Twelve Years

This is an unusual 9/11 anniversary for me. I turned twenty-four a few weeks ago, so this twelfth anniversary means that tomorrow I’ll have lived more of my life in the post-9/11 world than in the pre-9/11 one.

I had lived on the West Coast my entire life until recently so I didn’t see the World Trade Center get hit live. My mom came in and shook me awake as soon as she’d woken up and told me “America is under attack.” I couldn’t even process it until I got downstairs and saw them replaying footage of smoke and flames. By the time the sun rose in Nevada, both towers had fallen, the Pentagon was on fire, and thousands of my people were dead. I went to sleep in one world and woke up in another.

I remember the entire school talking about it, despite knowing nothing about it. (I was in seventh grade at the time.) I remember the principal using the school announcements to tell us we were safe and had nothing to worry about. I remember kids chattering excitedly at recess to hide their fear. We declared triumphantly that we were going to war with whoever did it. We had no sense of the gravity of what that meant. Having known nothing else, our faith in the swift, unyielding power of American hegemony was still absolute.

I remember getting home and finding out my birthday present from my aunt had finally arrived, a LEGO set whose details I can’t remember. My birthday’s in late August but she lives in Hawaii, so it always took longer to get there. I built it while George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He spoke of “huge structures collapsing” and how the attacks “have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” I don’t think, even today, I ever felt anger about the attacks. It remained too abstract. The disbelief and terrible sadness, however, was endless.

That’s what fills my memories of the aftermath too. I remember the numbness most clearly, when you put on a brave face when everyone else is around and then lose it the moment you’re alone. The only other time I’ve felt that was after Newtown. And I was 3,000 miles away from everything. I didn’t even know anyone who lived on the East Coast back then. What right had I to grieve?

But most of all, I remember the changes. I first flew again a month later. Reno was a small airport then and the security increase was barely noticeable, but a connecting flight took us through Los Angeles. There, the main concourse still had men in body armor armed with automatic rifles standing every fifty paces. The absurdity of it all — did we expect an entire battalion to attack the terminal in broad daylight in the middle of California? — struck me as much as in the seventh grade as it does now that I’m twenty-four. Soon it became commonplace.

I wish I hadn’t woken up that morning. Every anniversary, I hope that I’ll open my eyes in my old childhood bedroom, and that I’ll still be twelve years old, and that the last twelve years will all have been a dream. But I know it isn’t. It’s a nightmare from which the whole world is still trying to wake.

A Salute to Texan Honesty

Some Section 4 states barely waited for the ink to dry on Shelby County v. Holder before launching an all-out attack on voting rights no longer protected by federal preclearance.

North Carolina fired the first salvo by slashing early voting hours, banning same-day voter registration, forbidding college students to register in their university’s precinct, and throwing up nearly-insurmountable barriers for ex-felons to re-enfranchise themselves. Texas proposed a new voter ID bill within hours of the Court’s decision and implemented it shortly thereafter. Florida even announced today that it would resume its widely-condemned purge of voter rolls.

Amidst this assault, something remarkable happened on Monday in a federal district court in Texas. There, the U.S. Department of Justice is attempting to force that state into compliance with Section 5’s preclearance clause by “bailing in” the jurisdiction under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which places sub-federal jurisdictions under Section 5’s preclearance requirement without invoking the now-defunct Section 4. U.S. attorney general Eric Holder’s end run around Section 4’s demise is unlikely to succeed, but it did lead to a fascinating assertion by the state of Texas in its submission to the court. At issue is whether Texas’ original 2011 congressional redistricting map, which had been rejected by federal courts, can be used to “bail in” the state under Section 3(c). The Department of Justice argues that the map, which heavily diluted urban and Hispanic voters, is clear evidence of racial discrimination.

Not so, said the state of Texas. With no small amount of chutzpah, Texas declared in open court that the 2011 congressional redistricting map cannot be used to invoke Section 3(c) because it was designed to discriminate against Democrats, not racial minorities:

DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats. It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates. See Hunt v. Cromartie, 526 U.S. 541, 551 (1999) (“[A] jurisdiction may engage in constitutional political gerrymandering, even if it so happens that the most loyal Democrats happen to be black Democrats and even if the State were conscious of that fact.”); League of United Latin Am. Citizens, Council No. 4434 v. Clements, 999 F.2d 831, 854 (5th Cir. 1993) (en banc) (“[Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act] is implicated only where Democrats lose because they are black, not where blacks lose because they are Democrats.”). The redistricting decisions of which DOJ complains were motivated by partisan rather than racial considerations, and the plaintiffs and DOJ have zero evidence to prove the contrary.

