I’m a journalist - a former foreign correspondent - now based in New York City.
As someone who’s covered political violence overseas, it’s clear to me that as Americans, we need to change our vocabulary. We have one set of vocabulary for events that happen overseas, and a “Rated G” vocabulary for American soil - and we’re doing ourselves a profound disservice.
This rings true in the coverage of the apparent suicide attack at UC Santa Barbara.
Hold that thought for a moment.
I’ve got at least a dozen friends in Bangkok at the moment, covering Thailand’s coup d’etat. A decade of political crisis may - thanks to this coup - send the nation spiraling into civil war.
But it wasn’t my “journo” buddies chasing the coup story who were the ones I was worried about on Saturday morning. Rather, it was my friend Karen, whose son Leighton goes to UC Santa Barbara.
A news-app on my phone alerted me to the latest “shooting incident” — oh, how I hate that term — before I had even woken up. It followed a now familiar template: a socially awkward loner guns down as many people as he can, before it appears, turning the gun on himself.
I wanted to take a red pen and fix them all.
Karen’s an American journalist who also does consulting work for the United Nations. I sent her a brief email. “You saw the horrible news, I assume. Leighton’s OK?”
The Thai military had shut down CNN and BBC as part of the coup d’etat, so it was a few hours before I got a reply. Karen had only just heard about UC Santa Barbara. To make matters worse, Leighton wasn’t answering his phone.
Now - let’s pause the story there. It’s time to play with some geography.
Let’s say the news-app woke me up with a report from the streets of Bangkok.
Someone goes to a crowded area intending to kill as many innocent people as possible, and die in the process. That may be because he kills himself. Or it may be because he’s already decided not to surrender to authorities.
What would the headlines be screaming? “Suicide attack on the streets of Bangkok.” Or Baghdad. Or Tokyo. Or London. Foreign countries are scary!
The UC Santa Barbara massacre is far from the only apparent suicide attack on American soil. Columbine. Newtown. Virginia Tech. The Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The Washington Naval Observatory. The 2014 Fort Hood attack. (For the record, it is still possible to have a “mass shooting” in which the gunman did not intend suicide.)
It remains unclear whether the UC Santa Barbara attacker shot himself, or was killed by police. Again, if it were the latter, one must still be open to the possibility that it was “suicide by cop.”
If I’ve pissed you off, you must bear in mind: the term “suicide attack” is both secular and generic.
While many suicide attacks that take place overseas have a political goal and are therefore designated as “terrorism,” many US suicide attacks appear to have their roots in mental health issues. (The suicide attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin was designated “domestic terror” by the FBI. The 2009 Fort Hood attack, a terror attack, was exceptional, in that the gunman was captured alive.)
It’s also generic because the weapon used is irrelevant. Mass killing is the result of a suicide attack, whether you build a bomb in the backstreets of Kabul; or you use a gun — your own private arsenal, even - that you bought legally thanks to the Second Amendment.
Many will say the heart of the issue is a lack of mental health care in the US, which no doubt is a factor. But nor can it be denied: the widespread availability of guns in the US clearly makes a going out in a mad man’s blaze of glory — a suicide attack — infinitely easier to accomplish.
Hell, guns are so prevalent in the US, why even bother to build a bomb?
With 70 attacks in the past 30 years, massacres and suicide attacks are undeniably a pattern of American life. Sadly, the rate appears to be speeding up, and all too often, suicide attackers target schools.
We’re never going to get past them, if we don’t ditch the denial-ridden, Rated G vocabulary of “shooting incident” or “gun violence” or even “school shooting,” and start calling out suicide attacks for what they are. We won’t get past them until we use the same vocabulary we apply to extremist acts overseas to those that take place on American soil.
And that’s true whether you believe its guns or mental health upon which our now routine massacres rest.
It’s a start.
Back on Saturday morning, Karen and I started working the phones, and independently got to the same place: we both called Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where victims of the apparent suicide attack were being treated, to ask if Leighton was admitted as a patient. They had no one by his name. Still, you have to wonder about the amount of chaos they were facing…
It was an hour or two more before Karen’s phone rang. Leighton had been at his fraternity house all night. For Karen’s family, all was well.
The school year at UCSB wrapping up, Leighton is returning to Bangkok this summer - where who knows? - this week’s imposition of martial law may give way to a violent civil conflict.
Still, it might be safer than hanging out at an American school. Fewer suicide attacks.
