Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Florida Activates System for Citizens to Call Each Other Terrorists

Or, in other words, a very, very, very bad idea… but sadly not the first time we’ve seen something just like this.

There’s the “if you see something, say something” campaign that you see plastered all over the place in the greater NYC metro area (and probably elsewhere), as well as the “anti-terrorist hotline” in the UK – among many other examples.

uk anti-terrorist hotline billboardThe problem with systems like this is that they’re often very poorly thought out and ripe for abuse. Really, these systems are just ways for people to snitch on one another for vague and ill-defined reasons.

A system like this can only work if:

  •  People are capable of making reliable judgements on risk (they aren’t)
  •  People can be trusted to only make objective reports (they can’t)
  •  Few people will abuse the system for personal gain (they won’t)

People being people, you will see people reporting others that they don’t like, or trying to submit false reports to harass others – especially if the system is anonymous. Anonymous tips from the public are fine, but if you treat every anonymous tip as legitimate (and with terrorism tips like this, you almost have to, or else what’s the point) you are quickly going to find yourself chasing a LOT of dead ends, wasting time and effort, and just generally getting drowned in the noise of the system.

And if the system isn’t anonymous, what sort of review process is there? Where does this fit in the context of judicial review? What sort of penalties are their for false statements? If the penalties are too low, then the system is ripe for abuse just like if it was anonymous. If the penalties are too high, then people won’t use it for fear of making a mistake – thus nullifying the entire point of the whole thing (and easy way to report “suspicious” activity).

Even if somehow a middle ground is found for this system… where do these reports go? How long are they stored? Can you submit a plausible (but false) report about someone you don’t like, and then have that person get subtly harassed for years afterwards (getting “extended” pat downs whenever they travel, finding themselves on black lists, the subject of needless surveillance, etc.).

Finally, can  you trust the public to really know what “suspicious activity” is? The answer is, resoundingly, “no.” Unless the would-be perpetrator is being astoundingly obvious about his/her intentions, the likelihood of anything they do seeming “suspicious” is practically nil. And of course, there are far more ordinary and innocent things that people do all the time that might (incorrectly) appear suspicious if you don’t know the whole story (or are already in a paranoid mindset).

When you consider all of these problems – and these are all legitimate, real problems with a system like this – you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is the thing you’re trying to prevent (terrorism) worth all the mistakes and harassment and wasted time, effort, and money? Because terrorism is, realistically, a rare thing – despite what some people would like you to believe – and it’s unclear whether it’s worthwhile to try and prevent these rare events, when it’s unproven whether such methods would even have an effect at all!

If terrorism were something mundane, like say, tooth decay, we’d NEVER even consider measures like this – you’d be a laughing stock if you even suggested such an insane idea. Even if it were something equally (or even more) deadly, but less emotionally charged, like say, wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets (all of which are the cause of far more death & pain & suffering than terrorism is), there would still be heavy political and civil opposition to such a heavy-handed approach, not to mention lots of arguments about all the money it would cost.

I know it’s hard to do, but it really is very important to take the “emotional” aspect out of the question when you’re dealing with policies like this – because it just skews things so far into the realm of the unreal that it’s not even funny… and in many ways, it’s quite dangerous, especially to those principles we hold dear.

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.

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/harass  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.

We Don’t Know How to Handle Terrorism

Found this very insightful quote over on Slashdot, and I couldn’t agree more:

“Countries like the UK and Israel have experience with terrorism, and they’ve developed reasonably sane ways of handling it. Just to be clear, I’m not praising the fact that they stole land from the Irish and the Palestinians — but at least they don’t act like total idiots when someone sets off a bomb. The US, on the other hand, responded to 9/11 by running around like a chicken with its head cut off. We shot ourselves in the foot in ways that were far worse than any of the damage done by the 9/11 hijackers, including two wars and an all-out assault on our own civil liberties. Compared to that kind of national self-mutilation, I can’t really take it too seriously when I’m not allowed to bring a full-size shampoo bottle on an airplane — but it certainly is an example of the same idiocy, just on a smaller scale.”

As elections are coming up here in the US again soon, it’s worth remembering things like this and keeping it in mind when you are choosing who gets your vote.

The Fear Disease

Looking at the increasing level of fear which has crept into both the American populace and American politics over the years since 9/11.

This article, Terrorism Derangement Syndrome, hits a lot of good points. In particular, it talks about how what we once saw as a “reasonable response” to terrorism right after 9/11 is now seen as “too weak.” It seems like we just keep getting more and more afraid:

It’s hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn’t been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There’s only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

Some of this can be explained as simple one-upmanship; when your political platform is “fighting terrorism,” each time you run for re-election you kind of have to vow to “do more” than you did last time (or more than your opponent did), which leads to “more security” and “tougher stances” and so forth.

The problem is that the American public is going along with this. That’s what really worries me. It’s like the whole country is infected with some sort of “fear disease:”

We’re terrified when a terror attack happens, and we’re also terrified when it’s thwarted. We’re terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we’re terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn’t been read his rights. No matter how tough we’ve been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

You may agree or disagree with his policies, but you can’t argue with the truth in what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his inaugural speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I think it’s time and past time we all remembered that.