Watch List.

The federal gummint’s terrorist watch list has crested at about 800,000 names.[1]  The vast majority of these people are foreigners.  Many are candidates for drone strikes.  Most never seek entry to the United States.  That would just end in a flight to Guantanamo.  The “no-fly” list contains the names of about 64,000 people who will not be allowed to board airplanes bound for the United States.   “Only” about 25,000-40,000 of the people on the list are Americans.  People on the terrorism watch list who try to buy guns are automatically flagged for further FBI investigation.  In 2015, the names of 244 people who were on the watch list were sent to the FBI when they tried to buy guns.  Apparently, that further check really amounts to applying the normal standards for buying a gun: no history of involuntary commitment for mental illness and/or no criminal record.  (So, how does someone with no interest in buying guns get on the watch list?  If I went around denouncing the US Government in scurrilous terms, I’d want to have guns for when they got pissed off.[2])

In December 2015, the Senate Democrats offered a bill to give the Attorney General the power to deny the sale of a firearm or an explosive “to a known or suspected terrorist.”  Critics of the whole watch list thing point out that inclusion on the list is an administrative decision, while there is virtually no way to appeal against the decision.  The Republicans countered with a bill to delay sale for 72 hours to enable the FBI to investigate the purchaser.  Neither bill mustered a majority.

Had the Democrats’ bill passed, Omar Mateen would still have been able to purchase the weapons that he used in the Orlando massacre.  On the one hand, “suspects” are investigated by the FBI.  If the FBI concludes that they are not a current threat, then they are removed from the list of people banned from purchasing firearms or explosives.  On the other hand, there is a more or less “black market” for guns to be had on the internet from private dealers.

Perhaps long experience with the ineffectiveness of government regulation explains why Republican support for tighter gun laws fell from 55 percent in March 2000 to 26 percent in July 2015.  In any case, in states with Republican majorities in the legislature, mass shootings actually are followed by a loosening of gun laws.[3]  Conservatives throw up a smokescreen of rationalizations when their real concern is that liberals will try to disarm the country.[4]

One of the sources of the bitter partisanship that has disabled American democracy is revealed in a comment in a New York Times article.  “The “legislation does not specifically require that someone be named on a particular watch list to be considered a known terrorist or a suspect, so it is possible that Mr. Mateen could have been flagged under other procedures implemented by the attorney  general.”  Yes, yes, yes, the Justice Department says that this means that people once on a watch list and subsequently removed could still be banned.  However, what springs to mind in this post-Patriot Act/post-Snowden age is that an endlessly expanding list of people not allowed to buy guns will be created by presidential ukase.  Like work permits for illegal immigrants.  Like the assertion that the War Powers Act does not apply in Libya.

[1] Alicia Parlapiano, “How Terror Suspects Buy Guns—and How They Still Could, Even With a Ban,” NYT, 16 June 2016.

[2] See an over the top account in

[3] Neil Irwin, “After Mass Shootings, It’s Often Easier to Buy a Gun,” NYT, 16 June 2016.

[4] Yet national disarmament—as in Britain or Australia—is the only real means to reduce gun deaths.  The president needs to speak the truth, rather than run from it.  Same goes for drugs, taxes in the middle classes, and a carbon tax.

The Islamic Brigades III.

Omar Mateen, the Orlando Islamist homophobe mass murderer is beginning to appear as deranged from youth.  Different groups have sought to interpret the massacre to serve their own ends.[1]  Republicans harp on the danger from “radical Islam.”  President Obama excoriates American gun laws.  Gay rights groups trace the line from Stonewall to Orlando.  All this is great for an “Inside Baseball” approach to politics.  Does it solve any of our problems?  No.

Currently, it is all the rage to remark that ISIS exerts a global influence through both its propaganda and the reality of its military threat to Syria and Iraq.  This leads to “lone wolf” attacks.  However, the “shoe bomber,” the “underwear bomber,” the London transit bombers, and the Madrid train bombers all struck before ISIS was so much as a twinkle in the eye of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Stamp out ISIS and some new source of inspiration will arise.

Both traditional diplomats and modern military intelligence analysts have always sought to understand the “capabilities” of other states, rather than their “intent.”  “Intent” can change pretty rapidly, so understanding “capability” is much more useful in interpreting the strategic environment.  Peter Bergen, the author of United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists (2016), describes FBI behavioral analysts as doing something similar.  They analyze where a subject appears to be on a “pathway to violence.”  Neither of the two earlier FBI investigations of Omar Mateen had given any reason to believe that he had advanced far down the “pathway.”[2]  Suddenly, a few weeks ago, Mateen began to shift from all talk toward action.  He purchased guns; he tried to purchase body armor and ammunition in bulk; he began visiting a number of public sites suitable for targeting large numbers of people.  What caused the apparently sudden acceleration down the “pathway”?  We don’t know yet.

Terrorism scholars have concluded that the reason that terrorists attack are complex, but highly personal, rather than standardized.  Indeed, the “soldiers” of ISIS may be “little more than disturbed individuals grasping for justification.”[3]  Thus, Peter Bergen rejects simple answers.  In only 10 percent of 300 cases he examined did the “terrorist” have any kind of identifiable mental problem.[4]  The share of them who had ever done time in prison was only slightly higher than the American national average.[5]  Radical Islam just pulls some people.  Why?

Instead of simple explanations, Bergen finds a pattern of complex factors.  There is likely to be hostility to America’s Middle Eastern policy (our mindless support for Israel, our wrecking Iraq and Libya).  At the core, however, he finds people who have suffered some kind of acute “personal disappointment” or rupture like the death of a parent.  To take two examples, Nidal Hassan had few friends, no wife, and both his parents had died; while Tamerlan Tsarnaev had missed his punch in an effort to become an Olympic boxer.   Omar Mateen kept getting tossed out of school, losing jobs, and failing at marriage.  This, in turn, sends them in search of something that will give their life meaning.  That can mean radical Islam.  So, are terrorists “failed sons”?

[1] Max Fisher, “Trying to Know The Unknowable: Why Attackers Strike,” NYT, 15 June 2016.

[2] Obviously, this has nothing to do with the important questions, first, of whether someone with such a troubled life history should have been able to buy a firearm; and, second, whether anyone should be able to buy something like an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

[3] Fisher, “Trying to Know The Unknowable.”

[4] Peter Bergen, “Why Do Terrorists Commit Terrorism?” NYT, 15 June 2016.

[5] Terrorists: 12 percent versus American average: 11 percent.  However, extraordinarily large numbers of Americans have done time as a result of the War on Drugs, so this figure might look different if set in the context of incarceration rates in other advanced nations.