Here’s the thought I can’t get past with regards to Bradley Manning:
What if he went to college?
In 2009 and 2010, the then 22-year old US Army Private stole tens of thousands of classified documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a further 250 thousand classified cables from the US State Department, and gave them to Wikileaks. He faces more than 100 years in prison on multiple charges.
So - what if he had gone to college? I’d like to think there would have been late nights reading Mother Jones and Rolling Stone and drinking and bullshitting about politics with his friends. There may have been campus political protests, spanning the spectrum from the evils of Dick Cheney, George Bush and the Iraq invasion to the over-the-top politically correct discussions on whether is should say “women” on the ladies’ room doors. (“Women,” you see, has the word “men” in it.)
Who knows? What if he had that that one enormously talented Poli Sci professor, who talked Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iran-Contra, Panama, Gulf War I? The one whose class you were super excited to go to. Whose papers you loved to write. The prof who would have opened his eyes to the world?
Sadly, that’s not what happened.
Instead, a reasonably bright young soldier, while posted to Iraq, stumbled across an computer archive of classified documents. It was information way above his pay-grade — and the sense that I get — is that it was far, far above the level at which his mind had been challenged, at that point.
Manning’s intellectual cherry was popped, then and there. And he didn’t know how to process it.
First, Manning did the right thing he is assumed to be the leak behind the 2007 “Collateral Murder” video of a US helicopter gunship killing Iraqi civilians, including two journalists. That was brilliant. He exposed a crime.
But then…… he lost his intellectual thread. He committed a federal crime by document dumping — hacking, not leaking — tens of thousands of classified battlefield reports and 250 thousand State Department cables to Wikileaks, and in so doing, became the victim of his own naivete. (I’ve written extensively about the difference between leaking and hacking. Leaking, in short, is a principled and brave act. Hacking is not.)
How do we know it was simple naivete? The Afghanistan and Iraq documents and the State Department cables showed little in the way of wrongdoing on the part of the US government.
Oh sure, the State Department cables exposed a tremendous amount of headline-making gossip about diplomatic relations. Qaddafi is paranoid and isolated! Thailand’s royal family is totally dysfunctional! The US thinks Sarkozy is vain! The US knows that Hamid Karzai’s brother is a narco-trafficking thug! Saudi Arabia asked the US to take out Iran’s nuclear sites! Pakistan requested drone strikes! Yemen promised to cover them up! Morgan Tsvangarai wants more sanctions against Mugabe’s government! If you don’t know what country Morgan Tsvangirai lives in, don’t worry. Neither did Bradley Manning, I bet.
Very little of what was revealed is crime on the part of the US. (If Sarkozy is vain, it’s not Washington’s fault.) Much of what the cables revealed is only hair’s breadth beyond what was reported in the international section of any major newspaper for the previous decade. (Even Stephen Colbert did a segment in July 2010 in which he called the release of the Iraq and Afghanistan documents “Obvi-Leaks.”)
The paradox - and the tragedy — is that Bradley Manning committed a federal crime to confirm that the State Department is actually pretty good at its job. (That said, I’m sure al Qaeda and Kim Jong Il were keen to see what the US knew about them - and how it knew.)
For diplomats, relaying candid assessments of other government officials - Putin’s running Russia, not Medvedev! are a part of the assignment.
And herein lies one of the perils of hacking, that bedevils not just Manning, but is the problem that will define our age. It’s the rise of information — its importance falsely amplified by the act of its theft — over a quality understanding of its content and context. (Likewise, Edward Snowden didn’t reveal anything that wasn’t already both legal and in the public record – and those facts are a problem in themselves. He was, however, infinitely more selective with his document selection.)
In other words, the information that Manning stole was far more important for the fact that it was stolen, than it was for the quality of the information itself.
Clearly, there is a vast amount of wrongdoing on the part of the US civilian government and the military overseas. Abu Ghraib leaps to mind. Rendition flights. The entire manipulation of intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq. Guantanamo. Torture. The Drug War. Criteria for the selection of targets for drone strikes. The list goes on.
And this is where, it seems to me, most of the pro-Manning arguments stem from. There is so much frustration with US foreign policy – and there is much that needs to be revealed. We the People are feeling powerless in the face of drones, the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo and for the fact that even if we knew so much already, nothing’s being fixed.
