Archive for the ‘Society’ category

Why Understanding the Middle East is Hard for Westerners; Demystifying Critical Elements

August 18, 2015

The political tensions in the Middle East have always been difficult for me to understand. The cultural and religious nuances and customs are unfamiliar. The names, political parties and language are removed from my own native tongue making my usual memory techniques difficult to use. Sometimes it honestly just becomes a swirled mush and I am not sure where to start since most news is event or crisis driven. For me it helps to return to basics and unwind some of the geographic, ethnic, religious and government elements before applying them to tensions within the Middle East.

I think back to lessons in early geography where I struggled to understand the differences between countries and nations.

  • A country is defined through political geography
  • A nation is defined through ethnic boundaries

This makes a country rather simple to understand since most maps are denoted this way. It is easy to pick out where the United States, Britian, France, Russia, Australia, Japan, etc. are located and clearly defined. Generally, these are established and internationally agreed upon. There are exceptions: the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India is an example of territory disputed between two countries.

A nation though can be a bit fuzzier. The classic example in American classrooms is some of the Native American Indian tribes. For example the Cherokee Nation exists within the political geographic boundaries of the United States and maintains its own government. The Cherokee Nation practices self-determination, is governmentally separate from the United States and is comprised of those who are ethnically Cherokee. The seat of government is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the National’s territory geographically falls within the state Oklahoma and there is a representative office in Washington DC. (

Another example of a nation would be Tibet. While deemed an autonomous region by China and within its political borders this is not universally accepted within the international community. Additionally, the political boundaries asserted by China are disputed by India which also claims part of Tibet. This tension is seen when foreign heads of government receive the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, for state visits to the protests of the Chinese government. It should be noted the Tibetan people are not afforded the same freedoms and autonomy as the Cherokee Nation. This notes the important point that being identified as part of a nation does not guarantee political rights or freedoms.

There is another important combination to mention here; when both a nation and a country coincide, this is called a nation-state. While there is not full scholarly agreement, loosely the defining threshold is approximately 95% of the population is of the same ethnicity. Japan and Iceland would be examples of nation-state countries familiar to Western readers while the Jewish population within Israel (75%) does not rise to this threshold. While there are not explicit legal implications or rights for being a nation-state, it is conceptually useful in understanding a country, its people and its interaction with its neighbors.

Applying these understandings of countries and nations, conflicts seems likely to occur where political lines (countries) unnaturally split ethnic groups such that rival groups can exert unchecked political control or power and dominate another ethnic group. In my mind this helps explains the conflicts citizens of western nations commonly misunderstand, for example Bosnia-Herzegovina (fighting between ethnic Albanians and Serbians) and conflicts in the Middle East. At a glance it appears that ethnic allegiance (nationalism) seems to trump political allegiance to a country when the two are in conflict.

Below are some excellent maps from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project which show the ethnic composition of the Middle East:

(note: the large map, which permits zooming, will not always load from the project’s host for reasons unknown)

While educating, the maps do not seem to fully explain the explosive tensions in the region. Some of the countries are relatively homogeneous, for example much of the Arabic peninsula including Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen. Others are more ethnically diverse such as Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey. Visually seeing Iraq and Syria ethnic minorities split by political boundaries from larger populations in Turkey helps me understand the tensions. A single ethnic people being treated differently across the political boundaries, especially if treated harshly by the ethnic majority in a country, would very reasonably draw strong emotional reactions. This helps me but does not fully satisfy why there is such intense, consistent fighting within this part of the world.

So I look to religion, of which Islam is the dominate religious in this geography. In the Middle East governments generally intertwine religion and politics. A secular government is non-religious while a non-secular government is religious based. The later may have laws or its governing hierarchy directly pulled from religious texts. For those familiar with the rule of law common in many secular governments (e.g. the United States) a government who’s leader claims to be the Almighty’s representation on earth and having absolute authority may feel uncomfortable with this. Further it becomes more complicated when within that one country you have two or conflicting religions and the rights of the minority may or may not be protected. Islam, like Christianity, has several branches, with the main ones being Sunni Islam (~85%) and Shia Islam (~15%). While the point of this piece is not to elicit the finer differences or place judgement, sufficient to say there are meaningful theological and spiritual differences between the two.

