lunes, 30 de noviembre de 2015

The Politics of Fear: An European Intelligence Agency? Why?

In light of the recent Paris attacks, it is only understandable that the European population is feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed, seeing as such events are definitely not common in European territory. But the reaction that European cities, social conglomerates, individuals, politicians and other civic leaders are displaying as a response is primarily based, and basking, on fear, which might not be the best course of action. 

Today, France 24 reported that Belgium is proposing the formation of an European intelligence agency; for all purposes an European CIA. One is left to wonder what use would yet another layer of data collecting and military intelligence have in a world already plagued with such structures. Their legality or whether they are at all necessary will not be addressed here, as it becomes irrelevant inasmuch as its resolution changes nothing.

Data collection has been a fact of life for much longer that many are willing to admit, including human rights advocates and NGOs. Illegal data collection and sharing have also been around for years, if well the world has chosen to scandalize over it until fairly recently. The intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes has collected, shared and used personal and private data both on public personalities and on the common joe for the entire lifetime of nearly the whole population of planet Earth alive today.

That being said, two points are set clear:
  • Government surveillance is an established world state policy that will simply not be revised.
  • Though many will openly defy the existence of surveillance agencies, the fact is that when an attack hits close to home, every society will seek shelter behind its military and its intelligence constructs. 
On the first point, there is simply no debate in my view. The leftist parties of the world will forever ride the battle horse of data privacy, but the underlying fact that governments are surveilling their citizens, each and every one of them (us) is not going to change. Entire power structures, both political and financial, are built on what stock traders call insider knowledge, or in other words, knowing things before everyone else. Naturally, posessing this information and controlling it grants the wielders of the headset the power to foresee, or actually set up, what is going to happen anywhere at any given time. This ability rivals that of the Turing machine that cracked Nazi communications, and in fact grants the same level of power, if well on a much different scale. 

But one must stop and think why, beyond the foiling of terrorist attacks (yawn), would a governmentwant to spy so much? Is there that much fear of a coup, or perhaps of a secessionist movement? Alas, in a time when protesters ask the police for permission to take to the streets, who wants to spy on individuals who plan anything?

I don't believe the proposal to form yet another intelligence agency, on top of all the ones already in existence in the EU makes any sense, security-wise. The German government replied to the Belgian proposal that pooling resources to form a pan-European intelligence agency was a waste of said resources, and that the right course of action was to improve interagency cooperation. But that is a nearly impossible task, if history is to be any indication. Why, then, would Belgium propose such a travesty?

The answer must lie on one of the purest principles of mass politics: fear. When the people, or primary constituent, is scared enough it will turn to the strongest-looking leader available. Europe is definitely teaching this generation what it is like to live in fear and anxiety, akin to what so much of the planet experiences and deals with daily, and in this state of constant impending doom and militarized urban centers, the time is right for a dose of politically instilled and fueled fear to keep secessionists in line and citizens content.

Ah, and the plot reveals itself. Could all this be part of a political strategy, of which I am a fan, to bring back a measure of joy and peace to Europeans, while at the same time flexing muscles for the international community to see? There is that little political scientist in my heart screaming to the top of his lungs that this is correct.

Now, such an attitude from the political class and the civilians has great impact on the military. Armies, and the full array of their capabilities, will now be regarded as indispensable for domestic peace keeping duties, and their budget will surely be increased. The citizens will feel safer, although smothered in their countries, and Europe and its shaky union shall prevail, yet again.

In sum, do not get sucked into the politics of fear. Unfortunately, armies are due to the fact that they are the strong arm of the state. But as individuals, we cannot become subject to political maneuvering seeking only to strengthen political institutions, instead of ramping up citizen fear. As we have seen, life goes on despite all that goes on that is illegal, unethical or unnecessarily covert. 

lunes, 5 de enero de 2015

The Need to Respect the Military and the Absurdity of Absolute Transparency

Comic book fans, especially of Marvel characters will likely remember Marvel's Civil War, issued in 2007. In this storyline, the United States Government passes a bill known as the Superhuman Registration Act, which intends to compel every individual with superhuman powers or abilities to register and reveal their secret identity to the public and the government. Those who registered were offered to become operatives of S.H.I.E.L.D. which is a United Nations agency. Public support for the bill grows fueled by the consequences of some of the superheroes' actions, including deaths and property destruction. For the sake of a story, and as a reflection of what reality would bring in such a scenario, there is a sector of superheroes that opposes the bill. Their leader is Captain Steve Rogers, the famed Captain America. On the bill's supporters side Iron Man takes the lead. So it is basically a recipe for disaster.


The reason why this storyline appeals to me so much, and why I am using it as a basis to write, is that it shows a reality that has been happening in my country over the course of several years, and threatens to get worse as time goes by.

Along the many years that Colombia has been at war with the rebel guerrilla forces and the drug cartels, many events have taken place where the military –the legitimate strong arm of the government- have had to react in the only way possible under the circumstances: open violence. And while the situation lasts, civil society lies down and lets the soldiers take the heat. But when it all calms down, there is always someone who cries abuse from both sides, demanding retribution, truth and punishment.

Abuse happens. The logic of combat and the dynamics of war dictate, despite what the Geneva Convention has to say about it, that abuses and unfair events will happen. It is impossible to adhere to the many rules lawyers would have soldiers follow. They must make split-second decisions that are not always the fairest, and yet function towards the greater good. Soldiers do not have the luxury of senators and lawmakers, who get to debate calmly and be bribed, bought and lobbied about everything. Soldiers have much less time and much more on the line when it is their turn to act. Marvel's Civil War shows exactly what happens when civil society attempts to have too close a hold on the military; when it attempts to hold the military responsible for actions in which, if well civil society has a high stake on, fails miserably in its feeble try to understand.

