Commentary Magazine


Topic: Boston Marathon bombing

Truth and Consequences in Sochi

The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

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The news this afternoon that the Justice Department will seek the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving accused Boston Marathon bomber, comes at a time of increased attention to the terror threat from the Russian Caucasus, the breakaway region from which the Tsarnaevs fled to America. And for the Russian government it’s an ill-timed reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of trust in American-Russian security cooperation.

That’s because the Winter Olympics are set to begin in the Russian city of Sochi next week, and security concerns have only grown since dual suicide bombings in Volgograd in December. The U.S. Olympic Committee and State Department have warned American athletes not to wear their identifying gear outside the Olympic compound, and the threat of violence has put something of a cloud over the athletes’ families traveling to Sochi for the games. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week:

The United States will send the largest delegation of athletes from any single country in the history of the Winter Olympics to Sochi, a team 230 strong that includes 13 gold medal winners .

And to one degree or another, the 105 women and 125 men will carry with them concern for their personal safety and that of loved ones who will make the round-the-globe trek to cheer them on.

“Obviously I keep up with the news. I’m very aware of the security threats,” said two-time U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner, 22, of Alexandria, whose parents also will travel to Sochi for her Olympic debut. “At the same time, I have to tell myself that the USOC and the Russian Olympic Committee are doing everything they can. We want this Olympics to go smoothly; I know they absolutely want this Olympics to go smoothly.

“Really, what can you do other than believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?”

But reassuring the athletes and their families is not so simple. As Wagner suggests, trust has much to do with it. That is the upshot of today’s ABC News dispatch from Sochi. The article may assuage some of the concerns of the athletes and spectators, but it can’t possibly make the Russian government–or the American government, for that matter–very happy.

The article details the ways in which Russia has dotted the landscape with invisible security–or almost invisible, that is. ABC News’s correspondent began spotting some of the camouflaged army tents along the highway in and out of Sochi. “Once you spot one,” the correspondent noted triumphantly, “the others are easier to find.” The Russians quite justifiably told ABC to knock it off:

Missile batteries poke out from behind camouflage nets in the hills above the Olympic Park. Soldiers stand guard inside tents masked with fake leaves and branches in the mountains. Navy speedboats patrol the coast. Plainclothes police officers mingle among the crowd. Closed circuit security cameras are everywhere. An electronic surveillance program monitors all cell phone and internet activity.

Russian security officials have promised a “ring of steel” to safeguard the Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of extra troops and police to help secure the Olympics. Judging by the number of times ABC News was asked to stop filming or asked to show identification, it is clear that Russian authorities are taking security very seriously.

As the story goes on to note, Russia is trying to strike a balance familiar to any country struggling with increased threats of domestic terrorism. They want the attendees to know the security is there without seeing them. People expect checkpoints around the main arteries in and out of the city, but they don’t want to constantly be reminded they’re in danger or feel like they’re competing in a police state.

But Russian security policy toward the Caucasus hasn’t exactly earned blind faith. Whereas the complaint often heard in the West is about “threat inflation” to justify intensive security measures (such as the controversial NSA programs), in Russia the opposite is the case. Ever since Vladimir Putin prosecuted the Second Chechen War, he has tried to build his public image on the idea that he pacified the troubled region. That means he understates the threat, and looks unprepared or disingenuous when trouble strikes.

It’s also why American and Russian military officials have been in talks about sharing American security technology for the games. U.S. officials don’t need any more reminders that authoritarian governments that rely extensively on propaganda and punishing dissent can’t be simply taken at their word.

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Why the ‘Rolling Stone’ Cover Has Angered People

Some journalists are complaining about the firestorm over the Rolling Stone cover story on Dzohkar Tsarnaev. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted as follows: “The outcry over the Rolling Stone cover is unwarranted. It’s a straightforward photo, with a cover line that calls Tsarnaev a monster.” Others have pointed out that the dreamy image of Tsarnaev appeared on the front page of the New York Times as well and thus the outrage aimed at Rolling Stone is unjust.

If this had been the first cover of Rolling Stone magazine, that might be right. But it’s not. Rolling Stone has a 40-year history of magazine covers and it practically invented the rock-star glamor shot in the 1970s. It is therefore meaningful, as a kind of visual grammar, that the cover is reminiscent of 1970s images of Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, among others; the silhouetted soft-focus image of a soulful boy-man is a Rolling Stone tradition. As for the fact that the photograph has appeared elsewhere, that is meaningless: A glossy magazine’s cover is not a newspaper’s front page. Covers of entertainment glossies are explicitly designed to be iconographic—to glamorize and romanticize and even mythologize their subjects. They are designed to sell single copies on newsstands, and you don’t sell single copies on newsstands with ugly pictures. Such covers are designed to allure, to draw in. That is second nature to Rolling Stone as a commercial enterprise, which is surely why it never occurred to its editors just how upsetting their cover choice would be.

Some journalists are complaining about the firestorm over the Rolling Stone cover story on Dzohkar Tsarnaev. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted as follows: “The outcry over the Rolling Stone cover is unwarranted. It’s a straightforward photo, with a cover line that calls Tsarnaev a monster.” Others have pointed out that the dreamy image of Tsarnaev appeared on the front page of the New York Times as well and thus the outrage aimed at Rolling Stone is unjust.

If this had been the first cover of Rolling Stone magazine, that might be right. But it’s not. Rolling Stone has a 40-year history of magazine covers and it practically invented the rock-star glamor shot in the 1970s. It is therefore meaningful, as a kind of visual grammar, that the cover is reminiscent of 1970s images of Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, among others; the silhouetted soft-focus image of a soulful boy-man is a Rolling Stone tradition. As for the fact that the photograph has appeared elsewhere, that is meaningless: A glossy magazine’s cover is not a newspaper’s front page. Covers of entertainment glossies are explicitly designed to be iconographic—to glamorize and romanticize and even mythologize their subjects. They are designed to sell single copies on newsstands, and you don’t sell single copies on newsstands with ugly pictures. Such covers are designed to allure, to draw in. That is second nature to Rolling Stone as a commercial enterprise, which is surely why it never occurred to its editors just how upsetting their cover choice would be.

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Rolling Stone’s New Heartthrob

With the latest issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine’s editors have achieved exactly what they set out to: they have generated an incredible amount of buzz. The cover image, a “Tiger Beat” rendering of a photo of the youngest Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, resembles images that Rolling Stone has used in the past for male rock stars like The Doors’ Jim Morrison. “Sultry eyes burn into the camera lens from behind tousled curls,” is how the Associated Press describes the headshot.

