Trust No One

In the post 9/11 America, you are presumed guilty until… well, you’re pretty much always presumed guilty.

There have been a lot of changes since 9/11 – but what’s surprising is that all of these changes were made by us, and not by terrorists. As a society, we’ve devolved to an absurdly unhealthy level of paranoia, where anyone and everyone is out to get us. Everyone is a suspect, a “potential terrorist,” and no one (well, very, very, very few people) are ever fully “proven” innocent and trusted completely.

This video gives a good overview of what I’m talking about.

Suspect America from CIR on Vimeo.

If you don’t believe me, grab a DSLR camera and go take some photos of trains (if you like trains), or maybe a big, beautiful bridge near you, or something else like that, and see how far you get.

It’s sad to think that we’ve done this entirely to ourselves – all because of our irrational fear.

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the events of 9/11, I really do think it’s time to put the brakes on this sort of thing, to scale it way back, and remember that we don’t need to always be afraid, and that even if people are out to “get us,” they’re not the bogey men, and they aren’t going to pop out of our closets at night and blow up every bridge, airport, [insert movie-plot infrastructure target here] in the country all at once… and that it follows from this that we don’t need to have security guards checking the IDs of every hipster photographer or tourist who takes a picture from off the beaten path, or anyone who aims a camera lens at an airport, and so on and so forth.

It takes willpower though to do all this – and I’m afraid all our national willpower has been sucked up by other things (wars, failing economies, etc.).

Many years from now, this time period may be looked back upon as the self-inflicted Great Failure of American society… but maybe, just maybe, we can change things.

We’ll see.

Protecting Them, Not You

The last 10 years have seen many laws enacted in the name of security, but they are meant to protect the lawmakers, not you.

There is a disturbing trend in politics and lawmaking that has developed over the last 10 years – one which I think everyone really needs to take a long, hard look at.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a lot of noise made over “security” and “protecting” and the like. But if you look more closely at what has actually been done, you’ll see that largely the laws, policies, wars, agencies, etc., that have been put into place are not actually here to protect you.

Instead, these things which have been done in the name of “security” actually have a quite different aim – they are designed explicitly to protect the people who came up with the law/policy/etc., not the “people” at large. Instead, you are simply meant to feel secure, without actually being secure.

I like to call this sort of thing “CYA syndrome,” or “cover your ass syndrome.” Because that’s really all it is.

Let’s take a look at some of the many, many things that have been done in the last 10 years:

Creation of the Department of Homeland Security

  • Supposed to: unify departments to increase information sharing so important information about legitimate threats are not missed
  • Actually: creates a huge bureaucratic monstrosity that is less responsive than the previous individual agencies.

War in Iraq

  • Supposed to: remove a highly dangerous dictator and get rid of a hiding place for terrorists
  • Actually: removed a not-quite-as-dangerous dictator and created more hiding places for terrorists (and inspired many more people to become terrorists because of resentment)

REAL ID Act

  • Supposed to: unify ID requirements across the country and make it impossible for anyone (not just terrorists) to get a fake ID, thus stopping them from ever being able to get on a plane, into a government building, etc.
  • Actually: unified ID requirements across some of the country, at huge cost to the states themselves, made the whole process much, much more annoying and difficult for the 99.999% of normal people, did not stop people from getting on planes with nefarious intentions.

Increased Airport Security

  • Supposed to: prevent another 9/11
  • Actually: hassles the traveling public via scope creep (always adding more restrictions based on the last failed attempt, even if it had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11)

All of these things are not so much to achieve a goal in and of themselves (if they even can), but rather to give those in power something to point to in case everything goes wrong. “We did this,” they’ll say, “so you can’t blame me.” Or, alternatively, before anything has gone wrong, those in power can point at these things and say “see? I’m tough, I’m doing things.” This is related to something called the “politician’s fallacy,” which says:

  1. Something must be done.
  2. This is something.
  3. Therefore, we must do it.

This of course results in poorly thought out solutions for urgent problems – sound familiar?

But there’s no incentive to properly think out solutions for these kinds of problems. Fast answers and swift action are all that matter in our short-attention-span world; nevermind that they are often wrong or contrary to our long-term success.

What is particularly infuriating about this is that nobody* seems to realize that this is going on.

