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On December 9th of last year, The New York Times published a groundbreaking article titled “Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election, U.S. Says” in response to multiple intelligence community reports concluding that Russian operatives attempted to influence the general election in President Trump’s favor against former Secretary Clinton. The article provides a thorough analysis of how and when Russia was able to enter the American cyberspace: by hacking Clinton campaign and DNC emails, propagating “fake news” on social media outlets, and undermining important Democratic party officials. These efforts effectively fabricated a political climate that, in the end, hurt the Democratic party candidate and helped the Republican party candidate come to power. A groundbreaking revelation, indeed.
The narrative that Russia infiltrated and influenced the presidential election of 2016 has been one of, if not the, the most reported-on stories in recent months, as media outlets and politicians on both sides of the aisle have decried and denounced it as unprecedented and undemocratic. Many journalists and reporters have eloquently offered their highly-nuanced opinions on the topic, and yet, there appears to be something missing.
A brief segment of The Rachel Maddow Show on March 16th picked up on what is missing in the overall “Russia” narrative, however. Though Maddow did not have the time allotment to fully flesh her argument out, she did, in fact, raise the rather disturbing point that the Presidential election was not the only victim of Russia’s hacking operation—Democratic house candidates were as well. Maddow’s segment most likely ties back to a New York Times article that similarly laid out the specifics for how Russians affected South Florida congressional campaigns during election season.
The scenarios described in the article offer profound insight into how political races can drastically change if cybersecurity is infringed upon. Annette Taddeo, a runner-up in her district’s election states, “I just can’t describe it any other way. Our entire internal strategy plan was made public, and suddenly all this material was out there and could be used against me.” This illustrates that the hackers targeted politicians they believed would be particularly vulnerable to leaks, regardless of whether or not the information leaked was controversial. In other words, Taddeo’s leaked documents were not compromising to how the citizens in her district viewed her character, but rather they compromised the very foundations and strategies of the campaign she was running, which was equally as destructive. One can conclude that these hackers gathered a significant amount of voter-attitude information in the districts before calculating who to attack. After the proper information was collected, the trigger was pulled, and chaos in South Florida’s political arena accordingly ensued.
This is disturbing. The notion that a foreign actor, or any influence, for that matter, can uninvitedly sway important elections whenever it feels the need to is alarming, to say the least.
It is important to note that the United States could potentially be on the verge of a new normal with regard to public opinion about foreign officials hacking domestic elections. The American public’s indifference to the intelligence community’s reports about the Russian hacking of the general election is only part of this new normal. In addition, there could be a large increase in foreign influence, perhaps by Russia, in the upcoming 2018 midterm congressional elections, which could have grave consequences for the Democrats.
There are 33 Senate-seat elections taking place in 2018 with Democrats hoping to keep their 23 already-held seats in control. Certain races, such as Indiana and Pennsylvania, may be contentious, as some incumbent Democrats will attempt to hold seats in largely-Republican states where President Trump secured the electoral votes. To many Democrats, it becomes understandably difficult to not be overly grieved that Republicans have control of the both houses of Congress. Had Russia not intervened, however, many of those Democrats would most likely accept the losses as “politics as usual” in the ebb and flow of political party control. Republicans would (probably) feel the same sentiment if the roles were reversed.
“Politics as usual” may not be applicable in 2018, however. Who is to say there won’t be more hacking efforts by Russian operatives? Having already successfully influenced the largest election in the nation, it would come as no surprise if hackers attempted to infiltrate and hack campaign offices; therefore, perhaps putting undeserving Republicans in office. Those who are less wary about this occurring argue that foreign influences don’t actually hack elections and voting booths, thus, in essence, they are not hacking or really influencing the election. That misses the point completely, quite frankly.
Influencing elections can simply be changing voter attitudes and providing certain candidates with unfair advantages over others. Any inkling of foreign influence on congressional elections in 2018 should alarm and disturb all politicians in Washington, no matter how small or insignificant. Action needs to be taken to ensure these issues do not persist—only time will tell if the United States properly defends itself against the undermining of its democracy.
- James Sabia
Fact: a piece of information presented as having objective reality. This commonly-understood definition of the word has, whether inadvertently or deliberately, been misconstrued, misappropriated, and called into question by the Trump administration. Though this has been present throughout President Trump’s entire campaign, it peaked after recent media reports suggested that his inauguration crowd was particularly small in comparison to former President Obama’s, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer dubiously proclaimed in a press conference that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period”. In response to these reports and to Spicer’s rhetoric, Senior Aide to the President Kellyanne Conway proclaimed that some of his statements are “alternative facts.” Alternative facts are not facts. They are lies.
There is much to be said about how dangerous the notion of an “alternative fact” is, especially when it is coming from the White House, and more specifically, the leader of our country. Instead of delving into the the glaring problems surrounding the Trump administration blatantly lying to the American public, it is important to acknowledge that certain institutions are in jeopardy. Think tanks, scholarly research centers, and even government agencies work to produce concrete facts, not alternative ones. In the next four years, these institutions may face profound challenges from the White House for simply doing their jobs unbiasedly and correctly.