Hosts of every major talk show and countless blogs have spent a considerable amount of time discussing their cover story, with the image splashed across millions of screens nationwide. Anyone with experience in PR knows that it’s easier to create buzz with controversy than with thoughtful, measured pieces–a fact of which Rolling Stone is clearly well aware.

Several chains, including Walgreens and CVS, have decided not to carry this month’s issue of Rolling Stone based solely on its cover image, though the accompanying story is as sympathetic as one might expect. Here are some of the ways Rolling Stone describes the terrorist:

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With the latest issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine’s editors have achieved exactly what they set out to: they have generated an incredible amount of buzz. The cover image, a “Tiger Beat” rendering of a photo of the youngest Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, resembles images that Rolling Stone has used in the past for male rock stars like The Doors’ Jim Morrison. “Sultry eyes burn into the camera lens from behind tousled curls,” is how the Associated Press describes the headshot.

Hosts of every major talk show and countless blogs have spent a considerable amount of time discussing their cover story, with the image splashed across millions of screens nationwide. Anyone with experience in PR knows that it’s easier to create buzz with controversy than with thoughtful, measured pieces–a fact of which Rolling Stone is clearly well aware.

Several chains, including Walgreens and CVS, have decided not to carry this month’s issue of Rolling Stone based solely on its cover image, though the accompanying story is as sympathetic as one might expect. Here are some of the ways Rolling Stone describes the terrorist:

People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that “made him that dude you could always just vibe with,” one friend says.

Jahar, on the other hand, was the baby, his mother’s “dwog,” or “heart.” “He looked like an angel,” says Anna, and was called “Jo-Jo” or “Ho.”

“He was just, like, this nice, calm, compliant, pillow-soft kid. My mom would always say, ‘Why can’t you talk to me the way Dzhokhar talks to his mother?'”

Jahar, or “Jizz,” as his friends also called him, wore grungy Pumas, had a great three-point shot… A diligent student, he was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team. “He was one of those kids who’s just a natural,” says Payack, his coach, who recalls Jahar as a supportive teammate who endured grueling workouts and runs without a single complaint. In his junior year, the team made him a captain.

You get the idea. Those descriptions come from just the first two of the five pages dedicated to the individual that planted backpacks packed with pressure cookers filled with shrapnel designed to kill and maim as many innocent bystanders as possible at a sporting event. 

While many have accused the stores of censorship, a local Boston-area chain explained why they wouldn’t be giving Rolling Stone shelf space this month either: “Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix!”

We’ve seen similar extreme tactics from magazines that were in their death throes in the past, Newsweek being the most recent example. While it’s not clear why Rolling Stone has stooped to this level, if indeed their bottom line demands it, the cover and the attached story are clearly an attempt to generate publicity, not well balanced or rational conversation on what led Tsarnaev to commit mass murder. In the end this sensationalism in the place of journalism was what helped ensure the demise of Newsweek‘s print edition.

If Rolling Stone were interested in “serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day” (as their statement on the cover story claims), less ink would be devoted to the family’s financial and emotional adjustment problems in the United States. Scant mention is made of the radical mosque that Tsarnaev attended that had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists. Rolling Stone makes little effort to inform its readers on the roots of the terrorism that led to carnage in Boston or memorialize those lost.

Jeff Bauman, a young man who lost both legs in the blast and whose image became iconically linked to the attack, has been fitted with prosthetic legs and has made extraordinary progress in learning to walk again. Bauman, or any number of other victims, deserves the recognition that a Rolling Stone cover would offer before the man who placed a bomb next to him, a now deceased 8-year old boy, or his maimed sister. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino rightly stated today in a letter to the publisher of Rolling Stone, “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel Rolling Stone deserves them.”

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GOP Congressmen’s Moscow Disgrace

When a terrorist attack is successfully carried out against American targets, belief that it could have been prevented provides its own odd sort of closure. If its success was owed to the lack of certain security measures, those tactics can presumably–at least in many cases, and within the bounds of law–be enacted. And if negligence is to blame, that makes prevention seem even simpler: pay better attention next time, and know what to look for.

But the desire to place blame for a security lapse can also lead political leaders astray, especially those who want to be seen by their constituents at home to be part of the solution. And that is the most generous explanation for the behavior of Republican Congressmen Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher in Russia this week to investigate the North Caucasus connection to the Boston Marathon bombing. But that explanation is incomplete, for King and Rohrabacher haven’t earned such generosity but instead indicated they possess a cynicism and gullibility unbecoming of their status as representatives of their fellow citizens in Washington and of the American Congress abroad.

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When a terrorist attack is successfully carried out against American targets, belief that it could have been prevented provides its own odd sort of closure. If its success was owed to the lack of certain security measures, those tactics can presumably–at least in many cases, and within the bounds of law–be enacted. And if negligence is to blame, that makes prevention seem even simpler: pay better attention next time, and know what to look for.

But the desire to place blame for a security lapse can also lead political leaders astray, especially those who want to be seen by their constituents at home to be part of the solution. And that is the most generous explanation for the behavior of Republican Congressmen Steve King and Dana Rohrabacher in Russia this week to investigate the North Caucasus connection to the Boston Marathon bombing. But that explanation is incomplete, for King and Rohrabacher haven’t earned such generosity but instead indicated they possess a cynicism and gullibility unbecoming of their status as representatives of their fellow citizens in Washington and of the American Congress abroad.

The Washington Post reports on a press conference with King and Rohrabacher in Moscow, and we can begin with the first indication that we were going to be exposed to some grade-A silliness. There was a third figure at the press conference: action-movie has-been Steven Seagal, who helped arranged the trip in part because of his friendship with Chechnya’s chief thug, Ramzan Kadyrov. The Post sets the scene:

The congressman repeatedly thanked Seagal, who took credit for arranging the congressmen’s meeting at the FSB, and said it helped avoid the experience of past foreign trips when all of the meetings had been arranged by the U.S. Embassy.

“You know what we got? We got the State Department controlling all the information that we heard,” Rohrabacher said. “You think that’s good for democracy? No way!”

So here you have a self-proclaimed advocate of human rights in the U.S. Congress unfavorably comparing a trip organized by the U.S. State Department to a visit with the FSB arranged by an apologist for a brutal autocrat. The State Department has its faults, to be sure, but if it’s the free flow of information you’re interested in, Ramzan Kadyrov is not your first call.

