Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The Domestic “War on Terror”

Posted in United States by Dan on August 1, 2009

inner city

Normally on this blog, I would be writing about some important foreign-policy development that made headlines in the international community:  analyzing how a particular event altered or reformed the American perspective towards the Middle Eastern region.  Perhaps this earth-shattering event would deal with Iraq’s continued political problems, such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s inability to reconcile with major sectarian groups within the country.  The topic may concentrate on Washington’s newly-formed military offensive against a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan…an Islamic insurgency challenging the already questionable rule of the western-backed Hamid Karzai.  Many times in the past, the issue has concentrated on Iran’s domestic situation: either discussing the broad-based support of the Iranian reformist movement or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s radical push for an Iranian nuclear capability.

Finally, the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has often been at the forefront of this blog.  How will Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas take steps to encourage the prospects for a two-state solution?  Can the Palestinian Authority keep a lid on Islamic fundamentalists such as Hamas, a political party and an armed-wing that controls the small, yet crucial Gaza Strip?  Furthermore, I have often taken a critical stance on President Barack Obama’s strategy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…such as his willingness to openly talk with an Hamas organization that has routinely launched rockets and missiles towards Israeli cities and towns.  Israel’s insistence on building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank has also been a major point of contention between American, Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders, all but hindering negotiations since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition won Israel’s election this past year.

While all of these political and security developments are extremely important for the United States in an era of Islamic terrorism and violent political extremism, I would like to shift gears and expose a topic that may be just as dangerous to U.S. security as WMD’s and rogue states.  Of course, I am referring to the devastating cycle of inner-city violence that is all but destroying the morality, and social fabric of America’s values.

The same three cities that have often been cited as the backbone of the United States (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago) are also subject to the most gruesome and deadly acts of violence that humankind has to offer.  In what has unfortunately seeped into America’s persona, criminals and the threat thereof have often forced law-enforcement and citizens alike to look over their shoulders in fear of their own personal safety.  Gone are the days when a mother or father, a sister, or a brother, could go the grocery store without the lingering fear of criminality.  Gang warfare and drug competition in particular have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people either walking on the streets or relaxing in their homes.  Residents of South Central Los Angeles often complain of bullet holes in their walls as a result of a drive-by shootings gone bad…a tremendous development that only demonstrates the extent of illegality in American society.

While already dismal and frightening, the problems associated with gang and narcotics violence will strive out of the control if the United States Government does not act in an adequate fashion.  What is perhaps more discouraging is where this hidden criminality will take place…in poor and uneducated neighborhoods that are already experiencing poverty-stricken living conditions and an overall environment of destitution.

This bold assertion is not simply a premature interpretation of a white, upper-middle class young man who lives in the suburbs of Eastern Long Island (although I admit my personal background has sheltered me entirely from the types of atrocities that minorities of the same age confront on a daily basis).  Rather than some ill-conceived conclusion spoken by a typical Caucasian-male, my perspective is based on the methodology and practices of political science…in my opinion a discipline that fails to earn the respect and dignity of academics in other fields of social science.

Combined with the theories and calculations of sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and the humanities, political science is a field of study that may very well mitigate the burdened questions surrounding crime in America.  Whether it involves taking an objective look into the causes of violent behavior, or whether the discipline offers some unique solutions to the law-enforcement apparatus, students of politics must be given the chance to engage in the ongoing debate.  Who knows…perhaps the political perspective will pave the way for a fresh-face on the issue…opening dynamics that would have previously been labeled as inaccurate or ignorant.  If there was ever a social phenomenon that could benefit from the alternative viewpoints of political theory, urban violence is the candidate.

Certainly, urban crime and violence has been on America’s docket since the country’s founding.  There have always been cases where robbers and “bad-guys” were caught by the authorities and driven to court, sentenced to a stint beyond bars for their offenses.  However, it is the emergence of immigration, the controversial black-white divide, and the rise of illegal drugs that have quickly given the criminal dimension a new name in the American psyche.  Yet, despite the dynamic aspects of these new forces, the American approach to illegality fails to alter its response.

For decades upon decades, American crime in minority neighborhoods has been confined to traditional methods of law-enforcement, including the arrest, and detention of young Black and Hispanic males thought to be engaging in illegal behavior.  Racial-profiling, while useful in some circumstances, seems to be practiced by the authorities without restraint and respect.  The judicial system, and the law-enforcement community, despite its many transformations in the past, continues to view inner-city crime as a secondary problem for America’s national-security…overshadowed by more pressing problems such as white-collar crime, illegal immigration, and political corruption.  Celebrity gossip has for too long preoccupied the minds of the American electorate, a stark tangent from issues such as drug addiction and juvenile gang warfare that could actually effect a family’s life for the worst.  High profile cases grab the headlines of newspapers and television stations, while the shootings and stabbings of inner-city America are labeled as “just another day in the hood.”  In the most dramatic absence of political science resources, the U.S. Government (regardless of political party affiliation) gives the impression to other cultures and religions that a democratic and western-oriented society has a better chance of eliminating illegality than countries in the Middle East.  With crime expanding to unprecedented rates, and with whole neighborhoods afraid to step out of their homes, such an assertion is both inaccurate and patronizing.

In fact, this approach not only obstructs our ability to confront the growing problems of American urban warfare.  It also gives Chinese, Brazilian, Mexican, Iraqi, Iranian, Russian, Korean, and Ugandan citizens a dangerous sense of inferiority when in fact violence in South Central Los Angeles is no more different than the sectarian battles in Baghdad.  Both areas are mired in misunderstanding.  Blacks in Chicago and Iraqis in Mosul are commonly labeled as irrational human beings who will never stop fighting, killing, and destroying one another’s lives.  The ghettos of New York City and Philadelphia are commonly perceived by “White America” as lost causes in the battle against drugs and gangs: only advanced by the bloodshed on the streets that extinguish the lives of bright-minded and gifted people caught in the wrong place and the wrong time.

