Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Skepticism is So Important: The anti-Muslim FBI CounterTerrorist Expert and the Satanic Panic


UPDATE 5-10-12: It's even worse than you thought

A recent revelation of anti-Muslim FBI counterterrorism training suggests disturbing parallels to previous panics, including the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

Wired Magazine is running an expose on counter-intelligence training within the FBI that trains agents that, I'll quote the Wired piece

"“main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”
At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”
These are excerpts from dozens of pages of recent FBI training material on Islam that Danger Room has acquired. In them, the Constitutionally protected religious faith of millions of Americans is portrayed as an indicator of terrorist activity."

The author of the training briefings is William Gawthrop, a faculty member at American Military University, a for-profit university focused on military and law enforcement issues, aiming its recruitment especially at veterans. Gawthrop, prior to the Wired piece, was an expert on Islamic law and war for WorldNetDaily, a far-right website known for calls and dreams for secession and "civilian uprising" by actor Chuck Norris and singer Pat Boone, but more recently for being the center of "birther" conspiracy theories that claimed U.S. President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or otherwise is not a natural citizen.

This pattern should be very familiar to anyone who paid attention to the havoc wreaked by the Satanic Panic a generation ago. In the 1960s, foreign and new religions were recognized and gained ground in the United States, including the Church of Satan, driven by charismatic showman and entertainer Anton LaVey. But starting in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a few of these new religions, or cults as their detractors called them, met disastrous ends. The Manson family and its infamous murders was not a religious movement, but was lumped in due to its cultish structure and nature. The nadir of all of this was the Jonestown murders and massacre in which 918 people were either killed or committed suicide in the self-destruction of the People's Temple after the murder of a fact-finding mission led by a U.S. Congressman.

Jonestown became the bedrock of the anti-cult movement. While the movement was already underway, the Jonestown horror gave it much more credibility. As a result, throughout the 1980s especially, the myth of a grand Satanic Conspiracy thrived in American culture. It was a popular theme in movies and television, and it wasn't hard to find media with scenes of ritual human sacrifices by robed cultists. Satanic-themed entertainment had already been popular with movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, or The Omen, but the trope became commonplace. Satanists became the first explanation for rumor panics of "cattle mutilations" in the American Plains and West, until UFOs became a more popular explanation. The most public and most ridiculed component of this was the campaign against Dungeons and Dragons (let us all remember to mourn Black Leaf) and against heavy metal music, both products of 1970s pop culture that incorporated elements of fantasy and demonic imagery, just as did the previously mentioned films and television shows. However, because these were media aimed primarily at teenagers, they were seen as particular threats.

But the Satanic Panic also intersected at times with law enforcement. You can explore the extensive wiki page as a start on the topic, but people were investigated, accused, and tried for crimes based on what turned out to be faulty or misleading coaching of witnesses, in some cases alleging vast mass murders and other crimes that were simply physically impossible, and would leave overwhelming physical evidence where none existed. These investigations were at times prompted either directly or as part of a general atmosphere encouraged by "anti-cult experts" that would give instructional briefings to law enforcement, educators, and other authority figures. While not in all cases, in quite a few these experts were heavily invested as activists of a fundamentalist Christianity that was on the rise starting in the 1970s. And some of their "expert advice" reflected this, while other advice was simply silly (infamously telling parents or educators that graph paper [for Dungeons & Dragons maps] and mirrors were signs of Satanic ritual magic on the part of their children or students). I've blogged about this before as a form of "folk archaeology."

The Satanic Panic isn't old news either, at least not entirely. It made headlines again in a different way, with the release of the West Memphis Three. Likewise, such allegations have become involved in the prosecutions in the Meredith Kercher murder case, better known by the name of the woman convicted for the crime, Amanda Knox, who like the West Memphis Three has attracted considerable international support by people who doubt the case against her.

The revelation of the FBI briefing authored by Gawthrop reminds me strongly of some of the "anti-cult expertise" offered to law enforcement during the Satanic Panic. I don't know Gawthrop's religious background, but it is hard to miss the zealotry against Islam, while praising Judaism and Christianity (Gawthrop even provides a graph!).

But a bigger pattern is present. In both cases, horrific criminal acts including mass murder provide credibility to "experts" who instead push religious or political issues. The horror of these mass casualty events, as well as smaller but more gruesome events associated with the larger threat, is a powerful influence on people who might otherwise rationally dismiss some of the more absurdist ideology coming from these "experts." Further, by pointing at the wrong targets, these "experts" get to attack those people and communities they don't like, but actually cloud and damage real efforts to deal realistically with threats. Was training like Gawthrop's responsible for the detention, interrogation, and strip searching of Shoshana Hebshi this last weekend, along with other unnamed people, all of whom were either from southern or southwest Asia, or had genetic heritage as such, and committed no crimes nor ultimately were found to be at all suspicious?

The pattern of rumor panics is a familiar one. It's no accident that Arthur Miller was able to find such easily parallels between McCarthyite anti-communism and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In the case of McCarthyism, in addition to the general Cold War fears, that war had recently turned hot in Korea. It has been suggested that the Salem trials may have been nursed by anxiety stemming from recent bloody wars with Native Americans, wars that had not gone well and were considered incompetent or failed by the populace. The witch trials may have been an expression of powerlessness, fear, and anger over failure.

I visited Salem this summer, a weird tourism experience to say the least. But in the more serious moments, the tragedy does come through, and reminds us that just because something horrible is happened, we shouldn't just listen to whoever gives us the most lurid and enticing take on the matter, one that we can deploy against the innocent when we can't lash out against real threats.

So I'll leave this with part of the memorial to the victims of the Salem trials


Anonymous said...

Outstanding and frightening article. Immediately brought the McMartin Preschool trial to mind. Coincidentally enough, I read a post on BoingBoing not more than a half hour ago that claimed this program was now "discontinued."

Anonymous said...

Gah, sorry. I forgot to post the BB link.

ahtzib said...

Thanks for posting the link. I don't buy that this was a failure of screening or whatever. He was easily googleable enough, his WND interview revealing these attitudes would have been easy to find. Whether acceptance of such views is widespread throughout the FBI, no idea. But someone who organized this training was clearly ok with it. And we shouldn't be surprised. In the Satanic Panic, while some law enforcement were likely fooled by the "anti-cult experts" because such things would have been easier to mask back then, others were probably on the same page.

And extreme or fringe beliefs in government shouldn't surprise, they recruit from the population which has these beliefs too. Earlier on, I've posted about

The Astrologer that Conned MI5

And a general discussion of UFO, psychic, and literalist biblical beliefs in high ranks in various military and government institutions, leading to projects and programs

But this is a lot more damaging to both the rights of citizens, and to national security.