One of the most important examples of this phenomenon happened at the end of January, just days after President Trump was inaugurated. On January 25th, the Associated Press released a statement from the White House stating, “The Trump administration is mandating that any studies or data from scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency undergo review by political appointees before they can be released to the public”. Interpreted, in the terms of Trump supporters, both literally and seriously, this statement essentially signifies that any data that EPA scientists compile that counter the White House’s agenda will be hidden in the shadows away from the public. This could potentially conceal information about climate change that is life-threatening to not only the United States, but also to the world. Former EPA Staffers have explained that many reports were viewed by government officials “lightly” in the past, and that content was “rarely ever edited,” making the White House’s new protocol highly unorthodox, to say the least.
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute explains, “Unlike ordinary political lying, which tries to persuade people of particular things that are false, disinformation aims to sow doubt and cynicism about everything that’s true”. Not only does this lying affect how the White House’s relationship with the media develops, but this ultimately undermines the efforts of a fact-checking, scholarly institute such as Brookings in conducting bipartisan and objective research. This think tank and other think tanks alike rely on the objectivity of the US Government in allowing them to publish their findings to the American public about the effects of public policy. If the Trump administration designs legislation to cut funding, by perhaps creating constraints on donation amounts, to certain think tanks, a snowball effect could be created where research information could become heavily partisan, perhaps even borderline propaganda. The American public ultimately loses out.
Orwellian analogies aside, an important way to combat a paranoid administration is through archiving. Archiving, the storing of documents and data in safe spaces, can preserve large amounts of useful information. One of the largest archives in the country is the National Archives. The National Archives is an administrative organization that focuses on storing and collecting both personal U.S. citizens’ documents as well as the federal government’s important documents. In an age of rapid technological growth, the Archives is creating new ways to save information discovered by governmental agencies so that they can be released to the public at any point for researching purposes.
Although the National Archives has its own initiative in which it is attempting to store online information (known as the Electronics Records Archives), it is not the only major player in the battle to preserve factual information. In December of last year, a volunteer effort called “End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016” was created by various libraries across the nation in an attempt to archive important government web pages that the Trump administration may deem “unimportant” or “trivial” into library databases. An important point to note here is that the National Archives and this volunteer campaign are organizations independent of the U.S. government, even if they are tasked with storing and releasing federal government documents. This potentially safeguards their efforts of preservation from impending, strict anti-”fact” legislation pushed through Congress.
In the ensuing battle against “alternative facts,” the media has a prominent, immediate role in calling out the lies propagated by the White House. Archiving organizations, however, have the more profound role of ensuring that actual facts are forever saved and accessible. These organizations are the genesis in the battle against dangerous subjectivity. In the next 4 years, the American public must realize the Trump administration’s dangerous subjectivity with regard to facts and must be prepared to combat it in any way possible. The power of archiving highlights one powerful principle that must be understood: objectivity is never mild.
In 2013, Vice News’s music branch Noisey shot and directed a YouTube web series about the southside of Chicago known as Welcome to Chiraq, which attempted to elucidate the hardships and gang violence that are currently affecting the area’s several neighborhoods. Noisey focused on the perspectives and storylines of different up and coming rappers with respect to how the gang violence has influenced their lives and the lives of those around them. Interestingly, many Chicago residents disapproved of Noisey’s attempt to paint a portrait of Chicago’s south side as “hopeless” and a “war zone” because although it is certainly dangerous, the documentary undermined the multitude of efforts to bring the different communities together against the gang violence.
As an avid listener of the newly coined “drill music” subgenre of hip hop that comes out of Chicago, my reaction to the documentary was filled with mixed emotions. I, on one hand, found the insight into the rappers’ daily lives intriguing, but on the other hand, understood the criticisms directed at Noisey. The series places an almost-condescending emphasis on the violence, gang-affiliation, and drugs that fill the lyrics of the drill music of Chicago’s most popular hip hop artists. This exploitation was aimed at sensationalizing the hard, impoverished conditions highlighted in these said lyrics, which I would imagine increased the series’s viewership among those not involved with Chicago in any way.
Perhaps the series should have focused on the way the people of the southside of Chicago are taking action to unite in the face of adversity and violence. Perhaps the series should have focused on how Chicago’s politics play an integral role in segregating the south side from the rest of the more affluent, less crime-ridden areas of the city. Perhaps. G Herbo, one of drill music’s young rising stars, passionately raps “In the streets, ditchin' school, murder, drugs around me/Rappin' it just found me, thank God it wasn't in county/Buncha shootouts, lucky that them bullets went around me”. Many of the rappers in Chicago create music that, whether or not apparent at first listen, is introspective and thoughtful about the situation they live in. It appears that drill rappers’, such as Herb (G Herbo), insight into personal experience appears to be overshadowed by the lyrics about violence, drugs, etc. These bars represent the conflict that exists in the minds of many of the youth in these underprivileged areas: the duality of being entrenched in the social dynamic and making it out of said dynamic onto a better life.
