Category Archives: Current Events

I don’t have anything new to say about the Planned Parenthood shootings

A little more than a week ago, someone walked into a Planned Parenthood and started shooting – killing people for being less “pro-life” than he was. He was an  evangelical with a history of violence against women. The particular clinic, the people who died, the details of the event – those are new, and unique. But people killing people over some lose affiliation with abortion? I  have memories of that happening consistently over the course of my life, damn near in my back yard. There were the summer and Christmas clinic bombings in 1984, the doctor shot in the back in 1993, and another shot in the head in 1994 – all in my small hometown.

In the 1994 Washington Post story, then-President Bill Clinton called the act of shooting a  physician because s/he provides or supports the provision of abortions “domestic terrorism” and condemned it. While I’ve recently suggested that the risk of ‘everyday terrorism’ discourses is a license for ‘counterterrorism’ in intimate spaces, and have always worried about the Orientalist implications of terrorism language – this one is easy – killings that target abortion clinics are terrorism. They are a part of a larger system of violence against women and girls, and a culture that combines sexism and violence. That’s not something new to say. Someone probably said it before I was born. I don’t have anything new to say. Because nothing different is happening. Same script, different century. Its not about saying something new. Its about someone finally fucking hearing it – abortion clinics aren’t places to kill people, women’s bodies aren’t crazy and unrelated men’s business, and so long as it is easier to buy an arsenal than it is to enroll in school there’s a risk that people buy and use arsenals.

Some of my conservative friends look to make a counterpoint out of San Bernardino shootings – those were acts of terrorism, after all, by Islamic extremists inspired by Daesh. But there’s no counterpoint there. Its not scarier for people to kill people out of a terrible misinterpretation of the Islamic god than out of a terrible misinterpretation of the Christian god. Both are made possible by a culture of violence and the availability of weapons. Both are unconscionable. And both have been going on way too long.

I’m tired of responding to either. And I’m tired of sexist, racist, politically polarizing responses to something that should be not about sex, race, or politics: militarized culture, not ok; killing people in the name of life, not ok; killing people who aren’t trying toil you, not ok.  I don’t have anything new to say, because I’ve said the same damn thing every time violence like that happens, and, however loudly it is said, … it seems to drown in the combination of religious and nationalist rhetoric with which both of these events, and many others like and unlike them, are normalized.

James Bond as an Autonomous Weapon

In a recent piece for the Conversation, I compared James Bond to a drone.  I think a mistake was made, James Bond is not just a drone; he is an autonomous drone.  This “man” is not concerned with headquarters, orders, or the state.  He is pure id, operating under some sort of ‘00’ code routine of kill before you are killed.   James-Bond-fighting-on-a-helicopter-607133

Continue reading

US Defense Spending: There Used to Be a Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:

[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”

[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…

There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.
Continue reading

Russia and Syria: Let’s You and Them Fight

My friend and fellow blogger Brandon Valeriano is a much better security studies scholar than I am. He’s written a great piece today about Russia’s involvement in Syria, and in particular how unimpressive that involvement is so far relative to the breathless hyperbole appearing in the American press.

Some of this, of course, is press coverage in the context of an American presidential race. Republican candidates, none of whom have any credentials on foreign policy, are swift to criticize the Obama administration for making the US “look weak” and for “capitulating” to Russia. The narrative of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war plays into that fable well, and helps win votes from tribal Republicans. It has no bearing on reality, but neither does most of the rest of the campaign. For those of us interested in the world as it is, we can safely ignore the three-ring circus and look instead to what we already know about international conflict and what that might tell us about the US-Russia strategic balance. Continue reading

Russia’s Vaunted Military?

This New York Times piece on Russia’s use of power in Syria was so notable for its hyperbole and exaggeration, it woke me from my RI slumber.  As my old friend from UIC, Evan McKenzie noted “For the US media exaggerating Russia’s military power is a reflex.” It truly is in this case, the article is so bad that it could have appeared in Russia Today.  Lets cover it by using the NYTimes’ own words.   Mine are in italics0,,17590427_303,00

Continue reading

The Offense-Defense Balance Applies to Interpersonal Conflict, Too

Regular readers of my personal blog know that I am not a fan of firearms as a self-defense solution. While there are clearly cases in which firearms have produced good self-defense outcomes, on balance I think that they cause more problems (and cost more lives) than they save.

