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September 11, 2010


Keep an eye on any engineers you know, by the way.

Damn, that's scary.

Not because its OBL, or AQ, but because he pretty much nailed it, didn't he?

My suspicion is that his "plan" is not at all what he was intending originally. But it is how it worked out ("no plan survives contact with the enemy"). And, whatever the original intention, the more extreme factions in the US have worked together with bin Laden to achieve what he clearly could not have achieved on his own.

P.S. I'm put in mind of a book by the God-father of modern American conservatism, Barry Goldwater. It seems exactly relevant to the behavior we have seen from the American far right since 9/11. The book? None Dare Call it Treason

Slate is rerunning a good series from last year by Tim Noah attempting to address why there have been no successful major attacks in the U.S. in the past nine years.

In the last piece, from March of 2009:

[...] In March 2008, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, put the Iraq war's cost at $3 trillion. In October 2008, the Congressional Research Service calculated, more conservatively, an additional $107 billion for the Afghanistan war and another $28 billion for enhanced homeland security since 9/11. According to CRS, for every soldier the United States deploys in Iraq or Afghanistan, the taxpayer spends $390,000. Let me put that another way. Sending a single soldier to Iraq or Afghanistan costs the United States nearly as much as the estimated $500,000 it cost al-Qaida to conduct the entire 9/11 operation. Not a bad return on Bin Laden's investment, Berrebi says.
It's a good series.

It also reminds me of the calm, level-headed analyses of the Rand Corporation during the Vietnam War, that, what, it costed something like somewhere in the low five figures for a GI to kill an VC irregular, but only about around 39 cents for the latter to kill the former.

Proof once again that while we hold ourselves up as the paragon of ruthless efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and bottom-line thinking, no expense is ever spared ideology.


Well, the ideology of the Pentagon is the dollar sign. Or more correctly, many dollar signs strung together. The co$t factor for our armed forces is a feature, not a bug. That's part of what Eisenhower was warning about in 1959.

This won't help the pro-war narrative.

Yay for Kristof:

For a glimpse of how venomous and debased the discourse about Islam has become, consider a blog post in The New Republic this month. Written by Martin Peretz, the magazine’s editor in chief, it asserted: “Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims.”

Mr. Peretz added: “I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment, which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.”

Thus a prominent American commentator, in a magazine long associated with tolerance, ponders whether Muslims should be afforded constitutional freedoms. Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews? How do America’s nearly seven million American Muslims feel when their faith is denounced as barbaric?

This is one of those times that test our values, a bit like the shameful interning of Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the disgraceful refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe. [....]

Is there a connection between Peretz and Podhoretz? Twiddledee Bros.?

My suspicion is that his "plan" is not at all what he was intending originally. But it is how it worked out ("no plan survives contact with the enemy").

But he said that this was his plan before 9/11.

He said, in an interview before 9/11, that AQ thought the US would invade Afghanistan after the embassy bombings, then the Cole. But that they had determined that something bigger was needed.

It's in Steve Coll's book, The Bin Ladens. But the episode was with a Pakistani journalist who told the story then.

But I suspect that while he may indeed have said that, even he probably considered that some wishful thinking made up the bigger part of it. And it's my thinking that, re wj, he may not quite have imagined that the U.S. would really react to the degree it did.

I think wj hit upon something here. If so, the invasion of Iraq was to OBL's ravenous delight. And re Gary Farber, if indeed the aftermath leading up to the present has been a test of our values, as a civic polity we have failed miserably. I cannot imagine the glee that OBL must be having right now hearing about the Muslim-bashing going on in the States.

So perhaps here is another piece of wish-fulfillment for OBL: the betrayal of our better values to fear, ignorance, and electoral opportunism.


He thought the US would invade Afghanistan, and that the mujahedeen would rise up, Muslims would swarm into Afghanistan en masse and they would trap the US and take the US down like the "did" with the USSR (inflated sense of self/delusions of grandeur).

He was initially very disappointed at the lack of response in the Muslim world to the invasion of Afghanistan. He was chiding his fellow Muslims as soft and insufficiently pious in his written "will" which he composed under siege in Tora Bora.