Noisey took all of the criticisms into account, changed the lens of its approach, and just recently released a documentary on its new Viceland channel known simply as Chicago. This new documentary shed light on how the citizens of the south side of Chicago are actually working to build positive relationships within the community against violence (i.e "Stop the Violence Parade"). “Stop the Violence” is a local event that specifically works to gather the communities of the southside of Chicago together and allows them to parade through the streets in order to raise awareness about gang violence. Parades and violence-awareness initiatives are considered the main combat mechanisms against gang violence because of the indifference towards the hardships perpetrated by the local Chicago governmental policies. At the mantle of this indifference is Chicago’s mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Much of the scrutiny aimed at the Emanuel administration is related to his false consciousness about police brutality and the specific, hollow rhetoric he employs in attempt to ameliorate the situation. The biggest contradiction in Emanuel’s actions and his language comes in the form of his handling of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, that occurred on October 20, 2014 at roughly 10:00 P.M.
It is believed by many, even the Chicago Tribune--the city’s most prolific newspaper--that Mayor Emanuel attempted to hide the fact that he knew about the shooting long before he ran for reelection, several months after the shooting took place. Given the time period between Emanuel being “fully briefed” by his cabinet on the shooting of McDonald, and when the shooting actually took place, there appears to be foul play politics at hand. It appears all too convenient that he just happened to “understand the gravity of the police brutality situation in Chicago” as his campaigning was coming to an end for reelection. Several months later, a dashcam video of the shooting was released to the public displaying the altercation between the McDonald and the police officer. The video portrayed a scenario that was drastically different from the police report that was filed immediately after the shooting (perhaps the working of [another] police cover up).
In response to Emanuel’s lack of a tangible action against police brutality, the people of Chicago erupted into a protest that vacated the majority of the city’s streets. This is the most glaring instance of Emanuel’s governmental inconsistencies, and unfortunately, the people of the south side of the city are the most affected. Hip hop music offers an escape, an opportunity to bypass the barriers of social mobility, but what’s alarming is the manner in which hip hop music is being perceived. The music reflects the day-to-day lives of a group of people who face systemic indifference and destitution at the hands of politics that leave their interests out of the equation.
- James Sabia
Flint, Michigan. While perhaps not nationally recognized as a large metropolitan area, Michigan’s fourth largest city is usually known for its roots in the automobile industry, its socioeconomic diversity, and its art scene. This reputation, unfortunately, is not the case any longer, and Flint now represents a not-so-subtle calamity that can be attributed to the failures of American politics. The situation in Flint needs no grandiose introduction, but there is value in highlighting what exactly is going on within the city’s borders for those who may be partially unaware.
To keep a long story short: the Michigan State Government decided that it would switch the local water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River, at least only temporarily until it could create a new budgeting solution for how to provide tap water to its citizens during a time of financial hardships. This was not supposed to be a “long-term solution” to the problem, however. It eventually became the State Government’s only “solution.” Due to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality’s lack of efficient oversight, the pipes in Flint’s water infrastructure were not treated with anti-corrosive agents. Soon, tap water appeared brown and contained higher levels of lead than deemed safe for human consumption.
Because of this, Flint now faces a crisis that has rendered its tap water largely undrinkable, unusable, and utterly dangerous to its citizens. As a result, it has caused large, irreversible outbreaks of lead poisoning, especially in young children.
This crisis is a catastrophe of American politics on all fronts for two reasons: the State Government’s inconspicuous--though many would argue conspicuous--proliferation of racism and its glaring incompetence. Both of these themes have intertwined to create a disaster that the poor citizens of Flint must contend with.
The intersection of sociopolitical dynamics and the environment adds another dimension to this crisis in which racism is perpetuated by government officials. In the case of Flint, Governor Rick Snyder never mentions “race” or that the mishandling of the water crisis was due to the fact that Flint is predominantly African American and poor, but outright racism is not the only form of racism that exists. Systemic political decisions are rarely influenced by the minority groups of Flint. Even though the politician who decided to switch the water source was African American, the state government is run by a group of mostly white politicians, which means that public policies reflect their own interests.
As mentioned before, this situation is not clear “racism” in its denotive definition, but it appears that it is no coincidence that the Flint community was the victim of “environmental racism,” a term used to describe the idea that “poor communities and communities of color often experience disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards”. The situation in Flint highlights that this environmental racism goes hand-in-hand with the de facto segregation that places minority groups in areas that are environmentally mistreated. This particular idea is not novel in the minds of many people throughout Michigan. In an interview with the Huffington Post, the mayor of Lansing, Michigan, Virgil Bernero, claimed that “The response was muted. The state response was sluggish and irresponsible. That does have something to do with the people being voiceless”.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems that not-so-subtle racism is the most likely explanation for the indifference and incompetence on part of the Michigan state government. The incompetence is highlighted by critical decisions that were made by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality: the agency did not require the Flint plant to use the correct corrosion control and it threw out samples of water that may have alerted residents of Flint to lead poisoning earlier than anticipated. By the time the residents found out about the high levels of lead poisoning, it was far too late, and there were many people to blame at the state level, Gov. Snyder included.
Governor Snyder and the head of the EPA, Gina McCarthy, sat before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to testify and plead their cases for the disaster that happened in Flint. Much of the derision towards McCarthy and Snyder was bipartisan, and the members of the committee on the panel called for both to resign because of their incompetence. Whether the issue is bipartisan or not, it is clear that action must be taken, and responsibility for the crisis should be established, but this is not all that is required. The rehabilitation of Flint should be solely focused on providing aid and concrete solutions, not just accounts of culpability. It is imperative, above all else, that clean, drinkable water is distributed to the citizens of Flint immediately.
