overtaken by events

June 11th, 2009

California is going to explode. And it’s not just because of the $18.6 billion dollars in cuts that Arnold is going to have to make, which is going to include eliminating entire welfare programs.

The budget crisis, unemployment, all of that is going to the last of your average Californian’s worries before the summer’s out.   Probably the last of  many of our worries, as what begins in California will inevitably spread to many of our doorsteps. Getting to that point though,  that requires a little bit of explaining.

In one of the opening scenes of the coming-of-age cinematic classic Dazed and Confused, the history teacher yells after her class on the last day of school that over the summer during the holiday weekend “when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha,”  they shouldn’t forget “what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, rich white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.”

There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment, although it’s not something anyone studies much in high school – where we focus on the social and philosophical elements of the American Revolution and, for the most part, ignore its underlying economic element. But if those rich white men had been taxed more fairly, the Revolution might never have occurred.  Something you’re reminded of every time you see the cheeky slogan on a DC license plate.

American classrooms condition us only to think of the Revolution as the triumph of Freedom, Virtue, and Truth over the evil rule of a tyrannical and monarchical Empire.  But if the colonists had been economically well-off, would any revolution have come to be?

Rich, happily employed people have never staged any sort of rebellion at any point in history.

A more historically sound argument that economics played a crucial role in the American Revolution was captured by Benjamin Franklin, who noticed upon returning to the Colonies from England that a real estate bubble had been in the process of inflating.

It popped, and revolution ensued.

The Civil War is a more traditional event to examine through an economic lens.   No one would argue that the economies of monopolies, embargoes, and slavery didn’t play a role in the South’s choice to secede.  Exactly what role it played is nebulous, but certainly without economic conflict the Civil War would not have occurred how and when it did.

Similarly, the French Revolution famously happened when the price of bread was at its peak.  It seems there was a tipping point of food inflation which helped provoke the common Frenchmen to rise up, along with other mitigating factors.  But arguably, the French Revolution was as much about the price of bread as it was the Rights of Man.

Every single revolution or great social upheaval throughout history has had a strong economic element to it.  China’s Cultural Revolution, both of Russia’s modern revolutions, even the Iranian Revolution received a heavy push from economic discontent.

So it seems a little odd that with America going through an economic upheaval that just about everyone agrees will be at least on par with the Great Depression, that the only historical metrics it seems anyone is using to judge the impact of what’s happening around us are those provided by Zimbabwe and Wiemar Germany.

Other than the specter of inflation, our America shares next to nothing with either of those countries in terms of culture or national story.  Besides the fact neither of their currencies were the linchpin of the international financial system, socially and historically there’s basically no parallel to be found.

But where can we find out what happens in America when the social situation gets tense?  Well, we don’t have to go very far at all.  In fact, we don’t even have to leave our own shores.

Within the intelligence community there’s a phrase that’s used whenever a report that’s still being written is made obsolete by new occurrences.   Whether you’re writing analysis about political tension, economic upheaval, or the location of a high-value target, oftentimes something will happen to make your report moot.

Say you’re writing a lengthy in-depth report about a high-value target, and the suddenly he gets whacked by a rival.  Well fuck, that might be two weeks of work out the window.  And on top of your report you’d probably write “OBE” – or “overtaken by events.”

Economic analysts, like all analysts, tend to get an odd sort of tunnel vision.  There are dozens and dozens of websites run by incredibly talented and deeply insightful individuals dedicated to predicting what’s going to happen three, six, even two-dozen months down the road.  When a recovery is going to happen, how close we are to a housing bottom, whether or not the value or precious metals will spike, convincing arguments about either inflation or deflation occurring.

Some of them bring in wry humor and mind-bending technical jargon, others offer unique and informed analysis but skew it with bombast.

However what economic analysts, as a species, tend to forget is that economies function within a society that is made up of humans who are organized into social groups.  Some analysts give broad warnings about unrest, dissent, or disturbances – but none of them go beyond those vague generalizations.   They’ll throw a post up about “thing may get ugly, people are going to start getting pissed pretty soon” and then go back to talking about the VIX, Treasury spreads, and percentage points like the system will continue deteriorating indefinitely in a contained environment.

