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worldwide wednesdays :: who's going on the sh*t list?

as you probably heard, donald trump announced that, as president, he would order his administration to implement "extreme vetting" techniques when evaluating applications for immigration and possibly even travel [i'm not clear on whether the process goes this far down, but it remains a possibility]. here's how he addressed the topic at a rally in ohio:



i'll admit, when i hear people talk about doing things "extreme" style, i'm reminded of some truly unfortunate marketing campaigns, and, of course, this:



but my initial, goofy urges aside, there are some problems with what trump is saying. i mean, of course there are, but i'm not talking about the [very likely] possibility that he's being tacitly racist against muslims and/ or arabs. and i'm not even talking about the cost and difficulty of implementing the policy, because, in all honesty, politicians don't usually provide those kind of details about their policy proposals during an election campaign anyway. [maybe they should, but that's an issue that's broader than trump.]

first of all, i'm going to take issue with one clear mistake in his speech: he says that the united states has never faced anything like this sort of problem. that's wrong. in fact, the united states and europe were targeted in exactly this fashion by a group that had a similarly vague ideology in the early 20th century: anarchists. now, anarchists actually had some good points about the deplorable conditions of the poor and the violence committed against them by the moneyed classes. they were right about the government and the police being in the pocket of wealthy and often amoral industrialists, and against the people they were sworn to protect. but a small minority of them thought that the only way to improve the situation was to raze the existing society [the white, western society] and start over. and those people threw bombs, killing hundreds of innocent civilians and a shocking number of world leaders while they were at it. the independent posted a remarkable piece on the subject back in 2009, but it's completely, if not more, relevant today.

contemporary illustration of the bombing of the liceu opera
it correctly points out that the anger at anarchist bombings was disproportionately directed at immigrants, particularly eastern european jewish immigrants. i call attention to that because i feel like there is a tendency to separate historical instances of anti-semitism from other forms of racism, and this is ludicrous. the vitriol directed at left-leaning jews in america and europe in the early 20th century [whether they were anarchists like emma goldman or communists like leon trotsky] is exactly the same as that which is leveled against arabs and muslims now. and it banks on the same politics of belonging vs. otherness to be successful.

[side note :: the first group to engage in activities generally associated with terrorism were jews in the first century a.d. the zealots of judea were a sect who murdered romans, in an attempt to drive them to withdraw from the jewish holy lands, as well as jews whom they believed collaborated with the roman occupiers. the sect was eventually penned into the fortress at masada, where they committed mass suicide rather than be taken alive by their enemies.]

the second problem with what trump is saying is that it's based on the idea that terrorism is a pro-active movement, which can be stopped by simply eliminating or controlling a finite group of people. everything that we know about modern terrorism tells us that this is not true. in fact, as the independent piece linked above details, trying to crush a terrorist movement through threats and force is probably the least effective way of dealing with it, since it feeds the terrorist narrative that their struggle really is life or death. much more effective is the tactic of going about one's business and arresting those who have clear links to terrorist activities.

the other measure that has proven effective against terrorism is probably the most controversial one: despite the strongman rhetoric of governments that they do not negotiate with terrorists, the fact is that every successful diffusion of a terrorist threat in recent history has been achieved by doing exactly that. as the anarchists were undermined by governments making concessions to the labour movement, other terrorist groups like the ira, eta and even the once-despised plo have been convinced to scale back their violent activities or disown those who persisted in them by being offered concessions from the very people they opposed. the most recent example of this would be the colombian government agreeing to a truce with the farc rebels after sixty years of hostilities. let colombia be an example to the world: terrorist threats can persist for as long as an idea can persist, and no military in history has ever been able to bomb an idea.

the assassination of french president carnot, 1894
[side note :: in terms of longevity, the irish part of me needs to point out that ireland's struggles against protestant england date back to the sixteenth century when england first became protestant, and that outright conflict was a problem from the seventeenth century on. i can clearly remember that the irish republican army were one of the most feared terrorist groups; i was inspired to write a story [long since lost] with characters in the ira when i was in my early teens [it won a citywide award, too!] and the first time i went to london, in 1990, there were military men present because of the threat the republicans posed. that was the first time i ever saw a machine gun. so the irish clearly have a pretty solid claim in the terrorism longevity sweepstakes. but the more important takeaway here is that bringing the political wing of the ira, sinn fein, to the negotiating table, has accomplished more in twenty-five years than intransigence did in three hundred and fifty.]

finally, there is the issue that most pundits have seized on: how to define which nations are exporters and/ or supporters of terrorism. let me be clear: i'm not saying that he should have produced a definitive list of nations that would be affected by this [although it might have been nice]. but i think the proposal is far enough outside the norm that he should have at least given a bit more detail about the criteria he wants to use for defining a country that exports or supports terrorism, because without that, there's a lot of interpretations of what he said that, frankly, make him look a little crazy.

for instance, he should clarify whether he means this enhanced vetting should be used for potential immigrants, or for people visiting the u.s. keep in mind that the majority of illegal immigrants to the u.s. are people who arrived on legitimate visas, but stayed past the date when they expired. so visitors could end up remaining in the country, operating below the radar, for much longer than might be expected. on the other hand, exposing everyone who travels to the united states will be a nightmare for tourism and business travel, something on which thousands of u.s. businesses- u.s. employers- depend.