Yes, there is importance in punishing the perpetrators, but that’s not all that people of Flint deserve. The people of Flint and other areas affected by poisoned water deserve action by all who can help, whether it be on the federal, local, or even international levels. If there is anything that this crisis highlights, it’s that the government of Michigan has failed people of its own state and its own country. Flint, Michigan now represents a failure of humanity.
- James Sabia
Cyber security can be defined by the University of Maryland University College as “information technology security,” which focuses on protecting computers, networks, programs and data from unintended or unauthorized access, change or destruction.” This phrase has become increasingly common in society’s rhetoric in the past few decades given technology’s prevalence in daily life. Much of our personal information is stored on some device somewhere in the world, and we rely on the technology industry to create devices that are capable of protecting this information from the outside world. That being said, a case incredibly significant to the importance of cyber security in today’s socio-political realm has been developing in the United States.
On December 2nd this past year, a married couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a regional center in San Bernardino, California, killing fourteen people and injuring twenty-two. Syed Farook worked for the government in San Bernardino, and the U.S. Government, in investigating the shooting, was able to recover Farook’s government-issued phone http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-san-bernardino-shooting-live-updates-htmlstory.html. While it may appear that the recovery is an informational victory for the FBI, the issue for the agency becomes predicated around how it will access the information because the phone is encrypted. Because of this, the FBI contacted Apple asking for a software that essentially unlocks the iPhone from a “back door” so that none of the information is tampered with.
Here is where this case becomes interesting, and could become one that sets a precedent for future cyber security issues.
On February 17th, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, responded to the FBI’s request to create this software by making it publicly known that neither he, nor anyone at Apple, could support usurping the law by completing this action. This statement was published on Apple’s website for all to see, and within the letter, Cook highlights what the possible consequences of creating a “backdoor” to its operating system could be. Cook explicitly states, “The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers from sophisticated hackers and cybercriminals.” Naturally, this letter elicited responses from politicians and leading tech industry professionals, such as the creator of the popular messaging application WhatsApp, who declared in a Facebook status that he stands behind Tim Cook and Apple in the case against the FBI.
As this story develops, it is important to note that there has not been very much legal action between the two parties. Much of the back-and-forth between industry professionals like Tim Cook and the FBI and its supporters -including Bill Gates - is PR-related, polarizing the American public.
There is much speculation about who is right in the tug-of-war between FBI and the Silicon Valley tech empire that is Apple, but it appears that Apple’s reasoning overrides the government’s need for security information. Of course, having said that, there is no denying that intelligence, especially cyber intelligence, is crucial in maintaining the nation’s security from potential enemies all over the world. The overall implications, as Cook highlighted, become the larger issue in this case, however, because any mishap in handling the “back door” software could affect millions of people across the globe. In a hypothetical “worst-case” scenario, someone with the information about how to decode Apple’s standard encryption mechanisms could potentially hack into everyone’s phones, tablets, and computers and access personal information.
Recent legal developments have further augmented Apple and Tim Cook’s case about not creating the backdoor operating system. A U.S. District Court in New York sided with Apple in a ruling about another iPhone cybersecurity case stating that U.S. Government cannot use the All Writs Act of 1911, which states that the government can increase its jurisdiction in irremediable cases, to force Apple to create the key to unlock the backdoor. While this case cannot set precedent in the Supreme Court, it highlights the issue at hand, and places a fair amount of momentum in Apple’s favor.
Contrarily, there is the argument that the FBI’s request of Apple’s expertise is an exclusive case, meaning that its use of the backdoor software will be limited to Farook’s phone, and that there will not be any other instances of the software being used for the sake of national security. That appears to miss the point, however, because it only requires one instance in which this way of bypassing encryption is placed in the wrong hands in the wrong moment.
Thus, while this case is still in its formative stages, it remains to be seen if and how the Supreme Court will rule on a hotly-contested case such as this. Considering that the Court will now most likely be split on a majority of its cases until a new Justice is appointed, it is difficult to pinpoint how the conclusion will play out. It may be important for Apple to press the issue in this case as quickly as possible in the U.S. District Court for Central California, taking into account the fact that the Ninth District is comprised of predominantly liberal judges who may rule in their favor.
The overbearing issue is the push-and-pull between privacy and national security, and while both sides of the argument maintain validity, the ramifications of Apple’s stance are important to note. If the previously mentioned “worst-case” scenario somehow becomes “the” case, then both our privacy and our national security could be at risk for generations to come.
- James Sabia
While cycling through the news a few days ago, I read a story that struck me as particularly off-putting, both because of its nature and its lack of coverage in the mainstream media. The story was about Islam Gawish, a prolific Egyptian cartoonist who was arrested for his moderate satirization of top government officials working in human rights organizations. Gawish, relative to other government critics, is seen as moderate, thus the arrest came as a surprise for many. According to the New York Times, however, the Egyptian government has been finding it difficult to crack down on active dissent online because of the vast, elusive nature of the internet; therefore, anyone who is seen as “against the government” in any way, whether moderate or liberal, is viewed as an enemy (Gawish, in this case).
