl riot in 1999 resulted in $160,000 in damages, 20 arrests and 40 hospitalizations when approximately 1,000 drunks overturned several cars, set fires… no need to finish that list, I reckon.

In  the aftermath the 2014 World Series, fans set fires, vandalized buses and police cars, shattered windows of businesses, scrawled graffiti, and threw bottles at police. Two people were shot, one person was stabbed, and a police officer was badly hurt from fireworks exploding. 40 arrests were made.

In 2002, riot police used foam-tipped bullets and arrested 20 people after the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The riot was triggered by a scarcity of beer.

A Michigan State vs. Duke University game in 1999 led to damages of near $500,000 and involved about 5,000 people. Firefighters were pelted with rocks as they tried to put out fires and 71 students and 61 outsiders were arrested.

Then there was the 1992 NBA Final game which resulted in $10 Million in damages, two people killed, 1000+ people arrested, and 107 officers injured.

As far as I could find, there has only been one sports-related riot in Australia in the entire twentieth century – in 1971 during the South African Rugby Tour, triggered by protests against apartheid. On this evidence, perhaps Australians could say that white Americans need to be taught parenting skills!

Just a few months before ‘Baltimore’, in October 2014, a mostly white crowd rioted at a Pumpkin Festival in New Hampshire, resulting in multiple arrests and injuries.  A young white man, Steven French, described the chaotic scene to the local paper as “wicked.” “It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he told the paper Saturday night. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

Some people made the point about the difference in responses to this riot and that in Baltimore in ironic tweets:

“Don’t these people have jobs? Where are the white fathers? What will end this corrosive culture of           violence?”

“Where are the leaders who will speak out against this culture of violence?”

cat_sword 2

The loss of hope in Baltimore

One thing that is sure to get an argument in the US is to attribute problems like poverty to ‘culture’ or the ‘system’. ‘Individual responsibility’ and the belief that anyone can make it in America often drown out anyone rash enough to speak in this way.  I was surprised, therefore, by a recent editorial in our local paper, the Times-News, about drug abuse and related crime that concluded that ‘We need a cultural change to take place’.

As I knew it would, the editorial prompted a speedy letter of protest. The letter claimed that ‘previously, when … times were far harsher …, the norm was to work harder today to secure a better tomorrow for yourself, your children and the rest of your family’.

While I believe that poverty, drug use, and related crime are strongly influenced by the social system in which they occur, it is true that individuals hold the keys to their destiny. Indeed, welfare programs give a ‘hand-up’ to support individual initiative, and not just a ‘hand out’.  Despite many interventions, however, the problems have proved intractable and are in fact worsening and increasing.

It was telling that the letter writer spoke of ‘securing a better tomorrow’. I guessed from other points in his letter that the writer had grown up in the ’50s and ’60s. That was a time of economic expansion in the Western world, and no matter how poor we may have been, the hope of a better tomorrow was not in vain. The next few decades turned that on its head.

Baltimore is an example of many places in America that fell into poverty as industrial jobs moved overseas. Baltimore lost over 75% of its industrial jobs between 1950 and 1995.  The collapse of industry led to more poverty, and as it worsened the idea of ‘working for a better tomorrow’ became increasingly absurd because for many, that tomorrow never came. This is not to say that many families in Baltimore and other cities have not struggled and continue to struggle, and hope for a better future. But the dogs of despair howl at those dreams.

The editor of the Times-News noted that there are ‘no riots in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods, but in inner cities like Baltimore’s. Most who were born in such places and now must try to survive there have little hope of finding a better life’.

Hope does persist, though. I teach students from the poorest areas of Baltimore and who are often the only person in their immediate family to attempt a college education. They attend my developmental education classes – the gateway to ‘proper’ college courses. Some attend regularly and do well, but a depressing number get more and more behind and then simply disappear, despite the hope that must have called them.

More than a decade ago, I stopped teaching for some years and began working with refugees from Afghanistan. I met many Afghan teenagers as they arrived off the plane, and one of the first things they asked was ‘will I be able to go to school?’ and then ‘when can I start?’ Such a contrast to the attitudes of most native-born teens – even those who are successful in school.

They had learned not to expect to go to school, but they had not lost hope. Their parents struggled with poverty, but they all placed the highest value on education. It was not something to be taken for granted. These kids were surrounded by a culture that viewed schooling as a prize to be hope for, and grasped when the opportunity came.