and that's one of the easier questions to answer. try coming up with even a provisional list of countries whose citizens would be subject to "extreme vetting" and you'll quickly find yourself arse deep in quicksand, armed with only a straw. but let's play along and try to come up with one anyway, shall we?

assassination of spanish prime minister castillo, 1896
let's immediately say that countries where the u.s. has an ongoing military engagement, or has within the last ten years, is automatically on the list. that's iraq and afghanistan, of course. and it's possibly libya as well. sure, let's say it's libya, because there are clearly people there who are willing to target westerners [benghazi benghazi benghazi]. so there's three.

but wait! if you add libya to the list, then you pretty much have to add algeria and tunisia, because the same islamic state operatives who are in libya move across borders to those countries. and tunisia, one of africa's few recent success stories, has seen attacks that targeted western foreigners.

but it would be grossly unfair to place algeria and tunisia on the list and to keep morocco off it. after all, people of moroccan descent were implicated in both the paris bombings in november 2015 and the glut of sexual assaults in koln last new year's eve. in terms of exporting terrorists [or their parents, since trump calls special attention to terrorist attacks by the children of immigrants], morocco has more to answer for than tunisia, libya or algeria.

and as long as we're talking north africa, trump has said that egypt is "a mess". should we take that to mean that egypt is on the list too? egyptians haven't been exporting terrorists, because they're too busy trying to sort out their own shit, but it kind of sounds like trump thinks they're questionable. and a few reporters were pretty brutally attacked during the arab spring uprising. so i guess they belong on our list.

in case you lost track, that means that every single country in north africa, along with afghanistan and iraq, is now subject to enhanced interrogation techniques.

but trump made specific mention of terrorists being muslims, and if we're going to think about it that way, then every muslim-dominated country becomes suspect. i was about to type out the list for you, but i'm fighting a bout of carpal tunnel, so i made a pretty picture for you instead [well, two, because i couldn't fit it all on one screen]:



is it me or is that a lot of countries?

but here's the rub: nigeria, which has the most detestable, violent, ruthless islamic terrorist group in the world, boko haram, isn't on that list. furthermore, the nigerian government has been criticised for not doing enough to stop boko haram. we tend not to hear as much about boko haram in north america, because they haven't specifically targeted westerners. but believe me, this is the last terrorist group that we want to have to deal with and it's one that's benefitted from a governmental blind eye.

assassination of president mckinley, 1901
but enough with the "easy" part of the argument. after all, the attacks perpetrated in the west have often been carried out by people born in the country where the attacks happened. you could make an argument that belgium is a greater exporter of terrorism than most majority muslim countries. indeed, you could make that argument about france. for that matter, three of the four bombers responsible for the 7/7/2005 bombings in the u.k. were born in england and the fourth was from jamaica. these are people raised in western countries, who attended western schools, speaking european languages, consuming european media. at what point are they no longer "immigrants", but just angry citizens acting out against their own country? is a belgian moving to the u.s. more or less likely to engage in terrorist activities than someone from mali? how about someone from syria? whatever horrors are occurring in syria, syrians have not been among those implicated in terrorist attacks in european and north american countries. if you're talking about shutting out countries that have produced terrorists, belgium should clearly be a greater priority than either mali or syria.

an even more perplexing problem, just because of its vastness and diversity, is russia. vladimir putin may be trump's favourite person, but there is no getting around the fact that russia has had some problems with terrorism in certain muslim-dominated quarters. the brothers behind the boston marathon bombing were from that region. fighters on both sides of the chechen conflict are russian citizens. [and although russia officially ended its counter-terrorism operation in chechnya in 2009, incidents have continued since then.] so where does russia fall on the terrorism continuum?

ok, now here's the really tough part: let's assume that, for the moment, islamic state/ isis/ daesh is the entire focus of anti-terrorism efforts, with some space reserved for al-qaeda and boko haram. that's not unreasonable given that, while there may be many terrorist groups in the world, those are the ones that are posing the chief threat to stability in large areas, and the ones that are most willing to target westerners. [that's not to say that westerners are more important, but we're talking about the implementation of a law in america, not argentina or madagascar.] so, the people we really want to keep out, the people who are really worthy of being refused entry to america or any country in the west, are those whose sympathies lie with the islamic state and who could be [or have been] persuaded to commit acts of violence in service of the isis cause.

bombing of wall street, 1920
the problem here is that the problem is here. white westerners from europe, america, canada, australia and others have flocked to the syria and iraq to fight with isis. fight with them as in, on their side. hundreds and hundreds of people, who are beyond any doubt terrorists. that's way more people than most of the ones already on the list. so who's exporting terrorists now?

earlier, i said that i didn't expect donald trump to provide a lot of details about his policy, but the problem is that, if he doesn't, it leaves the rest of us to speculate about what might happen and by any measure, what might happen with this policy is a huge mess. let's cut to the chase: we all know what "kind" of people he's talking about when he says he wants to subject some to more comprehensive vetting. but the idea is vague and fights any attempt to be defined, even though defining it is essential to putting it in place. even if you could legally say "middle eastern or muslim looking people" were to be given the extreme treatment [i'm honestly not sure if you can or can't], that's trusting that a ground-level employee can make some pretty astounding judgment calls where lives hang in the balance. and given isis' success in recruiting from all over the world, there's no evidence that such "extreme" techniques would be of much use. a lot of terrorists aren't going to be caught at the border, because they're already in the country and have been their whole lives.

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