Although I was aware of the Egyptian government’s negative attitude toward humans’ rights activists and journalists, it appears that the scope of its actions has not reached “Western” news as much as it should. Since the 2011 revolution, there hasn’t been much Western news coverage regarding Egypt.
I decided to find out more.
In 2011, Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office by a widespread uprising that the Egyptian public’s discontent with the poverty, political repression, and corruption catalyzed. After the new Presidential elections took place in early 2012, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, assumed his position in office and began to lead Egypt into its post-Mubarak period. The Muslim Brotherhood’s victory was only short-lived, however, because of a military coup enacted by the commanding general in Egypt’s military, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The coup d’etat occurred in 2013, and, in 2014, El-Sisi ran for President of Egypt during elections and ended up with a victory.
Though there has been much political turmoil in Egypt since 2011, the dynamic between media activists and dissenters and the government for various offenses has become much more complicated since Mubarak’s fall from power. This may be in part due to the fact that once Mubarak’s reign came to an end, the Egyptian media was ostensibly granted much more freedom under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. This party, which was overthrown in the coup of 2013 by the military, promoted democracy, but nonetheless, the Egyptian people had grown weary of hollow governmental placation about fixing corruption and oppression, and El-Sisi took office. The Muslim Brotherhood’s office in government was eradicated, and its political ideals were made illegal after Morsi was ousted.
Under El-Sisi, Egypt’s media has now been on high alert because of his near full-fledged paranoia about journalists and activists who dissent against his government. According to a report done by the Huffington Post, many of the journalists that have been arrested by El-Sisi’s regime have been from the Qatari-based news network, Al-Jazeera, because they have been criticizing him in favor of the now illegal Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sisi has been keen on attempting to quell terrorism within the country’s borders, but, in doing so, has created a government on-edge, namely, one that may take irrational steps in declaring what is terrorism and what is not (i.e. arresting journalists and cartoonists without much warrant).
As a response to the arrests, many people both inside and outside of Egypt have taken to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to express their contempt of the Egyptian government. In an age that is saturated with technology and the internet, it now appears that these platforms are the real force behind fighting the practices of the government, not only because they are able to disseminate the word out to the Egyptian public, but also because the accessibility of something like Twitter raises awareness in the Western world. Hashtags such as #ThisisEgypt allow users around the globe to tune into different opinions and perspectives about what is occurring in Egypt.
The question now becomes: How do we focus attention on how to stop these unwarranted arrests from happening? Unfortunately, there is no concrete foreign policy answer for this tough question because of the complicated nature of Egypt’s political problems. Maybe social media’s influence may be strong enough in the near future to raise awareness enough for the rest of the world to come up with a strong-minded solution that El-Sisi must abide by.
- James Sabia
Boko Haram is a phrase that in Western media outlets is often associated with planned terrorism and ties to the barbaric actions of the alleged Islamic State. Boko Haram roughly translates to “western education is a sin,” according to several African language experts, with the word haram translated from Arabic to mean “forbidden”. Although the organization’s full name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, the shorter moniker is an umbrella title for a group of radical Islamic militants in West Africa, specifically in northeastern Nigeria, dedicated to collective resistance against the Nigerian government. Since its formal convening in 2009, the organization’s intention has been clear: implementing in-state Sharia law, or rules and regulations based on traditional interpretations of Islam, by any means necessary.
Though at first thought, its goal may not seem entirely irrational, especially since insurgency and regime changes very rarely happen without war or bloodshed to accompany them, this group uses gruesome war tactics to commit atrocities against the people of Nigeria in trying to achieve that goal. One of the most prominent examples of Boko Haram’s terror was its kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014 from a town in northeastern Nigeria, a tragedy that has yet to have any reconciliation. Though social media has raised significant awareness worldwide through the hashtag #BringOurGirlsBack, many of the girls from the boarding school remain missing. The kidnappings were ultimately a victory for Boko Haram.
In terms of actual war-style attacks, Boko Haram is notorious for setting off bombs, raiding villages and towns, and killing innocent villagers and townspeople not affiliated with the war. Just recently, the group has declared internationally that they were responsible for the suicide bombing in the Nigerian state of Kano that killed over 21 people. However, this event was not mutually exclusive with the group’s raid of several villages on the same day, therefore highlighting that these surprise attacks could be an attempt to illustrate the Nigerian government’s inability to prepare civilians for the worst possible scenarios.
Earlier this year, former President of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan lost in the national Nigerian elections to former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who became the first opposition leader to win in a Nigerian election. Many civilians felt that Goodluck Jonathan turned a blind eye to Boko Haram and placated the Nigerian public with hollow promises and empty rhetoric. As a result, they turned to a new leader in Buhari, whom they deem fit to fight the battle against the terrorist group.
While Nigerian government forces have recently been reporting that the tables are turning in their favor, a large portion of civilians are becoming impatient with the government’s inability to effectively oust Boko Haram’s forces. One of the largest independently formed civilian militias that is making progress in the fight against Boko Haram is known as the Civilian J.T.F., a group that exerts the majority of its energy capturing younger and older men who have either joined the group already or are close to joining them and turning them into the Nigerian government. These men have been partly responsible for pushing Boko Haram back into the uppermost parts of the country. The Nigerian military reported that, in September, it had helped free 241 women and children from camps held by the terrorist group while also arresting a local leader that ran the camps in that part of Nigeria.