This is cause for an enormous amount of justifiable anger. People want a hero. That’s why to many, Manning fits the bill. Even without a closer examination of the content — or lack thereof — of what he revealed.
In fact, many seem to think that he should get some sort of “hero’s credit” for just trying. Just for successfully stirring up some shit. That the underdog is always right. I disagree. If anything, Manning and Wikileaks may have persuaded the Obama administration to pursue legitimate leakers and whistleblowers more relentlessly. Bradley Manning may have made the lives of people who want to report crimes — which they know are crimes, because they understand their broader context, based on an insider’s knowledge of a government agency — more difficult. (This is not to overlook the fact that Manning was denied his Constitutional right to due process for three years - which is a crime committed against him. That, no doubt, will also figure in future whistleblowers’ minds. Edward Snowden has said it influenced him.)
Manning was arrested and charged because just as individuals are allowed the right to privacy, so too, are State Department diplomats allowed to maintain a degree of control over information related to the affairs of state.
To suggest otherwise is to is to support anarchy. Yes, that seems trendy these days. But nihilism is not constructive. And it’s not going to stop the State Department from committing any crimes.*** (Leaking, a principled act, has the potential to stop crime. Hacking - a gross criminal act in itself - does not.)
So a 22 year-old found his way into a computer system he shouldn’t have had access to. His mind was justifiably blown. He found himself reading of a private State Department and Defense universe that was virgin territory to his own experience and understanding.
My feeling? Tragedy may have been averted if he were that kid who discovered a dog-eared copy of Noam Chomsky in the school library, years earlier. He did not.
That’s not because he would have been made an 18 year-old cynic, with punctured American ideals. But he would have had an understanding of scale, and the role the US State Department is meant to play. He would have better understood the difference between a crime and a sit-rep. He’d have had a better chance of understanding how the crime of the US helicopter gunship gunning down civilians and journalists would be lost within a fantasist’s notions of total transparency.
In the end, a 22 year-old threw away his life for this. For Wikileaks. And that is nothing short of tragic.
*There are people who believe that what Bradley Manning did was right, because the US State Department is committing evil in absolutely every single context around the world, because of its very existence.
Personally, I find this belief — again, trendy notions of anarchy — extraordinarily naïve. Yes, the US State Department is certainly flawed, and arguably, so is much of US foreign policy. To suggest everything it does is wrong in every single context is to ignore the extraordinary stabilizing influence the US, and the West as a whole, exerts on the world. (Besides, who elected Bradley Manning to be the Arbiter of All Virtue?)
When it comes right down to it, I think we’d all rather live in a world where the State Department is aware that North Korea is providing Iran with nuclear technology, than one in which it is not. If the US and its allies were not aware or not confronting that issue (and myriad others) through diplomacy - that would be a crime of negligence that the world cannot afford.
If you’re hailing as a hero Edward Snowden, the “whistle-blower” who released a number of National Security Agency documents, revealing that the non-stop invasion of privacy enacted during the Bush administration has continued unabated during the Obama administration, then you simply can’t be a fan of Bradley Manning.
Here’s why: it’s the difference between leaking and hacking.
Based on his job with a contractor to the NSA, Snowden became privy to a surveillance program he believes violates the Constitutional rights of Americans. It’s a gross invasion of our privacy, with little in the way of oversight to make sure that such monitoring, done in the name of security, is not also used as a means of political persecution.
He selected a number of documents and chose to right a specific wrong. He, like Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, like former Associate FBI director Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, engaged in leaking. (There’s a fallacy insofar as he “whistle-blew” something that was both legal and already within the public domain. Nonetheless, his theft of the paperwork is being deemed newsworthy for its scale and timeliness.)
Private Bradley Manning stole hundreds of thousands of State Department cables discovered accidentally. They did not fall within the purview of his routine duties, and he could never claim to have a functional knowledge of all of their contents, the way Snowden did.
He accessed a system way above his pay-grade, and used deception to remove the information from the computer network. This is hacking. (It doesn’t matter if hacking information was easy, and in his case, it was. If you steal a car because the keys were left in it, it’s still a crime.)
Manning had no specific knowledge of crimes contained in these files.
Or let’s say Manning did find crimes. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the first 100 pages of cables were riddled with what he thought was crime. There is still no way he read 250 thousand of them and determined that they all supported criminal activity on the part of the State Department.
No — Manning made his decision to steal the information based on the hacking world’s vague rationale, “If it’s secret, it must be bad.” And “information wants to be free.”