But that, unfortunately, wasn’t the worst of what the leaders of this bipartisan delegation had to say. The Post continues:

But Rohrabacher, who chairs the U.S. Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, said the United States should be more understanding of the threats facing Kadyrov and Putin.

“If you are in the middle of an insurrection with Chechnya, and hundreds of people are being killed and there are terrorist actions taking place and kids are being blown up in schools, yeah, guess what, there are people who overstep the bounds of legality,” he said.

While the rule of law is important, Rohrabacher added, “We shouldn’t be describing people who are under this type of threat, we shouldn’t be describing them as if they are Adolf Hitler or they’re back to the old Communism days.”

Well yes, it’s true that Vladimir Putin is not Adolf Hitler. (Congratulations Volodya!) And perhaps Rohrabacher didn’t quite match Henry Wallace’s famous 1944 description of the Magadan gulag as a “combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” And it’s also true that Islamist terrorists tied to the Caucasus Emirate are conducting an insurgency that doesn’t lack for bloodlust and cruelty. But first of all, it’s obviously bad form for Rohrabacher to make excuses for the other side’s own excesses.

And more importantly, the brutality employed by Putin and Kadyrov in the Caucasus is not a case of random “people who overstep the bounds of legality” in the fog of war. It is a strategy of mass violence employed by the state that goes beyond any semblance of the laws of war. And what about the harassment of aid workers and the murder of journalists? Does the congressman consider Anna Politkovskaya to be collateral damage?

Both Rohrabacher and King also seemed to defend, or at least dismiss, the prison sentences of the female “punk rock” trio jailed for stomping around a Moscow church, with Rohrabacher adding that he wishes his colleagues back home would appreciate that the churches are at least open again–a comment that reveals a startling unawareness of the Putin government’s manipulation of the church and its public image.

As I have said in the past, the Caucasus conflict presents a dilemma for Western observers because both sides’ behavior is out of bounds and there are no clear “good guys” (aside from the human rights workers and journalists who risk their lives to expose the abuses in the region). It is just as wrong to pretend Russia faces no terror threat as it is to paint Putin’s regime as well-meaning defenders of peace and order. If Rohrabacher and King can’t visit Russia without doing so, they should stay home.

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Immigration Reform Proponents Try to Turn the Tide

Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform are looking to end the week with a bit more momentum in their favor than they began the week with. As I wrote on Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation study calling attention to the entitlement costs of immigration reform not only earned strong criticism from trusted Republican budget hawks, but also was unlikely to catch and keep the attention of partisans on both sides. Given the revelation that one of the study’s co-authors once wrote a racially charged thesis paper on the subject, it seems the “gang of eight” dodged that critique.

Additionally, the bipartisan group of senators trying to shepherd the legislation through the Senate may have avoided another common pitfall–one that sunk the 2007 reform legislation. At that time, then-Senator Obama went back on an agreement to oppose any “poison pill” amendments that would kill the bill, regardless of the merits of the amendments themselves. He cast a crucial vote in favor of just such an amendment, sinking the bill. But as the Hill reports, the gang of eight seems to have navigated the Judiciary Committee amendment process and come out intact:

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Proponents of comprehensive immigration reform are looking to end the week with a bit more momentum in their favor than they began the week with. As I wrote on Wednesday, the Heritage Foundation study calling attention to the entitlement costs of immigration reform not only earned strong criticism from trusted Republican budget hawks, but also was unlikely to catch and keep the attention of partisans on both sides. Given the revelation that one of the study’s co-authors once wrote a racially charged thesis paper on the subject, it seems the “gang of eight” dodged that critique.

Additionally, the bipartisan group of senators trying to shepherd the legislation through the Senate may have avoided another common pitfall–one that sunk the 2007 reform legislation. At that time, then-Senator Obama went back on an agreement to oppose any “poison pill” amendments that would kill the bill, regardless of the merits of the amendments themselves. He cast a crucial vote in favor of just such an amendment, sinking the bill. But as the Hill reports, the gang of eight seems to have navigated the Judiciary Committee amendment process and come out intact:

The Senate’s Gang of Eight fended off a slew of poison-pill amendments aimed at the immigration reform bill, building momentum for the legislation that has sparked strong opposition from conservatives.

Members of the gang touted the passage of a group of GOP-sponsored amendments they said had strengthened the bill and would help address the concerns of conservatives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted down GOP-sponsored amendments to delay putting 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and to dramatically increase the number of Border Patrol agents and surveillance vehicles.

The bill’s sponsors also dodged an effort from the left by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to halt Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano from deporting illegal immigrants to unsafe areas.

Whether any of these will constitute something of a pyrrhic victory remains to be seen. As the Hill notes, for example, the group fended off an attempt to make border security requirements even stricter. That is where the reform effort is most vulnerable–a fact that is unlikely to change as the bill progresses.

Additionally, a new Pew Research poll shows both the necessity and complexity of reforming the country’s immigration system, as the public sees it. Three-quarters of respondents said the system needs reform, with 35 percent in support of it being “completely rebuilt.” More Republicans than Democrats registered support for major changes to the immigration system, but both were above 70 percent. Pew asked this question of other policy areas as well: taxes, education, health care, Medicare, Social Security, and homeland security. None matched the public’s enthusiasm for major changes on immigration.

But aside from improving border security, respondents couldn’t agree much on what those major changes should consist of:

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that 73% say there should be a way for illegal immigrants already in the United States who meet certain requirements to stay here. But fewer than half (44%) favor allowing those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship, while 25% think permanent legal status is more appropriate….

When it comes to legal immigration, relatively few (31%) see current levels as satisfactory, but there is no consensus as to whether the level of legal immigration should be decreased (36%) or increased (25%)

The opposition to increased legal immigration is troubling here, but there are two reasons it might not be so harmful to reform efforts. First, on the issue of, in Pew’s wording, “Immigrants currently in the country illegally who meet certain requirements,” 73 percent of respondents said they should have “a way to stay legally”–either a path to full citizenship or at least permanent legal residency, though citizenship was the more popular answer by far. That there is such wide opposition to attempts to deport even those who came here illegally removes what might otherwise have been a significant obstacle to finding a consensus on immigration reform.

Second, the poll comes in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, which raised questions about border security, background checks, and whether the country was less able to integrate and assimilate immigrants than in the past. Though Rand Paul was misguided in questioning whether a Chechen family should be able to immigrate to America, he was no doubt not the only one beset by worry about the ease with which poisonous ideologies can cross borders in a globalized world. But as I wrote at the time, those seeking escape from war-torn, poorly or oppressively governed regions of the world are a fair representation of the American immigrant through history.