But then Iraq. So in that sense, yes, things worked out much better than expected, after initially working out poorly according to plan.

Ironically, we're now doubling down in Afghanistan much to his undoubted delight - and in line with the "plan."

Keep an eye on any engineers you know, by the way.

I forwarded the link to my boss. There are small ways we are wasting money in efforts at absurd and futile attempts to protect ourselves from terrorism, mostly because someone made it someone's job, and because people like to keep their jobs, even if they don't really have much of value to do.

Protecting technical documents through highly burdensome administrative procedures is one of those ways.

I tend to think Hollywood (unintentionally) shoulders some blame for this with their silly, hyper-technical portrayals in films and, especially, television of things criminal and investigative coloring the perceptions of the those lacking direct experience in such matters. (CSI always comes to mind for some reason, but I don't watch it.)

At any rate, this was the quote that jumped out at me:

In any case, their technical expertise may not be that useful, since most of the methods employed in terrorist attacks are rudimentary. It's true that eight of the 25 hijackers on 9/11 were engineers, but it was their experience with box cutters and flight school, not fancy degrees, that counted in the end.

Not only that, but in most cases, if you can read and analyze a set of plans, you don't need the plans (to commit and act of terror), because you already have the general knowledge needed (to assess the target). It's much simpler to destroy than build. Brute force will usually do.

All in all, it's a small problem that happens to loom large for me personally, but it's silly and stupid none the less. I have to think there are many others on a similar scale that all add up to something considerable.

P.S. I'll keep an eye on myself and my coworkers, by the way.

An alternate possibility for why engineers are disproportionately represented among the terrorists: An engineering degree requires a lot of things. But the "breadth requirements" for an engineering degree are a tiny fraction of of what would be required for any other university degree. Compared to most other possible majors, there are far, far fewer requirements to take courses which would provide insights into other cultures, other philosophies, other ways of looking at the world.

By way of reference (why I might think I actually know something about this): I took simultaneous undergraduate degrees (and then graduate degrees) in Mechanical Engineering and (Cultural) Anthropology. And I am speaking, not of what the majors themselves required, but of what they each required a student to take outside the major itself.

Engineers think things need to be fixed, and they're the person to fix them. Simple and direct is best.

Am I being unfair to engineers? Undoubtedly.

I doubt that bin Laden foresaw the invasion of Iraq, but he has said that Muslims could defeat the United States because Americans lacked the will to win. I thought that after 9/11, America would prove him wrong, but year and a half after 9/11 we were invading Iraq, which, as Rumsfeld said, had more high value targets than Afghanistan. It's kind of like the drunk who lost his keys halfway down the block but decided to search for them under the streetlight because the light was better there. So bin Laden may be nutty, but on this point his assessment of America was more accurate than my own, and I have the advantage that I live here.

I've been waiting for someone to observer this, but the engineering-terrorism connection is remarkably cross cultural, given that engineers were over represented in AUM Shinrikyo. My Japanese google-fu is too weak to find some good examples, but that was one of the points that was often discussed, that not only were a lot of the rank and file kogakubu (engineering) grads, but that the upper echelon as well.

I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable, given that I am an engineer AND religious.

Still, I'm not feeling compelled to blow anything up just yet.

Maybe after dinner.

In something that sounds simple, but I hope might actually be in all fairness to engineers, perhaps another reason why so many of them are represented among the ranks of terrorists are that they tend to be resourceful, sometimes on the quick, and not only insightful as to how to build things, but also how things are built.

They can take existing weapons and back-engineer them to see how they work, and not only rebuild them, but improve on them - and in turn, with the right resources, build them from the beginning (I'm tempted to say from scratch, but that would be inaccurate, I think). The Scud missiles North Korea originally bought from Egypt were "improved" in this way, for them to then export in their own right to any number of rogue states.

While this is a different example from what we're talking about in terms of terrorists, it serves as an illustration of a similar phenomenon. Engineers may be methodical, but the really sharp ones also work, under just enough of the reasonable conditions, fast and accurately.

I've been saying this to friends/family since 2002. We've done pretty much what OBL wanted us to do. They PLAYED us. It's easy.

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