06 July 2015

More on the T word

Or at least what there is of it. 

I will note there are major problems with the public debates surrounding terrorism.

Lots of things that probably aren't terrorism and some things that probably are don't get counted properly. We end up with a lot of fighting over what is and is not actually terrorism and not much acknowledgment that such attacks, in the US at least, are quite rare. To me this resembles the fighting over mass shooting incidents, which are pretty rare, and ignoring the hundreds of "ordinary" homicides (and suicides) per month from gunfire. Which seems to me to be a much bigger societal problem with more obvious causes and methods of ameliorating. If terrorism is pretty rare in the US, but is pretty common in other places (various Middle Eastern countries), one should be able to figure out why that is. As a hint, it doesn't really have much to do with the nature of Islam. That's an exacerbating factor fanned by religious zealotry, and probably not a causal factor. Terrorism has had pretty standard causes for generations and these are little different; asymmetric warfare against an occupying or perceived occupying/oppressive force, violence against political enemies and rivals in the contest for power in a political vacuum, etc.

We instead like to engage in a lot of pointless finger waving. Such arguments are exceedingly tedious in any forum for which they pop up (eg, Christians/atheists arguing about Hitler/Holocaust who to blame these on). The arguments over who is to blame probably have more to do with what sorts of penalties and processes we are willing to tolerate in the legal and international realm, but very little to do with actually reducing the incidence of violence. Many gun control debates end up in the same place, with pet causes trotted in rather than pragmatic effects debated. Nevertheless these tedious arguments over who is and who is not a terrorist or what is counted as an act of terrorism take up a considerable amount of the volume of the debate. I have previously advocated they should largely stop by making a classification of "terrorism" more rigorously empirical as a definition if possible (the definitions used by academics for instance) and not looking over every rock and cranny to find more sources of it through the public forum. As the public forum is very unlikely to have a firm grasp over what is or is not terrorism and is very likely to be exploited to graft more sources into it for political purposes.

"Extremists" is an even worse term that gets thrown around that we should be careful about. Political radicals have been both a necessary and sometimes unpleasant reality of US (and world) history in pushing for various kinds of change, including reactionary varieties like those tended to be pushed for by Islamic radicals or racists. The idea is to do so without violence however where possible. Since violence has a pretty low track record of working to institute such changes. There are many people who hold what are conceived of as abhorrent or unacceptable views. I probably hold some myself given the proper audience for my views as I can be fairly opinionated. This is not an argument for silencing such ideas, or broadly investigating those who hold them without suspicion that they are involved in acts of aggression and violence and advocating for such actions. This is a problem that afflicted investigation of right-wing groups in the 1990s, and Muslims over the last 15+ years in our general response to acts of violence is to see potential sources of danger everywhere where there is disagreement and unfamiliarity in our culture.

The actual events of terrorism in the US are exceedingly rare, and often include some rather spectacularly failed plots, indicating that not only is the impetus to commit acts of political/ideological violence pretty low, but that the wherewithal to carry them out is fairly limited in many cases. This goes unacknowledged often that the societal problem we are discussing is very, very rare. More to the point, isolating individual actors who a) have some sort of political/ideological grudge against the US and b) the ability to carry out acts of violence against mass innocents is pretty likely to be pretty easy to do in many cases. Where it succeeds in carrying out an attack, we are tending to overlook things. For instance, political right-wing fringe violence gets overlooked in a haste to look for any suspicious Muslim/minority, or leads from otherwise reliable sources go unfollowed up. For instance, clerics in American mosques used to report people to the FBI who advocated for violent extremism (they do not now because the FBI has effectively caused several plots to occur and themselves placed extremists in their midst, in basically a textbook case of how not to do police work and how to aggravate a community that you could get cooperation from. In several cases, a person who was reported to the FBI turned out to be someone paid by the government). Presumably some Christian religious organisations have done the same, and both often expel such people from peaceful religious gatherings. This suggests that there's a serious flaw in the direction of intelligence operations.

Which is probably a bigger problem than the actual terrorism is our public response to it. The intelligence community has seemed to demand a huge haystack to sort through and root through millions and millions of people's data, and so they are therefore at risk of not dedicating these "haystack" resources that could be used to actually collect information on suspicious people. The way we might with a typical criminal or intelligence operation go in and gather information on a specific target. The argument has been that this method of haystack gathering helps the US identify targets, but there's little or no evidence to support that assertion and by now plenty of misses to suggest it has zero utility for that purpose.