Not to say that there isn’t a ton of superb advice to be found, and that the network of websites and blogs isn’t much more informative than what you’ll get from any mainstream media source.

Only that economic models can only extend so far before the societies they anchor themselves in snap.  And America is quickly, inevitably, reaching that point. Because, once again, a particular sort of violence is beginning to stir and awaken within our borders.

It is impossible to draw a direct causal line between recent outbreak of terrorist violence and the deteriorating economic conditions.  Everything that’s happened could be brushed off as coincidence, because there’s simply no way to reliably measure exactly how much economic distress it takes to set any one individual off.  Inarguably though, individuals are being set off by the tanking economy.

It started a few months ago, with a rash of horrifying murder-suicides in quiet suburban American communities.  Men killing off their families and then taking their own lives, all of them apparently driven to and then past the brink by economic distress.

In your gut, you probably feel like something isn’t right.  Unless you happen to be loaded and are only friends with other rich people, odds are you know at least one person who seems more desperate than you ever remember them.

And desperate individuals, those who feel like they have nothing to lose and nothing left to live for and no way out, often take drastic action.   Economics aren’t the only factor, but rich succesful people tend not to go on shooting rampages.  Mix enough desperate individuals into any society, and a few of them will inevitably go off.

This has been happening again and again at an alarming rate,  from multiple debt-driven murder suicides in California, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, and other states to simple suicides in many others.

This afternoon, there was a shooting at the Holocaust Museum by a white supremacist, who much like the Unabomber was trying to promote his ideology through violent action.  Then a few weeks ago there was the murder of George Tiller, whose shooter didn’t really become a terrorist until he threatened that more was to come, that he was just the beginning.

Providing the awful yin to that sinister yang was the shooting up of an Arkansas military recruiting center, and then the successful executing of an FBI sting against four black ex-cons who had all converted to radical Islam while in prison.

They were busted planting what they thought was C-4 in front of a Jewish synagogue and had what they thought was an air-to-ground missile in their possession which that were going to use to shoot down a National Guard plane.

What distinguishes those two groups events from each other is that the former two individuals were both oriented with white supremacist ideology and had no intention of escaping after their attacks, while the latter were radicalized American Muslims who weren’t actually intending to get caught.

So which was the greater threat?

The most potent form of terrorist violence to beset the West in the modern era is Political Terrorism, classically considered to be carried out by insurgent guerrillas and nationalist revolutionaries of all shades and stripes.

Political Terrorism follows a three-step chain-reaction that can only be catalyzed within a society laced with the proper concentration of conflicting social currents.

The first step is Symbolic Terror, dramatic violence, the more enrapturing and menacing the better. This leads to the second step, which will always occur if an act of Symbolic Terror is effective: capturing the media’s attention. With the media enraptured and disseminating the fear created by seemingly indiscriminate violence throughout society, the third and final step of provoking the establishment to commit its own acts of violence begins. The third step’s retribution marks the start of Political Terrorism.

It, in turn, both gives the terrorist group credit and marginalizes the retaliating authorities by pushing them off the moral high-ground that allows them to exercise violent means of coercion.

And it is this third step that is the most important point of the cycle of Political Terrorism.  Triggering the ouroboros of vengeance is a political terrorist’s real aim – all of the violence and death would be meaningless if he can’t goad the established authority into striking back.

It is this retribution that validates the terrorist’s ideology and makes others aware of his cause, and which truly weakens the authority.

Looking at American history, it’s tough to argue that white supremacists are going to incite a widespread crackdown by the authorities.  Waco is sometimes pointed to, but that was more of a cult than a white supremacy group.   Arguing that radicalized black Muslims are going to be able to incite a crackdown, now that’s a whole lot easier.

Because take your pick.

Authorities in America have shown a propensity for bringing too heavy a hand against both Muslims and blacks, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that black Muslims will have a hard time inciting the authorities to bring violence against them.

