The tragic bombing on April 15 by the Tsarnaev brothers, Tamerlane and Dzhohkar collided and amplified contemporary debates- deep and ongoing disputes on subjects as diverse as the role of religion and especially Islam in inspiring political violence, and the role and use of surveillance technology to keep the public safe. It is important that we get a grip on these issues and find a way forward that reflects the reality of the situation rather than misplaced fear and hope for the danger is that the lessons we take to be the meaning of the Boston bombing will be precisely opposite to those we should on more clear headed reflection actually draw. A path that might lead us, as it has in the recent past, to make egregious mistakes that both fail to properly understand and therefore address the challenges at issue while putting our freedom at risk in the name of security. What follows then is an attempt at clear headedness.
The Boston bombing admittedly inspired by a violent version of political Islam seemed almost to fall like clockwork into a recent liberal pushback against perceived Islamophobia by the group of thinkers known as the New Atheists. In late March of this year, less than a month before the bombing, Nathan Lean at Salon published his essay Dawkins, Hitchens Harris: New Atheists Flirt With Islamophobia which documented a series of inflammatory statements about Islam by the New Atheists including the recent statement of Richard Dawkins that “Islam was the greatest source of evil in the world today” or an older quote by Sam Harris that: “Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thorough going cult of death.” For someone, such as myself who does indeed find many of the statements about Islam made by the New Atheists to be, if not overtly racists, then at least so devoid of religious literacy and above all historical and political self-reflection that they seem about as accurate as pre-modern traveler’s tales about the kingdom of the cyclops, or the lands at the antipodes of the earth where people have feet atop their heads, the bombings could not have come at a worse cultural juncture.
If liberals such as Lean had hoped to dissuade the New Atheists from making derogatory comments about Muslims at the very least before they made an effort to actually understand the beliefs of the people they were talking about, so that Dawkins when asked after admitting he had never read the Koran responded in his ever so culturally sensitive way: “Of course you can have an opinion about Islam without having read the Qur’an. You don’t have to read “Mein Kampf” to have an opinion about Nazism ” the fact that the murders in Boston ended up being two Muslim brothers from Chechnya would appear to give the New Atheists all the evidence they need. The argument for a more tolerant discourse has lost all traction.
It wasn’t only this aspect of the “God debate” with which the Boston bombing intersected. There is also the on going argument for and against the deployment of widespread surveillance technology especially CCTV. The fact that the killers were caught on tape there for all the world to see seems to give weight to those arguing that whatever the concerns of civil libertarians the widespread use of CCTV is something that would far outweigh its costs. A mere three days after the bombing Slate ran an article by Farhad Manjoo We Need More Cameras and We Need Them Now. The title kinda says it all but here’s a quote:
Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations. Yes, you don’t like to be watched. Neither do I. But of all the measures we might consider to improve security in an age of terrorism, installing surveillance cameras everywhere may be the best choice. They’re cheap, less intrusive than many physical security systems, and—as will hopefully be the case with the Boston bombing—they can be extremely effective at solving crimes.
Manjoo does not think the use of ubiquitous surveillance would be limited to deterring crime or terrorism or solving such acts once they occur, but that they might eventually give us a version of precrime that seems like something right out of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report:
The next step in surveillance technology involves artificial intelligence. Several companies are working on software that monitors security-camera images in an effort to spot criminal activity before it happens.
London is the queen of such surveillance technology, but in the US it is New York that has most strongly devoted itself to this technological path of preventing terrorism spending upwards of 40 million dollars to develop its Domain Awareness System in partnership with Microsoft. New York has done this despite the concerns of those whom Mayor Bloomberg calls “special interests”, that is those who are concerned that ubiquitous surveillance represents a grave threat to our right to privacy.
Combining the recent disputes surrounding the New Atheists treatment of Islam and the apparent success of surveillance technology in solving the Boston bombing along with the hope that technology could prevent such events from occurring in the future might give one a particular reading of contemporary events that might go something as follows. The early 21st century is an age of renewed religious fanaticism centered on the rejection of modernity in general and the findings of science in particular. With Islam being only the most representative of the desire to overturn modern society through the use of violence. The best defense of modern societies in such circumstances is to turn to the very features that have made their societies modern in the first place, that is science and technology. Science and technology not only promise us a form of deterrence against acts of violence by religiously inspired fanatics they should allow us to prevent such acts from occurring at all if, that is, they are applied with full force.
