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I took Popehat’s words to heart yesterday. I think it’s time that I started writing again, for myself and to encourage others to do the same. The world needs more thoughts and dialogues. The problem is: I don’t know a good place to start.

I’ve been wandering in a fugue since the results came back. I’ve gone to my bookshelves a lot to look for a quote from a work or experience the texture of an author’s prose. Looking through these books has been a solace. I think I can put together a reading list that explains how I’ve come to believe the things I do. I want to start an honest dialogue.

I’m identifying books in a Google Doc that I will make available to anyone who asks. I intend to pair two or more books together on a theme when I write about them. Ideas and stories contain more meaning juxtaposed with other works.

This seems futile. Hate has again been institutionalized, and we have to deal with the consequences. But we have an obligation to resist, speak, and struggle.


Lots ink and and many pixels have been spilled in the past 24 hours about personal rights, digital privacy, and government interference. I don’t think enough has been spilled about the systemic reality that made so much of this possible: corporations have the right to access a lot of your information, and they do so with the hope of monetizing your activities.

(I had an elaborate bank/YMCA/your closet metaphor prepared, but I figure anyone who is reading this understands what I was driving at: storing personal data on a corporation’s server is different from storing it on your hard drive. So I will jump to my main point instead.)

When you store data on servers owned by a corporation, you cede some rights of ownership and privacy to that corporation. They can read your documents. They trawl them extensively for the purposes of advertising. Corporations are not governed by the fourth amendment, and they have more incentive to actively monitor your data anyway. The NSA does not have a vested interest in monetizing everything you do. Corporations (especially you, Google) do.

Let me repeat that: corporations have an interest in building a specific profile on your patterns of behavior and consumption and using that profile to both actively and passively direct your habits to align with their financial goals.

Google wants to see what you talk about in your e-mails so that they can tailor the advertisements you see. They also want to catalog your searches, so that they can suggest things in the future. The problem is twofold: first, Google exempts certain results from searches because it doesn’t fit established patterns. While you may think that you are seeing the entire universe of results, you are actually seeing only the results Google wants you to see. Second, Google makes a profit from corporate advertising dollars. If we already know that they are limiting our searches, how do we know which results pop up because they match our patterns of behavior, and which pop up simply because a company paid for it to be there? The truth is, we often don’t.

While we are willing, and often eager, participants in this relationship, the outrage running through so many of my news feeds right now indicates we have a troubled relationship with digital privacy. It makes me wonder: why does this backlash occur only when we are presented with evidence that the government is able gather the information? Aside from the Orwellian confirmation of a Fourth-Amendment-squashing program many suspected existed, did we learn anything new? And in truth, given how much we entrust to corporations right now and how bad their data-protection track records are, isn’t that data-driven profile is probably just a FISA Court authorized subpoena away anyway?

If, as the letter from the White House claims, evidence of small scale sarin nerve has attacks have been found in physiological samples, there are a multitude of explanations as to why they exist. The letter itself notes that officials are as of yet still unsure of the chain of evidence behind the physiological evidence. The United States has pledged time and again that the use of chemical weapons draws a sharp line. If actors in the region could prove that chemical weapons were used, they could theoretically bring the US in on their side. But assuming that the samples did contain actual evidence of a chemical attack, does this automatically cross the line the US set.

(I will preface this with two caveats: first, this is a theoretical exercise. Second, the idea that chemical weapon use constitutes a red line is something of an absurdity with regards to Syria. When thousands have been killed through more conventional means, either bombs, bullets, or bludgeoning, singling out a single weapons system, even one as heinous as chemical weapons, seems trite. This is a conflict where SCUDs have reportedly been used against population centers. Third, I understand that it’s unlikely chemical weapons could be used as I describe below. It’s more likely that the regime sanctioned the use of weapons. This is theoretical.)

The belief here is that, if chemical weapons, specifically Sarin, have been used, they were used at the behest of the regime. The first assumption inherent to this idea is the uniformity of the Assad regime, or at least the uniformity of its communications structure. The regime does not function as a hive mind, rather, like most governments, it is composed of multiple entities, each with their own interest. These entities run the gamut from Assad himself to, say, a colonel in charge of a military post, far from Damascus, in danger of being overrun.