Boko Haram’s main weakness is that the majority of its members are concentrated within the relatively small region of northeastern Nigeria. Though it may not seem significant, this concentration makes the fight against the terrorist group all the easier.
Thus, there appears to be significant resistance in the face of Boko Haram, at least enough to almost maintain a stronghold in Northeastern Nigeria. The issue, however, is that as “weak” as Boko Haram is supposedly becoming, it remains prevalent because of aid and weaponry that comes from groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Earlier this year, Boko Haram pledged to support the Islamic State in its endeavors, and the Islamic State willingly accepted. Perhaps this is the reason that the group has been able to continue acting as a terrorist group.
Whether the Nigerian government is pulling its weight in the fight, Boko Haram’s allies directly join the fight, or members of NATO or the United Nations act to protect the innocent people of Nigeria, this current situation is nothing short of complicated. There does not appear to be an easy answer to solve the question how to get rid of a terrorist group that unjustly uses religion to proliferate its gruesome agenda.
- James Sabia
Maritime law is officially defined as “a body of laws, conventions and treaties that governs international private business or other matters involving ships, shipping or crimes occurring on open water”. Maritime law, just as natural law on land, is susceptible to misinterpretation, and it can be argued that it is more difficult to prosecute criminals under maritime law because of the presence of obscurities in evidence and circumstance, considering that the crimes may happen without any real witnesses. One particular crime that is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia that is often overlooked by Western media is the proliferation of illegal “manning” campaigns coming out of the Philippines.
Manning campaigns consist of maritime agencies recruiting usually impoverished people usually impoverished from island countries to work on various kinds of ships for commercial activity such as fishing and transporting large amounts of cargo. These agencies are known to recruit young men who seek work that pay them enough money to send back to their families in their local villages. In theory, this appears to be a beacon of hope for some Filipino people to drastically improve their quality of life, at least for a short period of time. Unfortunately, the sinister reality underlying and undermining all of this hope demonstrate that almost, if not all of the agencies take on corrupt and malevolent practices against the people they recruit and suffer little to no consequence. According to a report by The New York Times, “illegal agencies instruct workers to travel on tourist or transit visas, which exempt them from the protections of many labor and anti-trafficking laws, disavowing them if they are denied pay, injured, killed, abandoned or arrested at sea”
As if the situation isn’t already dire enough, it is getting progressively worse because of the economic disparity in the Philippines. Human trafficking of children has increased because these agencies find it less costly to convince younger children to join them to work, and the poorer the children are, the more willing they are to want to raise money for their families. The results are often disastrous. Filipino children are forced to work on these ships for a certain period of time and then they are sold into sex slavery all across Southeast Asia, working in brothels and on the streets.
Many of these agencies and the ships that work for them are able to enact practices such as these without facing severe legal repercussions on the basis of certain loopholes within weak maritime laws. Ships are allowed to don any national flag they so choose, as long as they oblige to that country’s laws and practices. The problem is: these agencies are cognizant of which countries have maritime patrol units and which don’t, therefore they frequently select countries that are more inclined to look the other way on maritime crimes because of their weak navies, patrols, etc. Naturally, this makes prosecuting the criminals a much more laborious process, especially since most maritime law enforcement is weaker than land law enforcement.
The Filipino government has been working vigorously to try and apprehend these agencies before they are even able to recruit young men and women from the islands. Signed 12 years ago in 2003, the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act made it unlawful for manning agencies to recruit workers without first being approved by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. Thus, much of the more effective work done by the government has been in educating potential workers about the dangers of illegal recruitment. CNN reports that since 2003, “more than 2000 seminars have been given to over 100,000 workers ready to leave the Philippines for work.
Understandably, it is significantly more difficult to enforce law on open waters than on land, but not much has changed because of anti-trafficking measures. There must be some sort of action taken to account for the hundreds and thousands of people being tortured, sold, and killed in Southeast Asia and all around the globe. The international community cannot continue to turn a blind eye when it comes to helping the victims of illegal manning agencies.
- James Sabia
Mauritania is an arid, desert country in Northwest Africa that has been in the news lately as a result of its recent discovery of oil and the ever-present danger of its capital city, Nouakchott, flooding to the point of near-submersion. While these stories illustrate some of the troubles that Mauritania is facing, there is a much darker, more disturbing, and grossly overlooked reality that exists within its borders. Mauritania was the last country in the world to ban legal, institutional slavery, officially banning it in 1981. Although it is documented that slavery is “illegal,” the government did not make slavery a crime until 2007. The question in Mauritania, however, is not whether slavery is illegal, but rather whether it still exists. The answer, according to a report by the United Nations’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, is that yes, it does. Between 10 and 20 percent of Mauritania’s population is enslaved without any significant consequences for the enslavers.
The socio-cultural dynamic of Mauritania has not drastically changed since its independence from France in 1960. The population is segregated into two social groups: the light-skin Arabs, known as the White Moors, and the dark-skin Arabs, the black Africans. Throughout the past 50 years, and especially before the official banning of slavery, the White Moors in Mauritania have asserted control over impoverished black Africans by forcing them to unwillingly perform arduous labor, mostly for personal and economic reasons.