The following excellent maps, again from Dr. Izady and the Gulf/2000 project, show the religious composition of the Middle East:

The dark green areas denote Shia concentrations while the lighter green areas denote Sunni concentrations.

This startles me. Iran is a non-secular (religious) government based in Shia Islam while most of its non-secular neighbors are followers of Sunni Islam. To what extent the violence we see today is directly attributable to these differences, I do not know. However when the ethnic and religious maps are overlaid, it clearly shows friction points in the middle east today: northern Iraq, Yeman, northern Syria, Afghanistan.

Where this torques my perspective is my context and experience is that the various branches of Christianity, in modern times, do not engage in brutal sectarian violence. Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians and Protestants—if members of each can explain the differences between—do not seem to engage in violence due to these differences. I do not see Catholics murdering Episcopalians because the later permits female priests and priests with non-heterosexual sexual preferences to openly hold those beliefs.**

It is possible that politically motivated actions are cloaked in religious trappings. Possibly it is the actions of a very small number of extremists that, due to the foreignness and propensity of humans to overly generalize things not well understood, is inaccurately extrapolated to the entire religion or area. This intent of this article is to articulate some of the conceptual drivers to start the conversation on these themes

  • Countries, Nations, and Nation-states
  • Ethnic diversity and concentrations
  • Religious diversity and concentrations
  • The impact of secular and non-secular governments

and how these interact.


**Note: I acknowledge this does dismiss the Catholic Church endorsed military campaigns, the Crusades, during the Middle Ages; however, this piece aims to focus on the current day tensions and conflicts within the Middle East.

Hacking the Automobile Is No Longer Science Fiction

July 22, 2015

Authors Note:  After consideration and feedback,  I have pulled this post.  While I believe it offered compelling introspection, I also do not believe it was in the spirit of these articles.  While I broke the issue into component parts, it was more of an opinionated commentary than a starting point for conversation.



Confederate Flags: Separating Symbols from the Conflicting Underlying Values and Beliefs and How We Resolve Them.

July 14, 2015

How do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our

closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

There has been much heated conversation recently on the appropriateness of Confederate symbols, their role and place in society today. Notably, I was surprised by the political actions of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to remove any state flag from the Capital Grounds that incorporated the Confederate Battle Flag. While politically advantageous for her, it is a federal overreach into States self-determining their own flag. This is different than the issue in South Caroline where the Confederate Army Battle Flag was flow separately from the South Carolina State Flag and was appropriately retired last Friday. (As an aside, it is not without precedence that non-US elements be incorporated into state flags; the Hawaiian state flag includes the British Union Jack showing the bond between the Native Hawaiians and the British government)

Unfortunately, by focusing on the symbol, we are overlooking a critical part of the discussion. Removing the symbol does not resolve the underlying tensions and conflict represented. Strongly held opinions and beliefs do not suddenly evaporate. There will still be Southerners that refer to the “War of Northern Aggression.” There are still racial tensions that exist through perceived and actual inequalities on both sides. That is the hard underlying issue that removing a flag does not settle. Perhaps now was a politically expedient time to achieve a long-time goal of some groups to do so—but that is not the item to explore here. Would the removal of the flag from the grounds of a state capital have suppressed online discussions groups where like-minded people discuss pro-confederacy beliefs and heritage. No. Further, suppressing the right to free speech and association would have only caused the discussions to occur in another way and violated free speech protections. It is unlikely that removing the flag would have averted the tragic shooting in South Carolina.

Placing this is sharp relief, it was not uncommon during the 1970s and 1980s for citizens to publicly burn US flags to express displeasure with government actions, policies or positions. The act of burning the flag, essentially removing a copy of it from existence, did not cause the source of conflict to go away. The tension of opposing views did not disappear: Vietnam, Middle Eastern conflicts, social issues, etc. The values the flag directly represents–and via association as a symbol of America the county’s values–did not disappear. Pushed further, the British 1814 sacking of Washington DC and burning of the United States flag reinforced American resolution and willingness to fight for the values the flag represented. The removal of the flag did not remove the deeply ingrained beliefs articulated in the Declaration of Independence.

The American Civil War showed ideological divisions between races, states and people within the United States. There are painful awkward moments in our individual and collective history. While not in any means attempting to compare them, ignoring them does not heal or resolve them. They still exist and shaped us as individuals and as a country. Further complicating an emotionally charged topic, symbols can take on ideologies that may not have been intended upon their inception as later causes borrow or otherwise revise the original belief.

