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January 14, 2010

Comments

The bad news is, our tendency to hype the threat of terrorism and overreact to both successful and, remarkably, failed terrorist attacks distorts reality and skews our decision making progress.

What's this "our tendency", kemo sabe? Most of the hysteria and hype - still less the calls for overreaction - isn't, AFAICT, coming from the public at large, but from the political "establishment" (actually, just particular subset of it). Aided and abetted, of course, by a sensationalist media driven to fill up airtime 24/7/365, and no more caring as ever about the quality of the "discussion" they present.

True. Although polling that indicated a majority in favor of both:

1. Torturing the undie bomber; and

2. Subjecting him to military tribunal

Was disappointing.

Bringing in Philip Bobbitt, gotta love it*. To me, his thesis would strengthen the case I've made here before in distinguishing between massive (or 9/11 level) and regular terrorist attacks.

While the latter generally has an impact roughly similar to crime or transportation disaster, which society already has ways of dealing with, the former had every symptom of an act of war when it occurred, and is more than likely to have them again should there be a second.

This is also was roughly my thinking when John Kerry made his perfectly sane comment on our goal in fighting terrorism.** If the threat of terrorism is a "nuisance", I'm more than happy -- but for me, that means that no organization has the goal and means necessary to have myself and my country go through a second September 11th.

*Disclaimer: Last time I picked up Terror and Consent was about a year or so ago -- though this post makes me want to try to get through it again.

**In fact, didn't Bush also say something to much the same affect? Not that it should count, or anything...

The reality is that anyone reading this could, with a little google-based homework, go the hardware store, the garden supply store, or the nearest gas station, cobble something together, and go blow up a lot of people. You could get it done by dinner time if you were so inclined.

We don't do that because we're not angry violent sociopathic freaks.

There are about a billion and half Muslims on the planet. Maybe 15,000 of them are dedicated to going out of their way to kill Westerners. That's one in every 100,000.

And if you exclude people who are fighting us because they're pissed that we're in their country telling them what to do, 15,000 is probably way high.

In terms of the likelihood of any given individual to break weird and try to kill me, I'm more concerned about splinter Mormon groups than I am about Muslims.

There is no war because there is no army to fight. The folks who are our enemies are a very small number of angry sociopathic freaks.

Al Qaeda properly belongs in the same category as the anarchist bombers of the turn of the 20th Century, the Red Brigades, the Baader/Meinhof gang, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and any of 1,000 other bands of violent crazy delusional bastards.

We didn't take them seriously in the early to mid 90's, for lots of reasons, and so they had the chance to get really good at what they do. So, we need to not make that mistake again.

There may be a military aspect to that, but it's much more likely to involve intelligence and police work, in coordination with the intelligence and police communities of a number of other countries.

IMVHO, the folks who yell about the "war against terror" do so because it pumps them up and they get some kind of buzz out of it. It gives their lives some extra dollop of meaning and drama. They missed out on the Nazis, and maybe the Commies, so the Islamofascists are gonna be the big event of their generation.

I wish they'd knock it off, because it drowns out the folks who are trying to address the problem in a sane and effective way.

Yeah, Kerry's comments were on the money, and he was crucified for them. And we got another four years of Bush. What a freaking disaster.

As usual, well put, russell.

If the threat of terrorism is a "nuisance", I'm more than happy -- but for me, that means that no organization has the goal and means necessary to have myself and my country go through a second September 11th.

I hope you're prepared to never know happiness, Point. If you limit yourself to no organization having the means, you might debatably be able to achieve it, but I'd not count on even that. People are remarkably easy to kill if one patiently puts one's mind to it, especially if one wants to kill people more than destroy symbols. Symbols are relatively few, and can be well-protected. People are everywhere, and have a nasty habit of forming large groups without devoting a great deal of thought to their safety.

Of course, a lot of this comes down to what you mean by "another 9-11". And there's no real need to rehash that fruitless discussion yet still again.

It gives their lives some extra dollop of meaning and drama.

At the risk of being overly glib with respect to a fine comment, this made me want sour cream on a baked potato. Such is the way my mind works. But, in a way, that's a good thing: my life gets all the meaning and drama it needs from such simple pleasures.

You could get it done by dinner time if you were so inclined.

Well, sure. But I'd have to use half a personal day, so the hell with it. Maybe this weekend.

I'm reminded of the Obama administration's short-lived branding attempt to refer to acts of terrorism as "man-caused disasters." (What makes people say such obviously politically stupid things?) At any rate, though I thought that was asinine, it was in line with my thinking.

We take reasonable precautions and make reasonable preparations to respond to things like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc. People don't freak out because hurricane season is coming. Granted, there's no way to prevent natural disasters, since we can't thwart the attempts of Mother Nature to unleash her destructive force. So the parallels are inexact. We can stop terrorists fairly often from carrying out their plans, and that's certainly worthwhile. But, still, what's so terrifying about people creating creating disasterous events relative to nature causing equally (or even more greatly) disasterous events?

Why is it that people are still willing to live in Florida despite all the hurricanes that have hit there? Why do people still live in the earthquake-prone areas of California? We KNOW bad stuff is going to happen in those places, even if we don't know exactly when.

And then there's terrorism. As a result we're the land of the not-as-free-as-we-used-to-be and the home of not-very-brave. (But, on the plus side, it's counterproductive enough that we probably don't even get increased safety in return...woohoo!)

As an aside, speaking of doing counterproductive things, I'm a Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder. (But that's not the counterproductive thing I wanted to mention.) Going into the stadium before games, you have to get in the line for the security check. It's a mass of humanity - people more or less shoulder-to-shoulder and chest-to-back covering thousands of square feet. If I wanted to kill a bunch of people with a fairly easily obtainable explosive/incendiary device or firearm, the security line would be an excellent opportunity, probably better than those available inside the stadium. (Maybe they need to have a security check before the line for the security check.)

they_1 hate us for the freedoms that they_2 hate having to uphold.

the rest of us wish we could bring they_1 and they_2 together in a lead chamber where they could annihilate each other in a burst of gamma rays.

Maybe they need to have a security check before the line for the security check

Don't give them any ideas. Or, just wait until someone does blow up a security line and they'll come up with that on their own.

"Of course, a lot of this comes down to what you mean by "another 9-11". And there's no real need to rehash that fruitless discussion yet still again."

I agree -- but all the same, FTR, I'll just reiterate what I mean: a massive terrorist attack (or MTA, aka a "9/11 level attack") is primarily defined by the number of people killed. Since it has happened only once (or arguably twice) in recorded history, it's a little tricky setting up a minimum, but my sense is 1,000, or 500 at the least.

This is why I think Bobbitt's thesis strengthens my case*: The affect of an attack with such numbers is that it feels like more than a terrorist attack. Fear, dread, and panic become widespread; the overall response shows every symptom of an act of war.

When such an attack occurs on a population -- and when the threat of a repeated such attack continues to loom -- it seriously brings into question whether members of said population effectively lack the right of security of their person. And, as Bobbitt argues, if the government cannot protect this most basic right in any meaningful way, it ceases to be legitimate.

Now, this same logic could apply if smaller scale terrorist attacks were to be widespread, but they're highly uncommon in Europe, and exceedingly rare in the US. So on this front, I don't have any complaints about our situation.

I remain hopeful for a day when I can feel the same way about greater threats.

*JTBC, what follows certainly doesn't fall under the "no need to rehash" sentiment

the overall response shows every symptom of an act of war.

An "act of war" requires an actor capable of waging something like war.

To respond to that act by taking a military action makes sense if a military action will achieve the "security of their person" that you're looking for.

You tell me if either of those things apply in the case of Al Qaeda.

I'm also doubtful about thinking about any of this in terms of a "right to be secure in your person". I'm not sure that the inalienable right to life was intended to mean "the government will protect you from anything that might kill you". I believe the intent was that the government itself would not kill you without due process of law.

There are violent bloodthirsty people in the world. We need to do our best to keep them from harming us, or anyone else for that matter. Sometimes we screw up and they win one.

IMO treating violent actions by Al Qaeda or their like as acts of war raises them to a level of credibility that they don't deserve. They are not a state, a people, or a nation. They're a few thousand guys who want to wreak havoc. To the degree that they have a political objective, it's to bring about an Islamic promised land that only exists, and only ever existed, in their imaginations.