From these two examples within the “regime,” it is fair to acknowledge that it is made of a relatively disparate group of actors, each with their own set of interests. Much ink has been spilled to this effect, but Bashar himself is unlikely to condone a nation-wide policy of chemical weapons attacks. He knows this could potentially bring the US (and the world) down on his head. The hypothetical colonel in the field may feel differently.

Say his life is in danger. His post is being assaulted, and the conventional arms he and his men have at their disposal aren’t enough to break the siege. He has access to chemical weapons, and knows that the fear that three unconventional arms create is almost as useful as the effectiveness of the arms themselves. He makes the conscious decision to use chemical weapons against those besieging his position. In his haste to use them, the blowback of the weapons leads to civilian deaths from the population center nearby. Word, and evidence, of the attacks gets out to the wider world. Do the actions of this minor actor within the regime equate to the actions of the regime as a whole?

This sequence of events actually parallels an event from the history of North America. In 1763, during Pontiac’s Rebellion, Fort Pitt fell under siege. The fort, which was built and occupied on the site of an earlier French fort, remained under siege for over a month. Jeffery Amherst, the British general responsible for the fort, sent troops to reinforce the garrison there. The troops, under Colonel Bouquet, broke the siege in August, nearly two months after it had begun.

While preparing to lead the march to Fort Pitt, Amherst sent Bouquet a letter inquiring as to the possibility of spreading smallpox amongst the Indians, intentionally, as a means to “reduce them.” Bouquet agreed with the idea, and suggested using blankets. The idea was discussed over the course of three letters between the two. Unbeknownst to both of them, the garrison at Fort Pitt had already acted without knowing of their plan, providing the representatives of the Delaware tribes with blankets from the smallpox ward.

The question historians have been asking since is thus: do the actions of those at Fort Pitt, including the correspondence of Amherst and Bouquet, constitute a policy of genocide by biological warfare, or do they reflect the despicable actions of the men fighting to quash the rebellion? Most historians trend towards the latter, that it does not reflect a policy of genocide, but rather one more attempt to break a siege. That distinction of policy versus single action by a single actor is huge. Claiming that Amherst’s writings constitute a policy of genocide is much more terrifying than saying they are the war-weary writings of a bigot and a xenophobe. Later American actions with regards to Native Americans aside, that claim would be a black mark on the history of the human race, to say nothing of the development of the United States.

This brings us back to the Syrian colonel and the red line on chemical weapons use. If the colonel’s actions were not the result of a policy of chemical weapons use (as in, he was told by his commander, who was told by his commander, and so on and so forth, reflecting a policy endorsed by the leaders of the Assad regime), his actions would seem to mirror those of the captain in charge of Fort Pitt, desperately looking for any way out of a deadly situation. Because his actions do not reflect a policy of chemical weapons use, what would US intervention accomplish? Aside from jailing and trying the colonel himself for the crime, not a lot. The weapons themselves have been common knowledge for a while. The war has been going on for over two years now. If the US intended to intervene in order to secure the weapons, they have had plenty of opportunities. If they intended to intervene in order to protect civilians; well, it’s a little late for that, too.

Therefore, it would seem that it is not enough to have evidence of the use of chemical weapons to justify intervention. That evidence could point to any number of scenarios. Cynically but realistically, nothing has changed. The regime is still killing its people, and the country is still in the throes of a brutal civil war. What would theoretically constitute enough evidence to justify intervention would be evidence, either physical documentation or human corroboration, that a chemical weapon attack is part of a coordinated policy directed from the upper echelons of the regime.

Chemical weapons exist in Syria; it is not unreasonable to assume they will be used in an active war-zone. If their active and persistent presence, coupled with the human rights atrocities, violence, and slaughter of civilians, was not enough to justify intervention in the beginning, their sporadic use does not seem to be enough now.

The United States recently took the step of naming Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the more extreme groups operating against the Assad regime in Syria, as a terrorist organization. It comes at a curious time, as the war in Syria is raging on and Jabhat al-Nusra is providing some of the most dedicated fighters to the cause.

Naming groups as terrorist organizations is a tricky political business. At the most basic level, it cuts American support, financial and otherwise. In practical reality, it means the organizations is cut off from the support of the international community. As long as the groups operate as purely malicious, violent institutions standing opposed to a legitimate and peaceful government, this is the best possible outcome. But, as we know, the world rarely works like that.