As we come up on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope that everyone will step back and take a good, long, hard look at what’s been going on these past years – because we’re way past due for one. We’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes for far too long.

* Well, a sufficient majority, anyway.

Our Dangerous Obsession with Identity

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

ID CardAt every turn it seems like there are more requirements for “proof of identity,” or requests for ID. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciousness that being sure of someone’s identity removes all risk of fraud, theft, or crime – but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stricter requirements for “proof of identity” are, largely, a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this example: the state where I currently live (New Jersey) has an insanely complicated “6 point system” for getting (or even renewing!) a driver’s license. (This is due, at least in part, to the stupid REAL ID Act, which I’ve written about before.) You need “6 points” worth of identification, with different forms of identification being given different point values. For example, a passport is worth 4 points, but a drivers license from any other state is only worth 1 point. And it’s not enough to just get the 6 points you need – you have to have at least one document from each of several categories! And as if that’s not enough, you need another separate document “proving” that you are a resident, which gives you no points, but you need it anyway.

This obsession with “proving identity” seems to stem from the misguided belief that knowing who someone is gives you some insight into what their intentions are. This is obviously a fallacy. So too is the idea that somehow people with sinister intentions would be unable to prove their identity (because all “bad guys” have fake names and use fake IDs, right?). Although a 5th grader would probably understand all of the holes in this logic, somehow this has become our de-facto operating principle at both the large corporation and government level.

Part of this, I think, stems from CYA syndrome, otherwise known as “cover your ass” syndrome.

You see, by forcing everyone to prove who they are, you do establish some sort of paper trail that can be useful after the fact in solving crimes that have already happened. But this is a very small benefit for a hugely cumbersome system of identity verification and re-verification.

It is somewhat of a tangent, but on a personal level I find this constant need to “prove” that I am who I say I am very insulting. This constant doubt of your sincerity and trustworthiness is, frankly, wearisome.

While it’s true that there are some holes in the systems we use for identification, our obsession with identity hasn’t really addressed these concerns in any meaningful way. People continue to get fake IDs, and those who wish to commit crimes (or perpetrate acts of terrorism) will do so, regardless of whether they were able to get a driver’s license or not. So in the end, this obsession with ID is really, truthfully, and honestly a complete waste of time.

You trust me on that, right?

Photo “ID Card” by Gareth Harper, used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Bin Laden’s Dead – Now What?

Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, what do we do next?

When I woke up this morning, I heard the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed. My immediate reaction?

“Great – will I be able to bring more than 3 oz. of liquid or gel on a plane now though?”

When you think about it, the litany of insane security regulations we’ve adopted since 9/11 are sort of Bin Laden’s legacy – being forced to take your shoes off at the airport, being x-rayed before you can visit the Statue of Liberty, etc. But now that he’s dead, only his legacy will live on… and that just doesn’t seem right to me.

Given all the hate and rage we directed at this guy, why are we letting the things that constitute his legacy live on, even after we’ve killed him? I kind of imagine him laughing at us from beyond the grave as we continue to shuffle the elderly, children, etc., through body-scanning machines after making them wait in line for an hour just to pass onto a plane. Or as we continue to arrest/harassĀ  photographers. Or any of a dozen other crazy things we do, all in the name of “making us safer from terrorists.”

And that brings me to another point. Bin Laden’s death brought me absolutely no satisfaction, because I had stopped considering him a threat years and years ago. Instead, given the media circus that is naturally going to follow this event, I feel sort of like a bully who’s bragging now about finally being able to punch out that kid we didn’t like. I mean, effectively, we killed this guy for one reason: revenge. And that doesn’t make us look (or feel) very noble or enlightened, as we claim to be.

This is further complicated by the fact that it took nearly 10 years to find this guy. This length of time just diminishes the effect of his death. If it had been a year later, or 3 years, or even 5 years, it would not have been as bad… but 10 years later? Even though we killed him in the end, he did manage to elude us for 10 years. It kind of makes it into a hollow victory, in a way.

In a way, I think that the death of Bin Laden is going to be just a minor footnote in history – although the media will undoubtedly blow it out of proportion and make it out to be the most major victory against terrorism ever (they have started blowing their trumpets already). The real victory will be when I don’t have to take my shoes off at the airport anymore, or when every federal building, no matter how small, has armed guards and you have to go through a security screening just to enter.

