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TAG | terror porn

Sep/11

7

Death by Commission

Amy Zegart,  a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, warns in the Los Angeles Times today that the U.S. sure as heck better not ratchet down its massive anti-terrorism efforts and its still-lingering fear rhetoric:

The fight is nowhere close to being won, and America’s most perilous times may lie ahead.

Among her evidence for the ongoing, even escalating, nature of the threat, especially from weapons of mass destruction:

In 1995, a Japanese cult released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring thousands. It was the first WMD terrorist attack in modern history, and it sparked a wave of

Wait for it . . . “Copy cat attacks?”  “Successful efforts by anti-American terrorist groups to develop stockpiles of sarin gas?”  No: the Tokyo subway attack “sparked a wave of presidential terrorism commissions years before Bin Laden became a household name.”  

There’s more: a group of terrorism experts in 2005 mostly did not believe that “the odds of a nuclear attack on the U.S. were negligible.”   Even if “not negligible” means: requiring never-wavering massive expenditures on “homeland security” throughout the land and reactionary airport screening protocols, these are presumably some of the same experts who predicted in 2005 that there would be a biological attack on the U.S. by 2010.

 

Liberals and the left attacked Congressman Peter King’s hearing yesterday on the radicalization of American Muslims and the alleged growing threat of domestic terrorism on the following ground alone: “It is bigoted to focus the hearing exclusively on Muslims.    The inquiry should be broadened out to include terror threats from other groups, such as, [I kid you not], Christian-inspired terrorism.”  Calling the hearing a witch hunt, the left’s solution was to bring in a more diverse group of witches. 

So goes the narrow range of discourse about terrorism in this country.  The left was not willing to say:  Maybe we should ratchet down our terrorism concerns across the board.  Maybe the problem with the hearings is not that they will be focused exclusively on Muslims, but that they are being held at all.  To call for broadening the hearings out to include more sources of terror threats is to fight one form of delusion with an even crazier one.  Once you grant the premise that the country faces a large domestic terrorism threat, the decision to focus on Muslims is unimpeachable; no other group, religious or political, contains so active or large a subpopulation cranking out justifications for attacks on civilians.  But the premise itself is not unimpeachable.  The evidence that radicalization is growing is slim, and even if it were growing, it is starting from such a minute base that it’s going to take a large increase to rise above the background noise of attacks on innocent civilians from disgruntled employees, nutcases like Loughner, and criminals.  Not to mention car crashes, floods, hurricanes, and other Acts of God

The left likes to flatter itself for standing up to evil Republicans, but on terror porn, it is in lock-step with the right.

Feb/11

13

The ever-renewing terror threat

A Congressional hearing last week on terror threats facing the U.S. was covered by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, both of which told the identical story:  the U.S. is at serious danger from domestic, homegrown terrorists.  Left out of the coverage entirely was the more newsworthy statement during the hearing by the director of the National Counterterrorism Center that Al Qaeda is no longer capable of carrying out a 9/11-style attack on U.S. soil.   The omission of this fact and the emphasis instead on the alleged domestic terror threat is a classic example of terror porn, which works to maintain a never-diminishing level of paranoia about Islamic terrorism.  Every time I have asked a neocon friend if we ever get to ratchet down our evaluation of the terror risk as years go by without a major incident, the answer comes back: No.  There are many interests contributing to this insistence, among which are neocon geopolitical concerns as well as massive economic and institutional pressures.  Though thousands more Americans are killed and injured each year through garden-variety criminal violence than Islamic terrorism on American soil,  we now have an entire bloated federal agency dedicated to combating the alleged terrorist threat, pushing reams of paper by the hour in the effort to look crucial.  To date, no major federal agency has ever been dismantled, so there is no reason to think that the Department of Homeland Security will be, either.  But we still need to continue verbally justifying its existence.  Thus the whack-a-mole nature of the terror threat and the always scary rhetoric around it. 

“In some ways, the threat today may be at its most heightened state since the attacks nearly 10 years ago,” Janet Napolitano, the secretary of homeland security, told lawmakers.  

Really?  Why does that statement feel overdetermined to me.  Have we ever heard an official say:  “The threat is diminishing” or “The threat just isn’t as great as we thought it was.”

Last year, there was a spate of predictions echoing throughout the neocon press chamber about imminent biological threats.  Anyone remember them?  Like all such predictions over the last decade, none have panned out, yet their proponents will never be called on their abysmal record of accuracy.

Feb/10

1

Have the terrorists won?

No wonder AG Holder caved in to pressure and moved the KSM trial.  Here are the security measures that New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had announced for the trial, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars:

inner and outer perimeters, unannounced vehicle checkpoints, countersniper teams on rooftops, and hazardous-materials and bomb squad personnel ready to respond.