The poll also comes as the sluggish economy drags on and high unemployment and underemployment persist, heightening wage and job protectionism in the U.S. That sentiment will probably be as stubborn as the conditions that inspire it. Immigration reform proponents can argue (justifiably) that economic growth will follow immigration, but they will be met with the irony that many Americans want to see economic growth before they’re willing to back more immigration. The gang of eight may have more control over border security than job security, but both promise to be headaches for immigration reformers going forward.

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Holder’s Post-9/11 Backlash Myth

Attorney General Eric Holder left out an important detail from his speech today in which he scolded Americans about not repeating their alleged bias toward Muslims after 9/11. He was on firm ground when he rightly denounced any “misguided acts of retaliation” against Muslims after the Boston Marathon bombing. But in resurrecting the myth that Arabs and Muslims suffered a post-9/11 backlash by an America that was driven to prejudice by terrorism, the top law enforcement official in the nation forgot to tell a gathering of the Anti-Defamation League that attacks against Muslims have been statistically insignificant after 2001 and remain far below the level of reported attacks and incidents involving anti-Semitism.

Ironically, the head of his host organization—which is celebrating its centennial—pointed this out in an interview just this past weekend in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. Foxman effectively debunked Holder in advance when he said the following:

“There are ten times as many acts directed against Jews as there are against Muslims,” Foxman says. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t animosity toward Muslims, but even after Boston, you’re not seeing attacks against mosques, you’re not seeing people demonstrating in the streets. That’s something very unique in this country. It’s almost a miracle. It would never happen in Europe.”

He continues, “When people applauded in Boston that the terrorists were captured, there was no negative [repercussion]. The same thing happened after 9/11 – we were so concerned at the time that we took out an ad in the New York Times: ‘You don’t fight hate with hate.’ But it didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now. And that drives the Islamophobes crazy. It drives them nuts.”

Foxman’s right. It didn’t happen after 9/11 and it’s not happening now, which makes the disapproving tone of Holder’s diatribe somewhat suspicious. As I pointed out in an article in COMMENTARY in 2010 on the impact of the post-9/11 backlash myth on the Ground Zero mosque controversy, though the idea of a wave of discriminatory attacks against Muslims has been mentioned so often in the media that it has become an accepted truth, it isn’t borne out by the record. Every subsequent release of FBI hate crime statistics tells the same story: attacks against Jews far outnumber those against Muslims and Arabs even during the periods when the latter were supposedly under siege.

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Attorney General Eric Holder left out an important detail from his speech today in which he scolded Americans about not repeating their alleged bias toward Muslims after 9/11. He was on firm ground when he rightly denounced any “misguided acts of retaliation” against Muslims after the Boston Marathon bombing. But in resurrecting the myth that Arabs and Muslims suffered a post-9/11 backlash by an America that was driven to prejudice by terrorism, the top law enforcement official in the nation forgot to tell a gathering of the Anti-Defamation League that attacks against Muslims have been statistically insignificant after 2001 and remain far below the level of reported attacks and incidents involving anti-Semitism.

Ironically, the head of his host organization—which is celebrating its centennial—pointed this out in an interview just this past weekend in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. Foxman effectively debunked Holder in advance when he said the following:

“There are ten times as many acts directed against Jews as there are against Muslims,” Foxman says. “That doesn’t mean that there isn’t animosity toward Muslims, but even after Boston, you’re not seeing attacks against mosques, you’re not seeing people demonstrating in the streets. That’s something very unique in this country. It’s almost a miracle. It would never happen in Europe.”

He continues, “When people applauded in Boston that the terrorists were captured, there was no negative [repercussion]. The same thing happened after 9/11 – we were so concerned at the time that we took out an ad in the New York Times: ‘You don’t fight hate with hate.’ But it didn’t happen. And it’s not happening now. And that drives the Islamophobes crazy. It drives them nuts.”

Foxman’s right. It didn’t happen after 9/11 and it’s not happening now, which makes the disapproving tone of Holder’s diatribe somewhat suspicious. As I pointed out in an article in COMMENTARY in 2010 on the impact of the post-9/11 backlash myth on the Ground Zero mosque controversy, though the idea of a wave of discriminatory attacks against Muslims has been mentioned so often in the media that it has become an accepted truth, it isn’t borne out by the record. Every subsequent release of FBI hate crime statistics tells the same story: attacks against Jews far outnumber those against Muslims and Arabs even during the periods when the latter were supposedly under siege.

To note this is not to sanction bias against Muslims. No one should hold any individual responsible for the actions of the ethnic or religious group to which they belong, let alone crimes committed by a small minority, as is the case with American Muslims. Hate crimes of any sort are despicable and deserve severe punishment. But the false narrative of anti-Muslim discrimination fostered by radical groups that purport to speak for that community is intended to do more than squelch bias. The purpose is to forestall any effort to bring those sectors of the Muslim community under scrutiny for their role in the growth of Islamist extremism and homegrown terrorism on our shores.

Holder, who never mentioned that the Tsarnaev brothers were Muslim in his speech, is doing neither the country nor Muslims any favor by playing this card. Falsely labeling all investigations of Islamist groups and mosques in this country as nothing more than prejudice has become a standard trope in the aftermath of every instance of terror conducted by radical Muslims in the United States. In doing so, those promoting this distorted version of history have hampered counter-terror operations and made it more difficult for the responsible and law-abiding Muslim majority to reject the radicals in their midst.

The only way to end this cycle of extremism is for the government and the media to stop being so frightened of being labeled as bigots and to empower American Muslims to cast out the Islamists in their midst. Until that happens, we will continue to rerun the same tired script with the same tragic consequences.

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The Difference Between Newtown and Boston

One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.

The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.

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One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?

If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.

The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.

We can debate the rights and wrongs of restrictions on gun ownership or calls for more background checks. But the desire to use public grief about Newtown to push for passage of these measures was not rooted in any direct connection between the crime and legislation. Yet almost immediately Newtown was treated as an event with obvious political consequences. Indeed, the desire by gun rights advocates to speak of the issue outside of the context of Newtown was treated as both inherently illegitimate and morally obtuse.