Undoubtedly there will be discussions about the role family values did or did not have in the upbringing of the young man who murdered participants in a bible study. I believe that gets closer to the issue but is not the issue. It is not that any particular set of values, family or otherwise, are right or wrong. The crux is: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

We see this friction in another way today: American politicians and their mandates from increasingly homogenous constituencies politicians themselves created when favorably redrawing voting districts. Divisive monologues, not real conversation, ensue that fails to resolve the questions at hand but serves to further articulation of one’s beliefs. We see this on many topics: abortion, federal tax philosophies, foreign policy, social programs including health insurance subsidies. These are manifestations of the underlying beliefs and values of the participants.

These fights degrade into political procedural maneuvering, withholding funding for approved programs, grandstanding in public forums, and other political manipulations. Essentially it is a fight for one ideology to impose its will over another and achieve power and control. In American politics, the victory is to codify it in law and then protect it by influencing the judicial process through the selection of favorable nominees.

Again, this is not limited to just the United States. We see this same primal fight to impose one’s will and beliefs on another in other contexts internationally. In the conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, with ISIS and ISIL we see the same actions clad in religious values. We see the same murders in houses of worship over differences in these beliefs manifested as shootings and bombings at mosques during religious services. There are the civil conflicts in Egypt and Syria, the Greek debt negotiations. It returns back to the same question: how do we individually and collectively resolve situations where our closely-held, cherished beliefs and values differ and conflict with others’?

Maybe the first question is how does this resolve at the lowest common denominator in our lives with our spouses, children, friends, co-workers? Do we force our will on others? In what areas or topics? Do we open ourselves to listen to the other perspectives secure in the knowledge that the act of listening does not mean we abandon our own perspectives? Do you give a positive example for others to follow?

Foreign Affairs: Abuses of the Public Trust

March 11, 2015

Now before the Republicans begin to throw stones and claim impropriety trying to score points against a potential 2016 candidates over email accounts and record retention, a pause may be in order. The latest attempts to circumvent the US Constitution, knowingly invite foreign dignitaries to speak to Congress and intentionally circumventing the President of the United States are equally appalling, irresponsible and show reckless disregard.

Article Two of the US Constitution is very clear on this matter in Clause One:

“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”

and Clause Four:

“The President receives all foreign Ambassadors”

It is not the responsibility of the legislative body, whose powers as the country’s law making body is clearly defined in Article One, to execute or conduct the affairs of the country. Nowhere in Article One Section Eight of the US Constitution (Powers of Congress) is the Legislative Branch responsible for executing foreign affairs. It is an improper stretch to claim that by ratifying treaties executed and negotiated by the Executive Branch, Legislators have the right to insert themselves in foreign affairs and negotiations.

Further writing open letters–as political and business figures commonly do to national periodicals–is another inappropriate and unacceptable meddling into the execution of foreign affairs. Quibbling over legality and whether or not the inclusions or exclusion of their official titles is appropriate or causes undue influence, it is without question against the spirit of the Constitution and an abuse of the people’s trust.

For the political party that promised to bring leadership to Washington DC, it is definitely neither Ethical Leadership nor unquestionably, ethically above board.

By directly circumventing the President, or his designee within the Executive Branch, is grossly overstepping its authority. More grievously, this is occurring during rampant dysfunction within and between both chambers of Congress which is stymied and resorts to procedural slight-of-hand to make halting progress. Rudimentary legislation that funds and provides the appointments and framework for the Executive Branch to then manage the country’s day-to-day affairs languishes.

Congress may be better focused on actually processing, negotiating the finalizing the legislation before it, the business it is responsible for, prior to inappropriately interjecting itself into other areas of related concern but where no responsibility is had.

What is concerning is the theatrics being offered by the US Congress may well compete with Greece’s own domestic and international drama in some horrible Saturday Night Live spoof of the Academy Awards. The embarrassing climax is I am unsure which would win.

There is a good op-ed piece by Elizabeth Cobb Hoffman (no relation) that delves further into the constitutional aspects

The Appropriateness of Participation

June 10, 2014

The Appropriateness of Participation

April 2012

There is a fascination among Americans today that they want to participate, or feel like they are involved.  This desire seems to be without consideration of (1) what it signifies and (2) its appropriateness.