Honestly like this is sadly rare among public officials these days. State attorney general and future GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott should be commended for his candid approach to representing the people of Texas in federal court.

Well, some of the people of Texas, at least.

Tragedy and Memory

An article in The Nation today by Robert Scheer made the outstanding claim that “August 6 marks 68 years since the United States committed what is arguably the single gravest act of terrorism that the world has ever known.” The act, of course, is the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and (three days later) Nagasaki. To Scheer’s credit, he included the modifier “arguably,” which seems insufficient to capture the magnitude of the statement. Yet it is not enough.

From the start, even the definition of terrorism is problematic. Hoffman traces the term’s origins to the French Revolution. Since then, it has described Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan, Gerry Adams and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and countless other armed groups. Not all those labeled as terrorists fit the popular conception: for leading the armed wing of the African National Congress against apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. The State Department only lifted his designation as a terrorist after the revered statesman had already won the Nobel Peace Prize and successfully won South Africa’s first multiracial presidential election. “Terrorism means the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and targeted [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] were,” Scheer states. If only it were that simple.

Despite the thousands of man-hours put into the subject by political scientists and legal scholars around the world, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism. Unlike other forms of political violence like war and rebellion, what constitutes terrorism is not a fixed constant but an emotionally-charged, subjective, and imprecise term at best. Almost all scholars, however, agree on one characteristic: that it is caused by non-state actors against civilian populations. While tens of thousands of Japanese civilians died in the atomic bombings, they died in the course of a declared armed conflict between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan. Examining it under the laws of war is the more appropriate framework framework. Neither an international tribunal nor an American court has addressed the atomic bombings in this war, although a post-war Japanese court ruled the atomic bombings to be war crimes. War crimes and terrorism, however, are two different things.

Scheer also reveals a fundamental shift in Western political thought, in which “terrorism” is increasingly applied to all manner of violent actions that do not strictly (or even loosely) meet the political science definition. Culturally, it is no longer simply armed violence by non-state actors against civilian populations for political reasons, or any other semantic permutation. Terrorism has become a super-crime, elevated beyond the mere misdemeanors and felonies composing it into an existential societal burden. Only into this darkest of categories can the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fall, according to Scheer, and we must all bear some collective guilt for it. “As a nation,” Scheer writes, wagging a finger to an audience overwhelmingly born after August 6, 1945, “we excel at obliterating reminders of our own failings.”

But context also matters. As U.S. forces drew closer to the Japanese archipelago, enemy garrisons in Peleliu, Tarawa, Luzon, and Iwo Jima only demonstrated increasing resilience. 100,000 Japanese soldiers dug into the mountainsides at Okinawa, the last stronghold before the Home Islands, and traded their lives for 60,000 American casualties. American war planners extrapolated from those losses when estimating the human cost of Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Had it been executed, it would have been the largest amphibious military operation of all time, dwarfing even the Normandy landings in size, scope, and scale. 900,000 Japanese soldiers stood ready to defend their home, along with millions of civilians conscripted into the reserves and armed with often nothing more than farm implements.

The war planners’ estimates varied from branch to branch, but few foresaw fewer than 100,000 fatalities and a quarter-million casualties for the Allies in the first stage alone. Estimates that factored in the mass mobilization of the Japanese people as guerrillas and the widespread usage of airplanes, boats, and midget submarines as kamikazes (at least 10,000 planes had been prepared) had dramatically higher casualties for both the Allies and for Japan. The latter were estimated to suffer almost-unconscionable losses: between five and ten million civilian casualties were not unexpected in even the most conservative projections.

(None of this was idle speculation, either. In 1945 the War Department manufactured 500,000 Purple Heart medals in anticipation of the vast casualties Downfall would bring. That stock has yet to be depleted today, even after every battle and every war the United States has fought since 1945.)