Fear, dread, and panic are caused by all kinds of things, not just acts of war. Different causes call for different responses.

But whether it can technically be considered an act of war doesn't change the fact that it felt like an act of war to most people.

Which is why I think this is a misunderstanding (from the Paul Campos excerpt):

"No amount of statistical evidence, however, will make any difference to those who give themselves over to almost completely irrational fears."

I don't think it's about fear. I think it's about pride, and the injury to national pride that came with the 9/11 attacks. National pride is always intimately involved with war.

Now that may not be any more rational a response than fear, but it requires a different tack to address it. It can't be argued away with statistics about the minute chance that you personally will experience death by terrorism rather than death by car accident, because it's not about personal fear, but about collective injury and anger, and the need to avoid another injury like the very painful one of 9/11.

I'm in agreement with the idea that you can't win by losing your soul to torture and indefinite detention. That ought to be a grave injury to national pride in itself. I think that's the right approach to addressing the wounded pride - to be better than those who attack you, to shrug it off, to not abandon your dearest ideals.

But I don't think it's possible to make progress on that by mistakenly deciding that the dominant emotion is fear when in fact it is pride. You'll be met with incomprehension and even anger, because the person you need to persuade is probably not afraid for their own safety, which means that accusations of cowardice are not going to hit home.

Me: "the overall response shows every symptom of an act of war"

JD: "But whether it can technically be considered an act of war doesn't change the fact that it felt like an act of war to most people."

As is too common, somebody says it better than me. Kudos Jake!

First, a potshot: your "arguably twice" aside pretty much destroys your long-standing "safe haven" thesis if you want to count it as such. But again, that's a sidetrack.

Fear, dread, and panic become widespread; the overall response shows every symptom of an act of war.

Here's a problem, though. You just said that an MTA is to be defined by the (arbitrary) number of casualties inflicted. However... that's not what you're saying here. Here you suggest that what defines an MTA is not the attack or attacks - it's the response to the attacks. This actually is far more defensibly than trying to say that some magic number exists over which terrorist attacks cease being terrorism and start being war - a TA becomes an MTA only when it is perceived as such. The casualty figure that matters is not 500 or 1000 - it's whatever number will shock the body politic and make them feel existential dread.

This actually is a rather telling point. If we define MTAs by how we react to them (which is the logical conclusion your comment), there is no logistical reason to respond to them in a manner differing from "normal TAs". There may be political or psychological reasons for doing so, but that doesn't mean we should want to go that route if we can avoid it. Given the humanitarian (and hell, fiscal and diplomatic) consequences of doing so this last time around, if our motivation for responding to MTAs militarily is not based on the utility of doing so, we should probably strive to resist any such political or psychological impulse.

The above assumes that an MTA (rather than the response to it) has far more in common with a "normal TA" than with an act of conventional war. I certainly don't think the case has been made otherwise.

The casualty figure that matters is not 500 or 1000 - it's whatever number will shock the body politic and make them feel existential dread.

Or pride wounded deeply, or whatever emotion is sufficient to incite a particular individual. I concede JD's point that there was more going on emotionally that just fear, though I remember the environment after the attacks clearly enough to raise an eyebrow at the notion that fear was not an operative emotion (that was actively cultivated in some political quarters, natch).

I tend to agree with NV: fear was the overriding emotion post-9/11. As time elapsed, I suppose pride began to encroach, and the balance may have shifted. But at first, mostly fear.

But then, maybe my proximity to ground zero had something to do with that, and mine is a subjective analysis.

Oh, personal fear was operative in the immediate aftermath, and still is to various degrees in various people. But injured pride was also there all along, and I think is the enduring emotion. But if we want to get really nuanced, personal fear also contributes to shame, and long-lasting fear can also be "fear of another injury to pride" rather than fear of a threat to your person. So saying "injured pride not fear" is a shorthand.

But I absolutely agree that the cynical manipulation of fear (and shame) helped take us on a course we didn't have to take. What I'm arguing is that we have to identify the underlying emotion correctly to figure out how to counter those arguments. Statistics about the chance of personal involvement in a terrorist attack are irrelevant if the driving emotion is the desire to avoid another injury to pride.

I concede JD's point that there was more going on emotionally that just fear...

That point helps me get my head around some of the questions I raised in my earier comment, though I would note that our national response to Katrina was pride-damaging, if after the fact. 9-11 was damaging simply because it happened. Katrina was damaging because we weren't nearly as prepared as we could have been and didn't respond well to the immediate crisis. (Thinking on that a bit, I wonder how the disgrace one felt after 9-11 versus that after Katrina correlates to one's world view or political leanings. Where's publius when you need some good pseudo-mass-psycho-political analysis?)

JD: I agree completely with your 15:34. I'd considered trying to spell out that nuance in my own prior comment before yielding to the personal fear that I'd utterly botch it due to lack of sleep (my last several comments *seem* coherent to me, but I've been up for ~24h, so it's only a matter of time). I remember a great deal of fear from those days, but once the collective numbness wore off, I remember more outrage than anything else. Looking back, it seems like continued expressions of fear fairly quickly became a means of expressing solidarity rather than, um, fear. But that's anecdota, and fatigued (generally Midwestern) anecdota at that.

NV (@3:02),

Yeah... I used a poor choice of words when I said "the response shows every symptom of an act of war". My bad. But as I later said, I think JD said it better when he said it "feels like an act of war".

Perhaps an even better way of saying might be that, from the perspective of the victims, it is essentially an act of war. That is to say, how a population experiences an act of war is similar to how they experience an MTA.

The key catalyst to this reaction is mass casualties. Now, as I said before, I'm not certain of the minimum to "mass" here, but -- before 9/11 the deadliest terrorist attack (and to this day the second deadliest to involve American civilians) was the bombing of Pan-Am 747 in 1988. 270 deaths, compared with nearly 3,000 on 9/11. That's a lot of (thankfully) untested grey area.

Now, you say there's no "logistical" reason to treat these two experiences any differently. With all due respect, I think this is a dangerous way for a government or for any societal institution to approach them.

Social institutions -- especially government -- cannot operate with any effective legitimacy based on the assumption that they are composed of a group of fully rational actors*. They have to guide and govern based on predictable human nature.

And this gets to the point of Bobbitt's book -- if members of a population don't see their government as protecting their security of person, they won't see the government as legitimate; and if a government's population doesn't see it as legitimate, it isn't.

*I mean, just look at Wall St...

"IMO treating violent actions by Al Qaeda or their like as acts of war raises them to a level of credibility that they don't deserve."

So true. AQ and others ereally are just a bunch of thugs who happened to get very lucky one time. But that doesn't make them any kless thugs. That is why civilian trials are important. They get treated as criminals, not some military foe, battling for a just cause (in their minds).

Regarding pride. I really don't know if there was wounded pride after 9/11. In fact, what I saw was a major increase in, at the least, public display of pride. If that had been utilized without the fear component a lot of things would have changed. Instead, we were told that if we didn't do certain things Western Civilization would collapse. That attitude did not use pride as a motivation. It utilized fear and fear alone.

And this gets to the point of Bobbitt's book -- if members of a population don't see their government as protecting their security of person, they won't see the government as legitimate; and if a government's population doesn't see it as legitimate, it isn't.

The problem with this is that it pretends that public perceptions happen in a vacuum, and the government is simply reacting to them. They don't. The government and media have a great deal of leverage to shape how an attack is perceived. After 9-11, parties who wanted to treat it as an act of war expended a great deal of effort to see to it that it "felt" like one. We didn't have to have the emotional reaction we did. Our perception of what happened was shaped by the media and the government (generally in concert), and this shaped our developing emotional response to the event. There's no reason to assume that we *had* to feel like it was "another Pearl Harbor". That was an idea that was hammered in quick enough, but it's not clear it and its kin would have prevailed against an unwavering framing of the terrorist attack as an unprecedented criminal act. Since your data set consists of one item, I caution strongly against drawing any categorical conclusions.