Similarly, the suicide-attacks, car-bombings, and assassinations throughout Iraq- whether perpetuated by Sunni insurgents, indigenous tribes, or Shia militias- are absorbed with an identical passive response by elite politicians inside Washington.  “Why risk American blood and treasure to promote a secure environment in Iraq,” it is said, “if Iraqis have been killing each other for the last five-hundred years?  Why spend the hard-earned money of taxpayers on neighborhood watch groups and rehabilitation clinics,” others argue, “if the cycle of economic deprivation and will only be passed on to the next generation of minorities?”  Although possessing different religious and historical undertones, the crime festering in both the United States and Iraq is connected in exceptional ways.  Pretending that a bubble of sophistication, buttressed by both democracy and 21st-century technology, protects American civilians from upheaval overseas could not be further from the truth.

Some may ask why I am taking such a drastic digression on this blog.  Others may disagree with my assessment entirely, claiming that the rationale for martyrdom and political assassination is nowhere near similar to the motives behind drug-slinging and gang “repping”.

What these same people fail to realize, however, is how close the origins of these crimes actually are.  The killing between Sunni insurgents, Shia militias, and Kurdish revolutionaries, while reduced for the past two years, is primarily motivated for control of Iraq’s national resources.  Power and wealth, whether in the form of oil, money, influence, or manpower, is the main desire for each sectarian grouping in the face of an uncertain future…certainly recognizable when Iraq was on the verge of state-failure and anarchy.  The main problems in Iraq right now are essentially the same as when the country was embroiled in its brief period of civil-war.  Questions over oil revenue, autonomous control, national responsibility, and ethnic infighting continue to ruin any hope for a stable and secure Iraqi state.  Hostilities between Arabs and Kurds, some of which date back to before the U.S.-led invasion, all but frustrate Prime Minister Maliki’s attempts to forge new relationships with neighboring governments.

Considering that competition is the main catalyst behind Iraq’s lingering troubles, one of human nature’s most contentious flaws, efforts that aim to distinguish American crime from international events is unjustifiable.  Black, Hispanic, Asian, and White American street gangs promote violence for the same exact reasons.  Gaining the strategic advantage over the adversary is goal number one, and whatever act it takes to successfully meet this objective is regarded as a viable tool.  After all, the more turf a gang controls, the more powerful and wealthy that gang will become in relation to its enemies.  Ask a “soldier” in the American inner-city and a member of a militia in Baghdad and it would be difficult not to imagine an analogous, straightforward response:  power is the name of the game.

Casting conflict aside, the slums of Baghdad and the neighborhoods of South Central are extraordinarily similar in social and economic dimensions as well.  In both areas, the lack of employment, poor educational opportunities, sub-par infrastructure and a heavy police presence are catalysts for religious recruits.  One of the primary reasons why so many young Sunni men drifted into the Islamic insurgency against U.S. Forces was due to Iraq’s continued downward spiral in the job market.  Faced with nothing other than deprivation, despair, and widespread poverty, the only options available for millions of disenfrashised Sunnis in and around Baghdad was within radical Islam.  Iraq is not the only country to bask in this social development…the Middle East at large is a region where young Muslim men make their way into madrassas (whether in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, or Pakistan) for a sense of community and accomplishment.  Unfortunately for the United States and its allies, the same madrassa schools that strengthen a Muslim’s self-confidence also preach a skewed and cult-like interpretation of Islam…only bolstering instances of terrorism, suicide-attacks, and gun battles against the “imperial” forces of westernization.

The ghettos of South Central are not entirely different.  Taking the African-American population as our case study, churches and Baptist-related organizations thrive with frustrated black men and women that, more often than not, live their lives with a total loss of hope.  Regardless of which American city we are talking about, minority neighborhoods are routinely dominated by religious institutions that hope to capitalize on the poor social fabric of the neighborhood…thereby drawing new recruits to the faith.  From a church point of view, this chain-effect is vital to the very survival of their operations.  From an individual perspective, however, the younger generation is forced to choose between a life of crime and a life of servitude.  While controversial to declare, there have been instances when Black and Hispanic churches turn into isolated entities within a state…perpetuating racial and intolerant undertones throughout its membership through preaches, community events, and rhetorical exchanges.  How is this any different from the Middle East, where men succumb to radicalism for economic and political reasons?

Buttressed by historical evidence, it appears that the experiences of the poor and improvished (both in the developed and developing worlds) are quite comparable in the realms of religion and violence.  The harsh life encountered by alienated groups, whether Black or Sunni, White or Kurd, Hispanic or Shia, pink or purple, may very well be universal in its origins: tearing down a wall of nationalism that we wrongly assumed kept us Americans special, exclusive, and superior.  In this circumstance, nature has soundly defeated nurture.

The U.S. Government must not only reform its perception as to what constitutes inner-city crime in America.  The White House and the U.S. Congress must also formulate a new counter-criminal doctrine, in much the same way as the U.S. Military reformed counterinsurgency tactics.  The time has come for our representatives to cast aside their political differences in the hopes of resisting one of America’s most urgent national-security threats.  Although weary of using the term “ideological,” a new ideological frontier may be precisely what is needed to finally get our country’s mindset back to reality.  Perhaps this epiphany will push the issue of domestic crime on the same level as the issue of international terrorism…a promotion that is much deserving.

Thanks to the contributions and interdisciplinary nature of political science, Americans can now appreciate the crime-terror correlation: the “war on drugs” and the “war on crime” is nothing more than the domestic equivalent to the “war on terror.”  This being the case, why not pursue each war with equal ferocity?

-Daniel R. DePetris

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