I recently flew from Honolulu to Atlanta on business.  After landing a solemn flight attendant announced in a trembling voice that today’s flight was special.  The cargo hold contained the remains of a Marine Corp Corporal.  He was recently killed in combat in Afghanistan and was being transferred home for burial.  The deceased’s wife and her mother were accompanying his body.  The passengers were asked to remain seated and permit them to disembark first, continuing their journey unimpeded.  This respectful gesture seemed a small something I could offer to a suffering family for their loss in safeguarding my freedoms.

After the aircraft completed taxiing and opened its doors, a junior enlisted Airman rose from her seat.  Clad in her formal Class A Dress Blues, she hurried forward with her mother.  She looked in her mid-20s, tired, sad, almost haggard.  Beneath red eyes her face seemed set to accomplish the heart-wrenching task before her: burying her husband.  After several rows, scattered and then a full applause filled the aircraft.  Service members, especially junior enlisted members, generally receive the “thank you for your service” from civilians awkwardly; to them, this is just a job.  She seemed very uncomfortable with the attention and sped, just short of a run, off the aircraft.

I looked around bewildered.  The applause seemed congruent with welcoming troops home from combat, eager to see family and familiar comforts; its presence clashed horribly with reality: this was a funeral procession.  Her presence under these circumstances implied pain, loss, and a solemn task best left for late in life.  The applause seemed as inappropriate as a standing ovation while a widow approached her husband’s casket at church.

I ask, why did the passengers applaud, a term that by its very definition means approval or praise1?  Was this because of the awkwardness they felt just sitting there?  Perhaps it was what he or she felt was the right thing to do?  If we offer the parents of a screaming child moments of quiet dignity on a flight, can we offer it to a grieving spouse?  Perhaps the question best question to ask is: what does the widow want in her moments of grief?  If in doubt, perhaps the best thing to do is nothing.

1. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

What’s in a Name: Non-Profit or Not-for-Profit Organizations?

February 1, 2014

For some time I have wanted to clarify: what is a Non-Profit organization?  Without fail during the year organizations and alma maters send me requests for donations pleading for funds in essence to colloquially “make ends meet” or otherwise raise funds.  They often cite difficult economic times and a need to promote their vision and contribute to society.  There are not insignificant differences between the various social groups, fraternal orders,  religious institutions, charities, politically orientated groups, social welfare organizations, and others that are lumped together as “non-profit” organizations.  (Not to mention those that are hybrids that sometimes aggressively, illegally,  or unethically blur the lines).  Yet is that the best way to describe them?  I believe not.

It is common to hear someone refer to an organization that engages in social causes as a non-profit organization (also a non-profit corporation).  What is imprecisely called a non-profit organization is more accurately called a not-for-profit organization. This recognizes two very important facts:

  1. An organization that does not generate a profit–essentially taking in more funds than expended–will not survive.
  1. This correctly identifies that the primary organizational mission is strikingly different from a commercial entity whose primary purpose is the generation of wealth for its owners.

The belief that a not-for-profit organization is “not making a profit” is strikingly misleading.  An organization must receive more funds than it expends or it becomes financially insolvent.  The key point I believe is: How sustainable is the organization’s funding strategy?

In the corporate world this has long been referred to as a “sustainable business model.”  Annually requesting donations and contributions because an organization cannot meet expenditures may indicate an organization is living-beyond-its-means.  If once could not responsibly run their personal finances in this manner, why would an organization?

The uncomfortable, question that makes some squirm is: Should not-for-profit organizations make a profit? Making a profit or pursuing wealth is not inherently evil.  For some the word profit is associated with nameless cold corporations with mirrored-windowed high-rise office buildings and not a warm fuzzy good-for-humanity organization staffed primarily with volunteers provided by social groups.  What is interesting and important to ask is: where does that profit go?

The US Government, through the Internal Revenue Service, has deemed that organizations committed to purposes of common good are exempt from federal income tax as stated in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.  These purposes per the IRS include:

“charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals.  The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency. (1)

In essence, the US Government permits these organizations to uses monies for their cause that would otherwise be sent to the US Treasury as taxes.  These are called tax-exempt organizations.  These organizations are legally compelled, beyond reasonable reserves or saving accounts, to spend any profits within three years of earning them on their primary purpose.

