The controversy surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Erroll Southers to head TSA has been growing. The latest salvo in the attacks on Southers is that he is soft on terrorism. This charge originated with a post by Erick Erickson at RedState entitled “The Man Who Would Keep Us Safe From Terrorists Would Rather Focus on Baptists Than Islamic Terrorists.” Since then, some of the claims in Erickson’s piece have been amplified by major media such as Fox News, and have also been widely circulated on the blogs. Today Americans for Limited Government chimed in by calling for Obama to withdraw his nomination of Southers for “equating pro-life, Christian, and anti-government Americans to real terrorists.”
The attacks against Southers are off base, demonstrably so. Southers is a serious and well-qualified security professional who would make an excellent head of TSA, and who would make our country safer in that role. The associate director of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California, Southers has served as the assistant chief of the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department since 2007. His CV includes a stint as the deputy director of California’s Office of Homeland Security as well as a serious law enforcement background with the Santa Monica Police Department and as an FBI special agent. His track record in Los Angeles suggests his desire to bring an interdisciplinary approach to aviation security; he has reached out to academia and others with relevant expertise to help bolster security at Los Angeles airports; and Southers has the background and skill set necessary to make such needed changes as improving security training and making critical risk-based decisions and investments.
I first met Southers last year at a counterterrorism conference in DC, several months before his nomination, when he approached me to discuss some of the academic work I had done on Somalia’s al-Shabaab. Since then we have maintained regular contact, and I have become familiar with his work. One thing that struck me when I heard that he was nominated for the TSA position was that I doubt most TSA heads would even know what al-Shabaab is when nominated, let alone have familiarity with people doing academic work about the terror group. Of course, my assessment of Southers is based on far more than my rather limited interactions with him; his colleagues in Southern California law enforcement have been similarly supportive of his qualifications to serve.
But what of the case against Southers? Every one of Erickson’s attacks at RedState either demonstrably distorts his words or else amounts to a tempest in a teapot. Unfortunately, I know from several independent political contacts on both sides of the aisle that these arguments are getting some play on Capitol Hill. So in the interest of setting the record straight, I will address each of them.
Erickson’s attacks are based on a video interview with Southers that was recorded in 2008. His first claim is that Southers wants to single out Christians for profiling to the exclusion of Islamic terrorists: “Mr. Southers, in 2008, said he was more worried about ‘Christian identity’ terrorist groups inside the U.S. than islamic [sic] terrorists. What are ‘Christian identity’ terrorist groups? White-supremacists naturally. The KKK. And the Southern Baptist Convention. Southers identifies pro-life groups and anti-government activists as particular problems. Yes, you read that right. Mr. Southers is worried more about tea party activists than Islamic terrorists.” This argument is obviously the source of the claim by Americans for Limited Government that Southers is intent on equating conservative Christians with terrorists. You can watch the video of Southers’s statement here. The quote that has generated so much controversy is his lead statement in that interview segment (as transcribed by Americans for Limited Government): “Most of the domestic groups that we have to pay attention to here are white supremacist groups, they’re anti-government, in most cases anti-abortion, they are usually survivalist types in nature, [and Christian] identity-oriented.”
There are three major problems with this attack. First, Southers never said that Christian groups are a greater threat than al-Qaeda. He said that numerically most of the domestic groups we have to pay attention to are white supremacist groups: this does not mean that such groups are a bigger threat than al-Qaeda. Second, there is a transcription problem in the above quote: Southers was referring to Christian Identity and not “Christian identity.” The capitalization of a single letter may seem like a small point, but it’s not. Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, identifies Christian Identity’s core beliefs in his 1994 book Religion and the Racist Right: The Origins of the Christian Identity Movement:
1. White “Aryans” are the offspring of the tribes of Israel according to the Bible.
2. Rather than being tied to the Israelites, Jews are the children of the Devil. This is traced back to the sexual relationship between Satan and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
3. The world is on the verge of a final apocalyptic struggle between good and evil with Aryans battling a Jewish conspiracy to try to save the world.
There is some diversity within the Christian Identity movement; as Betty Dobratz and Stephanie Shanks-Meile show in their 1997 book The White Separatist Movement in the United States, apparently not everyone within Christian Identity believes that Jews are descended from Satan, although racist/racialist views are widespread in the movement. But the overarching point is clear: Christian Identity refers to a very specific religious movement that is intimately connected to providing theological sanction to racism. Reading Southers’s quote as referring to “Christian identity” (i.e., one’s identity as a Christian) yields a bizarre result unintended by Southers: this is why Erickson worries that Southers wants to profile the Southern Baptist Convention.
The third problem with this argument is that when Southers describes these groups as “anti-government, in most cases anti-abortion,” he is referring to the specific characteristics of white supremacist groups. This is not the same as saying that people such as tea party activists should be considered threats for having a healthy skepticism of government or opposition to abortion. Similarly, noting that al-Qaeda opposes US foreign policy and the capitalist system does not mean that we should start profiling college kids sitting at a coffee shop in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Erickson’s second claim is that Southers “thinks that America itself is to blame for the terrorist attacks. Had we not sided with Israel and France, which he says is an anti-Islamic nation, we would not be attacked by Islamic extremists.” Again, you can watch the video. Southers does not say that America is to blame for terrorist attacks against it; nor does he say that France is an anti-Islamic nation (he notes that it is perceived as anti-Islamic by al-Qaeda). It is a fact that America’s support for Israel is one of the reasons that al-Qaeda advocates war against the United States. Acknowledging this fact does not mean that we should sell Israel (or France) up the river. Southers is not advocating this course in his 2008 interview, and the very first page of his CV in fact discusses his time studying counterterrorism strategy in Israel in 2006.
Erickson’s third attack on Southers is his quote that “[s]ome people might argue that U.S. foreign policy exacerbates terrorism.” This is not a damning statement. Southers is arguing that the enemy uses US foreign policy to suggest that America is at war with Islam, and that the way to solve this problem is through engagement and better explanation of US foreign policy. Indeed, much of the thinking behind Obama’s Cairo speech reflected the administration’s belief that we do need to do a better job at engagement and explaining ourselves. Southers is correct that al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups use American foreign policy to try to paint the US as at war with the Islamic faith. Pointing out this problem does not represent a blame-America-first mentality nor a concession to the terrorists: it is far more dangerous to ignore this facet of the fight against Islamist terrorism.
And finally, Erickson attacks Southers for saying that “the thought that terrorists are all Middle-Eastern and Islamic is a misconception.” Is there really a need to address this criticism? Does anybody believe that all terrorists are Middle Eastern and Islamic? The ETA, IRA, Tamil Tigers, Japanese Red Army, and many others would all beg to differ.
Public debate does not benefit when quotes are wrenched out of context in the hope of serving a political agenda — nor does our nation’s security. I find nothing about Southers’s statements in his 2008 interview to be disturbing, nor should the objective observer.