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January 11, 2010

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As for the calls to treat the would-be bomber as an enemy combatant, torture him and toss him into Guantanamo, God knows he deserves it. But keep in mind that the crucial intelligence we received was from the boy's father. If that father had believed that the United States was a rogue superpower that would torture and abuse his child without any sense of decency, would he have turned him in?

He would be tortured and abused decently, or at least by decent people with decent reasons. Like, "he deserved it". God knows and presumably agrees. Which would mean it wouldn't be torture anyway. If it was, then the important thing to keep in mind is that it would be not illegal.

So the answer to that question is something like "maybe" I guess.

ha

"I'd rather overreact than underreact."

Argh. Do any frequent flyers actually prefer security theater?

Do any frequent flyers actually prefer security theater?

I've seen the exact same right wing blogs that complained about lack of security turn around and complain about the heightened security. I feel like I'm being gaslighted.

Agree with the post, but has the official response to this actually been an overreaction? It seems to have consisted of:

1) Short-term measures to interfere with an immediate identical attempt. (We can argue about whether they were effective, but since they were temporary their impact is limited.) I flew a few days after the attempt and noticed no additional hassles.

2) Accelerated deployment of body scanners, which were already being put into operation. (I went through one in December at SFO on my way to London.)

3) Investigation of the intelligence failures and hopefully an attempt to rectify them.

Am I missing something else?

Obviously I agree that we shouldn't overreact, and I appreciate that the need to argue against those who want us to overreact is ongoing. But the actual response seems (to me) to have been neither too hot nor too cold, at least as far as one can judge these things.

I think a combination of reduced emotional response and reasonable security measures is what's needed. I thought the "We're not afraid" response to the Tube bombings was lovely. I was very proud of the UK for that. Actually the early, spontaneous US response to 9/11 was similarly defiant, something that I think a different government to the one of George W. Bush could have extended. But they took the low road of politicizing and hyping fear.

But I don't really see that in operation right now. Or rather, it is still in operation on the Republican side, but by and large the official US response has been serious but calm. And I think that, by and large, the public approves of that, and nobody who was not already hysterical has become hysterical over this.

Again this is not really a disagreement with the point of this post, I think. And on the torture point I couldn't agree more. One of the things lost between "We can invade any country and be greeted as liberators!" on the one hand and "The United States is an evil imperial power hated around the world!" on the other is that many people in other countries really like and admire the United States. That goodwill leads to cooperation that is surely worth more than anything that could be tortured out of any prisoner even if we leave morality aside. (That this is not immediately obvious to anyone is beyond me.)

Am I missing something else?

For the most part, I'd say that the Obama admin has avoided the overreaction trap. That being said, I was a little disappointed to see him lean so heavily on the "war" frame in his most recent speech. But given all the GOP demagoguery, it's understandable.

What is less understandable is the decision to implement profiling based on passport held/travel origin.

"Those countries are: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen."

That is a mistake.

Forgot about that, but then, I think it's a long-overdue good idea, so...

Extra screening is not a big deal. It's not going to radicalize anyone. Screening resources are limited; more screening of people from the countries on that list means less screening of people from countries that have never and likely will never produce anti-US terrorists. The net amount of hassle from screening is likely to remain the same, but will be marginally more likely to be effective. I don't see the problem.

Yes, some terrorists have been US or UK citizens (Padilla & Reid), but then nobody is talking about getting rid of screening for US & UK citizens.

This Beinart piece talks about the problems with profiling, though: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-01-08/profiling-will-never-work/

But he focuses on religious and ethnic profiling, which I agree are a bad idea. National profiling, though, is not subjective.

Pretty much everyone supports some profiling, anyway. Picking out young male passengers, those flying alone, those who paid cash, those who have no baggage, those who paid cash, those who don't have a return ticket (though it turns out that the underpants bomber did have a return ticket) - all of that is profiling. And I can tell you from personal experience - being a young male often flying alone without baggage - that those profiling measures already did result in a very high chance of going through extra screening.

Extra screening [for brown people] is not a big deal. [says the white guy].

In my experience, going out your way to rub people's noses in the fact that you recognize they're different, you don't like their difference, and you think they're difference correlates strongly enough with extreme criminality to warrant special inspections by government officials is kind of a big deal.