Even setting aside the notion that the government must bow to the whims of public opinion (without ever shaping it), I can't agree with your conclusion that we shouldn't want the government to behave as a rational actor. You raise the argument that a (democratic) government must play to the crowd, but (to immediately pick the set-aside notion once more) since the government is participating in shaping the crowd's reaction, it's not clear that this would be playing to the crowd rather than playing the crowd. Additionally... this relies on the notion that a government confronted with an emotionally upset citizenry should attempt to satisfy the citizens rather than calm them - that efficiency and rationality should go straight out the window as soon as the body politic becomes emotionally engaged - or worse, after the body politic becomes emotionally engaged by acts surpassing certain arbitrary, fungible casualty levels.

To rife on that last point for a moment, it hints at a reason that placing attacks like the '01 attacks in DC and NY in some special unique category is particularly troublesome. To some degree, the casualty figures of an attack are not strictly based on the operational features of the attack. Chance and last-minute changes of plan can affect casualty figures. McVeigh decided to move the Oklahoma City bombing forward two hours (and thus probably reduced casualties) the day of the attack. This didn't change the planning of the attack, and might not have changed to execution; why should the response to bring its perpetrators to justice and/or to prevent recurrence be fundamentally different than they would have been had he killed, say, twice as many people? Look, if all you want to do is argue that what you style MTAs require a great deal of blustering and militarized security theater because they're scary and the citizens of a nation need to be treated in a somewhat infantile manner, that's fine. That's a conclusion we can agree to disagree on. But that's not all you're arguing. You're arguing that an attack with a (vague, ill-defined) level of casualties must be treated as a military act, responded to in a like manner, and that such acts can be ultimately prevented by executing a certain course of action (eliminating rogue state safe havens). I'm sorry, this simply does not parse.

If we define MTAs by how they are perceived, it's deeply unconvincing to assert that there is strictly one possible recourse available to a government faced with one. It is seems positively foolhardy to assert that the elimination of one single fairly uncommon attribute of a tiny portion all terrorist organizations is either necessary or sufficient to prevent more from occurring. If you concede that an MTA is defined by its perception, surely you must concede that it is in *no way* necessary for a terrorist organization to have a "safe haven" to execute an MTA. They need merely to have the ingenuity to find an exploitable weakness, and go after it - possibly multiple times in parallel. It's worth remembering that 9-11 was not a single attack - it was four attacks in parallel, with some overlap in targets. The fact that they were all executed simultaneously did require coordination on the part of AQ... but far, far less effort than it would have taken to execute the four attacks serially. Indeed, it's quite unlikely they could have done so even if they wanted to. The attacks were not some fundamentally different thing than other hijackings or bombings. They did not need some new manner of response simply because their casualty figures crossed some hidden threshold, or because the public was shocked and outraged (and had that shock and outrage nursed by the government and media) in a different manner than they'd been by prior bombings and hijackings. They were terrorist attacks. Indeed, they were terrorist attacks with high casualty figures. They were not in a legal or logistical sense acts of war, nor some qualitatively new sort of terrorism. That the public wanted (and even more troublingly, was encouraged to want) to treat them as such gives us more, not less, reason to strive to view responses to them from a dispassionate, functional standpoint when weighing our options.

Instead, we were told that if we didn't do certain things Western Civilization would collapse.

It wouldn't collapse, it would be toppled. By them.

Not to say fear wasn't very much in force, and possibly the only relevant emotion for a goodly number of people, but it's not hard to remember attitudes that smacked as much of hurt pride as fear.

"But whether it can technically be considered an act of war doesn't change the fact that it felt like an act of war to most people.""

That cuts both ways. Our actions feel like a war on Islam to some Muslims.

On the pride thing, I definitely think pride (I would call it arrogant jingoism) was a major component in the reaction to 9/11 and it was there alongside the fear almost immediately. That's part of why it was impossible to say anything even slightly critical of US policy for months after 9/11 without being accused of moral idiocy. "They hate us for our freedoms" became part of the civil religion. Even Susan Sontag's rather bland New Yorker piece was treated as blasphemy. There were stupid bumper stickers like "The sleeping giant wakes". Obviously some people took this thing as more than a terrible act of mass murder--it was a personal insult.

Donald Johnson -- yes. I haven't read this thread carefully, so maybe someone has already mentioned this. But I have been wanting to bring up the chest-thumping that followed 9/11. Every time I saw a "United We Stand" bumper sticker I wanted to ask, "Okay, fine. If it's so damned important to be united, let's unite behind my opinions."

Ha.

So wait, even the simple statement of solidarity and defiance that is "United We Stand" is objectionable?

Weird.

Jacob, are you joking?

Or do you not think that "If you don't stand united with us about an ill-conceived war against the wrong enemy you're a traitor" is objectionable?

Wow.

There is nothing simple about the statement. There is nothing unobjectionable about the implication that people who don't join in "solidarity" behind the lying torturing scumbags who led us into Iraq are dirty f*cking hippie traitors.

Wow again.

So wait, even the simple statement of solidarity and defiance that is "United We Stand" is objectionable?

It is impossible to know with certainty what any one individual might have meant by saying "united we stand", but in a lot of cases, I think it was pretty awful stuff. I mean, we're talking about the most powerful nation on Earth starting a war that annihilates a million human beings for...nothing. And the people of this nation have zero awareness of the horrific moral crime they've committed. They just don't care. Given that, I'd say "united we stand" probably has a wee bit more content to it, on average, than just "let's all work together to get through this". We unleashed a firestorm of death and destruction and we did that, in part, because wanted to hurt someone, anyone. Mission accomplished!

My point is: the benefit of the doubt is reserved for countries that don't go off and create a million new corpses without even noticing. Sorry.

And by the way, the solidarity you speak of was solidarity-lite. It was completely focused on people just like us. There was no attempt made to think "gee, maybe this is what it feels like to live in those countries where we start or fund wars" or even "gee, maybe this is a bit like what some of our european friends have been experiencing with the Troubles and Basques and Red Brigades, etc." Real solidarity would have involved using the emotional experience of 9/11 to connect with people that are, in some way, different than ourselves. Instead, we (for the most part) connected with ideal Americans that we all imagined were just like ourselves. Real useful that.

Turb's reminder of the various possible meanings of solidarity is a good one.

Besides that, in the US we were united (I think) for a short while after 9/11 in grief, shock, and hurt. I don't think we were ever united for 30 seconds about should happen next, what "we" should do next.

Turb is right again that we can't know what was in the minds of the people who displayed that saying, and my reading of it may be paranoid. But my reading of it is that its very simplicity was most often a way of proactively shouting down people who didn't think "hurting someone, anyone, mission accomplished" was exactly the way to go.

I've been reading a lot of Aristotle lately and it seems to me that what we are talking about here is inherently rhetorical and audience driven. An MTA is any attack that succeeds in evoking enough fear to damage a society's sense of themis or "public order" or "rightness." We fear that which is painful and proximate. Once that which we fear is no longer proximate the fear either goes away or changes into something else.

In America's case that fear turned into poorly focused outrage and the need to do something to hurt the one who hurt us. But that outrage has also been preventing us from feeling any pity towards the innocent who have been injured by our own response, not because we are incapable of seeing the damage we are causing, but because we are angry (focused upon present pain rather than the future) and because we have not yet managed to restore our lost sense of themis.

The problem is that our lack of pity and fellow feeling are creating wider fear and outrage amongst the populations that OBL *wants* to radicalize. We are giving him the rhetorical power he wants to produce outrage in his primary audience. We are at best his secondary audience.

And our outrage and attention on our wounded pride prevents us from restoring our sense of themis because we are looking in the wrong place and because our themis and confidence was always more a product of our good fortune than of our work or way of life.

When folks are advocating the mass death of other people, (all in the name of pride, of course) I do find their “United We Stand” offensive.

"United We Stand" for what?

"You're arguing that an attack with a (vague, ill-defined)* level of casualties must be treated as a military act, responded to in a like manner..."

I think this misrepresents my case -- though the fault is pretty much mine.

What I'm seeking to argue -- perhaps clumsily -- is that MTA's, in themselves, pose an existential threat to American society.** In this, it is like an act of war, and that's why I've been emphasizing how the experience of an MTA is similar in this respect.

Now I should add that it does not necessarily follow that the best way to prevent or even respond to them is through military means. Treating the perpetrators as criminals where possible actually makes more sense.