The Afghan teens had come from an environment where many did not have enough to eat, let alone a school to attend, and worst of all, where they never felt safe. Surrounded by what to them was the cornucopia of Western life, they did not forget that these things are a blessing. I often wondered, however, whether their children and grandchildren would be the same.

Australian students, like all of us born in the US and Australia, are oblivious to our wealth. But the Afghan refugees were rich in hope. It had been hope that enabled the fathers to endure harrowing and dangerous escapes to Australia, it had been hope that had enabled the mothers to endure the very long separations from their husbands and the danger all around them, and the safe arrival in Australia confirmed the luxurious wealth of that hope.

Hope can we grow hope in our cities?

Image with thanks to Kevin Dooley https://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/
Image with thanks to Kevin Dooley

What happened in Baltimore?

When news of the rioting in Baltimore this week broke, what I saw in major news outlets like the New York Times was a picture of young people with criminal propensities taking advantage of a volatile situation – the funeral of Freddie Gray, who had died in mysterious circumstances in police custody. The Baltimore Sun, among other news outlets, attributed the beginning of the riots to ‘rumors of purge, circulated on social media among school-aged Baltimoreans that morning‘.

The ‘purge’ apparently refers to a 2013 movie in which all crime is made legal for one night. The premise of the ‘Purge’ is that people need regular outlets for violence as a catharsis of negative emotions, and that, by allowing one night of lawlessness every year, the government had slashed crime and unemployment rates and buttressed the development of a strong economy. Although the official reason for the purge is the necessity for ‘catharsis’, it is actually used as a method of artificial population control and elimination of poverty, since people living in poor areas are usually the main targets.

The emphasis on the use of the phrase ‘the purge’ pandered to both conservative and liberal world-views. It played into mainstream beliefs that violence somehow ‘simmers’ in young people, particularly the poor, young, and black. It also spoke to the belief that people in power would secretly welcome the excision of poor people, like a boil on the rest of society.

After reading the first reports, I reasoned that the rioters were simply people taking advantage of the Freddie Gray situation, partly as revenge for what they saw as injustice, partly for the opportunity to loot, and partly for the excitement. I basically agreed with the analysis of a student in one of my classes, a young African American man from that area of Baltimore who said: ‘They are just thugs’.

The next day I read reports of eyewitnesses that changed my perspective. The Baltimore police believed that people would assemble at the Mondawmin Mall at 3:00 p.m. The department issued a statement saying it had ‘received credible information that members of various gangs…have entered into a partnership to ‘take-out’ law enforcement officers’.  Many young people did indeed gather at the Mall at 3.00 pm. But that is the location where many students catch their school bus, and 3.00 pm is school let-out time. Were the students intending to gather to riot, or just catch the bus?

One Baltimore teacher, Meg Gibson, reported that by the time students started arriving, ‘the riot police were already at the bus stop on the other side of the mall, turning buses that transport the students away, not allowing students to board. They were waiting for the kids. Later, police were forcing busses to stop and unload all their passengers’. 

Police also closed the local subway stop, and blockaded nearby roads.

A parent who picked up his children from a nearby elementary school tweeted, ‘The kids stood across from the police and looked like they were asking them ‘why can’t we get on the buses’ but the police were just gazing…Majority of those kids aren’t from around that neighborhood. They NEED those buses and trains in order to get home. If they would’ve let them children go home, yesterday wouldn’t have even turned out like that.’

Meghann Harris, a teacher at another local school, said on Facebook, ‘The kids were standing around in groups of 3-4. They weren’t doing anything. No rock throwing, nothing…The cops started marching toward groups of kids who were just milling about.’

As a former high school teacher, I know that corralling a large bunch of teenagers in one place with nothing to do is asking for trouble. Add to that the tension of the Freddie Gray funeral, their motivation to get home (some of the students begged teachers for rides), and the menacing sight of cops in full riot gear who marched towards students, and you have trouble – what were the police thinking? I don’t believe that the police were intending to spark a riot – but whoever gave them their orders needs some education.