All of these organizations, with the exception of religious institutions, are required to file IRS form 990 each year.  This document is the organization’s equilivient to an individual’s annual form 1040.  These annual returns are public documents and provide insight into the organization’s revenue and expenses.  This permits an important degree of transparency to the citizenry to examine if an organization truly is focused on purposes of common good.

Further the US Government encourages individuals to contribute to an organization of their choice by not taxing monies donated.  This signals that an individual can, at times, better decide than the government what specific programs or organizations should receive funding.  It encourages private organization to fulfill a social need without the intervention of a federal or state government.  This is a blending of democracy and with the capitalistic (or Darwinian) virtues of free market economic theory:  only the organizations that fill the societal needs deemed most important by those that contribute will survive.

(Or they just have the better marketing departments; that is a different story.)


1.  Internal Revenue Service, “Exempt Purposes – Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3)” Retrieved March 4, 2013,

IEDs and Suicide Bombers on American Soil: Perspectives on The Boston Marathon Bombing

May 14, 2013

The Boston Marathon on Bombing on April 15, 2013, created an uncomfortable reflection for Americans as one of her citizens and a legal resident detonated a bomb at a public event.  This is not the abstract bombing in a Middle Eastern country but something disharmonious with American life.  While some compare this to the hijacking and subsequent crashing of four airplanes on September 11, 2001, I believe there is a meaningful difference, an awaking of an awareness that Americans are not familiar with.

The mainstream press has focused on the meaning of the day—Patriot’s Day—and other events that have occurred in proximity: the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas; the shootings at Columbine High School, the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  While this may be coincidental or intentional it neglects the underlying lingering feeling:

law enforcement is not widely prepared to handle

suicide bombers or improvised explosive devices detonated

in public places on non-military targets

There is training for hostage situations, yet bombing civilian targets on American soil–either planned, executed or unfolding— is the stuff of movies to most civilians.  The concept is foreign, removed from daily life and something not well understood.  It happens in countries whose general population struggles with the basic levels of Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs.  Images of sandy curbless streets with a mule and cart come automatically to many American minds.  This is a distant cry from manicured wealthy Bostonian suburbs, MIT’s campus and Harvard Square.

Not since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta has an improved explosive device (IED) been successful detonated at a large public U.S. venue.  What I see is the beginnings of an American understanding of the uncertainty and insecurity that are routinely felt in some other countries.  In Iraq and Afghanistan this type of violence is commonplace.  The same American media outlets that offered unrelenting coverage in Boston also seemingly announce daily another foreign car bombing, suicide bomber or shooting of law enforcement or military personnel.  The stories detail the civilian casualties and wounded then fade into the background for many Americans as they lack any relation to their daily lives.

Perhaps it takes place in the disputed territories between Israelis and the Palestinians.  Maybe it is a violent interpretation of one’s religion.  The slippery word martyr may be applied.  These attacks may be ideologically part of an organization desiring political change.  It could be grounded in sectarian warfare, as with the Sunnis and Shiites.  Maybe it is a single individual or a small group.  These individuals may be self-motivated or directed into their actions through coercion or manipulative teachings

Ultimately, the perpetrators of violence—and their motives, the targets, the means, the rationale and the desired aim—are not fully congruent or cognizant within traditional Western logical frameworks.  Essentially it is guerrilla style tactics generally focused on non-military targets.  This non-traditional form of protest or furthering of one’s aim is executed with varying levels of sophistication: from amateurish to chillingly calculated.  Since they do not adhere to the international and (generally) recognized rules of war, the ordinary western citizen struggles to reconcile how this can happen within his country.

This brings uncertainty to the basic need of physical security and safety for any human.  This is particularly unsettling to Americans where this is generally thought of as a Third World concern or in a country engulfed in civil war.  (The United Kingdom is a glaring exception to this as numerous bombings since the 1970s are claimed by Irish individuals or groups and target civilians).  These fears include:

  • How can I protect myself against an unknown threat?
  • It may happen to me?