But the reaction to Boston has been very different. Once it became apparent that the perpetrators were “white Americans”—in the memorable phrase employed by Salon.com—but could not be connected to the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh or any other conservative faction or cause, most liberals have taken it as their duty to squelch any effort to draw the sort of conclusions to which they had almost universally rushed when blood was shed in Newtown. Many in our chattering classes who thought it was patently obvious that the actions of a lunatic should be blamed on the weapons he employed in Connecticut seem deathly afraid of what will happen if we discuss the actual motives of the Boston terrorists.

Why?

Because while they consider anything fair game if it can help restrict gun ownership, they are just as eager to avoid any conclusion that might cause Americans to link terrorists with the religious ideology that led them to kill. For them the fear that this will lead to a general wave of prejudice against all Muslims justifies treating a crime that can only be properly understood in the context of the general struggle against radical Islam as if it were as motiveless as Newtown.

In the last week we have been offered all sorts of explanation for the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers except the obvious answer. Talking heads on MSNBC and elsewhere have condemned any effort to focus on political Islam in spite of the growing body of evidence that points to their faith as being the cause of their decision to commit mayhem. Even a normally sober commentator such as the New York Times’s Frank Bruni sought to downplay the religious angle, preferring to diffuse our outrage as well as our comprehension of the event and the many other attacks carried out by adherents of radical Islam:

Terrorism isn’t a scourge we Americans alone endure, and it’s seldom about any one thing, or any two things.

Our insistence on patterns and commonalities and some kind of understanding assumes coherence to the massacres, rationality. But the difference between the aimless, alienated young men who do not plant bombs or open fire on unsuspecting crowds — which is the vast majority of them — and those who do is less likely to be some discrete radicalization process that we can diagram and eradicate than a dose, sometimes a heavy one, of pure madness. And there’s no easy antidote to that. No amulet against it.

Bruni is right that there’s no magic bullet or counter-terrorist tactic that will ensure terrorists won’t succeed. He’s also right to shoot down, as he rightly does, those on the far left who have sought to “connect the dots” between American foreign policy (Iraq, Afghanistan and support for Israel) and treat them as justified blowback in which Americans are reaping what they have sown. But while such reactions are despicable, they are largely confined to the fever swamps of our national life.

Far more destructive is this mystifying impulse to look away from the war Islamists have been waging on the West for a generation. While the “radicalization process” to which he refers is not uniform, there is a clear pattern here. The roots of the atrocity in Boston are in the beliefs of radical imams who have helped guide young Muslims to violence around the globe.

To point this out is not an indictment of all Muslims, the majority of whom in this country are loyal, hardworking and peaceful citizens. But the myths about a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims that the media has helped foster—and which continue to be unconnected to any actual evidence of a wave of a prejudice or violence—has led to a situation where some think it better to ignore the evidence about the Tsarnaevs or to focus on peripheral details—such as Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s failed boxing career—than to address the real problem. The fear of Islamophobia is so great that it has spawned a different kind of backlash in which any mention of Islam in this context is wrongly treated as an indication of prejudice.

The contrast between the political exploitation of Newtown and the way in which the same media outlets have gone out of their way to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions about Boston could not be greater. In one case, the media helped orchestrate a national discussion in which hyper-emotional rhetoric about the fallen drove a political agenda. In the other, they are seeking to ensure that no conclusions—even those that are self-evident—be drawn under any circumstances.

Gun control advocates claim that new laws—even those seemingly unconnected to the circumstances of Newtown—are worth it if it will save even one life. That’s debatable, but the same venues that have promoted that view seem averse to any discussion of political Islam, even though it is obvious that more intelligence efforts aimed at routing out radical Islamists and scrutiny of venues and websites where they gather might save even more lives. In the universe of the liberal media, promoting fear of future Newtowns is legitimate and even necessary, but thinking about how to stop future terror attacks apparently is not if it leads us to think about the Islamist threat.

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The Dangers of Citizen Detective Work

Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

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Today the unfortunate news broke that a missing Brown University student, Sunil Tripathi, was found dead in the Providence River in Rhode Island. He had been missing for over a month. What catapulted his name into the news, however, wasn’t the fact that he was a 22-year-old missing Ivy League student; it was his alleged connection to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Soon after the FBI released photographs of the alleged bombers who were eventually identified as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the social media site Reddit went to work trying to identify the men photographed in baseball caps. The possibility that the one of the bombers was Tripathi was broached by a commenter on Reddit on Thursday night, leading to his name becoming so infamous that it appeared on the top worldwide trends list on Twitter. Perhaps due to this social media buzz his name was reported over the Boston Police Department’s scanners early Friday morning, lending fuel to the fire of suspicion.

Soon the Tripathi family, already under an incredible amount of stress and strain after the disappearance of their loved one, were left defending him to Facebook commenters, Twitter users and the media. The vultures descended, leading the family to close the Facebook page dedicated to the search and release a statement:

A tremendous and painful amount of attention has been cast on our beloved Sunil Tripathi in the past twelve hours.

We have known unequivocally all along that neither individual suspected as responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings was Sunil.

We are grateful to all of you who have followed us on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit—supporting us over the recent hours.

Now more than ever our greatest strength comes from your enduring support. We thank all of you who have reached out to our family and ask that you continue to raise awareness and to help us find our gentle, loving, and thoughtful Sunil.

Unfortunately, we know that even seasoned professionals sometimes get it wrong in the heated pursuit for a suspect in an incident as infamous as the Boston marathon bombing. Just this week an Elvis impersonator, Paul Kevin Curtis, was released from prison after being accused of sending ricin-laced letters to President Obama and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The tragic story of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and moved spectators to safety in the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park, is well known to many. Jewell was under suspicion for the bombings for several months before being exonerated and went on to sue various media outlets for libel (each outlet that Jewell sued eventually settled out of court for undisclosed amounts). He died in 2007 at 44 and had reportedly said that even after being cleared, he could never escape his notoriety. In a rush to report news on the Newtown massacre the news media fingered the brother of the gunman, Ryan Lanza, as the assailant, a fact he learned while sitting at his desk in midtown Manhattan.

The coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing by news media was plagued almost from the outset with misinformation. The Huffington Post made a video compilation of the lowest news media moments and points out that soon after the bombings President Obama told the media and Americans, “In this age of instant reporting and tweets and blogs, there’s a temptation to latch on to any bit of information, sometimes to jump to conclusions. But when a tragedy like this happens … it’s important that we do this right.” In the hours after the bombing Jonathan also cautioned against jumping to any conclusions, warning:

Is to be hoped that all those who write on public affairs will refrain from jumping to conclusions about what happened until we have some definitive information. Until that happens, let’s take a moment to pray for the families of the dead and for the recovery of the wounded.