Now, maybe you don't appreciate this, but for people in a large part of the world, meeting up with the state security apparatus is not a pleasant experience. For people in most of the affected countries, extra scrutiny by the state security apparatus is often a pretext for bribes or the first step in getting raped and/or disappeared. Now, you and I, secure in our experience and our white guy privilege can laugh at the absurdity of those beliefs, but our laughter does not change the fact that those feelings are real and make a difference in how people think about the US.

Just recently I was talking with some immigrants who lamented the fact that their beliefs screwed them out of serious cash. They came to the US and their abusive relatives convinced them to work under the table, sans taxes for years. They did so because based on their experience back home, taxmen are going to steal your money and you will never get a dime of it back in services. But now they've got nothing saved up for Social Security and Medicare. And they realize that the federal government doesn't work like the government back home. These sorts of beliefs die hard.

Last summer, I spent two hours trying to convince a cousin of mine who was visiting from Egypt that American technical universities don't actually prevent middle eastern students from studying things (like nuclear physics) that have military applications. Now, this man is not stupid. He's a physician who was presenting his research at a medical conference. He's worked as a physician in England for many years, etc. He's a christian who is related to Americans that are completely assimilated. It took two hours of my life that I'm never getting back. How much longer do you think it would have taken with someone who didn't have his advantages, someone who was a Muslim with no relatives in the US and no experience living in western countries?

It's not going to radicalize anyone.

Eh, you know this how exactly? I mean, arguably, no one thing will ever be sufficient to radicalize anyone, so in that sense, this statement is true, but that doesn't seem to advance the conversation much.

I say it's not a big deal because I have experienced extra screening myself, not because I lack empathy for people with brown skin.

And yes I certainly do appreciate that people in other parts of the world have very negative experiences with state security, which is one of the reasons I don't think this is a big deal. Extra screening from the TSA is absolutely nothing compared to the experience you might expect if you got arrested in most of those countries.

If it was a measure that was never applied to Americans or citizens of other countries I would feel differently. But Americans will still get extra screening sometimes.

As for radicalization of course we're all speculating. But there's a pretty grave moral distance between dropping a bomb on someone's house thus killing their entire family, and having a TSA employee fondle your junk. If we're talking about a choice of tactics, I would favor more of the latter, less of the former.

I say it's not a big deal because I have experienced extra screening myself, not because I lack empathy for people with brown skin.

What you have experienced is not equivalent to what a foreigner would have experienced. You have the security of knowledge that casts out fear. They do not. Believe it or not, different people can undergo the same physical experience with very different emotional responses. I mean, do you really think that your response to walking alone through a sketchy part of town at night is equivalent to that of a slight young woman? Or that your experience of getting pulled over is equivalent to that of an African American man?

And yes I certainly do appreciate that people in other parts of the world have very negative experiences with state security, which is one of the reasons I don't think this is a big deal. Extra screening from the TSA is absolutely nothing compared to the experience you might expect if you got arrested in most of those countries.

Have you ever actually spoken to someone from the third world about their experiences? Most interactions don't lead to horrific consequences, so having a few good experiences with the TSA wouldn't necessarily reassure them. Now, if all humans were perfectly rational and skilled at statistical reasoning this wouldn't be a big deal, but....

If it was a measure that was never applied to Americans or citizens of other countries I would feel differently. But Americans will still get extra screening sometimes.

Getting extra security 1% of the time and getting extra security 100% of the time are very different policies. If all foreigners were stupid, they might not notice that, but since many are not, I can assure you, the distinction is not lost on them.

As for radicalization of course we're all speculating.

I suppose everything on this blog is speculation, so again, this doesn't really advance discussion.

But there's a pretty grave moral distance between dropping a bomb on someone's house thus killing their entire family, and having a TSA employee fondle your junk. If we're talking about a choice of tactics, I would favor more of the latter, less of the former.

So our choice is between bombing people or having the state security apparatus molest them? Isn't this a...false choice? In reality, neither bombing foreigners nor molesting them advances our collective security. The extra screening is particularly pointless because no matter what, everyone can still carry as many lithium ion hand grenades onto an aircraft as they like. Those devices are marketed as batteries rather than hand grenades, but converting them from energy storage devices to explosives isn't terribly difficult. Finally, since you're not in a position to decide, I don't understand why your particular choice is relevant.

Believe it or not, different people can undergo the same physical experience with very different emotional responses.

Sure. But given that neither of us is a Yemeni citizen we are both speculating based on imagination and experience. (I do have some experience with high-stakes encounters with state officials as an immigrant to the US.) Now, if anything I would expect that 100% screening would be less nerve-wracking on any given occasion than the irregular screening based on other, unknown profiling factors - less likely to fear that your name got mixed up with someone else's and you're about to disappear to Gitmo. Knowing what to expect is reassuring.

