Baltimore riots expose American national security vulnerabilities

What is to stop international terrorists from exploiting mass media to trigger chaos in America?

Police stand watch during the Baltimore riots. (Photo: VOA)

HONOLULU, May 2, 2015 – When it comes to the latest riots and rampages, U.S. national security planners and law enforcement professionals should take heed of the 1968 protest chant that “the whole world’s watching.” The growing trend of reactionary, mass civil disturbances, combined with the growing reach of social media communications, presents a dangerous national security vulnerability that must be addressed before America’s foreign enemies exploit it.

A case study in unconventional warfare

Over the last half century, rogue states and terrorist organizations have perfected the tactic of disarming Western opponents without the use of conventional weapons in a head-to-head, stand-up fight. Through strategic use of provocateurs hidden among ethnic or religious populations, effective manipulation of the international media and, ultimately, an expertise in manipulating Western political systems, these malevolent entities have developed a cunning in undermining America and her allies.

Obama’s choice: Politics, or national security?

In Mogadishu during Operation: Restore Hope, Somali warlords waged an effective propaganda campaign against the United Nations forces and later U.S. forces directly by using provocateurs to incite conflict between locals and peacekeeping troops. By hiding among the civilian population, the U.N. forces were vulnerable to attack by Mohammed Farah Aidid’s hit-and-run tactics and often caused huge collateral damage in responding to attacks. During the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident of October 1993, the spectacle of the naked, bloated, dead bodies of U.S. troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on TV left American viewers horrified and aghast. With no stomach for follow-up action, American outrage was a willing partner in sending U.S. troops packing up for home empty-handed, leaving Somalia no better off than it had been before U.N. intervention.

In the early months of post-Saddam Iraq, Al-Qaeda forces spectacularly demonstrated this tactic by inciting waves of sectarian violence that resulted in coalition forces’ overreacting in an attempt to gain control of the region. The visual elements of mosques on fire, dead bodies in the street and rival militias warring against each other — carried the world over by international media — ultimately led to a souring of U.S. domestic opinion of the war and perception that coalition forces could not effectively govern Iraq. In this regard, every “outrage” reported on the news was an engineered self-inflicted injury meant to be promoted as brutality on the part of coalition forces. Terrorists, in targeting vulnerable ethnic and religious groups, claimed victimization for the consequences of their own actions and used the visual nature of victimhood as recruiting for more jihad. Later, Iran contributed to the vortex of chaos in the region by supplying explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to insurgents. Though coalition forces ultimately took back control of Iraq and stabilized the country, public opinion of the war, let alone America’s role in the region, would never be the same again.

What has changed in recent years is that advances in global communications technology and the proliferation of microconstituent relations in the form of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, et al.) mean that public opinion and policymaker opinions can both be radically manipulated in minutes, even seconds, with information that may not necessarily be accurate — with disastrous results.

From manipulating markets with hacking of official news Twitter accounts to proliferating mass social unrest with provocateur agents on social media, both the weaknesses of human psychology and the strengths of modern communications technology have combined to form a world where civilization can be destroyed in a flash by malicious agents.

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The Arab Spring, which successfully toppled stable governments that had for decades been able to suppress public uprisings, began when Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and his dramatic act spread virally through the internet. With laptops and cell phones, millions of people through perception undermined government troops armed with machine guns, tanks and even attack helicopters. Even after the Egyptian government attempted to “unplug” the Internet to regain public control, the chaos sparked online continued to rage uncontrollably offline. The war for information had already been won and lost in the mob’s reaction.

In the Council on Foreign Relations’ November 2010 white paper, “Congress and National Security,” Kay King warned of the negative impact of 24/7 media and information technology on members of Congress’s ability to make rational, sound decisions:

“With the advent of cable news, lawmakers quickly learned that public posturing and demagoguery received television coverage at the expense of thoughtful debate and compromise. Similarly, the relentless presence of the electronic media makes deliberation obsolete, forcing lawmakers to respond to blog reports instantly and without careful consideration in an effort to counter negative stories before they ‘go viral.

The Internet has also tended to encourage incivility, enabling rantings and misinformation to spread without the benefit of an editor. Once in the blogosphere, inaccurate information is virtually impossible to correct and is repeated as gospel by both those who do and those who do not know better. Blogs and cable TV news also tend to amplify the echo chamber, reinforcing rather than challenging views already held. This inflamed rhetoric has served to further polarize politics, making it even more difficult for lawmakers to find common ground on issues.”

Baltimore: Driven by media hype, disarmed by fear of public perception

In Baltimore, emerging reports from numerous news sources reveal that during the riots, a number of law enforcement officers were told to stand down and retreat in the face of rioting mobs. While it is not entirely clear at this time why stand down orders may have been given, the most likely reason this may have occurred is fear that any police response would have resulted in an escalation of the riots.