Alex Thurston at the Sahel Blog put up an interesting post  yesterday concerning the problems inherent in naming Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization in Nigeria. He notes that the nation itself seems divided as to the proper course of action. He further notes that if these judgements came from a purely legal standpoint, Boko Haram would probably qualify as an FTO. But he points out that there are complications inherent in this, complications I wish to elaborate on.

First, in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra is one of the most well armed and well funded groups. Those supplies flow out through the resistance. That material support from radical organizations is not an uncommon occurrence: Ansar al-Sharia, the organization that was responsible for the Benghazi attacks, also helped keep the doors open at a hospital. In Gaza, Hamas provides extensive social services and is seen as more honest than the Palestinian Authority. In the eyes of the West, these groups are often painted with a broad brush. The reality is much more nuanced.

American history provides a similar model for analysis: early street gangs. The prototypical gang in early American history was from one of the ethnic ghettos, and was generally racially homogenous. Irish gangs were from Irish neighborhoods, Germans from Germans. They drew from the lower classes by providing a means of social mobility. These gangs were predatory, without a doubt. But they also provided necessary services where none existed, acting as a proto-public safety department. In time, the social infrastructure of these gangs became more legitimate and formed political machines (Boston and New York are prime examples of this), giving a sense of legitimacy and social mobility to a previous marginalized group. (There is more behind this than Gangs of New York, I promise).

This brings me to a second point: when groups are given an official designation as an FTO, international organizations are by-and-large stay away from them. That is a good thing. It keeps them from getting their hands on money and weapons they would use to carry out attacks. It also has the effect of making the organizations pariahs in the international community. Again, generally good, for similar reasons. However, there is a flip-side to this coin: a designation as an FTO almost always means that these organizations are exempted from the peace process.

In places that have been home to long periods of conflict, peace does not come about overnight. It also rarely comes without cooperation from people with blood on their hands. Because the peace process inherently involves people who had been fighting in the past, the nitty-gritty focus relies on the process of reconciliation. That means establishing that both parties have legimitate redress, giving them a forum to voice those issues, and working with both parties to find a solution.

When an organization is labeled as a terrorist group, they lose all legitimacy. If they are a governing authority in a region or are providing services of some kind, this can hurt the people that they are helping as well as the organization itself. If they are a governing authority, it ruins any chance they have of working with other actors in the region to create peace.

Finally, labelling an organization as a FTO opens them up to civil rights abuses. As weak an argument as it may sound to some, violence begets violence. If the dominant power in a region is accustomed to using a heavy hand to quell unrest, this designation only reinforces their sense of purpose. The designation tacitly supports continued violence against the group, which may not always be strictly defined. When, for example, does a someone sympathetic to a cause become a member of the organization? If a teenager goes to a meeting, is he become a legitimate target?

The Boko Haram case presents an interesting middle path. The US named three individual leaders of the group as terrorists, which seemed to be a solid compromise for a little while. The designation removed support for the individuals, while allowing parties a wide range of options for finding a solution.

I saw Lincoln last weekend. It was amazing. Daniel Day Lewis disappeared effortlessly into his role. But the movie also got me thinking, as most things do, about American foreign policy.

In the movie, Lincoln discusses the legal precedence behind the Emancipation Proclamation, and the fact that he feels it is necessary to get the Senate to pass the 13th Amendment to ensure that slavery stays ended after the war. He knew that the courts would have their say once the war was over. He fully expected that his efforts would come under a critical microscope, and had put them into place knowing the legal ramifications of what he had done.

Obviously, this was a dramatization. I don’t know the specifics of the history (sadly, I still haven’t read Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), but that’s not important. Lincoln expected the courts to be involved. He expected some semblance of transparency, even in the throes of victor’s justice.

Which brings us the last ten years. We all know there is a gray area over declaring war; I still don’t fully understand the specifics. But we have been in an honest-to-god shooting war for half of my life. It started with the horse soldiers in Afghanistan, escalated with Shock and Awe in Iraq. At some point Afghanistan spilled into Pakistan, and Iraq came to include Yemen and Somalia. And then the war in Iraq ended.

Over the course of the conflict, the military began to operate Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. These UAVs were initially unarmed, used to inform soldiers on the ground of enemy positions without putting a pilot in harm’s way. Somewhere along the way, we realized we could strap weapons platforms to them, and use them to kill the insurgents before ground contact was made. (Did we not see this coming? Two of the biggest have names that could have come from the guy who named the Death Star: the Predator and the Reaper)

And that’s fine. The Air Force, as an arm of the military, used drone strikes as a tool in the conflict, and our host nations gave us their tacit approval. We ruffled more feathers when we killed bin Laden than with the drone strikes of years past. But the war in Iraq ended. We never ended up declaring war in Yemen. We never ended up declaring war in Somalia. And we continued to strike in these countries.