Dominating much of Mauritania’s social-political realm, the White Moors have been known to turn a blind eye to slavery, and much of the government’s rhetoric about slavery indicates that they do not directly take blame for its implications. It appears that the government's willingness to acknowledge slavery has decreased over time. In an interesting contradiction, however, the government is also taking action against those who dissent against its blasé attitude. About a year ago, two anti-slavery activists were arrested during an anti-bondage protest and over two months ago, were finally tried in a court of law for public dissent. According to Al-Jazeera, the two activists were tried for “belonging to an illegal organization, leading an unauthorized rally, and violence against the police”.
While there are those that declare that “slavery” is not a result of racism between the two or three groups that make up Mauritania’s society, it is difficult to ignore the fact that racism is ubiquitous throughout the country’s politics. Even if there is resistance in the form of anti-slavery protests, these protests fall short of making any real progress because of the country’s government is run by the same social group as the alleged slave-masters. In the 2007 “democratic election,” a profoundly small number of candidates (only three) of the total number of candidates were not of the White Moor class.
However, one of the most interesting forms of resistance and awareness rising within Mauritania’s borders comes from its recent expansion of socially-conscious hip-hop music. Many of the rappers in Mauritania write rhymes over instrumentals about the country’s past involvement with slavery and how this history relates to tackling it and destroying. Rapping allows the anti-slavery population of Mauritania to come together and form a collective voice against the atrocities that are not recognized by the government, even if that means they become the next targets of government imprisonment campaigns.
Many of the dissenters’ methods of activism have raised awareness to the point that American news sources, such as CNN, have created articles and documentaries to do the same locally.
These activities have also aided in forcing the Mauritanian government to pass a new anti-slavery law that declares slavery as a “crime against humanity.” While this law may illustrate that Mauritania may be gradually moving in the right direction, several UN-affiliated and non-UN affiliated NGOs, claim that the new law will hinder their efforts to aid the victims and carry out prosecutions. The law itself may also be weak and unenforceable, as there has been a history of a lack of government prosecutions despite the fact that slavery is illegal.
Though whatever progress has been made in Mauritania legally, the efforts of NGOs and social activist groups, including rappers, should not be overlooked. Because of their brave actions, the international community is aware of what has been occurring as a result of the Mauritanian government’s “blind-eye” approach to slavery.
If you’ve been watching the news or reading newspapers lately, you may have come across several stories about a conflict that has been brewing half-way across the globe in Yemen since as early as 2004. Over the past 6-8 months, Yemen has undergone profound, socio-political change, thanks to the rise of several different insurgent groups and the increasing unrest surrounding President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s political reign. Since the mid-1990s, the Yemeni public has voiced strong opinions about its government, accusing many of its members of promoting corruption and proliferating unemployment and nation-wide poverty. Along with public dissent, several coalitions have formed with the sole purpose of ousting the President from office, but none more prominently than the militant rebel group known as the Zaidi Shia Houthis, named after its leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi.
While the Houthi rebel group has drawn its support from the public’s contempt for Hadi, they have also been a benefactor of former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from office in 2011. This creates an interesting dynamic in the conflict because Saleh has reclaimed some leverage in Yemen by siding with the Houthis. It will be interesting to observe what his role in Yemen becomes in the near future.
In January of this year, the Houthi rebel group successfully forced President Hadi out of office in the capital of Sana’a, causing him to flee to the seaport city of Aden. Although he is still internationally recognized as Yemen’s leader, it is difficult to pinpoint who has power over whom in this ongoing conflict. As with many other civil wars involving several different political actors, there are severe, unintended consequences that innocent civilians and bystanders must face everyday. One major example of this is Saudi Arabia’s involvement in attempting to demolish insurgency forces throughout Sana’a. The problem with Saudi airstrikes and on-the-ground operations is that hundreds and thousands of innocent people are dying without any accountability from the Saudi or Yemeni governments. Saudi officials claim to “only target” Houthi extremists and to have no involvement in the killing of innocent Yemeni people. A New York Times article reports that “apache helicopters fired rockets at the village of Bani Zela in Hajjah Province, roughly seven miles from the Saudi border, killing at least 25 civilians, including women and children.”
That is not to say that the Houthi rebel group has not been indiscriminately attacking residential areas either. Many people who still have access to social media in Yemen use the hashtag #Yemen to connect their personal stories to the rest of the internet via Twitter, and several tweets indicate that Houthi rebels have been perpetrators in killings of innocent men, women, and children.
This conflict puts the United States and the Obama administration in a tough foreign policy predicament that may illustrate a few contradictions. The United States has been an ally of Saudi Arabia for a majority of the 20th century because of oil-based economic negotiations and supposed counterterrorism provisions. Because of this, the United States has not vigorously acted to increase support for the well-being of Yemeni civilians, but rather it has increased its military intervention throughout the country, therefore siding with the Saudi coalition against the Houthi rebels Although the United States government reports that it has provided close to 300 million dollars to Yemen in humanitarian aid since the conflict began, its military actions cancel out any visible progress that has been made. American action in Yemen does not mirror the Obama administration’s treatment of the Syrian civil war; the President has been imploring that Russia choose the side of the rebels when aiding in the war effort, not Assad’s.