Plus there’s the fact that neither George Tiller’s killer nor today’s Holocaust shooter was trying to escape.  They knew full well going into their attacks that they were going to be caught, and were content going down shooting.  Not the case with either instance of violence by fundamentalist black Muslims.  In the purest sense, George Tiller’s murderer didn’t really become a terrorist until  a few days after the attack when he threatened that more violence against other abortion doctors was coming, and the Holocaust shooter didn’t become one until hate messages and an anti-minority rant were found in his car.

The NYC cell had no intention of getting caught as they no idea their apparent terrorist liaison was really an FBI informant, and Abdulhakim Muhammad was only stopped after he was pulled over by the police, with all evidence pointing to the fact he was bent on continuing his spree.  And the NYC cell wasn’t stopped because the FBI took action, they only closed out their sting after the four terrorists finally decided it was time to get their hands on some C-4 and plant it at a local synagogues.

After over a year of interaction with the FBI informant, why did they choose the moment they did to finally act?  Was it random?  Or did it have something to do with deepening economic crisis, and the fact that the unemployment rate for African-American males is now almost twice the national average?

Even before the current crisis, in 1995 the wealth-gap between black and white was so wide that blacks owned only 8 cents of wealth for every dollar owned by whites.  Just eight-cents to the dollar.

In other terms,  as of 1998 the average white household’s net worth was $100,700 higher than the black average.  And that wasn’t even the peak of the gap, according the most recent data, from 2007, the gap in household net worth is now $142,600.

Take a moment to consider that gap.  Your average white American family
has a $140,000 leg up on the average black American family.

These are only the most obvious statistics – like every economic downturn, this one is hitting the poorest of us the hardest.  The sub-prime meltdown has hit the poor, and disproportionately the black poor, much harder than any other segment of our population. The poor have little to no savings, their everyday existence is a tenuous balance between hope and necessity.  And in America, especially within our cities, being black has an extremely high correlation with being poor.

“The poor know these facts of life. These facts become their lives.”

California is going to explode.  No state holds all of the necessary ingredients at the same high concentration as California.

First off, its economy is notoriously hosed, to the point that Arnold is threatening to eliminate welfare, cut pensions, and even close state parks.  There might be other states whose economy is worse off in real terms, but it’s hard to actually name one.  Once heralded as a state that in terms of GDP was one of the world’s top ten largest economies, California is swiftly closing in on bankruptcy and insolvency.  Tax revenue is now down nearly 20% from last year, leading their Controller to state that California is just 50 days from a complete fiscal meltdown.

The social impact of their economic implosion is going to be enormous.   Their unemployment rate is one of the worst in the nation, the entire city of Oakland is mulling bankruptcy.  In Sacramento, the city is laying off 300 deputy sheriffs.  Any thought that the status quo will be maintained, while the economic meltdown occurs is  well beyond wishful thinking.

And their foreclosure rate is one of the worst in the nation:


Next is the fact that California’s prison system is both the largest in the nation and one of the most dysfunctional.  In February a three-judge ruled that California’s prisons were so overcrowded that the state would have to find a way to release some 57,000 prisoners. Part of this problem stems  from California’s enormous population, but the three-strikes law certainly doesn’t help.  And much like every state, an inordinate majority of these prisoners are minorities, with blacks being the most heavily represented.

It’s staggering, according to DoJ numbers only 14% of regular drug users in 2005 were black and yet they consisted of more than 50% of those incarcerated for drug offenses.

American prisons have proven to be the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country for groups who promote versions of fundamentalist Islam, such as al-Qaeda. The FBI now suspects that prisons have surpassed even mosques as the recruiting grounds of choice for Islamic terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. Largely as a result of this recruiting drive, Islam has become the fastest growing religion in American prisons and converted Muslim prisoners are estimated to number some two-hundred thousand.