And perhaps the rationale is — if he did see crime in what he read — he could take a reasonable guess that there’s even more crime going on.
Manning allegedly turned that information over to Wikileaks, which document dumped the private State Department cables for everyone, including al Qaeda and nuke-aspiring thugs to see, online.
The cables revealed a great deal of diplomatic gossip, and some counter-intuitive private alliances (such as Pakistan approving more drone strikes, and Yemen agreeing to cover them up.) But even the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Guardian and all the news outlets who covered the leak reported that the cables revealed the basic competence of the U.S. diplomatic corps. (In fact, there was little in the way of revelation about Iraq and Afghanistan from the cables that those newspapers’ correspondents had not already spent years reporting on.)
Even Wikileaks founder Julian Assange admits that strongest reportage of alleged crimes and cover-ups contained deep within in the U.S. State Department cables came very, very much after the fact. In some cases, after years of journalism.
But — to hear their supporters tell it — Wikileaks and Bradley Manning are heroes! Because the ends justify the means. Assange’s argument is they Manning didn’t need to know about specific crimes being committed in advance to justify stealing all the cables: what we found out later makes it all worth while.
If you buy that argument, you should work for the NSA.
Their rationale? It doesn’t matter that if the NSA doesn’t have any knowledge ahead of time about specific terror plots by US citizens or the people they talk to, and it doesn’t matter they are monitoring everybody’s electronic communications with foreigners. They can take a reasonable guess that there’s crime going on.
If they stop just one terrorist attack because of it, their thinking goes, then it was all worth while. They are, after all, trying to save lives.
The ends justify the means.
And hey — information wants to be free.
So, if the NSA scandal has you upset, applaud Snowden all you want. That’s leaking. Or, applaud Manning all you want. That’s hacking — and essentially the same as what the NSA did. So you’ve got to pick one.
Note to readers: my own observations regarding those who support both Manning and Snowden suggest that the argument is “the U.S. is an evil empire and no matter what anyone does to take it down a peg is justified.” I don’t buy it, not just because the means deployed are hypocritical, but because simply being destructive or indulging in trendy notions about “anarchy” are not an answer for how we move forward in a functioning society.
Fans of privacy issues, please post in the comments section what the new definition of privacy — for both individuals, and the affairs of government and diplomacy — should be. I am genuinely interested to hear. I am against the prosecution of journalists who deal with leakers.
I’m also keen to hear a comprehensive definition of “hacktivism,” which (while I sympathize with some of the issues taken on by groups like “Anonymous”) strikes me as opportunistic and wholly without accountability.
This story was also published on The Huffington Post, with numerous comments from readers. Below, I post my response to comments suggesting individuals have a right to privacy, but the government does not.
The question of privacy vs. secrecy is precisely the issue.
All agencies of government are required to be transparent. They are accountable to us, the voters.
However, that does not mean that they have no right to privacy, such as the State Department, when conducting the affairs of state.
Who wants to see North Korea nuke Japan? This is a valid concern to the Japanese. For that reason, the US, China, NK, SK, Japan and Russia have been engaged in the “Six Party talks” designed to get Pyongyang to drop the nuclear aggression. (Those talks are currently on hold.)
What value is there in Bradley Manning revealing the back-room conversations between, for example, the US and China – and allowing Kim Jong Un to know their negotiating strategies ahead of time?
Let’s say there’s an Iranian dissident, who wants to leave the country with information regarding Tehran’s support for Syrian use of chemical weapons. Why would that person ever come forward, when he knows that some 23 year-old has decided to reveal his name to anyone with an internet connection? (Wikileaks refused to redact the names of all diplomatic contacts. )
No, no – nevermind! Bradley Manning knows better. About everything!
So yes – transparency is an essential part of democracy. As every individual is entitled to privacy, so too, are agencies of government – to a degree. To suggest otherwise is to be naïve about how the real world operates.
You might not be familiar with me, but I’m a rock. Well — I don’t like to brag, but I’m a boulder, really. Once, I was the tip of a mountain, but mostly I’ve been paved over. And — I didn’t ask for things to be this way — but, as rocks go, I’m a pretty damn significant one. I am the rock upon which the foundations of three major religions rest.
I usually try to avoid the conversation, because it gets awkward, fast. But what better time than Holy Week to bring this up?