With the country’s industrial base and population already devastated by relentless Allied air raids — more Japanese citizens died in the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or in Nagasaki — Downfall presented a truly existential threat to the Japanese nation. With so many millions of lives in the balance, American and Japanese alike, we can see the calculus that led Harry Truman to authorize the atomic bombing, even if we disagree with it.

None of this precludes the idea that there are dark, shameful chapters in American history. White settlers and soldiers presided over the forced relocation of Native American tribes, warring with those who resisted. A slaver aristocracy in the South plunged the United States into civil war because the nation had elected a president who thought the enslavement of four million black men, women, and children was not moral. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II by order of Franklin D. Roosevelt, forsaken by Congress and even the courts of law. The United States of America was founded on great ideals, but its people and leaders have frequently failed to live up to them.

But to single out Hiroshima above all others, to point at it and say, “Yes, this is the worst that humanity has ever done” seems hollow. What does such a sweeping statement say about the other blood-soaked chapters of World War II? Shall we compare the tens of thousands who died at Hiroshima to the quarter-million who died at the Rape of Nanking, where Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered Chinese civilians for three days, or the tens of thousands who perished in flames at Dresden? Shall we then stack those corpses against those from the forced starvation of millions of Soviet citizens by Germany on the Eastern Front, or against the Wehrmacht’s horrific multi-year sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad? Must we rank atrocities and tragedies like some sinister Olympics, duly awarding medals of shame to those whose nations have most thoroughly and efficiently brutalized their fellow human beings?

Historians will never cease debating the atom bomb’s role in ending the worst war humanity ever fought, nor should they. Future generations may find Truman’s decision to be justified and necessary, to be unwarranted and unforgivable, or perhaps even something more complex than that. We can only hope that they learn from the horrors their forefathers faced. May they never take for granted the indelible luxury that allows them to set one tragedy above another for transitory argumentative gain.

Checks and Balances and Coups

The Egyptian army today gave President Muhammed Morsi and the rival political factions 48 hours to resolve the political crisis that has plunged the powerful Middle Eastern nation into chaos. If they do not, the generals say, those political factions will be provided with a “road map” to “heed the will of the people.” The underlying threat — the return of direct military rule of Egypt — is unmistakable.

Reversing democratic elections by force is always disturbing. Military coups have an overwhelmingly dismal track record throughout history at furthering democratic norms and human rights. The instability that coups inherently bring often leads instead to further economic turmoil and political repression, despite whatever coup leaders promise to the contrary. Look to Mali, where a military coup in 2011 triggered a chain of events that led to Islamist-aligned forces conquering northern Mali and then a French-led military intervention to restore order. (Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, to his credit, recently apologized to the Malian people for what his actions had wrought.)

But is this one justified? Civilian control of the military is a defining feature — some might say the defining feature — of any liberal democracy. But it’s not the only one. Public anger over economic stagnation and government repression fueled this crisis, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempted purge of Egypt’s often-defiant judiciary earlier this year helped precipitate the current mass demonstrations. Morsi and his allies gained control of the presidency and the legislature through fair and free elections, and they now seek to reshape the judiciary in their own image through new laws. Would Morsi’s unchecked majoritarianism not also be fatal to hopes of a pluralistic, competitive Egyptian political process? Should the Muslim Brotherhood write the laws, enforce the laws, and now interpret the laws because it won a single election? Can that be truly considered democracy? Without institutional checks and balances, is there a role for the Egyptian army to serve as a check on government power when the Egyptian public so vividly demands it?

If there were easy answers to Egypt’s problems, they would have already found them. I don’t know what’s coming next for Egypt; anyone who claims to know is lying. What happens in the next few weeks will shape the Egyptian political system for decades and perhaps generations to come. Will it be for better or for worse? I defer to Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the late 1960s about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789. Cryptically, Zhou replied, “It is too soon to say.”

Digging Deeper into PRISM, Part 2

Things have only gotten murkier since I wrote about PRISM, the National Security Agency’s recently-revealed digital surveillance program, on Friday. For starters, the Washington Post has drastically altered its original story since publication, expanding it from two pages to four and rewriting key assertions. (Some of the changes can be seen here, although further ones are likely.) Among the most significant changes was a tweak of its opening paragraph (emphasis mine):

[Original] The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents and connection logs that enable analysts to track a person’s movements and contacts over time.