Again, I take responsibility for not making the most straightforward of points.

"The government and media have a great deal of leverage to shape how an attack is perceived."

As a rule, I don't much like to drag my personal experience into these kind of discussions, but I think this is an example where it serves the best on-hand point.

On the day in question, I was afraid -- for mother who worked in the Capitol, for myself at school, for myself or anybody in the days that followed. My schoolmates and teachers were feeling much the same, and nobody needed to be told -- nobody was getting this from government announcements, or cable television (the only media people had access to was a TV in the library, which was only showing footage of the towers on fire).

The dread I felt in the next few days came right out of this fear -- if this could happen, what was next? I wondered what the freaking point of anything was -- civilization was liable to collapse, what would finishing high school get me?

It took me, and many around me, a few days to appreciate that the apocalypse was not upon us; that, just because an NGO had committed an act -- of war? it felt like one, but nobody thought of the perpetrators as "warriors"; the only certainty was that we wanted them captured or killed, and most preferred the latter -- that didn't mean we were powerless over our fate. We could still have a future.

If we had been told in the aftermath of 9/11 that what we went through that day would become like natural disasters -- regularly occurring, essentially unpreventable -- I don't see how this recovery would have been possible.

*these parenthesis get their own comment (see below)

**Note: This does not necessarily mean that AQ currently poses an existential threat; at present, with a still unstable safe haven and much outside pressure, it seems to be unable to provide the necessary support for such attacks

(from note of previous comment)

OK -- so if I seek to define the term MTA with a specific range, I'm being "arbitrary"; if I point out the huge lead 9/11 has in terms of casualties to the second deadliest TA, w/o a firm line of definition b/w them, the distinction is "vague and ill-defined"?

Look, I'm more nitpicky than anyone here, but this is ridiculous. 9/11 wasn't just the deadliest terrorist incident in recorded history; it's casualties were nine times that of the second deadliest incident*.

It is not crazy to see is as an an example of a separate category of terrorist attack, defined by it's number of casualties. It is more than reasonable to consider the threat of other such attacks separately from the threat of more common ones. Given the unique response 9/11 received, I would consider doing so all the wiser.

Whether or not it is defined with a specific range is preferable, I'm not so sure; but there is a distinction to be made.

*not counting an incident that might better be described an act of ethnic cleansing (by an as of yet undiscovered culprit)

I'm a card-carrying DFH myself, but since similar expressions of solidarity and defiance were common among my DFH friends at the time, I definitely don't see all that subtext as being a necessary component of the sentiment. There were several building-sized murals to that effect here in the SF Bay Area put up long before the Iraq War prelude.

The "Support Our Troops" ribbon was a little different, more passive-aggressive, although I have to wonder how many times I was seething against an imagined Republican warmonger with that on his car, when in fact I was following someone with a family member in the armed forces and no particular opinion on the war - probably more than is comfortable to think about.

But whether it can technically be considered an act of war doesn't change the fact that it felt like an act of war to most people.

And how it felt to a lot of people doesn't change the fact that it was something other than an act of war.

If I, personally, go and blow up the Statue of Liberty, is it an act of war?

Was the Oklahoma City bombing an act of war? Tim McVeigh thought it kinda was. Why didn't we immediately call out the OK national guard and declare martial law?

Who are we at war with? Al Qaeda? Where is their army?

I appreciate, and share, the outrage that we all felt after 9/11. That doesn't make it an act of war.

The anarchists assassinated a US President, bombed Wall Street, and twice tried to assassinate the Attorney General with bombs. Were we "at war" with "anarchism"? If so, why weren't the generals informed? Why didn't we immediately go attack Italy, or Central Europe, or Russia, or any of the other nations that so many of the anarchists came from?

For something to be an "act of war" requires there to be an actor who is capable of being engaged in a war. Unless you want to construe "war" in historically unique ways, that is not Al Qaeda today. And other than Al Qaeda, there is no entity seeking global Islamic hegemony. There is no entity seeking to fight the US, or even to attack Americans outside of their own country.

It's something other than war. What that is is an interesting question, but it doesn't help anything, at all, to call it a war because we can't come up with a better description.

What I'm seeking to argue -- perhaps clumsily -- is that MTA's, in themselves, pose an existential threat to American society.** In this, it is like an act of war, and that's why I've been emphasizing how the experience of an MTA is similar in this respect.

I don't think you've made a credible case at all. On the one hand, pretty much anything can pose an existential threat to American society. Climate change? Yep. Completely unchecked greed and exploding levels of inequality? Sure. The coming desertification and salinization of the midwest? OK. Given all that, I suppose that if a terrorist attack was big enough, if it killed many tens of millions of Americans, it could "destroy" American "society" for sufficiently flexible definitions of those words. But that doesn't really mean anything.

In a practical sense, there is no single terrorist attack that could destroy American society. Even if you destroy a city, life goes on, people adjust. Look at the hell on earth that America inflicted on Japanese cities during World War II and observe that Japanese society was not destroyed. Or Vietnamese society. Do you really think that a non-state actor can feasibly bring about a greater level of death and destruction? If you don't think so, aren't you effectively claiming that Americans are far more infantile and emotionally immature than people in all the societies that have suffered so much worse?

To put it another way: the Vietnam war killed 50,000+ Americans. For basically nothing. And yet the government did not fall. The loss of legitimacy was so great that almost no one paid a political price. There was no revolution. The war kept droning on and on. How exactly do you think a terrorist organization can, in one attack, do significantly more damage to this country than the Vietnam war? I get that "Surprise! all these people are dead!" is emotionally powerful, but Vietnam gave us the hundreds of thousands of sons who spent months and years waiting in agony at the prospect of getting called up and killed -- that seems like an emotional power no less significant.

The dread I felt in the next few days came right out of this fear -- if this could happen, what was next? I wondered what the freaking point of anything was -- civilization was liable to collapse, what would finishing high school get me?

Forgive my harshness, but do you realize how degrading and repugnant it is for an adult citizen to think this way? It sounds like you were not an adult and probably didn't have the life experience needed to properly contextualize the event in real time, so this doesn't apply to you, but I think that adults who thought this way were simply bad citizens. They failed in our jobs as citizens. I mean, everyone is entitled to their moments of panic and terror, but we're supposed to be able to work through that. Our country doesn't ask much of us, but one of the things it does ask is to keep our frakking heads together when bad $hit goes down so that we can help each other out. That's what living in a society means.

Beyond that, we have an ethical obligation to keep cool so that we can avoid the temptation of using our big military to annihilate a whole bunch of innocent people. That latter obligation doesn't exist for people that live in countries without the ability to project significant power. If days after 9/11, adults were thinking, "oh, civilization is about to collapse" or "oh, there's no point to anything", they've failed at being adults. Because the truth of the matter is that pretty much every civilization has had to deal with far far worse, and that includes our own civilization. In living memory.

For a bit of levity, I have to share my wife's 9/11 story. She was a student in a four hour long aeronautical engineering class. Someone told the lecturer what had happened and he stopped the class and said something to the effect of "Students! Something terrible has happened! Someone has used aeronautical technology for...destructive ends. But life goes on and it is important that remain focused and get back to work. So, as I was saying, blah blah blah." That was it. That bit about "destructive ends" just cracks me up.

Simply from a practical perspective I am not clear on the difference of dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor and dropping planes on NYC. It is an act of aggression by an actor that is clearly defined and identifiable. They may not be easy to find, they hide well, are protected by foreign governments, and it is a PITA army to be at war with if we must.

The question is more around the resources we are willing to apply to offensively fight some thousands(?) of their soldiers scattered about the world.

russell, I agree entirely that it doesn't much help to look at it as a war. I was more trying to make the (possibly too obvious to be worth making) point that people are going to call it an act of war whether or not the shoe fits. I mean I think it's pretty safe to say that any time a group of foreign attackers kills thousands of people in a major American city, it's going to be framed as "war".

But I don't call it a war, although I agree that it's an interesting question what the effort to end it should be called.

