Upcoming: The Lost Generation

For the last few months I’ve been sketching out a project intended (in so far as possible) to capture the zeitgeist of an American generation after war. Unlike the “long boom” that followed World War II, America in 2014 lacks a modern conception of the once-all-powerful dream. To predict where we’re going, though, depends on knowing where the country actually is. This year, starting in May 2014, a short collection of multimedia rich stories will try and capture just this.

A teaser (or placeholder) is now posted on Medium.

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Medical science and the war against terrorism

This week on Beacon, I tackle terrorism through the lens of epidemiology. Inspired by a critical work from the academy (Stares / Yacoubian), I use Boko Haram as a case study for re-thinking the fight against terrorism. While the full-text is only for subscribers, I wanted to tease a couple of sections below:

The piece starts by opposing the knee-jerk reactions committed by some academics eager to conflate the presence of a failed states (the vacuum of power) with the birth and growth of terrorism.

The authors assert that all regions —even perceived vacuums— are governed by a variety of actors with interlocking and overlapping claims to power. Ignoring these informal structures leaves policymakers and practitioners reliant on pithy press statements and poorly-oriented policies, instead of actual strategies for confronting groups who react violently towards those who oppose their authority.

In the decade since America first declared its “Global War on Terror”, violence in terror’s name has defined our coverage of conflict, framed our understanding of ‘the enemy’ and pervaded our conversations about security.

Faced with the threat of Boko Haram, now labeled by the United States as a “terrorist organization”, perhaps it is time to to rethink how we address the cause, persistence and spread of modern terrorism.

The piece continues through the three phases of the epidemiological approach (Contain, Protect, Remedy) , before adding a final thought:

Finding a balance between securing territory and engaging with disillusioned communities lies at the heart of today’s fight against terrorism: Even the smallest steps towards improving the provision of basic services (between the government and its people) will knit individuals into the political landscape instead of marooning them outside of it. Expanding this kind of participation will likely open the well-spring of political dissent, but neither Goodluck Jonathan’s administration nor neighboring countries can afford the cost of Nigeria’s violent descent.

Read the full story here.

Forgotten framework?

While working through a number of projects at the moment —from fellowship applications to magazine pitches— I’m awash with material and ideas, and yet one theme keeps bubbling up: The theory of feral cities.

In 2003, Richard J. Norton published a journal article in the Naval War College Review which dealt with security challenges in complex urban environments he loosely defined as “a metropolis with a population of more than a million people in a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law within the city’s boundaries yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.” This, he claimed, should be known as a “feral city”.

Norton’s concerns stems from his assertion that, despite modern military might, current capabilities are insufficient to deal with the myriad challenges of densely populated urban environments in which law enforcement cannot patrol, residents/citizens are unregistered, and informal power structures come to dominate how the city lives and breathes.

The article, now more than a decade old, has inspired a few security experts (such as the inimitable David Kilcullen) to think broadly about the military capacities/capabilities for addressing feral cities, but I wonder why the theory hasn’t been more effectively explored given its potential applicability in places like Lagos, Mexico City, Rio, or Dhaka.

Any reader come across the use of this term more recently?