This might be one set of lessons to draw from the Boston bombings, but would it be the right one? Let’s take the issue of surveillance technology first. The objection to surveillance technology notably CCTV was brilliantly laid out by the science-fiction writer and commentator Cory Doctorow in an article for The Guardian back in 2011.
Something like CCTV works on the assumption that people are acting rationally and therefore can be deterred. No one could argue that Tamerlane and his brother were acting rationally. Their goal seemed to be to kill as many people as possible before they were caught, but they certainly knew they would be caught. The deterrence factor of CCTV and related technologies comes into play even less when suicide bombers are concerned. According to Doctorow we seem to be hoping that we can use surveillance technology as a stand in for the social contact that should bind all of us together.
But the idea that we can all be made to behave if only we are watched closely enough all the time is bunkum. We behave ourselves because of our social contract, the collection of written and unwritten rules that bind us together by instilling us with internal surveillance in the form of conscience and aspiration. CCTVs everywhere are an invitation to walk away from the contract and our duty to one another, to become the lawlessness the CCTV is meant to prevent.
This is precisely the lesson we can draw from the foiled train bombing plot in Canada that occurred at almost at the same moment bombs were going off in Boston. While the American city was reeling, Canada was making arrests of Muslim terrorists who were plotting to bomb trains headed for the US. An act that would have been far more deadly than the Boston attacks. The Canadian Royal Mounted Police was tipped off to this planned attack by members of the Muslim community in Canada a fact that highlights the difference in the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities in Canada and the US. As reported in the Chicago Tribune:
Christian Leuprecht, an expert in terrorism at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said the tip-off reflected extensive efforts by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to improve ties with Muslims.
‘One of the key things, and what makes us very different from the United States, is that the RCMP has always very explicitly separated building relationships with local communities from the intelligence gathering side of the house,’ he told Reuters.
A world covered in surveillance technology based on artificial intelligence that can “read the minds” of would be terrorists is one solution to the threat of terrorism, but the seemingly low tech approach of the RCMP is something far different and at least for the moment far more effective. In fact, when we look under the hood of what the Canadians are doing we find something much more high tech than any application of AI based sensors on the horizon.
We tend to confuse advanced technology with bells and whistles and therefore miss the fact that a solution that we don’t need to plug in or program can be just as if not more complex than anything we are currently capable of building. The religious figures who turned the Canadian plotters into the authorities were far more advanced than any “camera” we can currently construct. They were able to gauge the threat of the plotters through the use of networks of trust and communication using the most advanced machine at our disposal- the human brain. They were also able to largely avoid what will likely be the bane of first generation of the AI based surveillance technologies hoped for by Manjoo- that is false alarms. Human based threat assessment is far more targeted than the types of ubiquitous surveillance offered by our silicon friends. We only need to pay attention to those who appear threatening rather than watch everybody and separate out potential bad actors through brute force calculation.
The after effects of the Boston bombings is likely to make companies that sell surveillance technologies very rich as American cities pour billions into covering themselves with a net of “smart” cameras in the name of safety. The high profile role of such cameras in apprehending the suspects will likely result in an erosion of the kinds of civil libertarian viewpoints held by those such as Doctorow. Yet, in an age of limited resources, are these the kinds of investments cities should be making?
The Boston bombing capped off a series of massacres in Colorado and Newtown all of which might have been prevented by a greater investment in mental health services. It may seem counter intuitive to suggest that many of those drawn to terrorist activities are suffering from mental health conditions but that is what some recent research suggests.
We need better ways to identify and help persons who have fallen into some very dark places, and whereas the atomistic nature of much of American social life might not give us inroads to provide these services for many, the very connectedness of immigrant Muslim communities should allow mental health issues to be more quickly identified and addressed. A good example of a seemingly anti-modern community that has embraced mental health services are my neighbors the Amish where problems are perhaps more quickly identified and dealt with than in my own modern community where social ties are much more diffuse. The problem of underinvestment in mental health combined with an over reliance on security technologies isn’t one confined to the US alone. Around the same time Russia was touting its superior intelligence gathering capabilities when it came to potential Chechiyan terrorist including the Tsarnaev family, an ill cared for mental health facility in Moscow burned to the ground killing 38 of its trapped residents.
Lastly, there is the issue of the New Atheists’ accusations against Islam- that it is particularly anti-modern, anti-scientific and violent. As we should well know, any belief system can be used to inspire violence especially when that violence is presented in terms of self-defense. Yet, Islam today does seem to be a greater vector of violence than other anti-modern creeds. We need to understand why this is the case.