I don't disagree with the problem of the term 'war', but I think as a concept, its value was degraded a long time ago. We had a war on cancer, a war on drugs, both Nixonian creations (was there a 'war on crime' as well?) that took their inspiration from Johnson's 'War on Poverty'. It seems that the definition of a war is not in terms of enemies, but in terms of how many resources and how much money is poured into dealing with it. While we might consciously frame war in terms of attacks, I think that subconsciously, it is framed in terms of resources.

OK -- so if I seek to define the term MTA with a specific range, I'm being "arbitrary"; if I point out the huge lead 9/11 has in terms of casualties to the second deadliest TA, w/o a firm line of definition b/w them, the distinction is "vague and ill-defined"?

The distinction is ill-defined when you pretty much all but state they're to be defined by a gut-level reaction; note that defining it by reaction pretty much insures that any threshold you set risks falling victim to inflation if similar attacks follow. It's helped along when you state that the threshold to be a range whose start line varies by a factor of two (i.e., "500-1000"). This really does seem vague and ill-defined. Again, you probably want to make the case that they're based on how they're perceived. By attaching an arbitrary numerical value to it, you weaken your case, especially since you want us to assume some uniformity of treatment of such cases. There is no unwavering line between the ability of a set of coordinated attacks to generate certain casualty figures and how they should be viewed or responded to.

Look, I'm more nitpicky than anyone here, but this is ridiculous. 9/11 wasn't just the deadliest terrorist incident in recorded history; it's casualties were nine times that of the second deadliest incident*.

Make up your mind.

I think one reason there can be some disagreement over how calls for "solidarity" in '01 should be construed is, as stated, because different people meant very different things by the same words. In some contexts a declaration of "United We Stand" could plainly taken to be a vague platitude of universal experience in the face of something bad (i.e., solidarity-lite). In others, the "if you're not with us you're against us" and/or "[you] need to watch what [you] say, what [you] do" subtext was a bit more prominent. Context made a pretty radical difference, depressingly.

Simply from a practical perspective I am not clear on the difference of dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor and dropping planes on NYC. It is an act of aggression by an actor that is clearly defined and identifiable.

Alas, if only it were so. We've fairly clearly demonstrated either that the actor wasn't clearly defined, or that we're willing to engage in collective punishment across some fairly broad lines. The difference between the two events is that, simply put, one was perpetrated by the military of a sovereign state with knowledge aforethought, who had a clearly defined territory and command structure. The second was carried out by a sub-national organization that was not accountable to the scattered nations (some actively hosting them, others not) in which its members resided. One of these two is capable of engaging in and being engaged in "war"; the other really isn't.

I think/fear 'war' has come down to the level of a Bugs Bunny cartoon where 'this means war' signifies nothing more than a well-defined escalation in the exchange of violence and the exclusion of going back to the status quo ante.
In my estimate the US is a good deal more fragile than many other countries. (Foreign)Acts of terrorism would probably be unable to destroy the US as an entity but I could see ways of those attacks, if placed carefully, to transform the country permanently in a way that would essentially destroy 'America' as it ws understood until then. 9/11 allowed the likes of Chain-Eye to bring the US to the brink of that. If Al Qaeda had had a second strike capability, hitting trains the next day (or week) and ships the day/week after that etc., I fear the US would have transformed into a, for lack of a better word, fascist system, use of nukes on some targets of choice possibly included. And some of the 'defenders of our sacred liberty' would have cheered because liberals would have been among the first targets.
Domestic terrorists could imo actually break the country, if they had the stamina to keep a campaign rolling for some time and were able to provoke an equal non-state reaction. If for example a group would systematically murder liberal icons, especially those from certain lists promoted by the right and then 'liberal' hotspurs would answer with attempts to assassinate Coulter, Limbaugh, O'Reilly etc. then it could escalate into a (cold) civil war leading in the end to an actual breakup (or a longterm Northern Ireland situation on a much larger geographical scale). In each of these cases the attacks would not do the main work but just trigger it, leaving the rest to the tensions already existing in the US.
As for casualties, the US population is extremly thin-skinned there. To consider 5000 dead soldiers (and less than that in US civilians) in 8 years close to unbearable would have drawn contempt (or laughter) from most of the world just a few decades ago (for comparision: WW2 reached about 25K per day, soldiers and civilians combined). Compare that to what those at the receiving end of American might have to suffer (and what is ignored or actively denied by a majority in the US).

NV

Serious question -- did the note (*) escape your notice? Because that's kind of a thing of mine, and I'd hate to think I was confusing people all this time.

Beyond that, I will try to state this (hopefully) clearly, and FTR: the definition of Massive Terrorist Attack, or MTA, or 9/11 Level Attack, whatever we focus on calling it, is in the number of casualties.

That, as far as definitions go, is what separates them from other terrorist attacks. I had thought this had been more or established in past threads, and that's why I felt safe in making analysis of them -- that if I said that MTAs felt like acts of war, it wouldn't be assumed that I was making a definitional statement.

Anyway, this is part of the conversation I'd sooner get past so we can get to the meat of the discussion.

"There is no unwavering line between the ability of a set of coordinated attacks to generate certain casualty figures and how they should be viewed or responded to."

Now this actually hits at my argument; I'll get back when I can.

Simply from a practical perspective I am not clear on the difference of dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor and dropping planes on NYC.

The primary difference is who is doing the dropping.

9/11 was somewhat unique because of Al Qaeda's close association with the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and because they openly maintained more or less a fixed base of operations where they trained what was essentially a medium sized private army.

I don't know if it was necessary for us to take military action against Afghanistan to address that, but IMVHO it was a justifiable and reasonable action to take.

Because there was a state actor involved on the other end, and because there was something useful that military action could achieve.

Having decided to invade, we ought to have put enough resources in the country to prevent the military resurgence of the Taliban, and to establish the basic level of security and essential services necessary for a legitimate indigenous government to emerge. We failed to do that, so now we're f**ked, but not nearly as badly as the Afghans.

The expansion of our military response in Afghanistan circa 2001 to an eight-years-and-counting global "war on terror" was, and continues to be, a cynical manipulation of people's anger.

As a practical matter, I can think of four standout reasons that it's a really bad idea to think of our ongoing conflict with Al Qaeda as a war.

First, the continuous "state of war" that we've been in for the last eight years has dramatically eroded the rule of law in our own country, in more ways than I can even count.

Second, maintaining two full-on wars along with "military support" in a number of others and a more or less unknown number of other special operations actions costs an astounding amount of money, not to mention lives.

Third, acting as the crazy madman uncle of the world has damaged the credibility and reputation of the nation in countless ways. This is not an abstract issue, it has many many pragmatic negative consequences.

Fourth, it's not effective. Or, it is *no longer effective* as a useful response to the threat that Al Qaeda presents to us today, and has not been since about mid-2002.

The military response we made in Afghanistan, specifically, in 2001-2002 was useful in destroying the military training camps and in overthrowing Al Qaeda's state sponsor. As many others have pointed out over the years, *it may not have been the only, or the necessary, way to achieve that goal*, but it was effective in reducing the scope of Al Qaeda's efforts.

That goal was achieved eight years ago. There are still hundreds of thousands of Americans deployed overseas, killing and getting killed in places where they're not particularly welcome. And by and large, by which I mean in nearly all cases, the folks they're killing and being killed by are not members of Al Qaeda.

Seriously, in some ways I wish this was a war, because we have an excellent, dedicated, and effective military and we would win. We'd win, we'd clean up, and we'd come home.

But it's not like that.

Al Qaeda is not a nation, it does not have an army, and it will not be stopped by an army.

And Hartmut's comment right upthread is IMVHO right on the money.

Plug alert:
On my blog ( http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2009/11/what-is-fair-and-balanced.html ) I already made a more thorough analysis of the actual deaths by terrorism and other more common threats. In short, anybody familiar with the facts knows that the risk terrorism is infinitely small compared to those that we ignore: AIDS, hunger, tuberculosis, et cetera.

This discrepancy I attribute to fearmongering by the usual suspects.


Sincerely,

Nescio

The anarchists assassinated a US President, bombed Wall Street, and twice tried to assassinate the Attorney General with bombs.

Fun fact: you can still see the pock marks left from the bomb on the JP Morgan building on the corner of Broad and Wall St.

The question is more around the resources we are willing to apply to offensively fight some thousands(?) of their soldiers scattered about the world.