[Revised] The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

While everyone knows the NSA surveils foreign targets — it is, after all, their mandate — they’re constitutionally prohibited from spying on domestic targets. Changing those few words radically affects whether or not the NSA has overstepped its legal bounds. It’s not a good sign for what could be one of the most important news stories of our generation.

Soon after the Guardian and the Post‘s original articles, The New York Times published its own piece that, while confirming the program’s existence, also directly challenged the two newspapers’ assertions about its scope and nature:

But instead of adding a back door to their servers, the companies were essentially asked to erect a locked mailbox and give the government the key, people briefed on the negotiations said. Facebook, for instance, built such a system for requesting and sharing the information, they said.

The data shared in these ways, the people said, is shared after company lawyers have reviewed the FISA request according to company practice. It is not sent automatically or in bulk, and the government does not have full access to company servers. Instead, they said, it is a more secure and efficient way to hand over the data.

This is a far cry from the unfettered direct access that had been suggested elsewhere. Other outlets, speaking with deep-background sources in both the tech companies and in the intelligence community, echoed this description. CNET blamed it on a misunderstanding of the PRISM PowerPoint slides:

Recent reports in The Washington Post and The Guardian claimed a classified program called PRISM grants “intelligence services direct access to the companies’ servers” and that “from inside a company’s data stream the NSA is capable of pulling out anything it likes.”

Those reports are incorrect and appear to be based on a misreading of a leaked Powerpoint document, according to a former government official who is intimately familiar with this process of data acquisition and spoke today on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not as described in the histrionics in The Washington Post or The Guardian,” the person said. “None of it’s true. It’s a very formalized legal process that companies are obliged to do.”

Mashable also concurred: “In short, there are no back doors, but perhaps there are side doors — although these might very well be standard procedures in cases of wiretap requests.” (In other words, the all-seeing, all-knowing Surveillance State might just be government bureaucrats and tech lawyers cutting down on paperwork.) Mother Jones speculated that if Google, Apple, Facebook, and other Silicon Valley giants “have agreed only to build more secure ways of passing along data in response to individual FISA warrants, that explains why they’ve never heard of PRISM and why they deny being part of any program that allowed the government direct access to their data.”

The real kicker came in a follow-up article on Saturday, where the Post dialed back on its earlier claims almost completely (quoted at length in case of changes):

According to a more precise description contained in a classified NSA inspector general’s report, also obtained by The Post, PRISM allows “collection managers [to send] content tasking instructions directly to equipment installed at company-controlled locations,” rather than directly to company servers. The companies cannot see the queries that are sent from the NSA to the systems installed on their premises, according to sources familiar with the PRISM process.

Crucial aspects about the mechanisms of data transfer remain publicly unknown. Several industry officials told The Post that the system pushes requested data from company servers to classified computers at FBI facilities at Quantico. The information is then shared with the NSA or other authorized intelligence agencies.

According to slides describing the mechanics of the system, PRISM works as follows: NSA employees engage the system by typing queries from their desks. For queries involving stored communications, the queries pass first through the FBI’s electronic communications surveillance unit, which reviews the search terms to ensure there are no U.S. citizens named as targets.

That unit then sends the query to the FBI’s data intercept technology unit, which connects to equipment at the Internet company and passes the results to the NSA.

The system is most often used for e-mails, but it handles chat, video, images, documents and other files as well.

“The server is controlled by the FBI,” an official with one of the companies said. “We do not offer a download feature from our server.”

Significant inconsistencies still remain between the system described by The New York Times and the system described by The Washington Post. This could be due to different company policies; i.e. Facebook might impose fewer intermediate steps between the NSA and the data they request than Google does. But what no longer remains are the original bombshell claims of direct, unfettered NSA access to Silicon Valley servers and data, nor is there supporting evidence for the claims of widespread digital surveillance of American citizens. (In fact, the Post‘s newest article says an entire FBI unit screens data requests to ensure that no U.S. citizens are targeted.)