What this line of argument (my argument at least, not theirs) is suggesting is that we're spending a lot of time focusing attention on arguments about terrorism in order to justify very large and potentially invasive programs. Note that the NSA through the FISA court has defied a district court ruling AND a Congressional legal change suggesting its dragnet activities are illegal and not sanctioned by the government and is still doing them anyway. And nobody is getting punished for that decision, nor is it likely to be reversed in the near future. FISA interpreted that the NSA was given a few months extra to scale back by Congress, basically, instead of having to stop immediately if no law was passed or no time was given to do so. This was similar to when the NSA interpreted a Congressional change to the privacy of medical records to specifically exclude these from NSA searches without a warrant to indicate that the specificity of medical records in law now paradoxically allowed such searches without a warrant). It is largely unclear to me what use such programs and routes of investigation should have, particularly without warranted searches looking for specific named or at least roughly identified targets. I can imagine lots of nefarious purposes, but my main guess is that they don't have any better ideas that they think they can actually do. Conducting intelligence with the goal of a "zero terrorist incident" is impossible as a task. Simply reducing the net amount of terrorism would be a very difficult goal. So instead they seem to have selected a very large program on the theory that it will be easier to defend what they are doing. Paradoxically some of the "better" defenses of that program have involved the fact that it has identified that the potential for terrorism in the US is very small. Something that most people could have told you prior to 9-11 without invasive monitoring programs.

Some thoughts
1) Stop arguing so much over what is or is not terrorism, at least in the public sphere. Look for common causes if you can find them, but don't expect much. Radical fringe persons willing to engage in violence for political ends are unlikely to be closely tethered to many people in the US. I would hasten to add that people find political causes and ideas that are convenient to their ideological ends more so than that they hue to a particular ideological end. "States' rights" or the prospect of "jury nullification" are, like most political concepts, not inherently evil and vile things but have been used for some very vile political ends in the past (typically racism and racist violence). Not everyone who thinks they might be useful is likely to be inherently evil and vile in their intentions toward other people. Jury nullification and states' rights via federalism may be ways we end up with a winding down drug war, for example. I view that as a positive goal. Even if some states have moved to other extremes in how they prosecute the drug war, several have moved to legalise or regulate the distribution of various substances.

We should recognize that our societal problem to resolve is violence first. Not ideological conflicts. Ideological conflicts leading to violence is fairly rare, even on the international stage. Most of our violence problems as a country are pretty ordinary by comparison and may have pretty ordinary, if difficult, solutions.

2) Recognize that this thing we apparently fear is exceedingly rare and very unlikely to impact most of us. If we do not live in NY or DC in particular. Obviously since media hubs are in NY and DC, we should expect the media to get pretty excited about it. But we don't have to take them as seriously. CNN just wasted several minutes of time last week reporting on an "ISIS" flag in London during a gay pride parade. That was pretty obviously covered in dildos as a parody. When things like this happen, I should take it as a sign that the media believes it has an incentive to drum up cases of exciting violence and danger over and above actual reporting. Which means we want to believe there are cases of exciting violence and danger afflicting us. This is, generally speaking, false. There are specific people who may suffer threats and enhanced risks of violence in the US, but very little of that has to do with terrorism. Some small percentage of racists or other assorted forms of bigots, and some small percentage of anti-abortion advocacy focuses in this way, and small group of anti-corporate/"environmentalist" movements. As examples. Unfortunately we live in a society that overall believes crime is rising when crime has been falling steadily and rapidly in most parts of the country for over two decades, and virtually every crime story I see mentions this fact at some point. It may be difficult to convince significant numbers of people to stop taking terrorism that seriously. More dildo flags being taken way too seriously by supposedly serious newscasters as evidence of extremist violence at our doorstep and we might have a chance. Keep at it CNN. If we throw enough sex toys at the media problem at least it will be easier not to take this as seriously. At some point more people will take seriously the idea that zero tolerance of terrorism is an impossible goal and be willing to look for more pragmatic solutions to resolve the problem rather than just trusting whatever we are doing must be working.

This is one of the paradoxical problems of counter-terrorism policy (and actually it applies to criminal justice more broadly). If terrorism is pretty rare, the government can plausibly claim that whatever it is doing must be working. Since terrorism is pretty rare, this is what it does. But it also has a stake in hyping up threats, which then turn out to be more like duds or problems caused more by things it was already doing, otherwise the public takes a closer eye to the methods and equipment and decides, "hey, why do we need to be doing this again?". Which is the appropriate place to start when trying to alleviate fear (it would be better to start by recognizing the fear as unreasonable, but most people aren't going to do that). If it doesn't actually work, or doesn't actually help get rid of the sources of our fear, it's of no utility and is theatrical rather than needed.
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