"Signing of the Dayton Agreement" by The Central Intelligence Agency is licensed under Public Domain (via Wikipedia)

The glass façade of Kosovo’s parliament building is no stranger to the impact of rocks. A tall wedge of grey and blue, the building stands in the center of downtown Prishtina, Kosovo’s largest city and capital. The square it inhabits is usually a peaceful space, filled with strolling couples, street musicians and men selling neon plastic pinwheels to passersby.  Yet, in recent months, clashes between protesters and riot police have also gripped the downtown, once again pulling the country into the international spotlight.

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“'We don't believe in the Sykes-Picot Agreement.'” by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

One thing that I noticed when I first heard media coverage of an Islamist group rising to power in Syria was that it was continually referred to as “the group calling itself ISIS” or “the group known as ISIL”.  If it had been one media outlet or one program, it might have slipped by.  But it wasn’t: it was a standardized fixture of official coverage of the group.

In recent months, particularly since the deadly Paris attacks that claimed the lives of 129, there has been a seemingly strategic shift to the word “Daesh” to describe the organization.  Why does this matter?  And what impact does it hold for the future of Western relations to the Middle East?

The view from the White Fortress. Image / Conner Gordon

It was Sarajevo that originally brought me to the Western Balkans. A novel about the Bosnian city, of all things. In high school, I had read Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, the story of four characters living through the four-year siege of the city. It may have been fictional, but Galloway’s retelling left its mark. When I first searched the name of my study abroad program, it was The Cellist that was on my mind. It was The Cellist that informed my decision to sign up, and The Cellist that colored my initial expectations of the region.

Image / Conner Gordon

It was a chilly afternoon in Belgrade, and my group and I had already seen a lot. For the past few hours we had toured much of the city, stopping at places like the grave of Josip Broz Tito and the National Assembly building. All of the locations we had seen were politically significant in some way or another, part of a crash course on recent Serbian history. But what we were about to see was different.

Image / Conner Gordon

On any other day, Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park would have been relatively peaceful. Usually it would have been filled with people taking walks, groups of tourists and teenagers meeting their friends. Yet today a large crowd of people had gathered at the edge of the park, at an overlook above the Sava river. Just finishing a political tour of the city, my group and I joined them. In the middle of the crowd stood a cluster of soldiers- some in ornamental dress, others in camouflage – and a brass band to their left. To their right stood a group of politicians in dark suits. and in the middle of it all, half a dozen cannon barrels silhouetted against the sunset.

Image / Conner Gordon

The road through Belgrade was quiet at 4 A.M. Besides the occasional whir of another car speeding by, my taxi was largely alone on the road. Through the windshield I could see the last traces of apartment blocks pass by as we left the outskirts of the city. Somewhere beyond the limits of my vision, I knew the airport waited, its converging neon runway lines already lighting up the pre-dawn darkness.

Lethal Presence by U.S. Air Force/Lt Col Leslie Pratt (Public Domain)

The robots are coming. Slowly and clumsily, perhaps, but they’re coming. At least, it would seem that way, with competitions like The Robotics Challenge taking place. Funded by the Department of Defense, the challenge brought together 24 teams to show off the best and most versatile robots they could, with a $2 million prize for the winner.

Sheikh armed with knife & pistol teaches with outstretched index recruits in IS-Boot-Camp by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann (CC BY 2.0)

Since it first began capturing Iraqi towns in 2014, the militant group ISIS has become notorious for its widespread use of violence and atrocity. However, as Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel point out in The New Yorker, this violence is only one of the qualities defining the Islamic State. For the brutal acts of violence for which ISIS have become famous is juxtaposed with something decidedly more elegant: Arabic poetry. Such poetry, written by militants and figures like Ahlam al-Nasr, the so-called “Poetess of the Islamic State,” offer a key look into the narratives and art forms involved in the Islamic State’s spread.

Obama visits Pentagon by The U.S. Army CC BY 2.0

On Thursday, President Obama announced that a U.S. drone strike accidentally killed one American and one Italian hostage in January. Both men were aid workers who had been held captive for a couple of years. Mr. Obama took the blame for the deaths as commander in chief, but officials stated that they did not know the hostages were present when the attacks were carried out on the al-Qaeda compound. Another American citizen, an al-Qaeda senior ranking member, was killed the same attack, and another American citizen in the senior ranks of the organization was killed in a separate attack in the same region. Officials also did not know of the presence of either American citizens at the targeted sites, and the accuracy of drone strikes is only as good as the accuracy of the intelligence. The information had remained classified until Mr. Obama ordered it to go public; Mr. Obama also has launched an investigation into the deaths of the hostages.

These killings raise numerous ethical concerns. While I have written about the ethics of drone strikes before, this specific instance raises some other concerns. Should the United States conduct drone strikes when there is the potential for hostages? Even though officials have claimed that bad intelligence resulted in their deaths, which may well be true, should the government assure with 100% certainty that no innocents are present before conducting drone strikes? Is it right to then keep the information classified from families for four months? Another angle is whether or not American citizens being involved in terrorist activities gives the United States license to kill them in drone strikes – intentional targets or not – without due process. While their alleged crimes certainly open them up to that type of retaliation, is it an ethical act of the state? There have been concerns and critiques about the Obama administration’s drone and counterterrorism policy for years, but does the accidental death of these hostages show that a policy reevaluation or shift is in order?

 

The conflict in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe on a massive scale, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions of others forced to flee their homes. Recently, the BBC has attempted to expand the impact of the Syrian narrative by tapping into an intimate intersection between humans and technology: the video game. Journalist Mamdouh Akbiek and researcher Eloise Dicker have created an interactive, storybook-style game in which users make choices for their virtual family of refuges as they attempt the journey from Damascus to Europe.

The game, entitled Syrian Journey: Choose your own escape route, has come under fire from critics who say that it trivializes the horrors faced by refugees everyday. One expert on the Middle East suggests in the Daily Mail that “the decision of the BBC to transform the human suffering of literally millions into a children’s game beggars belief.” Is it morally permissible to construct a video game around a narrative of human suffering? Does connecting to these characters via digital interaction foster empathy, or belittle the reality of these experiences?

In an article by Keith Stuart, he argues that these interactive dialogues are nothing new, and in fact may be the next big development in news media. He insists that video games have matured over the last 40 years into a truly artistic medium, and criticism from conventional news sources is nothing more than, “old-fashioned moral panic.”

I agree that video games could offer a unique opportunity for user engagement within certain contexts. In the case of Syrian Journey, the game is not marketed to children, nor presented as pure entertainment. It is designed as an informational experience, meant to connect the user to a minimal understanding of the harsh decisions that Syrian refugees are forced to make. Mass media in the 21st century has become increasingly pervasive, utilizing technology to wedge itself more deeply into the cracks between culture, society, and politics. Video games may be the next step in this process.

People are no longer satisfied with static media, but seek sources of information that allow a two-way dialogue. The ability of video games to escape linear narratives could allow for more nuanced story telling, and plugging-in could force engagement on a deeper and more intimate level. Making decisions within the confines of virtual reality could lead to a more complete understanding of the human side of the story. As stated by Stuart, “Games offer a range of ways of taking on a topic that linear forms can’t – putting you in the shoes of another person…”

However, moral problems may arise from the selfishness of the user. Eventually players may demand less engagement with the topic and more entertainment, skewing the integrity of the interaction as a whole. Developers may come to exploit these narratives of suffering, as those privileged enough to have access to these technologies demand their next virtual challenge.