Not just a question of what resources we're "willing" to apply. The better question is, what is the most effective blend of resources that we "should" apply.

Also: Russell's comment on why "war" is the wrong frame is spot on, and something I've been complaining about for years - before my stint on ObWi even.

With disease, though, there's mostly no one plotting to kill you with it.

As far as we know, I mean.

Ditto traffic accidents, old age, and other things of that nature.

Deaths due to terrorist activities are more aptly compared with murders, IMO.

9/11 allowed the likes of Chain-Eye to bring the US to the brink of that.

I'll put a point on this.

On 9/11 flight 93 was apparently headed either for the Capitol or the White House. Had it succeeded, and had the normal functioning of government been sufficiently disrupted, what we would have seen next would have been the implementation of the National Program Office.

Under that plan, established by secret executive order under Reagan, the normal, Constitutional Presidential succession would have been suspended, and the executive would have been supplanted by a "special team" of government and non-government actors. The executive order allows for Congress to be dissolved, and you can bet your @ss it would have been.

Who was in the middle of this? Cheney and Rumsfeld, for 20 or more years, while in government and while not in government.

Cheney and Rumsfeld, and Poppy Bush as well.

Clinton attempted to dismantle the NPO while President, but it persisted, and was in fact partially invoked on 9/11, however did not supplant the normal, legal, Constitutional operations of government.

Had either the White House or Congress been successfully attacked, my opinion is that we would then, and probably still, have been living under an unaccountable military dictatorship. At a minimum, it would have provoked a crisis of government the likes of which I don't think this country has ever seen.

That didn't happen because 40 ordinary people, going about their daily business, stood up and met their certain deaths with courage. Had they not made a couple of cell phone calls and found out about the WTC and the Pentagon, they would have assumed it was a normal hijacking, and would have waited to see what was going to happen. The attack would have been successful.

A couple of cell phone calls and 40 people with more guts than Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush, or any of the shrieking war bloggers will ever hope to own. That's why we still have a country worth living in.

My two cents.

War threatens a nation in a specific way. It's fundamentally different from the threat posed by terrorism.

Defeat in (non-nuclear) war means a loss of sovereignty, forcible removal of government, invasion, temporary(?) military occupation, harsh punishment for resisters, destruction of the military, and installation of a new government (one friendly to the victor). Had the U.S. not responded to the Pearl Harbor attack and remained passive to the military threat of Imperial Japan and the remainder of the Axis, this (and worse) would have been its fate.

Al Qaeda has never had the capacity to force the U.S. government to surrender, to occupy this country, or to form a puppet government here.

Here's what war feels like: Failure to resist (and win!) will bring hostile soldiers to your nation, your state, and your city, if you fight them, they will kill you and you will not be avenged. Your money and property will be worth nothing. Your neighbors will collaborate with the occupier and betray you, perhaps those roles will be reversed.

Obviously I don't condone terrorist attacks, but the consequences of losing a war are dramatically worse than the deaths of thousands (or even tens of thousands).

I wonder if the Bhopal disaster felt like an act of war to people in Bhopal.

Are you assuming that the terrorists do not have rule of law? Why?

If you accept that the most organized terrorists are Middle Eastern Muslim then they do indeed have a rule of law guiding them. It is antiquated and religious, but a set of laws and culture in any case.

In a crowded world with vanishing resources and dysfunctional education systems everywhere it might be more useful to close borders than to try to destroy other groups with different views and codes lead by thugs. Either that or total war with nuclear and other WMDs to destroy the civilian cultures that support the terrorists.

I also agree with some here that the threat is far, far overblown. Which argues for the "fence" approach to deny commercial travel to them and closed borders as a way to deal with it rather than military destruction of civilian populations that the terrorists hide in.

Name your poison - nation building and "changing their minds" is nice if you have trillions of dollars to play with. Don't have that right now.

Are you assuming that the terrorists do not have rule of law? Why?

Not necessarily. It depends on the terrorists, and how you define the rule of law.

If you accept that the most organized terrorists are Middle Eastern Muslim then they do indeed have a rule of law guiding them. It is antiquated and religious, but a set of laws and culture in any case.

Why accept this? What about right wing domestic terrorists? ETA? the IRA? Tamil Tigers? Further, what about Muslims from Indonesia and Pakistan and Afghanistan?

In a crowded world with vanishing resources and dysfunctional education systems everywhere it might be more useful to close borders than to try to destroy other groups with different views and codes lead by thugs. Either that or total war with nuclear and other WMDs to destroy the civilian cultures that support the terrorists.

I think we can actually go a different route altogether: use intel and law enforcement to disrupt those terrorist groups seeking to do our citizens/interests harm, while not closing off borders entirely or going WMD massive.

Deaths due to terrorist activities are more aptly compared with murders, IMO.

Sure. But do you have an irrational fear of being murdered? Do you think you're more likely to be murdered than you actually are? Have you spent thousands of dollars on a state of the art security system for your home? Are you now carrying a gun and wearing a bullet-proof vest while practicing ju-jitsu? Are you trying to kill your potential murderers?

It's not that I would suggest we shouldn't do something about terrorism. It's just that we should be more rational about it, and maybe thinking about the way we prepare for and react to natural disasters (or some of the other things mentioned) would help us in that regard. Probability is probability and dead is dead, right? Why is it that human causes of death and destruction, as opposed to natural causes of death and destruction, seem to make some people far more hysterical?

do you have an irrational fear of being murdered?

I don't have a good rational/irrational metric, I'm afraid.

Do you think you're more likely to be murdered than you actually are?

It's hard to compute accurate odds, except after the fact.

If I know someone is plotting to do murder on some random people, why of course it makes sense to take some steps to make sure that they don't get their way. That's what law enforcement agencies are for, for domestic goings-on.

I get your point, but I don't think I'm going to be enthusiastic about giving international terrorism a pass as long as their activities don't result in a statistical increase in some time-averaged murder rate.

You can call that irrational if you like, but calling it irrational isn't going to change my mind in the matter.

I get your point, but I don't think I'm going to be enthusiastic about giving international terrorism a pass as long as their activities don't result in a statistical increase in some time-averaged murder rate.

Maybe you don't get my point, Slarti, but that's probably my fault for being unclear about my analogy. I'm not suggesting anything about terrorism being figured into murder statistics. I'm just suggesting that we don't do ineffective or counterproductive things that needlessly waste resources simply out of fear, a kind of fear that is for some reason not induced by non-human sources of death and destruction. And, since you compared terrorism to murder, I brought up some examples of measures rational people wouldn't normally take to protect themselves from randomly being murdered. I assume you don't do those things. (I also assume you assess the rationality of various things every day, but are now conveniently lacking in a metric by which to do so. Well, okay.)

I've never suggested giving terrorism a pass for any reason, so I wouldn't call your reluctance to give terrorism a pass irrational or try to change your mind about it.

Ok, I have now been in two airports in the last two weeks returning to the US (the trips from the US were no different than BUB, before underwear bomber).

The criteria for screening in Canada is one hundred percent pat downs with physical search of your "personal item" (one allowed, no wheels, briefcase, purse or backpack). It takes an extra twenty minutes at normal times to maybe an hour peak times for an experienced traveler. It could take longer for the casual traveler. I don't feel overly intruded upon now that I understand what they are doing, and I don't feel any safer, just more tired. I think the intent is to make the potential terrorist too tired and bored to travel. Just my two cents.

Marty, that's the single best explanation I've ever seen for the enhanced hasslesecurity.

It's also possible that the checks are intended to keep terrorists from catching their flights or to make them miss their connections. I've missed a connection or two in my time and I'd prefer to step outside and blow myself up than spend 8 hours in O'Hare ever again.

Serious question -- did the note (*) escape your notice? Because that's kind of a thing of mine, and I'd hate to think I was confusing people all this time.

I saw it, but between the painful lack of sleep and cold medicine, I grossly misinterpreted it (there's an argument to be made that I wasn't fit to be commenting yesterday). My "make up your mind" should be considered withdrawn, though I'd be disinclined to make a motive of ethnic cleansing a reason to consider a terrorist act something other than a terrorist act (yes, it would have the direct effect of killing off a bunch of "undesirables", but it's also cowing the survivors of the target community and attempting to inspire action (flight) on their part).