I know that there are plenty of folks out there who, for dogmatic reasons, will disagree with me. Some of them, if they were to read the preceding paragraph, would decide on the basis of those two sentences alone that I am not only wrong, but a communist/atheist/socialist/libtard out to take all guns away from everyone so that Obama can destroy America and rule over the new fascist dystopia he so desperately wants. Needless to say, I do not write for these people.

For those of you who might be interested in understanding why I regard guns as dangerous and destabilizing, I offer the following. This is not an exercise in “scenario gotcha” – there is always a different hypothetical that begins “What if I’m attacked in this situation…?” There are an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios, and I will freely concede that there is no one answer to all of them. What follows is a discussion for why guns, on balance, are more problematic than helpful.

I have long maintained that the study of interpersonal conflict and the study of international conflict (my primary field of expertise) have a lot in common. What I have been trying to say about the effect of guns on interpersonal violence has been long understood by those who study international conflict.

Many years ago, the imminent scholar Robert Jervis penned a seminal piece in the study of war (if you want to read the whole thing, you can download a copy here). Titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma”, Jervis explored the logic of when conflicts will escalate and when countries will cooperate in a world where there is no central government and every country is (in theory) afraid for its security against every other.

In exploring this question, Jervis introduces a really critical concept: the “offense-defense balance”. Jervis explains the idea this way:

When we say that the offense has the advantage, we simply mean that it is easier to destroy the other’s army and take its territory than it is to defend one’s own. When the defense has the advantage, it is easier to protect and to hold than it is to move forward, destroy, and take.

This is a function of technology and tactics. In World War I the combination of fortifications, automatic machine guns, and trench warfare made taking territory almost impossible and defending it much easier. Vast numbers of lives were lost trying to take a few hundred yards of land in Belgium and France. The war made no sense, and was possible only because the military and political leaders of the day misunderstood the true offense-defense balance until it was too late.

Fast-forward to the start of WWII, and the tables had turned. The maturation of aircraft, the development of the tank, and the new doctrine of Blitzkrieg made maneuver the order of the day. It was much easier, and cheaper, for Germany to take territory than it was for France to defend it. That advantage made it much more likely that Germany would launch the war it wanted anyway.

The important thing about the offense-defense balance is that it has a strong effect on whether countries (or people) are likely to initiate violence or not. In Jervis’ words, “whether it is better to attack or to defend influences short-run stability.” When the offense has the advantage, war is more likely because in a crisis countries will fear that the other guy will launch a surprise attack and thereby win. There have been enough examples since 1945 (the 1967 Arab-Israeli war comes to mind) to keep this logic alive. Simply put, in a world in which the dominant technologies & doctrines are offense-oriented violence between states is much more likely. In a world in which defense is dominant, violence is less likely.

Some might want to argue that “countries aren’t people” and therefore this logic doesn’t apply to the conflict between mugger and victim, or between two men in a bar, or in any other conflict between two individuals. It is true that the analogy doesn’t work whenever there are immediate mechanisms that can enforce security – a police presence nearby, for example. But most self-defense scenarios take place away from the protections of the government – that is, under conditions of temporary anarchy. No government, no central protecting force – you’re on your own, much like countries in the world.

So what do guns do in an environment of immediate interpersonal insecurity? Guns are an inherently offense-dominant technology – that make it easier by orders of magnitude to hurt or kill the other person than it is for that person to defend themselves against an attack. There are in fact few ready defenses against a gunshot (kevlar body armor comes to mind, but it is expensive, not widely available, and impractical to wear in most situations).

In this sense, guns are to interpersonal violence what nuclear weapons are to countries – the weapon against which there is no effective defense. Guns are actually worse in one sense: a country cannot defend itself against a nuclear strike (“Star Wars” fantasies aside), but nuclear-armed states have a reasonable hope of being able to fire back after absorbing that first hit, thereby destroying the other side too. This creates mutual deterrence (MAD, or “Mutually Assured Destruction”, as it became known in the Cold War), which creates its own kind of stability through a “balance of terror”.