Is there any  chance that this is overkill?  If Islamic  terrorists are already here and capable of pulling off such mayhem so as to require that degree of precaution, wouldn’t we have seen at least a few such attacks over the last ten years?  Or is the thought that the terrorists would suddenly sneak into the country as the trial approached?  But if they can get into the country so easily, why wouldn’t they have done so up to now?  And why haven’t other terrorist trials elicited like attacks?  I understand that this trial is a much bigger deal, but still, I would have thought that if the capacity requiring WMD squads and countersnipers really was there, it would have been used in some fashion or another before now.   Do we ever get to ratchet down our assessment of risk? 

Commissioner Kelly every day sends out hundreds of police officers in a convoy through the streets of New York in a show of force against “the terrorists.”   These are cops that arguably could be better put to use patrolling in high crime areas, especially in light of departmental budget cuts.  Commissioner Kelly, in other words, is not one to underplay the terrorist threat, understandably loathe as he is to have an attack happen on his watch.  But with all due respect, it just may be that he—and he has plenty of like-minded allies in this disposition–is overplaying the threat as well.

Jan/10

18

Terrorism’s risk curve

The logic of anti-terrorism measures seems to be that if one bad event happens, such as the 12/25 plot, the risk of similar bad events suddenly shoots up exponentially.  Thus the airport shut-downs over the last two weeks in reaction to minor security breaches, the no-liquids and no-shoes flying bans, and the rush for body scans.  I’m dreading a cross-country flight tomorrow, since there are only so many books I can lug into an airport in anticipation of security delays (yes, Kindle would solve that problem).  Surely this sense of a precipitously elevated risk following an attempt or an actual attack is of questionable logic, though perhaps the reaction is unavoidable. (more…)

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Jan/10

11

Terrorism and opportunism

I recall a time in the not-too-distant past—just over one year ago, say–when being a “war-time president” carried a certain aura of sanctity, lest criticism of the Commander-in-Chief demoralize the troops fighting that “war.”   Times have changed along with the administration.  Such is the way of politics.  But the implication that decisions taken by the Obama administration contributed either to the hatching of the 12/25 plot or to the failure to detect it strikes me as particularly opportunistic.   Any alleged failures in the intelligence community were a long time brewing; the idea that bureaucracies as large and sclerotic as those governing intelligence gathering and analysis suddenly took a new direction after January 2009 is absurd.  Yet here is former Navy Secretary and 9/11 Commission member John Lehman alleging that:

The president [that would be President Obama, BTW, not Bush] has ignored the 9/11 Commission’s report.  This whole idea that we can fix things by jumping higher and faster is ridiculous. The fact is that the system worked just like we said it would work if the president failed to give the Director of National Intelligence the tools he needs: it’s bloated, bureaucratic, layered, and stultified.

The 9/11 Commission report came out in 2004; any failure to “give the Director of National Intelligence the tools he needs” or to fix bureaucratic bloat would have happened on the last watch.  If Lehman was aware of intelligence tools that the DNI needed that Obama was withholding, he should have spoken up before this. (more…)

Jan/10

4

After-the-fact pseudo-wise man watch

The Sunday talk shows overflowed with specious explanations for the underwear bomber incident:

Other Republicans were more measured. On CNN, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission, praised Obama’s reaction to the Flight 253 attack. But he said it was clear that until Christmas, the administration was “distracted” by health care, the economy, global warming and other issues and not “focused as it should be on terrorism.”

Sheer nonsense.  Is Kean implying that employees of the NSA, CIA, and the National Counterterrorism Center were distracted from their signals analysis by the fight over a single payer plan?  What would it have meant in this specific case for the administration to be “focused as it should be on terrorism” in a way that was not already happening in the relevant agencies?  The political operatives who manage the health care and global warming efforts have nothing to do with consular and intelligence matters.  And the Obama White House was criticized for spending too much time on the Afghanistan escalation decision, which was justified exclusively in “war on terror” terms. 

Everyone wants some simplistic moral from the story that will allow us to feel that the world is fully controllable if we could just get the details right.  But sometimes things happen randomly without fitting into a satisfying narrative of obvious fault. 

