Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From Israel To Isla Vista, Violence Is Tricky To Explain

Last month, Israel was shocked by the arrests of four Middle School girls who planned to murder a classmate who cursed at one of their sisters and bury her body. The girls, all twelve years old, planned to wear rubber gloves and old shoes to mask their identity. Luring their victim to a wooded area near their school, they planned to stab her with two knives they had stolen from the school, bury the body, and change clothes. Had the girls not been overheard discussing the plan in the school bathroom, the plan may have gone through.

Individual violence is an inseparable part of studying politics, and Middle East politics is no exception. Scholars and policymakers have dissected the minds of suicide bombers, the motivations of various Jihadists, and the abuse of Palestinian detainees. Despite volumes of discussion and excellent online analysis (Political Violence At A Glance, for example), the question of "why violence?" remains a tricky one.

In the wake of Friday's horrific shooting and stabbing attacks near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, various camps advanced hypotheses about the reasons behind the attack. Crackpots aside, these included:

Class Politics
Gun Availability
Hollywood Movies
Ideals of Masculinity 
Mental Health
Nerd Culture 
Narcissistic Entitlement    

The bottom line is that none of these hypotheses sufficiently explain what prompted a 22-year old to murder seven people in cold blood. Elliot Rodger had guns, but also a knife and a car. He had been receiving mental health care. His misogyny was just a small part of a larger hatred towards sexually active people. And of course, there are thousands of moviegoers, manly men, nerds, narcissists, and racists who don't commit acts of lone wolf violence against college kids. On top of all the reasons we can list, the fact remains that Elliot Rodger ultimately made a choice to kill. But the social factors that framed this decision matter too.

Political science is often criticized for being overly theoretical and simplistic - a fair criticism. But the point is valid outside of academia too. As well-meaning people struggle to make sense of this senseless act of violence, the temptation to "boil it down" is high. However, It is only by embracing the inherent uncertainty and complexity of violence that such gruesome attacks can be understood and prevented in the future.




Tuesday, May 13, 2014

To Stop The Next Olmert, Open Israel's Closed-List System

Today a Tel Aviv district court sentenced Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister from 2006 to 2009, to six years in prison for bribery. The sentence was the minimum requested by the prosecution but Olmert's adviser described it as "unjust" and harsh. On top of this charge, Olmert was also convicted in July 2012 of a "breach of trust" and fined $19,000 for abusing public funds. To stop the next Olmert, the Government of Israel will need to change the structures of government that incentivize illegal behavior.

That Olmert, then the Mayor of Jerusalem, would accept $160,000 in bribes in exchange for signing off on the Holyland apartment project speaks to a deeply flawed element of governance in Israel. At a time when some Israelis struggle to pay rent, it is shameful that some officials not only fail to rectify corruption and money laundering but participate in it. Olmert is not the first Prime Minister to be involved in such scandals. Israel's current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was accused of influence peddling in 1997 when he appointed an attorney general who would go easy on one of his political allies. In 1999 he was accused of corruption for $100,000 worth of free services from a government contractor and another $100,000 worth of state gifts which he kept for himself. The phenomenon is not new, as Dr. Michael Widlanski argued on The Algemeiner website in 2012. In 1977, Yitzhak Rabin (then the Prime Minister) was fined 100,000 NIS for having a joint bank account with his wife in the United States even though such accounts were illegal for Israeli citizens.

The most recent sentencing highlights the way leaders in Israel can become insulated from reality. Conviction after conviction, prominent politicians continue corrupt practices and believe they will not get caught. Israel's closed-list voting system allows politicians to become comfortable with their power, making corruption seem like a lower risk than it really is. Further democratizing the party-list system would be one way to combat this sense of false comfort. It would not only reduce corruption but also would bring fresh ideas and energy to some of Israel's most intractable challenges. Like campaign finance reform in the US, there are structural obstacles to executing this change. However, such a shift might be the key to saving the Israeli public hundreds of thousands of tax dollars and preserving Israel's reputation as an accountable and open society.