Whatever one believes about the cause or legitimacy of the Baltimore riots, the national security implications of this crisis have global consequences: America’s enemies have discovered that law enforcement and military can be rendered useless, even intimidated into retreat on their own turf by manipulating public perception.

The unconventional warfare model works something like this: Provocateurs incite domestic conflict between police and citizenry or between one ethnic/religious/sexual group and another; mass civil chaos emerges; any response of the police or military to restore order is portrayed as oppression, suppressionand brutalitygovernment forces retreat, and concessions are exacted by repeated implementation of the chaos model.

The anti-civilization forces of the world — be they domestic criminals, international terrorists, opportunistic anarchists or people who just love disorder — know all too well how thinly constructed our modern house of cards is built. Sadly, basic human psychology is extremely susceptible to manipulation in this area. We know from Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer’s 1962 epinephrine experiments that in instances of uncertain arousal, people look to others to determine how they should feel about something (social referencing). In Baltimore and even Ferguson before it, many people may have simply been swept up in a mood swing resulting from seeing others engaging in mass anger and mayhem.

Who is accountable when riots and destruction break out?

In Solomon Asch’s 1951 group conformity experiments, subjects who were surrounded by a confederate panel of individuals who made intentionally deceptive statements could look at a chart of three clearly differentiated black lines and report that short lines were actually long and long lines were actually short lines. If large groups of people are reporting hysterical news reports or inaccurate, hyped up claims, even individuals with properly functioning cognitive abilities may be goaded into following the crowd out of fear of conformity. Again, in Baltimore, many rioters may not even have actually believed that overt racism exists; many may have simply engaged in riots out of social conformity.

America’s Founding Fathers loved liberty but didn’t have Snapchat or Instagram

James Madison warned, “A popular government, without popular knowledge or the means of acquiring it, is but a prelude to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” The tragedy of our modern era is that hyperbole, insult, image macros of cats, and buzz feed style articles with animated GIFs excel more often than rational deliberation or careful analysis. Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels boasted, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly; it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Our modern 24/7 media and 140-character tweet world challenges the order of civilization and brings out the very worst of democracy.

The Founding Fathers, in drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, were extremely concerned about steering clear from the old world’s ways of silencing rival political movements and mass public opinion. But they were also terrified of the possibility that democratic passions of the mob could tear the new world apart, and they engineered representative governance and rule of law as a “check” against national implosion. There is a difference between protesting for a redress of grievances and mass mayhem for the sake of destruction and plunder. John Adams warned that “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” Our enemies know this, and are all too willing to exploit it as technology gives them the tools to do so.

America’s founding fathers wanted the public to be masters of their government, but they would have been horrified by the sight of a nation that could be hijacked in seconds by provocateurs using the very tools created by civilization.

The drafters who wrote in the preamble of the Constitution that the purpose of the new government was to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense” and “secure the blessings of liberty” would have been outraged to see a police officer running backwards for half a block with his pistol trained on a suspected murderer, shouting “I don’t want to shoot you!” They would have been even more aghast at the site of Baltimore rioters destroying private property with police retreating and shouts of “Stand down!” echoing on their radios.

Police officers are not city councilmen with badges; they are not to take a popular vote on whether protecting people around them and upholding the rule of law will be perceived as racist on the evening news.  Yet Baltimore has shown that when intestinal fortitude and courage are called for, Americans will willingly surrender to hyperbolic voices and fear of offense. This represents a dangerous trend that many foreign enemies — and some domestic — even now are taking victory laps and cackling with delight over.

The last few months have shown that lawful order can be overridden by stoked rage, legitimate private interests can be shut down by public offense, and the United States of America is prone to siding in the 21st century with the anti-civilization forces of humanity.

The solution to this modern dilemma is neither simple nor easily attained. Promoting racial, religious, political and sexual conflict in today’s America has been shown to work. Redefining the nation among extremity and willful public surrender to visual perceptions rather than vital necessity has been shown to workBaltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake didn’t give rioters space to destroy in their rampage, the willingness of the American people to accept and promote hype and anger did. All it takes to undo the written code of law and the moral fabric of civilization in today’s world is a person, caught up in the moment, who writes a hashtag on the palm of his hand in ink. This national security vulnerability is one that should send chills down the spine of every single person who respects the rule of law and civilization.

America will either remain as a leader of civilization and the rule of law, or it will soon be the site of an “American Spring” and fall victim to every provocateur’s trending story or manipulative attack. Americans need to learn to control their emotions or they will be controlled by others. We have a republic, for now … if we can keep it.

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Danny de Gracia
Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from