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Posts Tagged ‘security’

The reaction of the TSA — the umbrella organization formed after 9/11 to regulate airline security in the US — to the recent terrorist attempt has been along expected lines. More lines, more meaningless regulations, more stifling security measures. When Richard Reid had the bright idea a few years ago to hide explosives in his shoe, the TSA reacted by asking everyone to take off their shoes henceforth for the security check. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped the explosives onto his underwear, we ought to be thankful that the TSA’s imagination has so far been..um…restricted. I mean, sure, it has issued an order that all babies be put into overhead luggage bins during the last hour of the flight, but consider the much more sinister possibilities.

My thoughts on this issue can be summed up in one sentence: Umar Farouk failed, but we are doing our best to make sure his goal succeeds.

Stephen Bainbridge puts it well:

Has TSA ever considered the possibility that maybe the terrorists aren’t really interested in blowing up a plane. Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures.

Now Professor Bainbridge may be ascribing more subtlety to the terrorists’ modus operandi than they probably possess, but it is worthwhile to pause and think about what he is saying. A free society, by its very nature, offers many targets for terrorists. It is impossible to shut them all down. Nor is terrorism as transcendent a presence as some might want to believe. With smart, mostly non-intrusive measures, the threat can be further reduced. Sure, there will be attacks from time to time, just as there are crimes every day, but the real damage from these attacks are not caused by the incidents themselves, but by our terrorized reaction to them. It is when we fearfully overreach and put into place crippling regulations that cost us time, money and curtail our civil liberties, that the real harm occurs. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:

A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

At some point, we need to do a cost benefit analysis: how much hassle, fear and security clampdown is too much? Is it worth going through so much TSA tyranny, much of it a charade,  and give up so much of our convenience, liberty and well-being in an attempt to make our existence slightly more secure against terrorist attacks?

Update: Nate Silver crunches the numbers and concludes that your chances of being on a given flight departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. So you could take 20 flights a year and still be less likely to be attacked than you are to die of a lightning strike.

Update 2: This is hilarious:

Anyway, I have a better idea. Let’s ban all clothing from all flights. Both the shoe bomber and Abdulmutallab used clothing — not Wi-Fi and not live TV — to make their failed attempts. In addition to taking away the possibility of hiding incendiary devices, a total ban on all clothes will also have the following positive results:

1. Terrorists will have a further disincentive from targeting flights, because religious extremists tend to be squeamish about naked people.

2. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because shy people wouldn’t fly, thus reducing the number of flights overall.

3. I don’t know why, but I think people would be more courteous. Talk about friendly skies!

Of course, I’m not serious about the clothing ban. But it makes a lot more sense than the TSA’s new ban on Wi-Fi and in-flight TV.

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In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, Ramesh Srivats explains, in a long but very readable post, why our unrealistically high expectations of what the government ought to do for us leads to a bloated maai-baap sarkar that loves to intrude into matters that are not its business, yet fails to perform its most basic task — keeping us secure. It is mostly standard libertarian fare that has been discussed many times here and elsewhere; but the matter is important enough to merit reiteration. Highly recommended.

(Hat Tip: Aristotle The Geek)

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Security guru Bruce Schneier writes:

Specific countermeasures don’t help against these attacks. None of the high-priced countermeasures that defend against specific tactics and specific targets made, or would have made, any difference: photo ID checks, confiscating liquids at airports, fingerprinting foreigners at the border, bag screening on public transportation, anything. Even metal detectors and threat warnings didn’t do any good.

[…] If there’s any lesson in these attacks, it’s not to focus too much on the specifics of the attacks. Of course, that’s not the way we’re programmed to think. We respond to stories, not analysis. I don’t mean to be unsympathetic; this tendency is human and these deaths are really tragic. But 18 armed people intent on killing lots of innocents will be able to do just that, and last-line-of-defense countermeasures won’t be able to stop them. Intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. We have to find and stop the terrorists before they attack, and deal with the aftermath of the attacks we don’t stop. There really is no other way, and I hope that we don’t let the tragedy lead us into unwise decisions about how to deal with terrorism.

Read the whole thing.

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Radley Balko reacts to the Pentagon plan that would have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe.

