I kinda yawed a little when I read Spencer Ackerman’s scoop on the FBI’s bigoted, brain-dead Islam training. You think this is bad? As a soldier and former first responder, I’ve been sitting through this dreck for the better part of a decade. It’s just part of the noise in the system that most of us with two brain cells have learned to tune out. The problem is that bullshit like this crept all the way to the top and gained the tacit endorsement of the FBI.
As you might have guessed, the FBI doesn’t agree. It released a statement assuring the public this was one time deal and that the trainer in question no longer “provides training on behalf of the FBI.” No mention of anywhere else the individual might provide training. That’s part of the problem too. There is little oversight on so-called terrorism experts who provide training to law enforcement and first responders.
For me, it started before 9/11, when I got out of the Army. In 2000, I joined the Texas Division of Emergency Management and took my first “Terrorism Awareness” course. The instructor was a well-meaning, friendly retired Air Force security non-commissioned officer who had put the course together based off his own research. As an overview of terrorism, it wasn’t bad. But even then, there was this outsized focus on Islamic radical groups as if the PLO was going to blow up the Dairy Queen in Tahoka, Texas. Mind you, this was only five years after the Oklahoma City bombing, but those motivations were harder to explore. It is much easier to look at the crazies over there than to examine our own.
Of course, the crazies from over there came over here in a big way. I remember watching the towers crumble in the State of Texas Emergency Operations Center thinking that this must be state-sponsored. How else could these guys have figured out how to do this? Clearly, I was wrong. I was no expert on terrorism or Islam, but that would start changing, at least a little. A month later my Army reserve unit was mobilized for two years, and like the rest of the military, I started hiking up that steep learning curve.
I returned to the Emergency Management to find that we were now in the Homeland Security business as well. Where there hadn’t been any experts two years before, there suddenly there was a hell of a lot of them. This article from the Washington Monthly sums up what I saw nicely. All you needed was some patina of expertise, a few PowerPoint slides, and some grant money and you were a Terrorism Expert. Hell, I should have started my own business.
I sat through various courses and schools where you could usually hear some version of the “Islam is Evil” pitch. They usually start with some gruesome video like the Daniel Pearl execution, and then they basically all follow the same theme. There are no differences among terror groups, and every Muslim is guilty to one degree or another. There is no Shia and Sunni split. There are no cultural differences to consider, and there is a Muslim boogeyman around every corner waiting to spread sharia law to your town. They’ll make the local barbecue go halal, just you wait. Arguing against this logic or pointing out that there are Christian terrorists in this country who’ve blown up abortion clinics didn’t ever go anywhere. So you shut up, get your certificate, and call it a day.
I remember one particularly bad speaker at a Texas Homeland Security Conference who had a seminar, complete with horrific videos and tales of Islamic doom. After the seminar, I asked the instructor where he got his information. “Mostly off the internet,” was the reply. I recall that he was a retired sheriff’s deputy.
A lot of this is fueled by emotion. The first responder community is very tight knit, and takes safety very seriously. One firefighter’s death will reverberate quickly throughout the country. On September 11th, 343 firefighters and paramedics died. That’s a kind of hurt that doesn’t process well, that simply doesn’t compute. All these “experts” filled a void to give some kind of meaning to that day. Unfortunately, most of them were misguided.
I gradually found my way back into the active military serving in units that primarily focused on Weapons of Mass Destruction. There is still a lot of terrorist hysteria in that community, but the military has been learning and adapting. Our hard won expertise about Islam, the Middle East, and terrorism is now part of our institutional DNA. However, the sharia panic crowd still occasionally rears its ignorant head.
The last time I got a full dose of it was at a military school in the summer of 2010. The schoolhouse brought in a retired FBI agent to teach us about terrorism. He trotted out a presentation similar to the one in Spencer’s story. Things got ugly in a hurry. The retired agent was teaching to a class of mid-career officers many of whom, like me, had been advisors to either the Iraqi or Afghan military. We’d all grown beyond the hype and challenged him on every point. At one point, he was so mad that it looked like he was going to storm out of the room. It was fun while it lasted and made for some fun conversation over beers that night.
So when I read Spencer’s piece, it underwhelmed me with the old news. I sent some tweet snark his way, and had an IM spat with Noah Shachtman about it. Then a funny thing happened; I realized that this was a big deal. How much of my tax dollars had been spent spreading the crap? When you’re in the institutions, sometimes it’s hard to see how they look from the outside. The story seems to be growing legs, and I hope it fuels some changes. Our first responders — hell, all of us — deserve better.
Photo: Flickr / star5112