The Washington Post, which sadly eliminated its decades-old ombudsman position earlier this year, has yet to comment on or even acknowledge the many changes in its PRISM reporting just within the past few days. The Guardian, meanwhile, has renounced nothing. As of right now, their article still includes the following claims:

It also opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.
[…]
The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

TechCrunch, Mashable, and CNet have explicitly or implicitly ruled this out, as have The New York Times and now The Washington Post in their own reporting. Perhaps the most damning indication is that no news outlet has independently confirmed the Guardian‘s depiction of PRISM.

So what does this all mean? We now know PRISM and a few other NSA programs exist, even if their details remain murky and incomplete. We now know James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, probably lied to the Senate when he said the NSA does not collect massive amounts of data on U.S. citizens. (If not through PRISM, then definitely through the disturbing Verizon metadata court order that has seemingly been all but forgotten.) We’re also finally having a serious, frank discussion about the FISA system, digital privacy, over-classification, the growth of the security-industrial complex, the protections of the Fourth Amendment, and the extent to which we should reshape our society to defend that society. That can only be a good thing after twelve long years.

But ultimately, all we’ve done is gone from knowing nothing to knowing something, and we’d be fools to think we now know everything. There are still gaps and holes and I’m not sure we know enough yet to make any sort of judgment. For his part, Edward Snowden, the confessed NSA leaker, sounds genuinely concerned about the impact of digital surveillance in American society and the NSA’s powers. I’m not sure about the wisdom of seeking refuge in Hong Kong, though; were I a Chinese intelligence official and I learned a declared U.S. intelligence operative carrying troves of highly-classified cyber-surveillance information had arrived on my shores, I wouldn’t even hesitate to pick him up. The diplomatic ramifications of his exodus could eventually eclipse the reason behind it.

Cynicism and paranoia are so prevalent in our culture that it’s easy to assume that Snowden, a 29-year-old IT contractor in Hawaii, has truly thrown back the curtain on the mysteries of the National Security Agency. I’d be lying if I said I was convinced. I don’t think Snowdon is wrong per se; rather, I think that he thinks he’s right. His evidence, some of which has yet to be revealed, will ultimately show whether his perception matches the reality. As of right now, it’s hardly conclusive. With so many changes and contradictions, I’m not satisfied that the Guardian and the Post did their due diligence on PRISM or any of the other leaks, probably out of an eagerness to beat one another to breaking the story. That’d be troubling in and of itself, but with a story of this magnitude and significance it’s almost unforgivable.

I don’t think Snowden is all wrong and the government is all right, nor do I think the reverse of that. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. If his evidence proves what he claims, it will. If it doesn’t, it won’t. Whether or not he did the right thing by leaking it hinges on that assessment — as do, perhaps, a great many other things for American society.

[NOTE (6/10/13): This post was originally titled “Lies, Damn Lies, and PRISM.” Nobody’s complained about it but I’m worried my attempt to make a witty reference to Mark Twain could be misread as an insinuation that the National Security Agency, its employees, The Guardian, The Washington Post, their journalists, or Edward Snowden are liars. That’s not an assertion I’ve intended to make. Out of an abundance of caution, I’ve changed the title to something less accusatory and appended this note. Apologies for any confusion.]

Digging Deeper Into PRISM

On Thursday, The Guardian and The Washington Post published highly-classified National Security Agency documents revealing a massive Internet surveillance program called PRISM. Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill write:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

[…]

The Prism program allows the NSA, the world’s largest surveillance organisation, to obtain targeted communications without having to request them from the service providers and without having to obtain individual court orders.

With this program, the NSA is able to reach directly into the servers of the participating companies and obtain both stored communications as well as perform real-time collection on targeted users.

In short, there are three key revelations about the NSA/corporate relationship:

  1. Through PRISM, the NSA has direct access to company servers containing millions of Americans’ personal information.
  2. The NSA’s direct access to company servers is willing and participatory on those companies’ part.
  3. The NSA’s direct access to company servers is nevertheless unmediated by those companies. (Guardian: “But the Prism program renders [the consent of internet and telecom companies] unnecessary, as it allows the agency to directly and unilaterally seize the communications off the companies’ servers.”)