People who would claim that there is something anti-scientific about Islam would do well to acquaint themselves with a little history. There is a sense that the scientific revolution in the West would have been impossible without the contribution of Islamic civilization a case made brilliantly in not at least two recent books Jonathan Lyons’ House of Wisdom and John Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp.
It isn’t merely that Islamic civilization preserved the science of the ancient Greeks during the European dark ages, but that it built upon their discoveries and managed to synthesize technology and knowledge from previously disconnected civilizations from China (paper) to India (the number zero). While Western Europeans still thought diseases were caused by demons, Muslims were inventing what was the most effective medical science until the modern age. They gave us brand new forms of knowledge such as algebra, taught us how to count using our current system of arabic numerals, and the mapped the night sky giving us the names of our stars. They showed us how to create accurate maps, taught us how to tell time and measure distance, and gave us the most advanced form that most amazing of instruments, a pre-modern form of pocket computer- the astrolabe. Seeing is believing and those who doubt just how incredible the astrolabe was should checkout Tom Wujec’s great presentation on the astrolabe at TED.
Compared to the Christian West which was often busy with brutalities such as genocidal campaigns against religious dissidents, inquisitions, or the persecution, forced conversion, or expulsion of Muslims and Jews, the Islamic world was generally extremely tolerant of religious minorities to the extent that both Christian and Jewish communities thrived there.
Part of the reason Islamic civilization, which was so ahead of the West in terms of science and technology in the 1300s ,would fall so far behind was a question of geography. It wasn’t merely that the West was able to rip from the more advanced Muslims the navigational technology that would lead to the windfall of discovering the New World, it was that the way science and technology eventually developed through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries demanded strong states which Islamic civilizations on account of geography and a tradition of weak states- in Muslim societies it was a diffuse network of religious jurists rather than a centralized Church in league with the state that controlled religion and a highly internationalized network of traders rather than a tight corporate-state alliance that dominated the economy. Modernity in its pre-21st century manifestation required strong states to put down communication and transportation networks and to initiate and support high impact policies such as economic standardization and universal education.
Yet, technology appears to have changed this reliance on the state and brought back into play the kinds of diffuse international networks which Islamic societies continue to be extremely good at. As opposed to earlier state-centric infrastructure cell phone networks can be put up almost overnight. The global nature of trade puts a premium on international connections which the communications revolution has put at the hands of everybody. The rapid decline in the cost of creating media and the bewildering ease with which this media can be distributed globally has overturned the prior centralized and highly localized nature in which communication used to operate.
Islam’s diffuse geography and deeply ingrained assumptions regarding power left it vulnerable to both its own pitifully weak states and incursions from outside powers who had followed a more centralized developmental path. Many of these conflicts are now playing themselves out and the legacies of Western incursions unraveling so that largely Muslim states that were created out of thin air by imperialist powers such as Iraq and Syria- are imploding. Sadly, states where a largely secular elite was able to suppress traditional publics with the help of Western aid – most ominously Egypt- are slipping towards fundamentalism. We have helped create an equation where religious fundamentalism is confused with freedom.
Given the nature of modern international communications and ease of travel we are now in a situation where an alienated Muslim such as Tamerlane is not only plugged into a worldwide anti-modern discourse, he is able to “shop around” for conflicts in which to insert himself. His unhinged mother had apparently suggested he go to Palestine in search of jihad he reportedly traveled to far away Dagestan to make contact with like minded lost souls.
Our only hope here is that these conflicts in the Muslim world will play themselves out as quickly and as peacefully as possible, and that Islam, which is in many ways poised to thrive in the new condition of globalization will remember its own globalists traditions. Not just their tradition as international traders- think of how successful diaspora peoples such as the Chinese and the Jewish people have been- but their tradition of philosophic and scientific brilliance as well. The internet allows easy access to jihadi discourses by troubled Muslims, but it also increasingly offers things such as Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCS that might, in the same way Islamic civilization did for the West, bring the lessons of modernity and science deep into the Islamic world even into areas such as Afghanistan that now suffer under the isolating curse of geography.
International communication, over the long term, might be a way to bring Enlightenment norms regarding rational debate and toleration not so much to the Muslim world as back to it. Characteristics which it in some ways passed to the West in the first place, providing a forerunner of what a global civilization tolerant of differences and committed to combining the best from all the world’s cultures might look like.