What’s being passed off as true Islam in American prisons today is neither moderate nor modern, it’s the extreme salfi version that’s characterized by rhetoric of murder and intolerance, the same sort that al-Qaeda ascribes to. Some have begun to call it “Jailhouse Islam,” as it bulwarks salfi ideals with the loyalty and violence of prison gangs.

Prisoners are especially ripe for conversion, as their environment amplifies the same feelings of alienation and loneliness – the need for a pack – which bring men into the fold of terrorist cells. Trapped in a threatening and hopeless environment, prisoners exposed to fundamentalist Islam are soon burning bright with the need to manifest their new beliefs as violent action.

And despite all of these factors being reported to everyone from the Director of Homeland Security to members of the House and Senate, next to nothing is being done to correct the system.

The Washington Post reported in a poll in May of 2007 that African-American Muslims were three-times as likely as immigrant Muslims to have a favorably view of al-Qaeda, and are only about half as likely as Muslims immigrants to dislike the group.

These numbers alone testify to the fact that when Muslims terror again seeks to take American lives, the role black ex-cons have in that violence will be greater and more integral than ever before.

It’s now near impossible for a black man to go through the penal system, which one-third of them eventually do, and not at least be exposed to radical Islam. Many of those in charge of religions education in our prisons ensure that this is so.

The Imam in charge of the firing of hiring of one state’s Muslim prison chaplains, and who exercised complete control over the specific doctrinal points that are to be taught to potential converts until he was forced into retirement in 2003 when the media got hold of his story, told the prisoners he taught that the attacks of 9/11 were justified and that the terrorists involved in it were not murders but martyrs.

The state he was in charge of during his twenty-five-year tenure added fifty-six Muslim clerics, more than any other state in the nation. It is a state with one of America’s largest prison populations, and with America’s largest city. That state is New York, and the man’s name is Warith-Deen Umar.

But even more troubling than the fact that the very state which was most effected by 9/11 was allowing its inmates to be exposed and converted to salfi Islam, are the details of Umar’s autobiography. Despite his foreign-sounding name, Umar is in fact African-American, and he is himself an ex-convict who converted to Islam after his experience in prison.

And it’s not like the potency of “homegrown” terrorism that becomes possible when natives of a country turn against it has gone unnoticed in New York, as the Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism of the NYPD publicly acknowledged it as an emerging threat when he testified before the Senate in September of 2006.

All the same, a 2004 survey revealed that only half of New York prison services were monitored at all, and there’s no comprehensive system that monitors either radical clerics or the radical texts, both of which flow freely from prison to prison.  On top of that, there’s the growing problem of contraband cell phones scattered by the thousands inside of our prisons. And not only does rhetorical radicalism flow freely within the prison system, it flows unmonitored from it as well.

Between 2002 and 2004 some 90 unmonitored letters were sent from three of the bombers responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. At least one of these was published by an extremist Islamic newspaper. But several more of them found a much more potent audience.

While behind bars in a Colorado prison, the incarcerated bombers found a few extremely motivated pen-pals. Before carrying out their own attack on March 11th of 2004, the Madrid bombers had read correspondence from their American forbearers. Although the FBI is charged with translating correspondence from extremist prisoners within two months, in reality it often takes as long as eighteen months. And this is only for the most dangerous already-identified prisoners, the vast majority of outgoing mail is never read at all.

So when fundamentalist Islam does find root in the American penal system, it’s able to spread from cell to cell and then prison to prison. Neither the words that carry its ideals nor the men who preach them and personally win over individuals are effectively monitored by the system, and so their potential for growth is unlimited. Fundamentalist Islam is growing in our prisons, how fast nobody knows. However the potential to reach a Tipping Point and become a full-out social epidemic should seem like much more than a distant threat.

The racial disparity in our prison population is so pronounced that even our Department of Justice has lied to try and make it seem like the black prisoner population has been reduced by much more than it actually has.  This predominately black population provides a ready and willing pool of recruits for Islamic extremists.

