The War on Terror is Over

It looks like the War on Terror is over. That is, it's now become a Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism, according to the Bush administration's shift in language being used to describe that particular set of economic, military, domestic law enforcement, and foreign policy initiatives. I suppose we've come along way from the national security policy known as "Smoke 'Em Out" or "Bring 'Em On", but this new phrasing doesn't really warm the heart either. As someone who has come to appreciate the value of framing - and how good the current administration has been at it in the political sense - I'd like to suggest a few bits of analysis of what this new frame means.
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On the Nature of Civil Protest

I wrote this in reflection upon a conversation I had with a friend who was heading off for a weekend of protesting against the U.S. Government's "School of the Americas". There was the potential that my friend would be arrested, but there was also the general sense that it would be an exhausting and draining event. I asked her about why she was doing it, and a wonderful conversation ensued. These are some of the thoughts that remain. It's not done yet, thus the weak ending.

In every good conversation, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to communicate their thoughts, share their ideas, and help the other participants to understand what they are trying to say. The conversation takes place because all of the participants recognize the significance and benefit of engaging in conversation with the other participants to communicate but also for the sake of conversation itself. The conversation is able to take place because all of the participants recognize that the other participants share the desire to engage in conversation.

In every good argument or debate, the participants ideally exhibit a mutual desire to convince the other participants that one view on a particular issue or series of issues is more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another view on the same issue or series of issues. The participants in an argument attempt to achieve this goal by explaining and detailing the point of view that they support in the context of opposing or refuting the points of view of the other participants, or sometimes affirming some parts and opposing other parts of a generally opposing point of view. Arguments and debates take place because participants recognize the opportunity to gain from discovering or acknowledging a particular point of view as more appropriate, suitable, correct, or right than another, whether it be the gain of personal knowledge, argumentative victory over another participant, or some other form of gain (not necessarily a positive gain).

Arguments are able to take place because participants recognize a need or desire to engage in the process of attempting to determine a more correct or appropriate point of view on a particular issue. This need or desire can arise from external pressures, personal passion about the issue or the argument itself (sometimes leading to physical combat), mechanical process, or any number of other sources. In all cases, participants recognize one or more of the other participants as being worthy of engaging in the argument or debate; they accept that the participants have a valid place in the process of argument, they recognize that the argument or debate has the potential to benefit themselves and possibly the other participants, and acknowledge respect (or present a façade of respect) that the other participants are suitably equipped to engage in the argument.

In every protest or act of civil disobedience, the participants making the protest or committing the act of civil disobedience exhibit a mutual desire to express an opinion about a particular issue or series of issues. The nature of protest and civil disobedience do not necessarily require that the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the views being protested against voluntarily participate in the event or even recognize the event as a valid "conversation" or "argument" as they were defined above. In this sense, it is not a conversation between two or more willing participants, but only an act of expression by participants representing only one point of view, directed at the parties holding, authorizing, enacting, or maintaining the opposing views.

This may be the case for several reasons. The opposing party may have refused the request of the participants to engage in a conversation or debate on a particular issue. The participants may have previously engaged in a conversation or argument that did not reach conclusion satisfactory to one or more of the participants. The protesters may desire to surprise or intimidate the opposing participants by initiating the protest or act of civil disobedience without advance notice. The protestors may not feel that they have available to them appropriate means by which to engage in a conversation or argument with the opposing parties, due to various power structures, logistical concerns such as time and place, or other factors.

By engaging in protest or acts of civil disobedience, these participants do, however, make the opposing parties a part of the conversation or argument, albeit unwillingly, in the following manner:

  1. The protesters imply a degree of responsibility for engaging in a conversation or acting lies with the opposing party;
  2. The protesters acknowledge that the opposing party is the most suited for taking on the role as an authoritative participant in a discussion on the issues in dispute;
  3. The protesters acknowledge the opposing party's authority or right or obligation to deal with the issues in dispute.

There are negative consequences associated with this approach to a conversation or argument. Because the opposing parties may not desire to be unwilling participants, they may react to the acts of protest or civil disobedience unfavorably. The structures (governmental, social, or otherwise) of the location in which the protest takes place may require or facilitate that the protesters` actions be halted or oppressed. Protesters or persons performing acts of civil disobedience may be subject to immediate consequences such as incarceration, injury, and death, or long-term consequences such as social displacement, internal conflict, or others.

In the sense that some participants are brought in unwillingly, protest or civil disobedience happens because the protestors recognize the potential for their actions to directly or indirectly impact the views and actions of the opposing parties. By participating in protest or civil disobedience, the participants exhibit a degree of respect for the opposing party to recognize, process, acknowledge, and act as a result of this impact. While the protesters may not necessarily place all responsibility for such processing and/or action with the opposing party, the notion of expectations between participants (be they willingly so or not) does arise.

