Narrative Over Evidence

Brad Patty

1 months ago

January 17, 2018

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen testified today on a report that should have raised no eyebrows whatsoever.  The key statement is almost analytic in its content, meaning that the truth follows just from the meanings of the words employed:

“According to a list maintained by the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, at least 549 individuals were convicted of international terrorism-related charges in U.S. federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016. Of the 549 individuals, 402 were foreign-born — that’s 73 percent.”

Of course most members of international terrorist groups, as opposed to domestic terrorist groups, will have been born outside the United States. If the group was principally composed of native-born Americans, it would probably be classified as domestic rather than international. This is the least surprising finding in the world.

It is even less surprising when you consider that international terrorism targeting Americans is principally from jihadist groups, and most Muslims were not born in America.  Even among adult Muslims in America, six in ten were foreign born (three-quarters of all Muslims in America being either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants).  Many forms of non-Islamic terrorism exist internationally, to be sure. However, most of these are separatist groups, who do not necessarily have a fight with the United States; or they are Communist groups, like the Maoists in the Philippines, who in principle have a fight with all extant governments but in practice are localized phenomena. The United States happens to be targeted by international terrorists principally for jihadist reasons, and most of those human beings inclined to waging violent jihad were not born in the United States. Again, just by the definitions of what the report is designed to study, this finding is exactly what you should expect.

The fact that the numbers line up so well with the demographics suggests fairness in the process. The numbers count convictions, not attackers. Omar Mateen of the Pulse Nightclub shooting (native born) did not make the list because he is dead. The San Bernardino shooters (one each native and foreign born) didn’t make the list for the same reason. Since these numbers are based only on successful prosecutions, these are places where the agents of the state have turned their attention to finding and arresting people. If the subset of people they chose to pursue looked wildly unlike the demographics, you might reasonably suspect prejudice in application. Since the subset of convicts looks exactly like what you would expect given the demographics, you might reasonably infer that police and prosecutors are not being unfair in where they focus their attention.

Finally, the total numbers are not huge. Even if every single one of these five hundred convictions had come exclusively from the American Muslim community, which is not the case, that would only represent two hundredths of one percent of that population. Clearly these convictions are targeted at specific violations, rather than representing a wide-scale attempt to use counter-terror authority to sweep up members of a disfavored minority.

This report should have been well-received by Congress, as its findings are plausible and suggest that a difficult job is being done fairly when prejudice might have been feared.

Congress being Congress, of course, that is not what happened.

In fairness, there was a similar sort of reaction on the right when Homeland Security issued a report suggesting that returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans represented a potential terror threat. That came in the first year of the Obama administration, just as this report comes in the first year of the Trump administration, and likewise represented to the opposing party a troubling focus of attention. Both parties seem to fear that a president of the other party will turn the dogs of war — well, of law-enforcement — against constituencies that favor their political party. Congress seems intent on returning to that narrative in spite of evidence to the contrary.

All the same, it is very strange to raise the charge of ‘ignorance and bigotry aligned with power’ in the face of this evidence. Homeland Security’s report strongly suggests they have been exactly the kind of responsible stewards of power here that the Senator claims to want. Instead of searching for a reason to revive the narrative of prejudice and fear, it would have been helpful for the Senator to recognize and praise the Department’s actual legacy of care and restraint in handling cases of this kind.

The report deserves Congress’ attention for other reasons. It teases out some problems that Congress should consider for the purpose of future study. For example, in the section of the mandatory report on honor killings, Homeland Security admits that it has no method for tracking these because it lacks both authority and a statutory definition from which to operate. That is a problem that this Senate committee might have begun trying to solve, as it falls within the scope of their constitutional authority.

When it comes to Female Genital Mutilation, another form of “gender-based violence against women” according to the report, statutory authority and definitions do exist. Here the report helpfully identifies a lack of cooperation between the Federal and state governments as hampering our ability to understand the problem, although it cites a report by the Center for Disease Control suggesting that the FGM has affected over half a million women in America. This figure is three times what was estimated in 1990, the DHS report continues, which we should find noteworthy. The rapid spread of the practice is worthy of further inquiry.

There is much that Congress can do to be of use in addressing this set of problems. Perhaps next time.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.