Disparities aside though, prisons are by far the most fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalists to recruit converts.  America’s most notorious black Muslim, Malcolm X, was converted to Islam in prison.  All four members of the NYC cell that was just rolled up were converted to fundamentalist Islam while in prison.  But the Arkansas military recruiting center shooter wasn’t converted to radical Islam in an American prison

He was converted to radical Islam in a Yemeni one.

Back in 2007 a terrorist cell whose members were converted to radical Islam formed inside California’s Folsom state prison, was thwarted before they were able to carry off any attacks after a gas station attendant turned over a phone dropped during what at first seemed like a run of the mill robbery.

Unsurprisingly, they were looking to target military recruitment centers as well as Jewish sites. The NYC cell had exactly the same target set – two Jewish synagogues, and a National Guard plane.  And Abdulhakim’s justification for his shootings is exactly the same one given by the DC Sniper: both claim their attacks weren’t murder, merely retribution for all the times the American military has killed Muslims in foreign lands.

What makes ex-cons who have been converted to radical Islam so dangerous is that they don’t at all see themselves at all as terrorists, but instead as commandos, as soldiers fighting in a justifiable war.  That cannot be said about George Tiller’s murderer nor the Holocaust Memorial shooter – they were explicitly trying to get their message out, to give life to an ideology of fear with their own blood.

But the NYC Cell and Abdulkarim had no intention of dying for an ideology, because they believed their ideology is already full fleshed-out.  They never intended to martyr themselves for a belief that wasn’t yet accepted, instead they saw their ideology as alive and well, and saw themselves as noble warriors fighting under its banner.

With this in mind, it seems almost certain that the NYC cell and the Arkansas shooter are just tips of an angry fundamentalist iceberg that’s suddenly being pushed to the surface by the force of our economic collapse.

Shortly after last fall’s presidential election, al-Qaeda released a tape specifically evoking Malcolm X’s legacy of opposition to the American government’s opression of Muslims as a counterweight to Obama, who they accused of being a “House Negro.”  And al-Qaeda is clearly aware of the potential recruitment pool that our prisoners provided, as in a May 2007 message from “Adam the American,” they demanded not only the closure of Gitmo, but that the US “free all Muslim captives from your prisons, detention facilities, and concentration camps.”

However al-Qaeda hasn’t been a centralized movement for well over a decade, it’s much better understood as an “-ism,” a worldview.  Their remaining central leadership is incapable for providing any direct material support to any convereted prison cells in California’s prison system.

But there is someone who can.

It is one of the indelible images of the Civil Rights era. Birmingham police chief, Bull Connor, turning attack dogs and against civil rights marchers and bowling those the dogs spared over with high-pressure fire hoses. Sitting in Bay Shore, Long Island a seventh-grader sat and watched his television, his mouth agape at the violence. And something inside of him began to grow.

David Belfield would later call the feeling “an implacable hatred toward all symbols of American authority,”1 and in a few years he would refuse to mouth the words of the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day, telling his family that he could tell the words didn’t apply to everyone.

He’s not sure what in particular pushed him over the edge, but the more he read about American slavery, the more he saw the stark future of other blacks whose lives seemed to be “the Third World in a First World setting,” and the more he read W.E.B. DuBois and works from other discontent thinkers – the more he realized he wanted to act. He’s not clear about whether the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were the specific incidents which inspired his course of action, but it seems improbable that they didn’t play some role setting him on his course of action.2

And so, all of this in mind, he did his homework.

Although he knew there was an excellent chance that he’d die in the process, he decided he wanted to take out either Kermit Roosevelt or Henry Kissinger, men he thought had carried out key roles in the violent American-inspired overthrow of two foreign governments. But, as it turns out, that’s not what fate had in mind for him.

Shortly before he turned eighteen, David met a Korean War vet at a meeting of black activists and writers, and admired the vet enough to take him seriously when he told David that he’d stop talking to him unless David read the Koran. After reading Islam’s holy book and being struck, much like Malcolm X, by the fact that the Koran seemed color-blind and by the themes of social justice, David converted to Islam and changed his name to Dawud Salahuddin.

In the following months he began spending time in DC-area mosques and even edited a local Islamic newspaper. It was during this time that Dawud first met with Iranian agents at a student center in northern Virginia run by the Ayatollah Khomenini’s supporters in America. Fresh off the successful overthrow of the Shah, Iran had sent its revolutionaries to America to see what kind of a foothold their interpretation of Islam might find inside America.

And in Dawud they found just such a foothold. He proved willing to follow whatever instructions the Iranians had for him, which at first were to begin recruiting fellow Americans for “political activities and violence.”3

It’s unclear whose idea it was, Dawud’s or the Iranians, but this recruitment would take place almost exclusively in one place. Dawud spent much of the early 1970’s looking for fellow black Americans in a place more and more of his colored countrymen would find themselves in the years to come.

He was, of course, recruiting heavily from prisons.

Just how many black inmates he won over to Islam will never be known, but we know for sure that at least ten African-Americans that Dawud met were won over because on July 21st, 1980 they either aided or abetted him in the assassination of Ali Akbar Tabatabai. Tabatabai was an Iranian exile living in Bethesda, Maryland who the Khomeini regime suspected was plotting against the newly installed Islamic government in Iran.

To guarantee that he wouldn’t succeed in usurping the clerical regime, all of the evidence supports the allegation that Iranian agents in America directed Dawud to kill Tabatabai.

And so Dawud disguised himself as a postal delivery men and shot Tabatabai in the gut three-times with a Browning semi-automatic pistol he had secreted inside a false package he was carrying, before fleeing in a haphazard but successful exodus to safety in Iran. The investigation into the assassination would reveal that Dawud was assisted by the aforementioned ten associates, most of them disaffected African-Americans like himself.

Exactly what role the Iranian government played in this killing has never been precisely pinned down, but when all the circumstantial dots are connected it becomes hard to argue that the death of Ali Akbar wasn’t the result of a direct order from the Iranian government.

An order carried out by an American operative who had been recruited on American soil.

Although the U.S. Muslim population is notoriously difficult to track, California is almost always cited as the state with the most Muslim immigrants, and in 2007 the LAPD drew fire for their Muslim mapping effort, which critics decried would set the framework for religious persecution.

Presently, California contains what is probably the largest concentration of Iranians outside of Iran, a diaspora that numbers close to 700,000.  Within that immigrant community, Los Angeles is often referred to as “Tehrangeles.”  This is not to say that Iranian-Americans as a whole present a threat to America.

Only that if the Iranian regime were to coordinate another attack inside America, there would be no more likely state for this to happen in than California.  Especially when you consider California’s expansive port system and incredibly porous border with Mexico, where there have already been rumors that Iranian-backed Hezbollah is smuggling goods and people into America after using their well-established presence in South America as a staging area.

California has far and away the largest population of immigrant Muslims, so if any state is playing host to Muslims – whether they be Sunni or Shia – hoping to co-opt radicalized African-Americans and provide them with training or material – it’s California.

If the FBI informant who helped roll-up the recent NYC cell really had been a terrorist facilitator able to get his hands on C-4, or just brew up homemade explosives from fertilizer and other household goods, that story would have come to our attention in a much more tragic series of events.  A series of events that may have been delayed for now.

But it’s only a matter of time before a well-trained and highly-coordinated (or even just not completely incompetent) cell of radicalized ex-con terrorists manages to get their hands on some high-explosives or automatic weapons, and when that happens?

No one can say for sure, but there’s a high likelihood that any police crackdown on African-American communities would be met with the inevitable violence and protests that’ve so often flared up  in California’s poorest areas following heavy-handed police action.

And no matter what happens, you’d do well to keep the advice of another group of anti-establishment Californians in mind…

Category: Current Events 3 comments »

3 Responses to “overtaken by events”

  1. Stan

    July 21, 1908?

  2. TrembleTheDeavil

    Good catch, should’ve been “1980,” stupid lysdexia.

  3. "California is going to explode. No state holds all of the necessary ingredients at the same high concentration as California – foreclosures, prison population, economic funk, unemployment…" « Economics Info

    […] Source […]

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