This is not a new or unknown problem.  Ultimately there is not a perfect way to prevent all types of violence.  There was an interesting social commentary in the movie Minority Report—both the attempt to create a society without violence and the manipulation of such a society to selfish ends.  This juxtaposes with the shootings in schools and public places in the last year further flaming the perennial gun control debate.  Yet the bombing in Boston seems more raw.  (Click for a recent gun control perspective)

This dilemma invariably leads to difficult conversations about at what cost is security desired within the society.  Just like the citizen trying to understand why this is happening, there is not a neat, simple answer to this very amorphous problem:

  • What is considered reasonable safety?
  • To what degree are individuals responsible for their own safety?
  • What is the responsibility of the government?

In the end, in an open society there cannot be an expectation of perfect security.  Garrison Keeler, on A Prairie Home Companion, offered a folksy Dr. Seuss Butter-Battle-Book-esque commentary that ended with elderly grandmas owning assault rifles.  Constant escalation based out of fear is not the answer.  Conversely neither is irrational elimination of firearms out of similarly rooted fear.

The words of Franklin d. Roosevelt are well heeded now:  “The only things we have to fear is fear itself.”  As we soul search and consider these questions our fear should not govern decisions redefining our freedoms.

A Time for the Somber

May 1, 2013

I wrote the thoughts below in the days after Osama bin Ladin was killed by US Special Forces.  My original thought was to publish it soon after the emotional noise passed.  I have since grow concerned about the level of publicity being focused on the inner workings of covert US military units, especially the US Navy Seals.  Clandestine special units work best when they are just that; however, this does not exclude the absolute necessity of civilian oversight.  I am disappointed by the recent spate of books and movies that add a romanticized Hollywood spin to the harsh truths of that profession’s actions.   The opening moments of Spielburg’s epic movie Saving Private Ryan, offered an unvarnished look at combat’s brutality to both the Greatest Generation–who fought–and those that have followed.  We seem to be losing the humbleness that generation has shown us in the pursuit of profit.  “Nobody wants to fight, but someone better know how,” is a quote from long ago.  When we must, it should be short, focused and decisive.  These are my thoughts as the second anniversary of his death approaches.


May 3, 2011

I watch the news with a mixture of confusion.  There are celebrations by the uninvolved, criticism from usual corners and passing praise from political enemies, the bravado of those not involved garnering recognition.  I read the words used to describe the killing of Osama bin Ladin.  I hear the fashionable contemporary phrases of “9-1-1” to reference the horrific events in fall 2001 that forever altered my generation.  I watch government officials, describing with astonishing forthrightness, operational details and capabilities in apparent efforts to show transparency.

The unvarnished story is not glamorous.  The US deployed a venerated clandestine team to accomplish a difficult task within a defined set of parameters across international borders.  This mission included the capture or killing of a specific individual.  He was shot, his body removed and buried.

Elaborations to fill airtime and hyperlinked articles will embellish this thread.  These will be furthered by news agencies striving to stay current and be relevant in today’s society.  A new phrase or two will be grasped upon by audiences who crave details with the instantaneous sense of understanding provided by social media.

Are we collectively seeking the meaningful details?

I appreciate the thoughtfulness with which his body, a man violently ideologically opposed to the US, was cared for.  “A society can be measured by how it treats its dead,” it was once said.  If the United States wishes to lead by American values, the respectfulness and sensitivity shown to honor the Islamic traditions is noteworthy.  Irreconcilable debates will ensue over its exactness by an unsatisfiable few.  I wonder what the moderate majority sees?

It is not what we do when it is easy, but rather when hurt and in a position of strength, that shows our true mettle. Practicing these values when convenient to “win hearts and minds” is shallow, hollow.  If American values are cherished, are they ingrained in our actions, our intentions, as a whole?

In a world of violent games, graphic movies, and instant connectivity, what has the gravity of this action imparted to us?  Were our actions consistent with our stated aims and our values?

I believe yes.

When is “Pre-Emptive Strike” Terrorism?

March 26, 2013

Two weeks ago, North Korea declared its right to conduct a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.  What surprises me is that it took 11 years after President George W. Bush forwarded the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive strike—we will hit you before you can hit us—for this ideological basis to be so publicly echoed back at the United States.  Further, by failing to explicitly bind this policy to specific means of military force, it is not unreasonable for the policy’s potential targets to adopt a similar stance using any means available to them.