Guns are worse, because they lack this tendency to create mutual deterrence. If I shoot you first, and if my aim is good, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to fire back. I am not therefore deterred by the thought that my opening fire will get me shot in turn. If we are both armed (or if I think you might be), I have every incentive to fire first so that you cannot shoot back. My own self-preservation depends on how fast I can get off the first shot.

Jervis himself, in his 1978 article, foresaw this. Long before Michael Brown, #blacklivesmatter, or the “war on cops”, he wrote this:

In another arena, the same dilemma applies to the policeman in a dark alley confronting a suspected criminal who appears to be holding a weapon. Though racism may indeed be present, the security dilemma can account for many of the tragic shootings of innocent people in ghettos.

I would modify this to suggest that the security dilemma rationalizes racism, and that the two feed off each other, but you get the point. This logic is in fact exactly the defense that police have been using in court to get away with shooting unarmed people.

If police have difficulty resolving this dilemma, how well will untrained or lightly-trained civilians do? The fact of the matter is that the only way you can use a gun to defend yourself, if push comes to shove, is to shoot the other guy first. Those that argue that arming everyone reduces the likelihood of violence ignore the unstable offense-dominance of guns. Guns can only be a deterrent if people are assured of their ability to shoot back – that is, if they can absorb the first strike.

Add to this the challenge of carrying guns in the modern environment. In most places guns must be concealed (in a purse, holster, etc.), increasing the time it takes to bring them to bear. Openly carried guns can make the carrier a target, further increasing the likelihood of violence. None of this pushes things towards more peaceful personal interactions, whether the problem is predators (in Jervis’ parlance, the aggressor-defender model) or people simply being afraid of each other (the security dilemma).

The offense-defense balance problem is real. Every age has its dominant technologies, and these technologies make violence more or less likely. Small, cheap, easily accessible guns are unarguably offense-dominant, and as such they make violence more likely and more problematic between people even if those people merely seek to protect themselves. So let’s stop referring to guns as tools of self-defense and call them what they really are: first-strike weapons.

The Problematic Postgraduate Higher Education System in the UK

I step into this breech timidly, the UK education system is severely rotting.  There is so much I can say and so much I should not.  As this is the start of my fourth year in the UK I have a lot to say about the UK higher education system and its faults.  It is not that the American system is perfect, it is often flawed at a deeper level (cost and access).  This is what makes the decline of the British system all that more troubling.  The benefits and advances will be lost with the continued underfunding of significant programmes and the neglect of our highest paying students.   unhappy-dog-rex

Continue reading

The Political Prescience of Veep

Forget the political sensibilities of the Daily Show or John Oliver. While Key & Peele, Broad City, and other shows like Maron or Louie that hit highs, the real winner of both the comedy battle and the battle for political accuracy was Veep (a follow up to The Thick of It).  veepseason4-700x369

Chronicling the misadventures of Selina Meyer, an isolated and irrelevant Vice President who through time finds herself as President and presiding over an election for her political life led by a bunch of well meaning (and sometimes not so well meaning) incompetents.  Washington DC is outright poisoned and Veep gets it right, especially with this last Fourth season.

Continue reading

Four Million Records!: The Meaning of Massive Cyber Intrusions

It has become common to wake up to news of yet another intrusion in America, or even Chinese systems by cyber hackers.  The deeper ignored question is just what does this mean?  What can someone really do with four million records of identity for United States government employees?

Continue reading

Touring Political and Historical Cairo

Old Cairo, Modern Cairo, and Revolutionary Cairo all clash in devastating and fascinating ways. This blog will serve a bit as a travelogue and observations about political events, but I have nothing really profound to say.  I am not an Egyptologist and have not spent much time studying revolutions. DSC_0021

Egypt is not in chaos, but it certainly is not stable.  The recent decision to condemn the post-Revolution leader Morsi seems problematic, to put things mildly.  What is even more confusing is that basic information, like what time it is in Egypt, is open to interpretation. Sisi decided to forgo Daylight Savings Time, an interesting choice in that every clock, cell phone signal, and internet resource gives conflicting advice on what time it is.   Egypt is basically an island in time, different from its neighbors.

Continue reading