In a statement released before Tripathi’s body was discovered ABC News reports:

Reddit general manager Erik Martin apologized for the “dangerous speculation” that “spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties.”

“The Reddit staff and the millions of people on Reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened,” Martin wrote in a blog post on Monday.

“We all need to look at what happened and make sure that in the future we do everything we can to help and not hinder crisis situations,” he said.

One would hope that after the Jewell, Ryan Lanza and most recently Curtis incidents the news media and amateur sleuths would have learned their lesson. It’s hard enough for trained and experienced law enforcement officials to conduct high-stress searches for perpetrators, and while those in the social media community may feel as though they’re helping the investigation, it’s clear that in this instance, they did nothing but impede it.

We’ve also seen yet again that it’s time for the media to slow down and focus on being right, not first. It’s not yet known how long Tripathi’s body has been in the river but even if the pale of suspicion from Reddit and later the media didn’t lead directly to his death, it’s clear how painful the situation was for a family already gripped with fear over their missing loved one. The world will soon forget Tripathi’s name, but his family will likely never recover from the treatment they received from their fellow Americans and our news media in their darkest hour.

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When Terrorists “Act Alone”

Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

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Law enforcement officials are touting news that the Boston Marathon bombers acted alone. The source for their conclusion? Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has averred from his hospital bed that he and his brother had no links to any terrorist organization. This may or may not be true; it’s possible that even if Dzhokhar is sincere he may not have known about links cultivated by his brother during Tamerlan’s sojourn to Dagestan last year. But even if it’s true that their bombing was not directed by foreign terrorist organizations, it was certainly inspired by them.

In seeking to explain their heinous actions, Dzhokhar cited an alleged war against Islam waged by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, claiming that U.S. troops have been responsible for most civilian deaths in those countries. This is blatantly not true (the Taliban, al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Islamist groups have killed far more civilians and they have done so deliberately, not accidentally as in the case of most “collateral damage” caused by U.S. forces). But it is a standard al-Qaeda propaganda line that the brothers swallowed–along with the more general al-Qaeda justifications for making war on “infidels.” More than that, it appears that the brothers may have gotten bomb-making instructions from Inspire, the English-language magazine published by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Even if no further links with al-Qaeda or related groups (such as the Caucasus Emirate) are discovered, it is still not correct to claim, as so many media outlets now do, that the brothers were “self-radicalized.” They were radicalized and trained by al-Qaeda–whether in cyberspace or outside of it. It is also likely, moreover, that older brother Tamerlan, the ring leader, came into contact with influential individuals in either Boston and/or Dagestan who guided his intellectual development toward becoming a jihadist. Whether those individuals formally belonged to a terrorist organization or not, they were doing its bidding as long as they were urging violence against the West.

In short, while we need to be worried about “lone wolf” terrorists, we must not lose sight of the fact that they are not entirely autonomous individuals. There is still a terrorist support structure that exists in Dagestan–and other places in the Muslim world such as Yemen and Pakistan–which is closely connected with acts of terror in the West and that needs to be dismantled.

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Why Rand’s Drone Flip-Flop Matters

Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

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Last month Rand Paul energized conservatives with a filibuster on the Senate floor that allowed a broad national audience to see him as a principled politician who was willing to fight for beliefs rather than go along with Washington’s business-as-usual culture. Some of us thought the rationale for his moment of glory—concerns about possible use of drones on U.S. soil as well as his general opposition to what he called a “perpetual war” against Islamist terrorists—were not justified. But even critics like myself thought his exhibition demonstrated that there is room for the sort of high-minded approach to public policy that was once considered normative in the U.S. Senate but which is now quite rare. But it didn’t take long for all of Paul’s speechifying about drones to be revealed as somewhat hypocritical.

Though the Kentucky senator spent 13 hours on his legs explaining to the Senate why there could be no conceivable justification for the use of government drones against American citizens on March 6, yesterday he took a position on Neil Cavuto’s show on Fox News that those of us who disagreed with him in the first place were advocating:

PAUL: Here’s the distinction, Neil. I’ve never argued against any technology being used when you have an imminent threat, an active crime going on. If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and 50 dollars in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him. But it’s different if they want to fly over your hot tub or your yard just because they want to do surveillance on everyone and they want to watch your activities.

CAVUTO: What if, in pursuit of a crime, they discover something else that looks bad?

PAUL: We shouldn’t be willy-nilly looking into everyone’s back yard into what they’re doing. But if there is a killer on the loose in a neighborhood, I’m not against drones being used to search them out, heat-seeking devices being used, I’m all for law enforcement, I’m just not for surveillance when there’s not probable cause that a crime’s been committed. So, most of the time, you get a warrant, but if someone’s actively running around with a gun, you don’t need a warrant. That’s the way the system works.

That sounds reasonable. But it’s not what he was saying seven weeks ago, when he held up the nomination of CIA Director John Brennan because Attorney General Eric Holder would not foreswear the possibility that there was any circumstance under which the government would use a drone against an American in the United States.

Subsequent to his appearance on Cavuto, Paul’s office issued a statement that claimed that there had been no flip-flop. As Politico reports:

In his statement Tuesday, Paul clarified his remarks, saying that drones should only be “considered in extraordinary, lethal situations.”

“Armed drones should not be used in normal crime situations. They only may only be considered in extraordinary, lethal situations where there is an ongoing, imminent threat. I described that scenario previously during my Senate filibuster. Additionally, surveillance drones should only be used with warrants and specific targets,” Paul said in the statement.

Paul may claim, and his legion of followers who think he can do or say no wrong will agree, that this does not contradict his filibuster stand. But it does.

The whole point of the filibuster, which he repeated many times on the floor of the Senate during the course of his memorable performance, was that though he didn’t believe the Obama administration would use its power to suppress dissent or kill innocent Americans, some future government might do so. That’s why he took the position that the use of drone attacks here was simply off the table as unconstitutional–no matter what the circumstances.

Though I am no fan of Eric Holder, it was precisely the possibility of an “ongoing, lethal situation” that caused him to be reluctant to say that drones could never be used against a U.S. citizen at home. Paul tried to distort that position into one that posed the possibility that a future U.S. government might use a drone to knock off its political opponents or a Jane Fonda-style dissident, but that was an absurd interpretation of an entirely reasonable unwillingness to rule out the use of lethal force against a dangerous terrorist or criminal.