The legal authority of this behavior stems from the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The problem with that is that the AUMF only authorizes action against “those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” As anyone who existed in the past ten years knows, that means al-Qaeda. But in the past ten years, the lines between strikes carried out as a military operation (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), where the US sometimes came into direct conflict with al-Qaeda, and paramilitary operations against terrorists. Furthermore, it was one thing when we knew the identity of every individual on the receiving end of a missile. The US has since started targeting based on operational patterns, which means that an individual can be killed for simply behaving like a terrorist.

Somewhere along the way, we ceased to be at war. Somewhere along the way, the CIA began to make the majority of these strikes. And somewhere along the way, we should start processing these people as criminals, and begin persecuting them according to the criminal rule of law.

The NYT published a piece last weekend on the administration and their haste to publish rules in the face of an election loss. the piece pointed to an uncomfortable truth: the administration was not comfortable with the legality of what they were doing, and wanted to fully codify the system prior to a new administration taking office. In and of itself, this is shameful. It is a paradigm of conflict that you should never field a weapon you don’t want to fall into the hands of an enemy; it should stand to reason that a government should know this.

What is really troubling is that the administration now has no incentive to codify these rules. Now that their weapon won’t fall into the hands of the enemy, they can continue to use it at their discretion, without challenge.

Which brings it back to Lincoln. I don’t believe in the mythology of the great man, of the messiah. But I do believe that some people are more suited to certain challenges than others. The movie accurately captured one of the undeniably great features of Abraham Lincoln: he knew the law. He knew his limits. He knew that he was gambling, and he knew what he had to do under the law to make his gambles real. He was prepared to fail in court, but felt that the gamble was worth it.

The world has changed since Lincoln’s day. The president today doesn’t only have to justify his actions to the courts and the American people. He also has to justify them to the world. Although Pakistan has been quiescent so far, it is only a matter of time until the political scale of drone strikes and the aid that accompanies them tips unfavorably. And it is not unreasonable to imagine China utilizing this technology in Africa in ways that we do not approve of. At some point, a nation with human rights record worse than the US will get this technology. When that happens, who will we be to tell them they can’t kill from on high?

I don’t oppose the use of drones. But it is well and beyond time the administration codified their rules. Because soon enough, it won’t be the other side of the aisle gaining control of drones. It will be the other side of the rifle scope. We are live in an interconnected world. Soon enough, we will be held accountable for our actions within it.

I am 22.

I have a degree. I have a job. I have family and friends.

But I feel somewhat adrift. The path that has guided me for the past 22 years has ended. I have been in school since I was three years old. For the last 19 years, I have not only known what I would be doing the next day, but I knew what the next year held for me. Although I knew, academically (get it?), that this was coming, I did not prepare for it. I didn’t know how to prepare for it. And now it is here.

And it’s really just the same thing. I wake up in the morning, I go where I am supposed to, when I am supposed to, and I come home. I still struggle to eat healthy, socialize, exercise, and read all of the things that I want to read. I still have a hard time focusing on work for more than 30 minutes at a time. I just have to do it all within a much more rigid timeframe.

But I don’t know what the next year holds. And, for the first time, I am not bound by obligations. I have no degrees waiting for me at the other end of the year, no college applications upon which my future depends. I’ve got a little money in the bank, and more coming. Theoretically, I could pay off my car payments and just leave.

I don’t think I will. Instead, I want to make something of what I have. I want to be content. The name of this blog, and of this inaugural post, comes from the first line of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata: “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” This seems like advice I can heed.

My hope for this blog is multifold. First, it will serve as a pressure valve. Second, it will allow me to write. Finally, I hope that the practice of writing helps me to become a better writer. Fair warning through, this will not be pretty. The topics will range from foreign policy and national security to hip hop and healthcare. I don’t think I will ever find a heady group of followers. But I will try to update it relatively frequently.

I really do have so much. I have a loving family. I have great friends. I have a job. I have a degree. And when all is said and done, I have enjoyed walking the path that was set before me. But now it’s time to chart my own.

The Desiderata ends with four words:

Strive to be happy.