I predict that while now couched in terms of the necessity for a ready response to a cataclysmic terrorist attack, within five years there will be calls to use these forces for less urgent matters, such as crowd control at political conventions, natural disaster response, border control, and, inevitably, some components of the drug war (looking for marijuana in the national parks, for example).

I completely agree. Not all government measures are necessarily prone to the slippery-slope effect. Effective and unambiguous boundaries — such as constitutional rights supplemented by tough laws — can indeed limit the scope of state action. Unfortunately, this particular plan is precisely the kind that will become a monster. If domestic laws were different, victimless crimes legalized, an expanded right to privacy enshrined in the constitution, civil liberties protected strongly, things may have been different. But in the current setup, any measure that further militarizes domestic security must be opposed. We don’t need more armored tanks in the hands of the police.

National security and public interest have always been the favourite phrases of those who advocate increased state power. Yes, security is important. But at what cost?

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The terrorists killed over a hundred innocent people yesterday. This wasn’t an act that took place in some distant part of the world. It happened in a city I care about, one that I have spent four summers in and where many of my friends live or have family. The attack was astounding in its scope and daring — no suicide bombers this time around but machine gun wielding militants taking hostages in posh hotels. The country is outraged and for good reason.

Yet, and yet. This is just a small thing compared to what could and looks likely to happen now. There are calls for much tougher anti-terrorism laws, possibly more draconian than what the US introduced after 9/11. In a poll conducted today by an Indian newspaper, 95% supported such measures. If laws like these are passed, the Indian police will relish in using them. Thousands of people will be rounded up on mere suspicion, many of those unrelated to terror. Some will be locked up for months, perhaps years. Phones will be tapped, due process suspended. You are thinking, all of that won’t happen to me. And you may be right, but rest assured that it will happen to many people just like you. It is when this atmosphere of panic and police-statism takes over our nation that the terrorists will have truly won this one.

QI hits the nail on the head:

The easiest reaction in a situation like this is to call for tougher laws, all of which aim to circumvent the adherence to due process. Due process anyway gets short shrift here in India, and do we really want to legitimise that? […]Shouldn’t better investigation, more co-ordination and better training be looked at first, instead of giving the police arbitrary powers to harass citizens? […] I am just terrified by the knowledge that by bringing in such laws, we have pretty much capitulated to terrorism – their objective of destroying the civil and democratic fabric of India will have been achieved. And contrary to what people feel, these won’t be effective deterrents. Simply because, in my mind, they do not address the root of the problems plaguing our law-enforcement esablishments.

He is right. The Indian police and intelligence agencies suffer from severe deficiencies. They need to be revamped. There needs to be better training, coordination and other changes. But these will have to smart changes. We don’t need knee-jerk reactions here. The deterrence value of laws that suspend due process is small and costs to essential freedoms huge. The Indian establishment could do much worse than read Bruce Shneier’s excellent blog on security measures to get some pointers.

A heavy handed law that curtails civil liberties will be a tragedy far greater than any terror attack. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We should keep this in mind and fight to preserve the intangible things that are truly valuable, even as we take measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

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I have always feared that if elected, John McCain would be an even more authoritarian chief executive than George W. Bush. Particularly worrying is his disregard for privacy and free speech, especially when it conflicts (in his world-view) with national security.

The latest statement issued by McCain’s campaign proves that these fears are justified. Here’s an excerpt:

N]either the Administration nor the telecoms need apologize for actions that most people, except for the ACLU and the trial lawyers, understand were Constitutional and appropriate in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. […]

We do not know what lies ahead in our nation’s fight against radical Islamic extremists, but John McCain will do everything he can to protect Americans from such threats, including asking the telecoms for appropriate assistance to collect intelligence against foreign threats to the United States as authorized by Article II of the Constitution.

(Link via Boing Boing)

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Believe it or not, a guy was told he could not get on to the plane wearing his gun toting T-shirt. A picture of the offending T-shirt is below:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the terrorists’ greatest victory wasn’t bringing WTC down or carrying out those London bombings. It was changing liberal Western society into an irrational one obsessed with fear and political correctness. We live today in a world where actions anathemic to liberty get support in the name of security and where the political climate is vitiated by a virus that makes people unable to tell what’s important and what’s more important.

(Link via Boing Boing)

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