I live in Jerusalem — which I know you’ve heard of. It’s the ancient city in Israel and/or Palestine - depending on your point of view. It’s holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims. All three have fought over Jerusalem over the centuries. In the modern era, it’s mostly been a conflict between Jews and Muslims.
This is where I come in.
You’ve probably heard about this one — Christians and Jews talk about it all the time. It was in the Old Testament and the Torah that Abraham was married to Sarah, who couldn’t conceive. That’s what we’d say now, but of course, in the Bible they prefer the term “barren.” In any case, God came along — and suddenly, Sarah was pregnant!
At long last, they had a son, named Isaac. Then to test him, God decided that Abraham would have to kill him. (God’s like that sometimes.) Abraham took Isaac outside of town — well, that was back when I was still a mountain, — and was about to kill him, when an angel said, Nevermind! God was just testing! There happened to be ram nearby, caught in some thorns, and the angel said it was OK to kill the ram instead.
Yeah, so — that mountain? That was me.
Even before that, God decided to give Moses the stone tablets that contained the Ten Commandments. You know, the Thou shalt not’s that still stir up so much controversy. Moses — what a star! To be chosen by God like that!
Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the desert, in search of the Promised Land, carrying the tablets with them in a special golden trunk — the Ark of the Covenant.
Well, we all know — Moses died before making it to the Promised Land. But the Ark made it to a temple, the First Temple, built by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Which was built upon the tip of a mountain.
That tip of a mountain? Actually, it’s a rock now. A boulder, really. That was me.
That temple got knocked down, as did the Second Temple to follow. Raiders of the Lost Ark not withstanding, the Ark of the Covenant has never been found. (I swear to God I don’t know what happened to it! And no, I’ve never met Harrison Ford. I get asked that a lot.)
But to the Jewish people, you’ve got to understand — those temples, and the Third temple prophesied to be built upon the same site? To them, that’s of extraordinary religious significance.
To Christians, for whom the Ten Commandments still make up the backbone of morality? What a star for them, too.
Now let’s talk Islam. One day, the Prophet Mohammed was at home in Mecca when the Arch Angel Gabriel appeared, with a magic winged horse. First, they flew to Jerusalem. From there, Mohammed and the magic flying horse took off to the heavens and met God.
Of course, for that sort of flight, you need to get a good running start. Off the tip of a mountain. Off a conveniently-located boulder.
Can you believe it? It was the same rock! And yeah — that was me.
Mohammed — what a star! To be chosen by God like that! Understandably, Muslims think Jerusalem is of extraordinary religious significance. And so am I.
So yes, I have to say — I’m flattered that so much history is associated with me. Oftentimes, I’m overwhelmed by the faith and love of good people, whose interpretations of the Torah, the Bible and the Quran lead them to do unto others as they would like others to do unto themselves.
But the rest of it.
Thousands of terrorist attacks over the years, by those who believe Islam is being oppressed by the U.S. and other allies of Israel? And the military response to those? That’s all because of me. Thousands of air-strikes and attacks by Israel on Gaza and other Palestinian targets, not even necessarily part of the seven(!) individual wars and myriad mini-conflicts to wrack the region in the modern era?
That too, is all because of me.
Pick up a newspaper. Are you baffled by the talk of potential Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear sites and how they link to question of the U.S. funding Syrian rebels?
Peel away enough layers, and that, too, is because of me.
With no exaggeration, humankind has literally spent centuries fighting over the same rock. I try not to get too bummed out about this, because I know it’s not my fault. But at the same time — I can’t help but feel partly to blame for a never-ending stream of tragedy.
I understand that we’re talking about tribal culture, with ancient scribes whose geographic understanding was limited by how far they could get on foot. And sure — in Jerusalem, I’m a convenient landmark. But did God really have to base elements of the foundation to every tradition of faith in the region on me??
Talk about a lack of imagination on the part of the Creator!
And Christianity doesn’t get away scott-free. The Crusades, anyone? Luckily, I’m not even the faintest bit round — here’s a photo. Otherwise it’d be just my luck to have been rolled in front of Christ’s tomb.
I know. I’m sorry. What’s more tacky than a celebrity complaining about the writers? But honestly, I’mexhausted. If it were up to me, I’d be no more than a molehill. I’d be a patch of sand — there’d be so much less responsibility.
It’s absurd. It’s the height of human folly.
Because in the end, I’m still just a rock.
This piece also appears in The Huffington Post.