Paul may pretend there is no parallel between what he endorsed on Cavuto and the use of government force that he declared in the Senate to be a threat to our liberties, but it is a distinction without a difference. Lulled by a desire to show how tough he was on terrorists and criminals to say something about Boston, Paul committed a gaffe that illustrated the inconsistency of his position.

This kerfuffle won’t necessarily impact his run for the presidency in 2016, but it does illustrate that his drone obsession had more to do with his foreign policy views than a defense of the rule of law. The idea of using a theoretical drone attack on Americans in the U.S. as the point of the filibuster was a brilliant tactical decision since it allowed him to take the moral high ground that even attracted the support of some liberals. But Paul’s willingness to admit that there are scenarios where government can or even must use this power demonstrates that his oratory was all for show.

Rand Paul’s real problem with drones isn’t about their use in legitimate law enforcement activities at home but about their employment overseas against al-Qaeda terrorists. In his neo-isolationist view, the “perpetual war” against Islamists isn’t a good idea, and he wants it shut down even if the other side isn’t necessarily willing to call a cease-fire. There is good reason to believe that such views are becoming more popular in our war-weary nation, even with some Republicans. But his drone flip-flop yesterday makes it clear that his attempt to link that critique with possible abuses of civil liberties at home is more the product of science fiction or conspiracy theories than practical politics.

If Paul wants to talk about drones in the future, he should limit his comments to his views about the conflict with Islamist terrorists, which unfortunately opened up a new front in Boston last week. But after his appearance on Cavuto, Americans should have no patience with any further attempts on his part to claim their use at home is a matter of any real dispute.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Human Rights Violations

After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

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After 9/11, there was an explicit question at the heart of much of the security apparatus put into place at the federal level, as well as the efforts to streamline intelligence analysis, foster cooperation between agencies, and put an administrative umbrella over the process in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Why, we wondered, didn’t the government “connect the dots,” and how could we connect them in time in the future?

These were appropriate questions to ask, and they were asked again after the 9/11 anniversary attacks in Benghazi and now are being asked after the Boston Marathon bombings. Of particular concern is a trip to the Russian Caucasus taken by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the deceased older brother of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, both of whom are accused of carrying out the bombing and planning others. Tamerlan apparently spent much of 2012 in Chechnya and Dagestan, hotspots of Islamic extremism and home to Doku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate, a breakaway Islamist authority and terrorist group. Early reports claimed Tamerlan caught the attention of the Russian security services, which alerted the FBI. Today, the Boston Globe reports that the Russians seemed particularly concerned about Tamerlan:

Russian authorities contacted the US government with concerns about Tamerlan Tsarnaev not once but “multiple’’ times, including an alert it sent after he was first investigated by FBI agents in Boston, raising new questions about whether the FBI should have paid more attention to the suspected Boston Marathon bomber, US senators briefed on the inves­tigation said Tuesday.

The FBI has previously said it interviewed Tsarnaev in early 2011 after it was initially contacted by the ­Russians. In their review, completed in summer 2011, the bureau found no ­evidence that Tsarnaev was a threat. “The FBI requested but did not receive more specific or additional information from” Russia, the agency said last week.

Following a closed briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said he believed that Russia alerted the United States about Tsarnaev in “multiple contacts,” including at least once since October 2011.

It seems quite possible the FBI too easily dismissed clues, but there’s really more to this story, in defense of the FBI. Eli Lake touches on it at the Daily Beast, in which he discusses the fact that the corruption of the Russian security services, the FSB, is so thorough, and Vladimir Putin’s tactics used to pacify the Caucasus so brutal and heavy-handed, it’s difficult to know when to trust the FSB and when to assume the FSB is trying to get others to do its dirty work.

The truth is, however, it’s about more than just the Chechen conflict. And a perfect example of this is taking place today, as Russian opposition blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny’s trial begins. Navalny has brilliantly exposed official corruption in Russia, and less brilliantly allied himself with anyone opposed to Putin, including xenophobic nationalists. But he is a credible leader of the protest class and represents a threat to Putin in the political sphere. (He is charged with embezzlement, but a local investigation had already cleared him.)

Navalny’s case raises a question: his trial is infinitely more significant to Russia’s near-term political future (and to Putin’s) than the trial of the female punk group jailed for hooliganism for stomping around a Moscow cathedral. The girls earned benefit concerts as far away from Russia as New York City, and became a cause célèbre among their fellow musicians (though calling them “musicians” or “artists” is being a touch too kind to a group of masked vandals). Why doesn’t Navalny, who actually matters, get nearly the same attention?

Getting even less attention than Navalny will be the “Bolotnoye affair,” in which a large group of anti-Putin demonstrators will go to court in what opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov calls analogous to Stalinist show trials. Though it doesn’t speak well of the West to express its love of liberty only when it doesn’t really matter, there is more at stake to all this, and the Boston Marathon bombing should call our attention to it. Put simply: we should care about Russian political repression and human rights violations because they erode our own ability to protect ourselves. Human rights policy has national security implications. The Putin regime may tell us that Tamerlan Tsarnaev is a dangerous potential criminal–but they’ll say the same about Navalny the blogger or a punk rock protest group.

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Robert Amsterdam, who was for a time one of the attorneys representing Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch who challenged Putin politically and who now sits in a jail cell because of it with his assets claimed by the government. The Khodorkovsky case, and the Putin government that behaves like a criminal syndicate, represents a “tremendous danger for those people who want to deal with Russia, and it’s a tremendous danger for the United States, which has set up a policy of opportunism with Russia, that they call the reset,” Amsterdam had told me.

Though when we spoke he was no longer representing Khodorkovsky, Amsterdam clearly isn’t impartial in the matter. But it’s difficult to say he was wrong on the merits. Putin’s corruption, criminality, and dishonesty are not simply an internal matter. They have consequences, and we ignore them at our peril.

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The War Goes On

Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

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Despite the most fervent hopes of some writers over at Salon.com, the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are not “white Americans”–a classification Salon used to exclude Islamists–preferably with a subscription to National Review and COMMENTARY. In fact, the accumulating evidence (see here) points to two young men who were radicalized and became jihadists. Which ought to remind us that even if many people in this nation have grown weary in the struggle with militant Islam, our enemies remain engaged, ruthless and malevolent.

The events in Boston are of course not nearly as traumatic or historic as what happened on September 11, 2001. Since that fateful day, our government has massively degraded the ability of organized groups to attack us, and that counts for a lot.