I am amazed that Obama has so quickly gone forward with national origins scrutiny at airports; I obviously misjudged his fealty to the civil libertarian left.  The arguments against such commonsensical security measures are illogical:

        –“Not everyone in the 14 countries is a terrorist.”  True.  So how does it follow that we should therefore be screening the entire universe of non-terrorists?  The idea that you do a better job of security by spreading finite, inadequate investigatory resources over an entire population, rather than focusing on those subgroups from which Islamic terrorists most frequently come, is absurd.  And if receiving extra screening at an airport is such an awful, demeaning fate for nationals of those 14 countries, why is it better to subject every person from every country on earth to such screening? 
        –“We would have missed Richard Reid under the extra scrutiny regime,” argued Senator Susan Collins.  We did anyway.  But the presence of an outlier does not invalidate a valid statistical portrait.   No one is contemplating discarding all airport security (though I would almost be willing to take my chances than go through this mounting overkill); the only question is where to focus the new layers that we are piling on.  
        –“This is ‘racial profiling,’ therefore, by definition, illegitimate.”  But the only people who commit Islamic terrorism are Muslims; Muslims don’t just stand a higher chance of committing Islamic terrorism, they are the only people who commit Islamic terrorism.  That’s not playing the odds; it’s a tautology.  The national origins screen is a proxy for Islamic faith, and the only one we have.

Jan/10

2

Obama’s post 12/25 dilemma

 It’s going to be amusing to see President Obama try to triangulate between the public outcry for tougher terror screening policies in the wake of the 12/25 attempt and his natural allies on the civil libertarian left.  Senator Dianne Feinstein sent Obama a letter last week criticizing a policy adopted under President Bush that, in her words, “limits the circumstances under which the government adds an individual to the [no-fly] watch list.”  That standard is “too restrictive,” she said, and “should be changed.”   Any standard that the Bush administration implemented was of course crafted under pressure from the ACLU, among other influences, which has been suing TSA and NSA almost non-stop since 9/11, not to mention from the New York Times, which has been waging its own campaigns against connect-the-dots technologies and intelligence-gathering.  Those parties have now either conveniently forgotten their own role in limiting government action or have been reduced to meaningless bromides (“The American Civil Liberties Union calls for the implementation of effective security policies that pose the most minimal threat possible to Americans’ privacy.”)  If Republican policies are now to be judged by Democrats as  “too restrictive”  due to a single instance of someone slipping through the cracks, or conversely, if a Democratic administration is now to be judged by Republicans as “soft on terror” due to those same circumstances, and if Obama has joined the chorus arguing that any failure to connect the dots is, in his words, “totally unacceptable” (a stance which David Brooks mocks here), Obama can satisfy the demand for after-the-fact action only by sticking his finger in the eye of the left.  The cries of betrayal could be louder than after the Afghanistan surge decision.

Dec/09

30

Terrorism and health care reform

In 2000, commercial jets carried 1.09 billion people on 18 million flights, according to a no-longer-linkable Boeing document.   Assuming that the number of flyers has not increased since then, that makes for one would-be underwear bomber out of about 10 billion travelers over the last decade.  Does that record represent success or failure?  Are we jacking up physical security measures on planes and in airports because we think that the risk of another underwear bomber has risen since Dec. 25, or because we think that our record of prevention over the last decade was inadequate?   The notion that we should be able to protect against every terrorist incident is understandable, and announcing that we are not going to try to stop every such incident is unthinkable, though former DHS Secretary Chertoff did make tentative noises in that direction regarding cargo screening.  But it’s still intriguing to me why dying in a terrorist-induced airplane crash has a greater hold on the public imagination than driving on the highway, where there are about 40,000 fatalities in the U.S. a year, much higher on a per-mile basis than the number of deaths from non-terror-induced airline crashes, of which there are many more than terror incidents.  We do not have a federal agency checking everyone who gets on a highway for driving safety.  Terror attacks are intentional, not accidental, so the public policy imperative of sending a tough-on-terror message is arguably far greater than for highway crashes.  But that fact doesn’t affect the individual perception of risk, which seems to be influenced by issues of agency, control, possibly even altitude. 

Maybe the proper denominator in assessing risk is rather the number of would-be underwear bombers.  If the number of would-be underwear bombers is small–let’s say, one–then our security system deserves a huge black eye, but our perception of a huge phalanx of ready recruits would need readjusting.  Admittedly, the size of the recruit pool is probably affected by the perception of our security system, so security overkill may be responsible in part for its own disproportionality. 

(Contra my impatience with what appears to me to be security excess at airports, one could argue that we approach all activities with similar levels of risk intolerance.  The difference is that security measures designed to eliminate even very small risks are constantly being engineered into the design of products–such as cars and planes–making them invisible.  That may be.  But then people drive while texting and talking on the cell phone [see below], introducing massively higher levels of risk into their own and others’ lives.) (more…)

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Dec/09

26

“Appeasement” watch

I expect the charge that Obama brought on this latest terrorist attempt with his Nobel-Prize-inducing multilateral delusions and toadying to Muslims to start rolling in any minute now.  Meanwhile, we are undoubtedly going to get yet another layer of after-the-fact security overkill at airports.   The chances are still hugely higher that you’re going to be killed in a car than from a bomb on an airplane.

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