Threats to security start at home

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"Developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria, threaten our security at home" (Barack Obama and David Cameron, in the Times of London). I'll say. In fact I think it's the only thing you can say with assurance about either crisis they're discussing: Ukraine and ISIS. But the threats I see at home may be different from those they have in mind.

Start with Ukraine. Here's a chilling thought. It comes from U.S. scholar Stephen Cohen, an A-list expert on Russia for many decades. During the Soviet era, he worked with dissidents and supported reform. He's deeply perturbed at misinformation about the current crisis but even he has found it hard to get a serious hearing. The "official" version dominates.

He keeps trying but this is what he scarily tells young academics who want idealistically to widen the debate: "I always advise, 'Even petty penalties for dissent in regard to Russia could adversely affect your career. At this stage of life, your first obligation is to your family and thus to your future prospects. Your time to fight lies ahead.'"

In other words, McCarthyism is back. That pestilence of the 1950s always aimed to stifle dissent, or punish it brutally when suppression failed. It was mainly a U.S. mania but we had our own politer and in ways crueller version. There was eventually a pushback when players like the U.S. military felt menaced -- and even a glamourization of its victims via movies, books, etc. Now it's returned via mere association with Russians, though communism itself is long gone.

This threat is to democracy's security. How so? Concerning Ukraine, it's hard to find any alternate "analysis" to the demonization of Putin, though it'd be easy to explain Russian behaviour as normal national self-interest, and leave the devil out. I'm not even arguing that, I'm just saying it's arguable. People do discuss it on the Internet, but rarely in mainstream outlets. CBC's Nahlah Ayed had an interesting report on Russians who challenge Putin's denial of invading Ukraine. (Of course Russia is involved there, in the furtive way the U.S. is active almost everywhere. That doesn't make it an "invasion." An invasion is when you don't deny it, you proclaim it -- like Iraq.) Based on Ayed's report, it's possible dissenting journalism has as much -- or greater -- purchase there than here.

As for ISIS, I'd like to abandon my usual calm, objective tone. Yes, there's a threat of domestic 9/11-type attacks by ISIS: either in the name of global proselytization or to teach the West what it's like to be bombarded at home. But it's the predictable result of western policies since 9/11: invasions, occupations, brutalizations in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Western leaders and policy mavens knew these would elicit further 9/11s. That's what I find despicable. They surely try to stop them but eventually some will probably get through -- and they're prepared to accept those, along with the terrorization of their own populations, as the price of their agenda.

In other words, they don't invade or attack to stop future 9/11s. They accept future 9/11s as the cost for invasions and attacks with other purposes.

Such retaliations can arise in any society that's been buffeted by outsiders, though they're easier to mount in the globalized era. They already occurred in Ireland and Algeria. They often come from religion-based groups because those have deep roots and seem better able to survive repression than secular resistance movements. Occupiers like the U.S. are willing to risk the retaliation since, though terrifying and barbaric, it doesn't menace them existentially: neither economically nor militarily. They'll survive, and meanwhile have an excuse to tighten the screws on domestic dissent, further eroding personal security.

They of course don't say any of this. In foreign policy, you never say what you mean. Routinely you say the opposite. On foreign policy, leaders lie even more than they do domestically, where there are ways to check veracity.

I'm not justifying 9/11-type attacks; they're vile. There may even be cases where we must hit back despite reinforcing the cycle -- and ISIS may be such a case. But our leaders damn well ought to try to put an end to that cycle, too.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Number 10/flickr

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