Still, in Boston last week scores of innocent people were either killed or maimed, a great city was locked down for a day, and the psychological effects of the attacks may last for some time. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg refers to this as “the era of the suspicious package.”) If terrorists decide to strike at “soft” targets–sporting events, shopping malls, coffee shops, elementary schools, and so forth–then life in America will change in important ways.

I have long felt it’s a tribute to America that we have gone out of our way not to target Muslims en masse in the aftermath of 9/11, and that President Bush’s role in keeping passions in check was admirable and crucial. At the same time, it would be foolish, and borderline suicidal, to pretend we don’t know what the “root cause” of this age of terrorism is: political Islam, abroad and increasingly at home. This lethal ideological infection doesn’t seem to be receding. And it’s not clear what, if anything, we can do to stop it (drone strikes are a tactic, not a strategy).

As someone who has supported championing liberty in the Arab world, I have to take into account what is happening in Egypt. I’m not sure what the alternative is–America cannot be on the side of increased repression–but the radicalization of Egypt in the aftermath of its elections is not what I hoped would emerge. Now it’s still early, and things could improve. (Wise people I know predicted things could get worse before they get better, since the transition from oppression and a smashed civil society to freedom isn’t quick or easy. The analogy is that we’re at the stage prior to a fever breaking.) On the other hand, things could also get worse. In any event, our duty is to see the world as it is.

Michael Gerson wisely points out we don’t want to be at war with Islam. But unfortunately a not-insignificant number of Muslims believe they are at war with us. And I’m quite open to suggestions of what exactly we are supposed to do–what we are even able to do–about that, other than defend ourselves and defeat them on various battlefields, including this one.

The war against us goes on, whether we like it or not.

(Updated to clarify Salon.com’s language.)

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Does the Chechen Connection Matter?

Does the Chechen background of the accused Boston Marathon bombers have any practical relevance to American foreign or domestic policy in the wake of the attacks? The attempts to answer that question have produced a wave of stories over the past week. It is natural–and rational–to want to understand the motive behind an act of violence such as this. Motive, second only to means, is knowledge that usually has practical implications: if we know why the perpetrators did what they did, perhaps we can stop this from happening again. Unfortunately, in this case, Chechnya and the wider Caucasus conflict are unlikely to provide much direction.

As Jonathan noted on Friday, some opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are using the Boston bombing to call attention to the dangers of amnesty. But today Rand Paul entered the fray by asking why Chechens were able to immigrate at all. In a letter to Harry Reid, Paul writes: “Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

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Does the Chechen background of the accused Boston Marathon bombers have any practical relevance to American foreign or domestic policy in the wake of the attacks? The attempts to answer that question have produced a wave of stories over the past week. It is natural–and rational–to want to understand the motive behind an act of violence such as this. Motive, second only to means, is knowledge that usually has practical implications: if we know why the perpetrators did what they did, perhaps we can stop this from happening again. Unfortunately, in this case, Chechnya and the wider Caucasus conflict are unlikely to provide much direction.

As Jonathan noted on Friday, some opponents of comprehensive immigration reform are using the Boston bombing to call attention to the dangers of amnesty. But today Rand Paul entered the fray by asking why Chechens were able to immigrate at all. In a letter to Harry Reid, Paul writes: “Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism? Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

I think it’s safe to say no immigration reform proposal–and certainly no such proposal that could pass Congress–would seek to prohibit residents of Chechnya by definition from resettling in the United States, and for good reason. Additionally, the Tsarnaev boys came here as youth, so it’s highly unlikely they raised, or should have raised, any red flags.

But Paul did touch on another element of the Caucasus: it is the home of an influential recruiting, training, and communications center for a major jihadist group, the Caucasus Emirate. But the Emirate denied responsibility for the Boston attacks: “The Command of the Province of Dagestan indicates in this regard that the Caucasian Mujahideen are not fighting against the United States of America. We are at war with Russia, which is not only responsible for the occupation of the Caucasus, but also for heinous crimes against Muslims,” it stated.

That statement was carefully calibrated and is a fairly accurate portrait of where you might find Chechen or Dagestani Islamist terrorists–and where you probably won’t. Boston falls into the latter category. The Caucasus Emirate, led by Doku Umarov, has no compunction about employing brutal methods in its struggle, but the Emirate is not at war with the United States. That doesn’t mean Americans will never be the target of Chechen attacks; terrorists from the Caucasus have shown up outside Russian territory, but there doesn’t seem to have been any major Chechen presence in Afghanistan, and there is considerable doubt as to whether there has been any Chechen presence fighting the allies in Afghanistan at all.

The Syrian civil war is a more likely place to spot a Chechen militant, and indeed the Caucasus Emirate apparently admitted to the death of Rustam Gelayev in Syria in August. Gelayev was the son of Ruslan Gelayev, a Chechen commander killed in the Caucasus in 2004. Though the Emirate won’t expend serious time, energy, manpower, or money fighting so far from home, fighting in Syria does give them the ability to hit the hated Putin regime from another angle.

Will the Tsarnaevs’ Chechen connection lead to more anti-terror cooperation between the U.S. and Russia? Unlikely. Just as the Emirate tends to carry out operations of which it will brag, rather than deny, so the Russian authorities like to pretend the Caucasus Islamists don’t exist in order to minimize the perception of danger and to sell the line that Putin has pacified the conflict and brought true stability to Russia. Whatever cooperation between the U.S. and Russia was already taking place probably won’t be affected much one way or the other by the Boston bombing, especially with the impending American withdrawal from Afghanistan.

What about the area of diplomacy? Here some, including Amy Knight of the New York Review of Books, are concerned. As Knight phrases it:

Will the US government now turn a blind eye to Russia’s increasingly brutal crackdown on its own democratic opposition because of overriding concerns about national security, just as it did after 9/11? Will the Kremlin wager that it can get away with its hard-line approach now that, as a result of the Boston attacks, the Obama Administration needs its help in counter-terrorism efforts?

This is an interesting question for the president of the United States in the parallel universe from which Knight apparently filed her story, in which the Obama administration has not already ignored Putin’s crackdown on protesters and other human rights abuses in order to obtain some mythical national security cooperation. But as anyone who has followed the administration’s failed “reset” efforts knows, for the Obama administration to stop caring about Russian human rights abuses, it would have to start caring about those abuses in the first place.

If the Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized, that appears to have taken place here in the U.S. The Tsarnaevs’ background in the Caucasus is interesting biographical material, but it does not seem poised to provide many answers, nor nudge American policy, foreign or domestic, in a new direction.

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