It should be mentioned that in a conflict, though representing nations, institutions and countries pitted against each other, it is human beings who are bearing the brunt of the fighting. These human beings, like those who are civilians, also have difficulties, feelings, emotions and react in very similar ways as a civilian would when presented with the same situations as soldiers have to face as part of their job description.

Now, though abuses are not something to be proud of, they are but a part of the whole situation. Colombia's military has not escaped this obvious consequence, which has already been seen in many other countries with conflicts of their own. I am by no means condoning this, but merely stating that it is something to be expected and prevented where possible. Yet its correction and punishment are a different matter. The human condition is regrettable filled with a desire for retribution and vengeance. This, mixed with the ever present fear of death and loss of loved ones, leads civil society to always look for a name to blame when abuses take place. That being said, there are far too many cases of officers and soldiers who are being ostracized by civil society for things that happened in combat, such as unwanted kills, summary executions, property destruction and other forms of collateral damage.

As in Marvel's Civil War where the superheroes are the ones responsible and able to keep the order against unimaginable threats, the military keeps civil society safe from all forms of threats to peace and normal development. And in that light, it seems evident that the military ought to be thanked and protected, not persecuted and blamed for fulfilling its constitutional mandate in situations no one wants to be in.


Returning for a moment to Marvel's Civil War, Captain Rogers leads the rebellious superheroes against Iron Man and the government. The latter argues that superheroes must work together and become part of the government scheme to control peacekeeping actions. The former sustains that superheroes must retain their secret identities to protect themselves and their loved ones –by the way there was a strong case in the rebel side for the protection of families embodied by The Punisher-. Captain Rogers states that they are already doing the heavier lifting when it comes to defend the world and its citizens, and that certain liberties must be permitted them because of the risks they are constantly facing. Iron Man on his end feels that the government cannot and should not be opposed. But Rogers feels that a mandatory registration simply hinders the superheroes' possibilities to fight crime in that now they will be held accountable for things they do in battle that no one else will ever come to understand.


This focus signifies the comprehension that the Marvel Rebels have of their own actions and the abuses they become a part of while fighting to protect humanity. But if one is to be honest, there is no war without casualties and abuse. There is no perfectly executed combat, and military operations have the habit of changing unexpectedly and to the cost of human lives. Currently, the Colombian government is in the middle of peace talks with FARC, the largest and longest standing guerrilla in the country. The conversations are taking place in Havana, Cuba. There are government and FARC representatives present. To accomplish this, the government had to rescind the arrest warrants weighing over prominent FARC members and secretly –by the military, of course- extract them from Colombia to Cuba. That was criminal, and yet necessary. On its own shore, the government negotiators had to be granted carte blanche to keep some agreements secret and commit other crimes for the sake of secrecy and success of the peace talks. Everything worked out fine, until civil society caught wind of all this, and the need for public knowledge kicked in. Then, criticism against the negotiations found a new battleship: transparency. What would be the benefit of civil society, which as a mass is ill-educated regarding the process and its future consequences –even if it is well aware of its past actions- knowing and issuing opinions about it all? As president Santos himself declared, one gets nowhere if one stops to throw rocks at every dog that barks along the way.

I ask a question: After half a century of war, will the FARC simply surrender and lay down their arms? The answer is a resounding No. Now, will civil society expect just that? And in this case the answer is Yes. But hoping does not accomplish anything. FARC will likely split into smaller criminal groups, though as an institution it might just turn into a political party. This means that it will still be necessary to fight it, and the military will have to know how to do it. But civil society, in this case embodied by some government officials and pressure groups, decided to keep most of the military out of the loop. So the military decided to eavesdrop on the government negotiators. I do not believe or accept they should be blamed for so doing. They must have the information in order to prepare for the battle ahead. On another subject and returning to the theme of soldiers being human, they know personally and firsthand the names of the perpetrators of countless atrocities committed in the course of the conflict. These soldiers who know so much feel betrayed when they are told they must look the other way and simply let these acts go unpunished. So, some officers have decided to start taking matters into their own hands and skip judicial process, going straight into the executions. Human rights defenders have called this a trampling of the rights of the insurgents being killed by the army. But I ask here: What about the rights of their victims? In my eyes, and because I am military-minded, when someone willingly and knowingly violates the rights of another, they renounce to their own rights. Judicial procedures open the door for guilty perpetrators to walk, and if well military summary executions also open the door for injustice, from a social and human, not state, standpoint a choice must be made.


Ultimately, state forces and their allied superheroes overrun Captain Rogers and the rebels, arresting Rogers and subduing the others. The Superhuman Registration Act is put into force, and Captain Steve Rogers is secretly shot dead under orders of Red Skull, his classical nemesis.


One of the direst possibilities of the military being stepped on, besides the increase of general insecurity, is the score settling the imprisoned or otherwise inactive military may become a target of. As the military themselves, the insurgents are human. They have the same emotional and vengeful problems as everyone else. In that scenario, the insurgents will take any opportunity they can seize to settle the score with soldiers with whom they have a personal feud. This is utterly unfair and reeks of injustice towards people who have risked everything for the sake of security. Those military men and women who survive and witness these injustices are then prone to turn to professional crime, and a new, powerful and dangerous enemy is created. But who could reasonably blame them? Radicalization can and must be expected of any human group that is made the object of forced submission or humiliation.

To conclude, attempting to subdue the military will result in negative consequences for civil society, and the unending quest for so-called justice and absolute transparency is both preposterous and counterproductive.