One slight problem emerged after the program was announced: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and the other companies allegedly involved are all disputing the central assertion of these reports. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page, among others, both explicitly denied that they’ve provided “direct access” to their servers or data centers to PRISM or any other U.S. government surveillance program. As you’d expect for leaders of major corporations commenting on matters of national security, Zuckerberg and Page use the typical legal hedging — “we review each government request for data carefully” and so forth — but on direct access they’re all but categorical in denying it.

The direct access distinction matters because the true scope and nature of the program matters. In a companion editorial to his report, Glenn Greenwald — a man who has never exaggerated or misrepresented U.S. government programs or actions in his career — drew comparisons to the worst abuses of the Nixon administration when referring to PRISM and whistleblowing:

The times in American history when political power was constrained was when they went too far and the system backlashed and imposed limits. That’s what happened in the mid-1970s when the excesses of J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon became so extreme that the legitimacy of the political system depended upon it imposing restraints on itself.

According to a lone source, PRISM is a surveillance apparatus seemingly so vast, so invasive, and so unchecked that it directly threatens the Republic. Yet the tech companies themselves publicly and privately dispute that source’s key assertions. The Guardian itself can’t even find a single tech executive to confirm off-the-record that their company participated in the program or one similar to it or, most importantly, that the NSA had direct access to any of their servers.

PRISM’s existence has been independently confirmed but seemingly little else about its methods or capabilities has been independently verified beyond a single source. Both The Guardian and The Washington Post have substantially revised their original articles since first publishing them on Thursday and will likely continue to do so, although The Guardian‘s core allegations remain unchanged. Other outlets have also now raised the possibility that PRISM isn’t the sprawling, all-consuming domestic spying program the newspapers describe.

Silicon Valley’s denials and refutations could, of course, be the product of a vast, far-reaching conspiracy against American civil liberties. Or they could be telling the truth.

Revolutionary Wars

Josh Keating had this interesting observation today on Syria and foreign fighters:

There’s a quantitative portion of [David Malet’s new study of foreign fighters in civil wars] as well, with data showing that the number of civil conflicts involving foreign fighters has increased since the 19th century — this could be due to globalization or just to better reporting — and that insurgencies involving foreign fighters tend to be more successful at toppling governments. I suspect this is because it tends to be more organized and formidable insurgencies that have the resources for international recruitment, not because foreigners are any more effective on the battlefield.

Applying this analysis to the American Civil War yields some interesting insights. The Confederate States of America constituted the most organized and formidable insurgency in 19th century civil warfare, equaled perhaps only by the Heavenly Kingdom in China’s Taiping Rebellion, yet Confederate overtures for international support failed at every turn. Britain and France flirted with recognizing the Confederacy as an independent state, but never seriously, and abandoned the idea altogether after the Emancipation Proclamation. Whether foreign fighters supported the Confederacy mattered little, as they would’ve been unable to break the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the South to join the fighting.

Indeed, contemporary revolutionaries and freedom fighters often sympathized more with the Union than with the insurgency it faced. Giuseppe Garibaldi nearly accepted an offer by Lincoln to lead the Union Army in 1861 but declined when the president, still depending on the support of the loyal border states, refused to declare the conflict a war against slavery. When word of the Emancipation Proclamation reached Europe in 1863, Garibaldi named Lincoln “the great emancipator” in a letter filled with effusive praise:

It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you.

Interest in the American struggle wasn’t limited to nationalists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels both corresponded privately and wrote publicly on the Civil War with astounding lucidity of its causes and course. They and many other socialists, viewing the Civil War as a struggle against slavery and aristocracy, fervently supported the Union cause. Marx himself drafted a letter on behalf of the First International congratulating Abraham Lincoln on his 1864 re-election:

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epoque, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

[…]

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Neither Marx nor Engels would ever set foot in the New World. (Garibaldi briefly visited New York City in 1850, but never returned to the United States thereafter.) Whether the Union was lost or saved would have little impact on their personal lives or political goals. But they and countless others perceived the Civil War not as a parochial struggle for political supremacy but as part of a broader struggle for liberty and against oppression. Northerners and Southerners also shared that conceptual framework, albeit towards different ends.

That tendency to extrapolate broader significance to discrete events, whether accurate or not, also undoubtedly motivates many of those fighting and dying on all sides in Syria today.