Protest or civil disobedience are appropriate, then, when the potential for this impact on opposing parties outweighs the potential negative consequences of action. Protest or civil disobedience is successful when the opposing parties become willing participants in the conversation or argument about the issues at hand because they have recognized the nature or depth of the impact on them.

Wet Contrast

005_21.JPGI was actually looking forward to working late tonight. I had a client who'd asked me to do some work on a project related to some software I maintain. Because it's software I maintain outside of my usual duties at my company, I charge an hourly rate directly to the client, instead of going through Summersault. But even more than the higher pay, I was really looking forward to the particular problem space. The client sells real estate forms over the web, and maintains his order information in a database (a system I also helped to work on). He wanted me to design software that would produce a complex sales report against this database. I'd certainly done similar things before, but not ever quite anything like this, and so before I started working on it, I'd been thinking about the best approach. What data structures to use. Whether to do the sorting in the database or in the software. How to abstract the display of the data from the calculation of the data. These are the things that this 22-year-old white male thinks about on his way home from dinner on a Thursday night in Indiana.

I started around 11 PM and finished at 1:30 AM. I was alone but not lonely, the office was quiet, and I had some good techno/house music to keep me company. When I finished, I stepped back and looked at the software I'd created, proud of its design, excited about the satisfaction it might bring the client. I gathered my things with energy in anticipation of a good night's sleep.

As I turned out the lights and locked the door behind me, I noticed how hard it was raining and flipped up my hood. I didn't see the man in the black leather jacket coming around the corner right in front of me, and he gave me a bit of a jump. His hands were tucked in his pockets, his hair and face soaked to the point where he could barely see, and he was stumbling down the sidewalk not seeming to seek out any of the shelter that was available in the alcoves of the office entrances (including the entrance to mine). I had seen many other folks like him, wandering down the same street at the same time of night, some of them looking more dangerous and mean than others, all of them feeling quite distant from the world of databases and programming and websites from which I had just emerged.

003_23.JPGI thought how sad it was that this guy was getting so completely soaked with no apparent end in sight. Maybe he was mentally handicapped and didn't know where to go? Maybe he was drunk and didn't know where he was? Maybe he was homeless and didn't really care if he made it to or from anywhere at all. With these thoughts in my mind, I got into my car, turned on the wipers and the heat and the radio and the engine and the lights, and started for home.

But when I came to the end of the block of our office, the man was alongside the car, and waved in at me. He came around to the front of the car and shouted something that I couldn't hear. I powered down my window cautiously, and heard him mumble something about "going to 12th street".

And this is the thought process we go through: His hands were in his tight jean pockets, probably nothing too harmless there. His jacket was bulky but probably didn't contain anything that could be used for beating me too severely - at least if he had a gun, he'd shoot me quickly and be done with it. I wasn't carrying anything with me that would turn my existence into a meaningless void were it to be stolen or damaged. He was stumbling around and looked off balance. I could take him. (I could take him on.) It was raining like hell.

"Get in!" I opened the door and he landed in the passenger seat. "Oh, my god, thank you."

We drove through a run-down part of town that I wasn't too familiar with, and headed out into an even less-familiar residential area that was actually just an industrial area with some homes and trailers scattered around it as a convenience to its workers. It was dark and there was no one around. His name was Herb, and he told me that he had been on his way to try to call his son, and then I saw that he did have something in his hand - two quarters. He said "I gotta pay you for this" and I told him that he didn't. When he insisted further (even nice, nonviolent people can be mean when you don't let them compensate you properly), I told him the quarter he was going to use to call his son would be sufficient. He gave me both quarters, muttering that it wasn't enough, and I put them in my car change drawer where I will probably withdraw them again in the future to cover the cost of an overpriced fast food item.

025 22AConfirming my suspicions that he was slightly drunk, he threw out a couple of names and asked me if I knew the guys, telling me that they'd all graduated together. He asked in a manner suggesting that because of this good deed I had done for him, I should know these men that he held in some sort of high regard. I was a little nervous but touched. As he made to leave, I said something stupid like "maybe we'll run across each other again some day and you can do the same for me." He said I was an incredible fellow. And then, after Herb had gotten out of the car, he turned around and looked at me, rain once again drenching his face and jacket, and said "You know what, though, this isn't anything like Vietnam. There, this stuff went on for forty days and more." With that, he tightened his jacket around his chest, closed the door, and walked off towards the house. These are the things a 50-something working-class white male thinks about on his way home from a bar on a rainy night in Indiana.

I drove away quickly, still fighting off wondering "am I safe?" as I headed to known parts of town. I couldn't have NOT picked Herb up from out of the pouring rain unless he displayed some outward sign of intentions to harm me. But beyond that, I'm *glad* I did it. The personal security I gave up was well worth some crystal clear perspective granted to me by the contrast that Herb provided tonight.