Though in these separate contexts Saudi Arabia is an ally and Russia is not, and the circumstances for foreign diplomacy may contrast, the tragedies that occur within each country’s borders are similar. The question now for many becomes, “Where is the United States’s accountability?” U.S. made weapons are tearing through Yemen’s largest cities and are decimating everything in their paths; why are Yemeni civilians not taken into account? Many UN-affiliated and non-UN affiliated NGOs are working vigorously and courageously to aid those in need within Yemen’s borders, and although these institutions have been of much help, their resources are limited.
No one knows how long the conflict may last, and there is certainly no easy, concrete answer to the question of who should or should not be in power in Yemen. The only fact that is for certain is that Yemeni civilians are suffering, and the international community cannot turn a blind eye towards this crisis.
- James Sabia
In the mid-to-late 1990s, a young Venezuelan man named Alvaro Garcia--my stepfather--had a foreboding premonition about the socio-economic crisis that was coming to fruition in Venezuela, due in part to the rise of a new political figure coming up through the ranks of Venezuelan politics. His name was Hugo Chavez.
While studying at the Universidad Central de Caracas, the young, soon-to-be Dr. Garcia witnessed a drastic fluctuation in political consensus among his peers and family members, with ideological preferences slowly turning in favor of the “revolutionary” Hugo Chavez, who was elected in the 1998 elections. Chavez’s policies were predicated around rebuilding the poorer communities through government subsidies and reconstruction projects throughout the entire country, especially in smaller cities such as Maracay.
Normally, someone like my stepfather, being the left-wing, social justice advocate that he is, would not have been opposed to the government using its money to help redistribute the wealth among those who were socio-economically less fortunate. Those promises were tragically misleading, however, because of one major caveat: Venezuela’s money under Chavez came from mass exportation of oil. Chavez began to create a Venezuelan pseudo-economy that printed money whenever it felt necessary, thus drastically increasing inflation and reducing purchasing power of its national currency, while also scaring away foreign investors that supply foreign capital. The oil money created closed curtains that hid the glaring problems of economic failure from the Venezuelan people and the majority of the rest of the world.
Many Venezuelans, like Garcia’s family, at that time foresaw this happening but did not act upon their foresight and remained within the country’s borders with the hope that the situation would improve under Chavez. Garcia, on the other hand, did not take any chances, and after medical school ended, he was able to move to the United States during 2000, therefore escaping the darkest downturns of his premonition. His family, however, was not as quick to act. Unfortunately, they remained five more years after he escaped and suffered many of the social and economic effects that Chavez promised wouldn’t happen under his regime. Through fiery, demagogic language, Chavez promised his constituents and the Venezuelan public that corruption in government would be eradicated and monies would be allocated correctly and fairly throughout the economy. Garcia’s family witnessed first hand that neither of these promises were acted upon, with the majority of profit from oil money going into corrupt bureaucrats’ pockets. Through sly political maneuvering and Garcia’s constant pressuring, his family was finally able to leave Venezuela in 2005 and take up residence in Barcelona, Spain.
After 10 years, and under a new political regime in the form of President Nicolas Maduro, not much has changed other than the fact that more Venezuelans are realizing that the country’s conditions are only worsening, and the only way to solve the problem is escaping. In recent years, crime has drastically increased, communication with the outside world has becoming increasingly limited, and the situation for the impoverished has remained stagnant. All of these conditions are causing a mass exodus out of Venezuela. According to a study conducted by Tomas Paez, a sociologist at the University of Central Venezuela, at least 6% of the population is now living abroad: that’s 1.9 million people, most of whom left under Chavez and are now leaving under Maduro. In an interview with the New York Times, a disillusioned boat manufacturing company owner named Ivor Hayer claims that he couldn’t wait to get out of Venezuela and move to Colombia, especially because the Venezuelan government is on a mission to seize small private businesses.
Is there a way to solve the problems that many native Venezuelans are facing other than escape and asylum abroad? I’m not sure there is a concrete answer to that. One social media movement did take place throughout much of South Florida and around the globe, however, and it was aimed at shedding light on the brutal conditions that filled Venezuela’s communities. With #SOSVenezuela being the focal point of that movement, many Venezuelan Americans shared experiences about their trials and tribulations under Chavez, and many native Venezuelans trapped in the dystopia used the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to send the world images of what was occurring. Major news organizations such as CNN and MSNBC used these social media platforms to retrieve the raw images and videos from Venezuela and eventually, they included them in their daily and nightly news segments, thus increasing awareness about the Venezuelan situation in the rest of the United States.
Thanks to social media and active dissenters, all is not forgotten in Venezuela, and those who have long left its lands are able to keep in at least minimal contact with their family members. But sentiments still run high in my family, especially with my stepfather. Some days, he misses Venezuela, and some he does not. Everyday, however, he hopes the quality of life for those still in his native Venezuela increases; he is also relieved for those that made it out safely. It appears that my stepfather’s sentiment is not whole-hearted nostalgia, however, and like many other Venezuelan-Americans, he realizes that what he once called “home” is now long in the past and nothing but a collection of memories of a better time.
- James Sabia