As I said on Twitter shortly after I heard the news:

Killing somebody is relatively easy. But reversing years of fear-induced public policy? Now *that's* hard. #binladenisdead
@ksurvell
Keithius

Now that Bin Laden is dead, we should be screaming for a reduction in our over-zealous security policy. If we make the death of Bin Laden out to be a big deal, then naturally this means we can relax our security. On the other hand, if we largely ignore this, then our security will stay the way it is, because the “enemy” is not someone we can kill, since it’s just an idea. And that’s what “perpetual war” is all about… but that’s a topic for another day.

Once we repeal some (or all!) of the stupid security laws we’ve enacted since 9/11, then we’ll have something to celebrate about. When we stop being afraid of our own shadow and every “suspicious” person, then we’ll be able to say “we won.”

I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security

We’ve spent over one TRILLION dollars on “homeland security,” but what have we really gotten out of it?

This article, “Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security,” by John Mueller and Mark Stewart, should be required reading for every senator and representative in Congress, no matter what. And they should be forced to actually read it, completely, from front to back.

The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars. It is clearly time to examine these massive expenditures applying risk assessment and cost-benefit approaches that have been standard for decades. Thus far, officials do not seem to have done so and have engaged in various forms of probability neglect by focusing on worst case scenarios; adding, rather than multiplying, the probabilities; assessing relative, rather than absolute, risk; and inflating terrorist capacities and the importance of potential terrorist targets. We find that enhanced expenditures have been excessive: to be deemed cost-effective in analyses that substantially bias the consideration toward the opposite conclusion, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day. Although there are emotional and political pressures on the terrorism issue, this does not relieve politicians and bureaucrats of the fundamental responsibility of informing the public of the limited risk that terrorism presents and of seeking to expend funds wisely. Moreover, political concerns may be over-wrought: restrained reaction has often proved to be entirely acceptable politically.

To put it really plainly, we are vastly over-spending when it comes to “security” compared to the actual risk that terrorism poses.

It’s a bit like a person whose house was broken into once, and now they’re afraid it might happen again, so they have a massive underground safe room installed which costs 10x more than the total value of their house.

To take this analogy a bit further, this hypothetical person would also have to have effectively bankrupted themselves, spending many, many, many times more than their annual salary on this “safe room” along with better locks and multiple home alarm systems.

Of course, thanks to all this stuff, all their friends and neighbors never come over to their house anymore – it’s just too hard to get in the front door (too many locks, the alarm keeps going off unless you open them in the right order, etc.), and once you’re inside you’re uncomfortably aware that you’re being recorded on camera for the entire duration of your stay.

So, this person loses all their friends, and probably any family that’s living with them (they go stay with friends or other relatives), until they are left, all alone, in the ordinary house that is fortified with every imaginable security device.

Except that they are constantly harassed by debt collectors, because without any family left in the house contributing to the household income, they don’t have enough money to pay for all the loans taken out to install all the security.

And the final irony will come when a burglar breaks in through the upstairs window, which doesn’t have an alarm on it because it’s up so high, but nobody noticed that there’s a tree right next to it, so all that money spent on security was really wasted. (And the money spent on that underground “safe room” was also wasted because the burglary happened while the person wasn’t home.)

I think that if the sort of scenario I described above happened in real life – even if it wasn’t quite as extreme – we could all safely agree that the person spending all this money is overly paranoid and maybe even just a bit crazy and maybe needs some serious therapy.

Now substitute the hypothetical person for the United States of America and replace the house with our country, and the safe room and security systems and door locks with “homeland security” and my analogy is complete.

And yet nobody thinks it’s odd, paranoid, or crazy for our government to act this way, when we’d all probably agree it’s very odd, terribly paranoid, and almost certainly a bit crazy for an individual to do the same.

Unfortunately, our government will continue to spend without assessing the risks, benefits, or costs for as long as they are allowed to. They won’t step back and take a look at what they are doing until we, the people who elected them, tell them to. (Or more specifically, until not doing so puts their re-election at risk.)

You know where I’m headed with this. So get out there and tell your elected representative what you think! And tell others to do the same!