This oversight threatens established international norms.  While the United States may not use nuclear weapons in a tactical pre-emptive manner, this was not explicitly clarified or excluded.  Further clarification on what force may be used in this manner could help diffuse rhetoric, real threats and reckless use of force by nations, rogue individuals and organizations intent on forwarding a specific message.

A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the DRPK’s official KCNA news agency on Thursday March 7, 2013:

“Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.” [emphasis added] 1

This is an amplified echo from President George W. Bush’s June 1, 2002 Graduation Speech at West Point.  Here he introduced the policy of pre-emptive strike thus reversing the prevailing United States Cold War era military policy of deterrence:

“Our security will require the best intelligence, to reveal threats hidden in caves and growing in laboratories. Our security will require modernizing domestic agencies such as the FBI, so they’re prepared to act, and act quickly, against danger. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives. [emphasis added]2

The media firestorm that erupted continued for much of his presidency.  It focused on the administration’s cowboy-esque culture that lacked the patient international consensus building of past administrations.  Yet the press failed to adequately review the fundamental implications of this strategic shift.  It was further codified as policy in September 2002 with the President’s congressionally mandated annual report: “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

“The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.

The United States will not use force in all cases to preempt emerging threats, nor should nations use preemption as a pretext for aggression. [emphasis added] 3

By forwarding a strategy of pre-emptive strike without caveating what force this doctrine applies too, the President opened Pandora’s Box.  Notwithstanding the technical capability (or inability) of North Korea to execute its threat, it had an ideological basis upon which to establish it.  The poorly focused policy of the United States gives justification for the use of this doctrine by countries and organizations as well.

This has an immediate bearing as civil unrest and civil war rages across north Africa and the Middle East.  Similar fears gripped the world with the fall of the USSR and its loss of positive control of some weapons in the former Soviet republics.  How far are organizations willing to go to forward their own agendas?  This is particularly acute in the developing world which sometimes chafes at accepting international norms and laws it did not create.  There are questions as to who now possesses previously government-held weapons.  What are their ideological drives and do they differ from historic international norms?

  • Are they willing to utilize conventional or non- conventional weapons in a pre-emptive fashion?
  • When the enemy is non-secular in nature, are other religions “fair” targets?
  • Do civilians constitute legitimate targets?
  • Is this exacerbated in countries with non-secular governments?

This asymmetrical warfare could take form as a dirty bomb or a biological attack, both aimed at high-profile sporting events, as eerily depicted by Tom Clancy.  But is also underscores other less sophisticated and foiled attacks: igniting an SUV filled with propane tanks and gasoline containers in New York City.  Then there are the successful attacks: the bombings of the London public transit system in 2005; the biological attack in 1995 when sarin gas was released on the Tokyo subway.

We see further expansion of the justification of pre-emptive strikes today with Israel.  Fearing a specific existential threat from Iran, whose stated intention is to remove Israel from the world’s map, Israel has issued a pre-emptive ultimatum to Iran.  It has announced an intended pre-emptive strike should Iran not cease nuclear weapon development work.  The lines between pre-emptive strike, terrorism, and war seems to be graying.  The conventional agreements on use of force do not seem to be abided by.

Pre-emptive strike seems more settled in the prevue of specialized covert actions than with overt force.  Indeed in recent years covert military forces involved in low-intensity surgical conflicts have increasingly received unwanted publicity in international media, especially in the Middle East.  Yet why drag this shadowy world, which once had stricter norms of behavior to specifically avoid mutual nuclear destruction, into the public spotlight?  Every tool has its place and use.

The expansion of pre-emptive strike outside of this covert world seems wrought with perils and little gain.  Further it seems counter to effective diplomatic policy.  With just a bit of policy specificity by the United States, it seems there would be stronger diplomatic ground upon which to contain the overt use of military force and nuclear weapons.  By clarifying what forms of force or vectors under which a pre-emptive doctrine may be utilized, this establishes a defined framework that still accomplishes similar ends and clearly articulates justifiable force.  Otherwise, it becomes a slippery slope as one man’s pre-emptive strike is another man’s terrorism in this electronic age.



1. Jack Kim and Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, “North Korea threatens nuclear strike, U.N. expands sanctions”, March 7, 2013, Retrieved from:

2. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary,  “President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point” Full text Press Release, Retrieved from:

3. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2002 , Sept 2002, Page 12, Retrieved from: