New America is a think tank founded in 1999 that touts itself as “committed to renewing American politics, prosperity, and purpose in the digital age.” Sharon Burke is a senior advisor at New America who “focuses on international security and the security implications of energy, climate change, and other natural resources challenges.” While one might be gratified that she accepts climate change as real, it is distressing that her concern lies more in exploiting the economic and military opportunities of a melting Arctic ice cap than in halting the phenomenon.
Ms. Burke appeared on MPR News on February 1, 2017, to address the national security question posed by host Kerri Miller: “Do Trump’s immigration policies make us safer?” Speaking only to those attacks by terrorists with “jihadist sympathies,” Burke said that most were committed by American citizens who were born here, and none of the attacks were committed by people from the seven majority Muslim countries identified in the recent executive order on immigration. She went on to say that “there’s no reason to believe it will make us safer” and that given the discriminatory language and aggressive action of the Trump administration, “you may actually be making the risk worse.”
Ms. Burke went on to reflect on the motivations for previous terrorist attacks. She cited disaffection, saying “they don’t like U.S. policy against Muslim countries, don’t like their own personal life, whatever it is, some have mental health issues, it’s usually a complicated mix.” This prompted Kerri Miller to entertain the following comment from a radio listener:
I think we should spend some time talking about the grievances of those we designate as terrorists and perhaps, if we find those grievances valid, we should stop doing those things. Of course I’m talking about things like military aggression, torture, indefinite detention like at Guantanamo Bay, support for repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia, and drone strikes that kill so many civilians. This is a mutually declared global war and it won’t end by military action and it won’t end by giving up our constitutional rights, it will end with a negotiated settlement.
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To which Sharon Burke responded:
I just categorically disagree that making concessions to ISIS is gonna make us safer. This feeling that if we just leave the world and leave someone like ISIS to their devices, that they’re entitled to their violent anarchic takeover of the places they live, and that doesn’t involve our interests, I just reject that.
At this point, Kerri Miller interjected to insure that Ms. Burke was speaking to the drone strikes and other policies the caller had mentioned. Indeed she was. She would go on to refer to them as “concessions to a group like that [ISIS]” and “concessions to violent extremists,” all the while continuing her insinuation that the caller was isolationist saying, “His feeling that if we just leave, everything will be all right, that just isn’t true.” Of course negotiated settlement does not imply isolationism, but rather, engagement through diplomacy.
Ms. Burke also had a curious take on social media and how U.S. policies and actions might affect the risk of further terrorist attacks. She said: “It [withdrawal] also won’t stop what’s going on because what we’ve seen is a lot of folks who have been motivated in the United States by jihadist ideology are learning it online. With the rise of social media as a factor, it doesn’t matter where we are in the world or what we’re doing, that’s going to be a factor no matter what.”
Social media is a communication tool, as is radio, television, and print media. It is the content, not the medium itself, that influences people. What likely concerns Ms. Burke, is that social media is further from government control than is the traditional media. At least it is for now.
As for that content, when it is false, misleading, or rank propaganda, it should be countered with factual information. However, the issues at hand here, U.S. military aggression, torture, drone strikes, etc., cannot be denied. You can put a spin on them one way or the other, but they are occurring, and they are occurring to the great detriment of people living in the Islamic world. So this idea that people are “radicalized” by social media, violent clerics, or propaganda might be true in some cases, but it is also true that others are “radicalized” by reality.
It is difficult to reconcile Sharon Burke’s view that the executive order banning immigration might heighten the risk of a terrorist attack with her view that ending immoral and illegal counterterrorism practices would merely be a concession to ISIS. One would hope that all of them, including the discriminatory immigration policies, will someday be rejected. But when civilization’s pendulum is swinging in the wrong direction, time has a way of normalizing the most vulgar insults on human dignity, especially for those with a stake in perpetuating violent conflict. After all, a negotiated settlement might spell the end for New America’s signature “Future of War” program.