The riots began from this point. Although the press disseminated the story that gangs were intending to ‘take out’ police, this was not true. Gang members did participate – by guarding store fronts and standing between police and rioters. Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. Young said, ‘These men (acknowledged gang members) have been out on the street quelling the senseless violence that has consumed our city. After meeting with them today, it is clear that the notion they were planning on harming our police officers is false and simply deterred the resources we needed to focus on the individuals who instigated these riots. I applaud these young men for standing here and speaking to our city.’ 

I am ashamed to admit that my first response was to give credence to the stories that blamed young African Americans, as much as I despise that in others. I am white, with an unconscious and prejudiced response that seems almost hardwired in. Some people say that I have good cause because so many African Americans participate in criminal activity, quoting statistics that back that up.  African Americans are indeed incarcerated at a much higher rate than Caucasians. But statistics also show that white Americans, including Hispanics who identify as white, made up 78% of the US population in 2013 and 59% of the US federal inmate population in 2015, while Asian Americans made up 5.3% of the US population in 2013 and 1.5% of the federal inmate population. Indeed,  Asian Americans have surpassed white Americans in so many ways, including incarceration rates, that Asian Americans ‘could talk about white Americans as disparagingly as white Americans talk about the country’s black population’. 

I am need of some serious brain rewiring.


Resistance is futile – but so is striving. Just love

The Pew Institute predicted recently that by 2070, Islam could be the world’s largest religion. The Institute also predicts that Christianity will lose majority religious status in countries such as the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

Do I want Islam to dominate the world? No. It’s not because I think that Christians are better than Muslims. I have many beautiful Muslim friends, including Afghan Hazaras and Iranians who fled to Australia to escape persecution. They are wonderful people, loyal citizens, and the type of people everyone would like to have a next door neighbors.

Am I afraid of Islamic terrorism? Yes. But it is not religion that is terrorist, but fanatics claiming religion. There are dangerous fanatics among all religious groups. Right now many co-called Muslims are grabbing the headlines by outdoing each other in gruesome acts, and it is true that some words in the Quran and Hadith can be used as justification.

I want Christianity to persist and grow because of the great gift of love that Jesus Christ gave the world. As I write for this blog, I often find myself discussing the frailties of human consciousness (Christian, Muslim – it does not matter) that lead to hatred and violence. I have written about our blindness to anything that does not fit our personal frame of the world and how this leads to blame and defamation. This even causes us to create ‘evidence’ to support our world-view where none exists.  We seek out people who affirm our own world-view and that breeds group violence. The blindness that results from this is buttressed by our belief that we are motivated by the best of intentions, and that our cause is ‘righteous’.

In the face of these human limitations that lead to destruction, I despair. There is no escape from my own human condition, and I have found that the more I strive to perfect myself, the worse I actually become.

But I am not left in that despair because Jesus Christ redeemed us from this. Christ does not call Christians to despair, nor to strive for perfection through human strength alone.  While the Old Testament is a book of striving for perfection under the Law and violent striving against enemies, Christ tells us to love. And sometimes Christians are indeed able to love, not because they have perfected themselves, but in those moments when they can permit themselves to surrender to the love of God, allowing themselves to be ‘gathered under His wings’. We don’t deserve it, nor do we win it.  We are given this grace.

Christians are called to love. We are called to share that love. The gift of love is what makes Christianity different. It releases us from the chains of striving, of despair, and dissolves the frames we create.

Let’s remember to offer this love to all of our fellow strugglers in life.

Thanks to Gwydlon Williams https://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/
Thanks to Gwydlon Williams https://www.flickr.com/photos/45909111@N00/

Who was the victim of ‘A Rape on Campus’?

I have an unconscious narrative about life. This story helps me make sense of what would otherwise be random experience. Everyone has these stories, because we need our lives to make sense, and we fit what we experience into our background story of ‘this is how life is’. We adjust some things to fit, and eliminate other things altogether.  The stories of our lives take shared experiences and convert them into our own reality.

We avoid things that may put the lie to what we believe about our experiences. Liberals shun Fox News. Conservatives scoff at MSNBC. Our story frames our perceptions, and cuts out opposing facts. In service of our stories, we are habitually blind and deaf to conflicting information.

This is what happened at Rolling Stone magazine last November. The sensational report, ‘A Rape on Campus’, caused a storm of anger and accusation at UVA, where ‘Jackie’ said her rape happened. As time went on, however, readers started to challenge some of the content, and this month, an investigation by professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism found that indeed, nothing in the article was based on verifiable fact. No-one at the magazine did any fact-checking for the story, even the most obvious and easy. The journalist who wrote the story has become a media story herself, along with her editors.