"Sure. But do you have an irrational fear of being murdered? Do you think you're more likely to be murdered than you actually are? Have you spent thousands of dollars on a state of the art security system for your home? Are you now carrying a gun and wearing a bullet-proof vest while practicing ju-jitsu? Are you trying to kill your potential murderers?

It's not that I would suggest we shouldn't do something about terrorism. It's just that we should be more rational about it, and maybe thinking about the way we prepare for and react to natural disasters (or some of the other things mentioned) would help us in that regard. "

I think you are right, but if we are going there, we can start with even lower hanging fruit than terrorism. We could talk about our crazy enforcement of drug laws, and how they have led to ever narrowing constitutional interpretations of search and seizure and/or allowable police techniques. The invasions of privacy of the drug war are far worse, far more prevalent, and even less grounded in reality.

You should probably try the easier case, rather than tackling rationality on terrorism policy first. ;)

I'm right there with you on the drug thing, Sebastian, especially when it come to The Pot. I'm far more likely to make trouble if I've been drinking Cuervo than I am if I've been smoking weed. I'd say there's more risk in randomly tackling strangers than in eating too many Doritos. But you probably had a more sophisticated legal argument in mind.;)

Now this actually hits at my argument; I'll get back when I can.

Point, if you have limited time available, I'd be more interested in seeing a response to Turb's criticisms than mine. As usual, those are far clearer and more concise than I could ever hope to be.

I think you are right, but if we are going there, we can start with even lower hanging fruit than terrorism. We could talk about our crazy enforcement of drug laws, and how they have led to ever narrowing constitutional interpretations of search and seizure and/or allowable police techniques. The invasions of privacy of the drug war are far worse, far more prevalent, and even less grounded in reality.

The drug war has been an unmitigated disaster for all the reasons you specify. I'm not sure I'd agree that it has been worse...a million dead Iraqis are not insignificant. And the while the sheer quantity of rights-destruction unleashed by the drug war is awesome to behold, it took the war on terra for high ranking government officials to actually boast of torturing people. Then again, sending low level users or innocent people to be raped for a decade or two in prison based on the word of an "informant" who cut a plea deal sounds pretty torturous too...

Anyway, I'm curious: has anyone on this site ever disagreed with you regarding the drug war? Has anyone here ever offered a defense?

You should probably try the easier case, rather than tackling rationality on terrorism policy first. ;)

There's been a surprising amount of progress on the drug war madness of late. Beyond that, it seems that lots of people are happy to admit that the drug war is crazy. The thing that really scares me about the terrorism lunacy is that so many people don't get that -- they think that we should do "whatever it takes" to "defeat" the terrorists, but lots of people would laugh at you if you suggested that for the drug war.


As usual, those are far clearer and more concise than I could ever hope to be.

You really have been hitting the cold medicine pretty hard Nom. Like most here, I consider you a role model.

Really? Oh, dear. I hope it won't be too disappointing for yinz to hear that in the very near future I'll be ending my 6 or 7 years of reading, and 3 or 4 years of commenting at ObWi for reasons of staggering political hypocrisy that would probably better be discussed in a weekend open thread.

*cough*

I've missed a connection or two in my time and I'd prefer to step outside and blow myself up than spend 8 hours in O'Hare ever again.

Looking at the sorry current state of the German railway system after the previous Bahn leadership tried the American model (no maintenance because that diminishes the bottom line and the taxpayer will bail you out when the system breaks down) I would not be surprised if there was an amok run or a terror attack by disgruntled passengers in the very near future.
(More) seriously, I am surprised that trains are not targeted more often. It is impossible to do security controls for the railway like on airports. Inner city public transport would break down instantly. If every check would take just ten seconds, it would take more than 24 hours to deal with just the morning rush hour. Metal detectors would be useless since everyone would carry metal (keys) and sniffers would probably cry alarm nonstop due to women having nail polish in their handbags (to name just one source).

I've never suggested giving terrorism a pass for any reason, so I wouldn't call your reluctance to give terrorism a pass irrational or try to change your mind about it.

Oh, that helps. So, you're not saying that taking sensible, effective steps to counter terrorist attacks is silly, apparently.

It seems that we're in agreement, at least partially.

You should probably try the easier case, rather than tackling rationality on terrorism policy first. ;)

While I'm fully in support of overhauling our destructive and irrational drug laws, I think you're mistaken about which is the easier task.

Terrorism hysteria is largely the product of nearly a decade of post-9/11 Republican fearmongering and weak Democratic pushback against that fearmongering. There is every sign that a majority of Americans are starting to get that this response to terrorism is idiotic and exactly what the terrorists want. Nobody's listening to Cheney anymore, except for his core audience--and they don't have the influence they once did. The biggest obstacle here is the media, and even some of them seem to be starting to get it.

Our drug policy, by contrast, is based on almost a century of racism, fearmongering, and disinformation. Entire generations have been indoctrinated with lies and hyperbole about drugs.

Getting over the last ten years of the Bush admin trying their hardest to help terrorists terrorize Americans is going to be a lot easier than getting over generations of drug misinformation that is now deeply embedded in our society.

There's a question as to exactly what the rules of law are. John Yoo has one opinion and you probably have another. The internment of the Japanese was legal.

Military Tribunals for certain combatants are certainly legal, certainly for KSM and I think also for the underwear bomber.

International Law, that is, treaties we've signed, must be followed when fighting armies of other signatories. But the situation is more obscure with non-state actors that aren't even eligible to sign such treaties, and, in fact, have not.

Some activities may simply not be covered by any law or treaty, due to errors of omission.

So even people who agree on the importance of "Rule of Law" may diverge wildly on what is permitted.

But the situation is more obscure with non-state actors that aren't even eligible to sign such treaties, and, in fact, have not.

Some activities may simply not be covered by any law or treaty, due to errors of omission.

Alas, the treaties in question have done a pretty good job of excluding exclusions. Individuals such as Yoo (or you) claiming otherwise tend to be going for straight-faced bluster with the assumption that if the US government collectively ignores precedent and existing understanding of fairly straightforward treaties, no one with any meaningful recourse would dare call them out on it. The bluff has been successful to a tragic degree, but when actually challenged, it has tended to collapse under scrutiny.

Military Tribunals for certain combatants are certainly legal, certainly for KSM and I think also for the underwear bomber.

This is a very bold statement. I am deeply curious as to how a stripped-down military "trial" can be legally justified for a civilian criminal apprehended nowhere near any battlefield, by civilian authorities, while engaged in nothing resembling warfare, could possibly be legally justified. (More generally, while there can certainly be a case made for some form of military tribunals, the currently extant ones do not look to be precisely legal in terms of their applicability criteria, their structure, nor their overall place in the general legal quagmire created for "detainees".)

The internment of the Japanese was legal.

I think you'll find quite a lot of difference of opinion in that matter. You're saying that the imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry was legal? What's your rationale?

John Yoo has one opinion and you probably have another.

John Yoo is of the opinion that crushing the testicles of small boys is unobjectionable.

Legally, anyway.

Unless we want to include the Piranha Brothers and Vlad the Impaler in the discussion, perhaps Yoo's point of view can be excluded as being not worth consideration.

Fred: But the situation is more obscure with non-state actors that aren't even eligible to sign such treaties, and, in fact, have not.

There's no obscurity at all. All of the US's prisoners in Guantanamo Bay are either kidnap victims illegally held, or people who have been accused of a crime but who have been illegally detained without benefit of habeas corpus. No pretense can be offered that the Cuban prison camp is a legal POW camp: conditions there have never complied with the Geneva Conventions for POWs.

No crimes have as yet been proved against any Guantanamo Bay inmate in a court of law: many have already been cleared by the tribunal system as not guilty of anything but being kidnapped. (Hint: being a kidnap victim is not a crime. It's the kidnappers who are generally regarded as the criminals.)

I contacted my MP today to ask him to sign an Early Day Motion supporting the release of a British resident from Guantanamo Bay.

