About Joel Pinckney

Residential Education

Reflecting on Standard Operating Procedure

Immediately following Standard Operating Procedure, I have three immediate reactions. The first comes from the idea of a “ghost detainee”, referenced by Military Police Sergeant Javal Davis. It’s a troubling idea for many reasons, one of which is that the possession of ghost detainees puts military personnel unfamiliar with the detainees identities in impossible situations, with little idea who they are dealing with (if anybody significant). It seems to be very compromising with little reward.

The second reaction emerges from something else said by Sergeant Davis. In discussing the photos, he mentioned that the photos record the humiliation of detainees that was rampant at Abu Ghraib; they do not record the actual torture. It is horrifying to imagine these images as that which the soldiers felt comfortable photographing. As Neel mentioned in class on Monday, the photos available to the public are not the worst of those taken at Abu Ghraib; some have been withheld because of the fear of the blowback they would generate. That is a deeply disturbing thought.

My final reaction to the film is that I am troubled by the words of Brent Pack, the Army Special Agent in the Criminal Investigation Division. Speaking of the photos at Abu Ghraib and what qualifies vs. what does not qualify as standard operating procedure, Special Agent Pack said, “I spent four months in Guantanamo Bay. People that haven’t been where I have been, I can’t expect them to see the pictures in the same way.” This quote troubles me because it seems to be clearly verbalizing the problem: those involved in close proximity with places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are unable to see the photos for what they are. Because these personnel are overexposed to images like these, the images do not possess the elements of horror and deep, deep wrong to them that they do to the average citizen. This is troubling to me, but seems to be an unavoidable vicious cycle: anybody who works in this area will be desensitized to the horror of images like these, and will thus be less likely to deal with the problem as it needs to be dealt with.

Syria and Humanitarian Aid

Reese Ehrlich’s work in Inside Syria is timely and hugely important. In the selections we read, he effectively discusses the complicated assortment of rebel groups and state backers that comprise the Syrian crisis. However, I am most interested in his discussion of humanitarian intervention. In analyzing the proper approach to dealing with Syria, Ehrlich points out that there is “no humanitarian intervention without regime installation.” This is a fundamental problem. How do we aid in the suffering of countless innocent civilians without creating dependency or conditions requiring occupation?

Ehrlich offers a solution that strikes me as far from satisfying. He proposes that we provide “humanitarian aid…done peacefully” and “programs in which Americans directly help the people of Syria.” These both sound great, but what good do these solutions do for those in the midst of the crisis? Even in saying that, I recognize the reality that no easy solution is forthcoming (as Ehrlich also recognizes in asserting the need for Russian cooperation).

This question is at the heart of modern foreign policy: recognizing our historical legacy as oppressors, how do we aid those who seem to be under significant oppression without creating the same long-term systems of imperialistic oppression that we have been perpetrators of for so much of our history? This is the question that Ehrlich is dealing with, and while I push back against his solutions which seems to regard those in the midst of the crisis as lost, I recognize that perhaps the answer to this question ends in small-scale systems of aid.

Considering the Danger of Smart Weapons

Eyel Weizman’s Lethal Theory developed some fascinating trains of thought, particularly in regards to the potential danger of “smart weapons.” According to Weizman, these include “new methods…devised to allow soldiers not only to see but also to shoot and kill through walls.” Future developments in smart weapons “may have the capacity to render not only the built environment but also life itself transparent, making solid architecture effectively disappear.”

One of the troubling aspects of this is the intellectualization of bloodshed and the convincing from the military-political complex that a greater good is being prevented by the use of smart weapons. At what point does the theoretical threat being avoided break down and the actual threat that has been created become a legitimate issue? We only hear of the good, of what is being avoided; what about what is being perpetrated? The problematic nature of smart weapons is explained well by Weizman: they frequently lead to “higher numbers of civilian casualties simply because the illusion of precision gives the military-political complex the necessary justification to use explosives in civilian environments where they cannot be used without endangering, injuring, or killing civilians.”

With that said, I recognize that the alternative is oftentimes no better. Smart weapons will never be rejected, but even if they were, it’s not as if all would be well and the nature of warfare would be appropriate and humane. Mankind always finds a way to participate in depravity in warfare. The important part of questioning smart weapons is the act of questioning the unquestioned, not allowing our assumptions of what will be good for the very nature of warfare to cloud how we see the reality.

Blowback and a New Definition of Terrorism

Emerging from Chalmers Johnson’s piece in Foreign Policy entitled “Blowback” is a unique definition of terrorism, differing from any discussed previously in Bruce Hoffman’s “Inside Terrorism.” In a rather offhand manner, Johnson points out that terrorism “strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable.” He proceeds to discuss the manner in which the imperialist policies of the United States remove all options apart from terrorism for our militarized opponents.

For much terrorist activity, this definition serves quite well. The United States has undoubtedly been the root of much terrorist activity against itself. However, while helpful in some respects, I do not think the definition works comprehensively because not every act of terrorism has a correlative “sin” from the recipient of the terrorist act. Every act of terrorism cannot be explained by a simple cause and effect relationship in which an act from an “invulnerable” power produces a response from one amongst those sinned against. To define terrorism in those terms is to inherently implicate the recipient of the terrorist act. Though the United States undoubtedly implicates itself in much of its activity abroad, Johnson’s oversimplified definition ignores any acts of pure aggression on the part of a terrorist organization. Perhaps in reality those acts are rare, but they certainly are not nonexistent.

The reality is that terrorism is not either the product of imperialism or the independent acts of terrorist groups against innocent states; rather, terrorism is much more often both/and. Defining terrorism in either respect oversimplifies what is always a remarkably complex mixture of origins and motivations.

Bruce Hoffman and “Defining Terrorism” Today

Bruce Hoffman’s piece on “Defining Terrorism” is a thought-provoking essay, raising many questions regarding the nature and goals of terrorists as he moves towards a workable definition. Hoffman ultimately accepts that terrorism cannot be clearly defined, settling instead to close his essay with a section titled “Distinctions as a Path to Definition.” According to Hoffman, the most effective way to define terrorists is by understanding what they are not.

Particularly, I am interested in Hoffman’s final distinction: he points out that the terrorist is “not pursuing perfectly egocentric goals”, further identifying the terrorist as “fundamentally a violent intellectual.” This classification piqued my interest, and I am curious whether Hoffman would assert this stance today. Ultimately that would depend on how he defines an intellectual. Is one an intellectual simply because they are motivated by a cause? That seems to be Hoffman’s logic. Ignoring the fact that defining an intellectual in that manner seems odd, I am confident Hoffman would hold to his position under that definition.

Hoffman seems to imply in the same paragraph that the only difference between a political extremist and a terrorist is violence; I find that a bit dramatic and far-fetched, as it seems to leave the entire psychological element of terrorism, referenced by Hoffman earlier in his essay, out of the picture.

Writing prior to the 9/11 attacks, Hoffman’s analysis predates the nature of terrorism as it has evolved over the last 17 years since his writing.  I am curious whether the events of 9/11 and the changes terrorism (and counterterrorism) have witnessed since that attack have changed Hoffman’s classification.