What mental frame caused ‘Jackie’s’ story to be swallowed whole?  The editors’ said that they wanted to protect the feelings of the “survivor of a terrible sexual assault.”  ‘Jackie’s’ story fit a picture of the world that framed fraternities as misogynistic and dangerous to young women, female rape victims as  discounted or ignored, and educational institutions as places that obstruct fair investigations of anything that may damage their reputations.

Gene Lyons, an American political columnist, commented with disgust and attributed the failure to ‘the cultural left’s credulousness about melodramatic tales of victimization’.  (Lyons is known as a writer with liberal views, by the way). I am not sure what the cultural left is, but it is a characteristic of liberal voters that they tend to take the side of people they perceive to be victims. In this case, the victimization frame overtook the facts completely.

Conservatives have a different frame of victims, and filter their experience through a frame of ‘victims are people who should know better’. For example, in discussing the incident, Fox contributor Stacey Dash said that, while a fraternity party ban may not do much good for the “bad girls, bad women”, it could be beneficial for the “good girls” who might otherwise be subject to violent assaults.

We must have frames for our experiences. God give us frames that allow in enough light to show us where they are. Oh, and a mirror to see them.


God save us from people who mean well

I believe that that a media ‘outrage machine’ is polluting public discourse and deepening the divisions between Americans, and I have posted a few times lastly discussing its negative effects. On the other hand, in response to my most recent post about outrage, commenter Bob S. pointed out that outrage can be ‘righteous’, and gave the example of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple. That started me thinking about the ‘good’ side of outrage.

The other event that got me thinking happened last weekend, when hundreds of people took to the streets of my hometown to demonstrate under the banner of ‘Reclaim Australia’.  They were expressing their outrage at what they perceive as a ‘takeover’ of Australia by foreigners – specifically Muslim foreigners. They were noisy, and much of their behavior was objectionable, even ugly. They were met by roughly equal numbers of protesters who perceived ‘Reclaim Australia’ as racist. I am sad to say that they too were noisy, and much of their behavior was objectionable, even ugly. The body language and the words hurled were almost identical. I am sure that both sides would see themselves as ‘righteous’.

Outrage can have positive results, however. It was the seed of my long involvement with refugees (mostly Muslim) in Australia. I was outraged that my government could treat people so badly, and as a result I volunteered to teach English to asylum seekers, and later became a paid worker and advocate. When people challenged me, I held my tongue and tried to understand their concerns, even if they were expressed in hate-filled language. I did so because I knew that it would be impossible for me to affect their views with words that challenged them. I hoped that getting to know me and some of the refugees would do that work – and it did, in many cases. Outrage energized me, but I mostly managed to control it.

Outrage is hard to control. It is insidious because it is based on our belief that we are righteous, and that  it is with the best of intentions that we express those ‘righteous’ beliefs . Righteousness is the plank in my eye that blinds me to the harm that my outrage is doing. Self-righteousness feels good, and that makes it addictive.

In order to control it, we must first recognize it in ourselves. Here are some signs: outrage tempts us to dismiss people who have different feelings and beliefs just plain wrong without truly listening. Outrage seeks fellowship.  When outraged, we seek other people who will join our chorus of ‘I can’t believe that they…’ What’s wrong with them?’ ‘People like that are not worth listening to’, and we infect one another. And we carefully, if unconsciously, choose people, TV programs, blogs, and books that affirm our ‘side’. We choose our audience, because outrage avoids anyone who challenges the ‘righteous’ beliefs it is based on. Our outrage becomes ever more entrenched.

I agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple were an expression of outrage, but we don’t hear that He spent time playing ‘ain’t it awful’. Instead of choosing an easy audience to gossip with, He called out the money changers directly .

Do we have the courage to ‘go to the temple’ and confront issues openly? Or do we sit in front of the TV and say ‘isn’t it awful’, enjoying the warmth of self-satisfaction? When we label others as misguided, brainwashed, or plain evil, do we have the courage to ask ourselves if those epithets apply to us as well?

Wow. What a project! Outrage is a good, if harsh, teacher.

 “God save us from people who mean well.” Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

Bianca De Marchi for Adelaide Now
Bianca De Marchi for Adelaide Now