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Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

I rarely agree with the NY Times editorial board, least of all on matters of free speech and association rights. But I think they get it exactly right in this oped that sharply criticizes the recent Supreme Court judgement upholding a federal law against providing material support to terrorist groups.

The trouble with this ruling, as the editorial points out, and others such as Eugene Volokh have described, is twofold.

The philosphy behind the ruling doesn’t seem to have been laid out with sufficient clarity, and that creates a not insignificant risk that this will pave the way for further speech restrictions, such as on independent advocacy, when this conflicts with state interests.

The law that this ruling upholds, criminalizes actions that are purely political speech. For instance, the law would allow prosecution of any newspaper that coordinates with the spokesperson of a designated terrorist organization and publishes their point of view in an oped.

In sum, the Supreme Court of the United States got it terribly wrong on this one. I am surprised and saddened that this Court, which got it so right on other recent free speech cases has chosen this time to legitimize expanded executive powers and curtail precious freedoms. As for the Obama administration — who have proved themselves as bad as the Bush one when it comes to civil liberty abuse — they are probably relishing the fact that they have yet another tool to harass and prosecute journalists, academics and independent organizations that stand in their way.

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No, the terrorists didn’t blow up a plane or kill people. They don’t need to do that. For, their essential tactic is to make us feel threatened and destroy our normal way of life. And we are making sure they get what they want.

In the latest exhibit of caution gone berserk, a Hawaii bound plane turned back to Portland because the pilot was scared. The reason? Some passenger, unhappy with the stewardess, decided to make a weak attempt at humor and write some random nonsense on the feedback form:

“I thought I was going to die, we were so high up,” the card said. “I thought to myself: I hope we don’t crash and burn or worse yet landing in the ocean, living through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet, end up on some place like Gilligan’s Island, stranded, or worse yet, be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters, why do they just eat outsiders, and not the family members? Strange … and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plumited (sic) to earth, landed on Gilligan’s Island and then lived through it, and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No Mary Anne (my favorite) no Ginger, just Lovey! If it were just her, I think I’d opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters.”

Not only did the plane turn back midway, the guy has been charged and faces up to twenty tears in prison.

This is exactly how we do the terrorists job for them. By losing our common sense. To irrational fear.

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.

Indeed.

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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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This is probably familiar to anyone who has been following the civil war — now declared over by the government — in Sri Lanka, but I missed it till today. It is an oped by Lasantha Wickramatunge, former editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper of Sri Lanka. It was published posthumously and is a chilling piece of writing — not just because it eloquently defends civil liberties — but because Wikramatunge was murdered in January this year, exactly as he predicted in the linked essay. Do read it if you haven’t already.

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In this excellent piece, security guru Bruce Schneier comments on efforts by the Indian government to ban Google Earth in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Let’s all stop and take a deep breath. By its very nature, communications infrastructure is general. It can be used to plan both legal and illegal activities, and it’s generally impossible to tell which is which. When I send and receive email, it looks exactly the same as a terrorist doing the same thing. To the mobile phone network, a call from one terrorist to another looks exactly the same as a mobile phone call from one victim to another. Any attempt to ban or limit infrastructure affects everybody. If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Communications infrastructure is especially valuable during a terrorist attack. Twitter was the best way for people to get real-time information about the attacks in Mumbai. If the Indian government shut Twitter down – or London blocked mobile phone coverage – during a terrorist attack, the lack of communications for everyone, not just the terrorists, would increase the level of terror and could even increase the body count. Information lessens fear and makes people safer.

[…] Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

I made a related point last month in my reaction to the same news.

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A PIL has been filed in India asking to get Google Earth banned. Apparently the terrorists used Google images to plot their attacks.

Considering that the terrorists also used buses, trains, cellphones and a fishing boat, perhaps we should ban those as well.

And while we are at it, we should make sure that there are no loopholes. After all, most of the data supplied by Google is provided by other parties. Even if Google Earth is no longer accessible from India, one would be able to get the information from other sources. So let us block those sites as well, indeed ban all data obtained by satellites or cameras, and ensure that such data cannot be sent into India from outside the country. Regulating the internet would be a good start.

But here’s a prediction: after all this is done, a resourceful individual will still be able to get any information he wants. For information is a rebellious bird, it can never, ever be caged. The same however, is not true of the government.

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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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Britain is getting spookily close to the world Orwell described.

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At least thirty-seven people are dead in a series of horrific blasts in Ahmedabad, India.

Iran is going to hang thirty people tomorrow.

At first sight, the situations look dissimilar. The people dead in Ahmedabad are innocent victims of terror, their lives snuffed out brutally and callously by vengeful terrorists. The Iranians who will die tomorrow have undergone a trial according to the laws of their land and their executions will be lawful affairs handled by dignified government officials.

Yet, as the CNN report makes it clear, quite a few of the Iranians who have been sentenced to death are simply guilty of “being a public nuisance while drunk (or) being involved in illegal relationships — relationships between men and women who are not married to each other.”

Makes me wonder if the cloak of government authority really makes their deaths any more legitimate.

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This one is by former U.S. surgeon general Richard Carmona:

As we look to the future and where childhood obesity will be in 20 years … it is every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today. It is the terrorist threat from within.

Kerry Howley’s reaction to the above is funny:

I’m not sure whether we should be more or less afraid of the “War on Terror” now that the phrase terrorist threat means “bad thing.”

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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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From the TOI pages:

The city police have registered a case of sedition and conspiracy against The Times of India, the editor of its Ahmedabad edition, a correspondent and a photographer on the basis of a complaint from the newly-appointed city police commissioner, O P Mathur.

Mathur’s complaint comes in response to a series of documented investigative reports published by the paper, questioning his competence to guarantee the security of the people of Ahmedabad, which is high on the hit list of terrorists.

Hmph. I didn’t even know there was an entire section of the Indian penal code that deals with “sedition.” And apparently in Gujarat it can be used to stop newspapers from publishing stuff the cops don’t like. Wow. One learns new things every day.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the cop thinks free speech is a Pakistani concept.

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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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