On bombs versus searches, well that's kind of related to my supposed belief that people are stupid. I don't think people are stupid, which is why I think they do understand that in a not-very-direct way it's a choice, that it is reasonable to accept passive, non-violent measures taken inside the US sovereign realm if they think it'll decrease the chance of future violent, sovereignty-violating action in their country. It's not like the latter is a strictly hypothetical concern; the US is pretty missile-happy these days. Of course this all depends on the screening being effective, but then, I think it will be. It will force either bombs that can pass extra screening, or recruitment from countries not on that list. Both of those are difficult, and the latter substantially increases the chances of detection.

I would be very interested in hearing about a test of the explosive potential of li-ion batteries that showed them able to do serious damage to a plane. A quick search did not turn up anything - I know they explode, but there's a big difference between something that could be deadly at a 1-foot range and something capable of destroying a passenger jet.

Finally, since you're not in a position to decide, I don't understand why your particular choice is relevant.

Since the only person in a position to choose is Barack Obama, I guess none of us have "relevant" opinions on any of this. Never stopped any of us before, though.

Anyway, this is pretty tangential and I don't get the sense either one of us is going to convince the other. (I'm not trying to claim the last word; go ahead if you want.)

From the Zakaria piece, I found this part quite disengenuous: "The public would know that any attack, successful or not, would trigger an automatic, serious process to analyze the problem and fix it."

Does he not think that exactly that process is already in progress, probably at half a dozen different levels? I'm not sure what he wants - the CIA and other agencies will report, Congress will investigate, that's how the system works.

If anything, it is the FAA/military culture of problem analysis that is responsible for the kind of response we've seen, one that begins by being targeted exactly at the most-recently-used method. The FAA's motto might as well be "Never let a plane crash twice for the same reason", which may seem familiar if you think about the TSA's response to various threats.

That's because the FAA learned long before there was such a thing as a hijacker that plane crashes cause undue hysteria and disproportionate responses, and that preventing them is a far higher public priority than is proportionate to the number of deaths. That is, after all, why terrorists picked them as targets in the first place* - planes make for a disproportionate media splash. That was as true in 1954 as in 2001.

Although I agree in a general sense with this:

The purpose of terrorism is to provoke an overreaction.

Fareed does not make so much sense in saying this:

Its real aim is not to kill the hundreds of people directly targeted but to sow fear in the rest of the population. Terrorism is an unusual military tactic in that it depends on the response of the onlookers.

No, its real purpose is killing as many of the "opponent" as possible, including innocents. Fear is simply the second choice to actual killing.

That's not what the people who get paid to worry about it appear to think.

My personal opinion is that the people who arranged for the Christmas attack knew that it wouldn't succeed (if success was defined as the bomb actually working). However, I do think they convinced the bomber that it would work. And because of that, the "attack" was a success in terms of the reaction. Again, as pointed out above, not so much the administration's response, but the verbal hysteria, primarily from the Right but also from some on the left.

And if killing people does not result in the "fear" component, then killing the people is not successful.

The fact is that al Qaeda has lost some of its "prestige" and is looking for ways to build up recruitment again. Doing something that results in an overreaction can do just that. I have little doubt that under a different administration we would have seen major movement towards Yemen by now.

No, its real purpose is killing as many of the "opponent" as possible, including innocents. Fear is simply the second choice to actual killing.

No, it's real purpose is political. Each group has a political objective. Some of those objectives do not rely on killing as many "opponents" as possible. Sometimes it is not clear who the "opponent" is.

al-Qaeda, for example, strikes at the US in order to force the US to withdraw support for apostate regimes in the Middle East. After achieving this goal, AQ hopes to then topple those regimes (which will be vulnerable without US support). In each instance, kiling as many "opponents" as possible is not necessarily the primary goal. That is why AQ does not necessarily pick attacks based purely on the likely number of casualties, but rather picks symbolic and emotionally charged targets.

No, its real purpose is killing as many of the "opponent" as possible, including innocents. Fear is simply the second choice to actual killing.

No, it's real purpose is political.

"Stop, you're both right!".

I'm not sure we really have to pick between killing or politics or fear. In Al Qaeda's world, they're all of a piece.

Russell,

Don't go ruining the internet now ;)

Plus, they're a dessert topping.

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