Shaker Aamer was cleared for release from Guantánamo by a military review board in 2007. There seems no good reason why he should not be allowed to return to the UK, where he had lived since 1996: he is married to a British citizen, they have four children who are all British citizens, and Aamer was in the process of applying for British citizenship when he went to Afghanistan in 2001 to do charity relief work, where he was kidnapped, sold to the Americans, tortured in Bagram Airbase, and sent to Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Nevertheless, the US has, under Bush and under Obama, declined to so release him, claiming that there's a question about whether he ought to be sent to Saudi Arabia, his original country of citizenship.

A military tribunal cleared Aamer of any involvement with al-Qaeda over two years ago. Even if there were some question lingering in President Obama's mind about whether a man with a funny name and the remains of Saudi citizenship could really be innocent of the charge of involvement with al-Qaeda, why on earth question whether he should be sent to a country where he does not wish to live, which is the most sympathetic-to-al-Qaeda nation on earth?

Of course, if he's sent to Saudi Arabia, he would have far less freedom to speak out about how he was tortured by Americans with assistance from MI5. About how he was held for 8 years. About how he led hunger strikes against the conditions of imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay.

Regarding Aamer: I was not positing that the US government was actually following the rule of law in any, or all, specific instances. Also, I am not familiar with this case.

The military tribunals of WWII were legal, the internment of the Japanese was okayed by the US Supreme Court. I don't remember claiming that everything that was legal was nice.

The prisoners at Guantanamo are not said to be official POWs by any US administration. They are said to be illegal combatants. While individual situations vary, I don't think they, by and large, are legally entitled, by the terms of treaties signed by the US, to the protection of the Geneva Conventions, but I am not a lawyer and I'm sure there are plenty of international lawyers who will accept a fee for arguing otherwise.

John Yoo is a law professor and can argue his position better than I. My point is that he will argue that everything he said was legal, is, in fact, legal. And we don't know how those arguments would stand up in court. In any case, Yoo (and you) and Bush, and Obama all support the "Rule of Law"; They just have varying opinions about what the law permits.

John Yoo might, for all I know, have a legal argument that crushing the testicles of anybody captured in Afghanistan is perfectly legal under US and international law. If we are horrified by this that doesn't make it illegal. It may mean we believe the law or treaties should be changed. And, of course, Yoo could be wrong. Also, I haven't read his legal memos and it would be wrong of me to believe he authorized such acts without further investigation.

The Bobbitt/Carpenter description of victory as the protection of civilians doesn't seem to be borne out by history.

The Sri Lankan defeat of the Tamil Tigers was pretty much an old-fashioned conquering. As was the Roman defeat of the Jewish Rebellion. Both of these were guerrilla-type wars, and the Tamil Tigers were certainly terrorists.

To go further than this we'd have to have a definition of terrorism we all agreed upon. We don't have this.

Personally, I'm rather fond of the idea of killing Osama bin Laden and leaving the field of battle. But perhaps I'm being self-indulgent.

John Yoo might, for all I know, have a legal argument that crushing the testicles of anybody captured in Afghanistan is perfectly legal under US and international law.

Not someone captured in Afghanistan. Their kid.

From a public debate on 12/1/2005 between Yoo and Notre Dame professor Doug Cassel:

Cassel: If the President deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?
Yoo: No treaty.
Cassel: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.
Yoo: I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that.

So yeah, Yoo is a professor of law. He's also a guy who claims that a legal defense can be made for crushing the testicles of *the absolutely and completely innocent child* of someone you hold hors de combat if that will make that person talk.

Further, he claims that not only is there not a law to prevent this, but that Congress does not have the authority to pass a law to prevent this.

Yoo's positions were renounced by Colin Powell during his tenure as Secretary of State, on the basis that they violate Geneva. They were condemned by U.S. Navy counsel Alberto Mora as being characterized by "catastrophically poor legal reasoning". There were repudiated by the OLC itself under its then-director Jack Goldsmith.

Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary for the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, has sought criminal prosecution of Yoo (among others) for human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

Baltazar Garzon Real, currently seated on the Criminal Court of Spain, has opened a criminal investigation of Yoo (among others) for his role in sanctioning torture at Guantanamo Bay.

It doesn't matter who the hell you are -- citizen, non-citizen, prisoner of war, illegal combatant, bloodthirsty terrorist or captain of a pirate ship -- it is f**king against the law to crush the testicles of a kid in order to make the kid's parent talk.

It's highly unlikely that it will play out this way, because nobody likes to piss off the US, but at some point Yoo could find himself in jail or hung for his clever memos.

I appreciate that you're trying to make a point about there being differences of opinion in interpreting the law. John Yoo is probably a really bad example to argue from. Just saying.

To go further than this we'd have to have a definition of terrorism we all agreed upon. We don't have this.

US Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 113B.

We may not all "agree", but it's the definition of terrorism for purposes of federal law.

Seriously, this stuff is far less a matter of opinion than folks seem to think.

What russell said. Also, IANAILL, but:

John Yoo might, for all I know, have a legal argument that crushing the testicles of anybody captured in Afghanistan is perfectly legal under US and international law. If we are horrified by this that doesn't make it illegal.

Yoo did have a legal argument for doing such a thing, or doing it to their son. Thing is, that he's a law professor with a legal argument for it does not make it legal. It means he has presented an argument based on (selective) reading of legal precedent claiming it is legal. That argument has been picked to pieces by equally authoritative legal minds as being sloppy, blinkered, and unsupportable. It's not that we're horrified by it that makes it illegal, it's that it has not conclusively been shown to be legal, and in fact there exist very strong arguments for it being illegal, that make it illegal.

It may mean we believe the law or treaties should be changed. And, of course, Yoo could be wrong.

Signs point to yes. Interesting that you admit he could be wrong, yet assume he's right anyway, especially in the face of countervailing legal opinions. However, you very specifically claimed Yoo represented someone supporting a "different opinion" of what it means to support rule of law. Here's the thing: he does not. Yoo's legal opinions supporting imperial presidency and unlimited executive power is an explicit repudiation of rule of law. They are a misty-eye paean to rule of man. This isn't a case where there's room for multiple opinions, unless you're willing to stand up and claim you have an interesting new definition of "rule of law".

The prisoners at Guantanamo are not said to be official POWs by any US administration. They are said to be illegal combatants. While individual situations vary, I don't think they, by and large, are legally entitled, by the terms of treaties signed by the US, to the protection of the Geneva Conventions

That neither of the American administrations that have held them have recognized them as POWs doesn't mean that they are not entitled to be treated as such. See, "unlawful enemy combatant" is not a legal category defined by the Geneva Convention. It's a legal innovation concocted by the Bush administration, with exactly zero legal precedent in the many preceding decades. The Geneva Convention lays out a number of different categories for combatants. They're exhaustively inclusive. According to Geneva, you have to fall into one of these categories, and "illegal combatant" isn't one of them. If you're not a legal combatant, or another category granted POW status... you're protected personnel; i.e., a civilian. This means you take up arms at your own risk, and risk criminal charges for doing so, but you do not forfeit all rights and become a non-person according to Geneva. Notably, amongst other things, you cannot legally be removed from the country you're captured in. Oops. However, it should be noted that if you're captured in combat, and the capturing power wants to deny you POW status, they can do so if they can put you before a tribunal which reviews your combatant status and finds you to not be a legal one. And mind you, this has to be an individual review, and until ya get it, you're assumed to be entitled to POW status. Obviously, such reviews never occurred even for those "illegal combatants" detained in combat (lest we admit that they had any rights whatever, natch). Oops again.

Geneva is not exactly a brand-spankin'-new treaty that no one ever looked at or considered all the ramifications of before the Bush administration came around. There is an existing body of legal thought and customarily agreed-upon interpretation that his crack legal minds baldly ignored (not argued into irrelevance, but ignored). Like russell said, this is far less a matter of opinion than some like to claim.

Nothing like terrorism to turn right wing libertarian foundationalists into sentence parsing authoritarian anti-foundational relativists.

I did not have harsh relations that constitute torture with that detainee of indeterminate legal status.

Fred: The prisoners at Guantanamo are not said to be official POWs by any US administration. They are said to be illegal combatants.

What NV said.

John Yoo is a law professor and can argue his position better than I.

What Russell said.

nous: I did not have harsh relations that constitute torture with that detainee of indeterminate legal status.

I wish I had said that.

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