Archive for the ‘Islam’ Category

I am hoping that now that we have brought about an abrupt end to Osama bin Laden’s involvement in the International Terror franchise, that cooler heads might prevail in fashioning our response to the actually-continuing threats from various domestic and international nut-cases.  I’m not optimistic.

Look, here’s the crux of it.  In the decade since 9/11/2001, we have spent roughly a trillion dollars on counter-terrorism activities.  A trillion dollars.  This is in response to Osama’s maniacs who killed just over 2,800 people on 9/11.  Of course, that’s awful, and a tragedy.  But at the same time, right around 3,000 people will be killed this month in traffic accidents, and another 3,000 will be killed next month, and the month after that.  We take reasonable precautions against being involved in traffic accidents, but it seems that the same standard of reasonableness is not applied to our (national) precautions against being the victim of a terrorist event.  Virtually all of this trillion-dollar expenditure has been made without any kind of cost-benefit or effectiveness analysis that would demonstrate that these were dollars well spent, or that they have made us safer.

(Incidentally, in researching this subject, I asked a number of people  how many were killed in the 9/11 attacks.  The numbers I got ranged from 5,000 to 25,000, with most clustering around 15,000, or over 5 times the number who actually died.  So as a society we’ve already inflated the damage, and therefore the threat, quite a bit.)

Lots of the people involved with all this spending then say, “we know things you don’t, it’s all very secret, you just have to take our word for it that what we’re doing is right.”  Well, you know, after the firehose of government lying and exaggeration that went into the run-up to the Iraq invasion, I really don’t believe you.  And if the Transportation Security Administration is an example of the quality of your work, I want an immediate audit.

Just in case you’re in danger of falling asleep reading this, here’s the news, in condensed format:

  • Our responses to the threats of terrorist attacks on our country (both cyber-threats and regular ordinary terrorist threats) are grossly out of proportion to the actuarial likelihood of either the attack, or the economic or human losses from them;
  • Many of the things we do to protect ourselves are ineffective, costly, sometimes make us in fact less secure, and in the bargain threaten our civil liberties and the foundation of the Internet;
  • This does not mean that there are no threats to us, of course there are, and we need to prepare to face them;
  • But what we need is a measured, focused, risk-driven approach that scales our preventative measures to the realistic dimensions of the threats we face, not an overblown, spend-anything, corporate-greed-driven, go-nuts program.
  • Unfortunately, this is what we have going right now.

I’m a cyber kind of guy, and I spend a fair amount of time dealing with cyber-threats for my employer, I’m going to focus this post on cyber-security, but basically the same criticisms hold for terrorist threats against physical targets, too.

Currently the American public is being force-fed a relentless barrage of nonsense in the press, and even in the halls of Congress.  This line of thinking holds that we are as a nation exposed to horrific attacks against our infrastructure by stateless jihadis or hostile governments via the Internet, how we are defenseless against these attacks, how our way of life will vanish, millions will be killed or starve, and so on.

The best (or worst) example of this is the book Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard A. Clarke (a former cyber-security adviser to the White House) and Richard K. Knacke of the Council on Foreign Relations (2010).  This book serves up 300 pages of the most apocalyptic descriptions of cyber-catastrophe, including chemical plants and refineries exploding and spewing toxins, nationwide power failures, trains sent off the tracks, airliners colliding, networks rendered mute, food shortages, hospitals thrown into chaos, and societal breakdown with widespread looting and rioting.  All this, ” . . . without a single terrorist or soldier appearing in the country.”

Unfortunately, they never offer the slightest shred of evidence that such an attack has ever been tried, or is even technologically feasible, and as such is more a work of speculative fiction than a sober report of the state of our cyber-defenses, whatever they are.  That is typical of this whole discussion: it is driven by point-blank assertions, with no evidence to back them up.  Even when they, or others, allege that such attacks have indeed already taken place, they provide no specifics about the method or the actual losses we have sustained.

In Congress, we have had hearings and public pronouncements by all manner of worthies.  For just one example (I do give examples!) Senator Jay Rockefeller on 3/19/2009 made the following blanket statement:

It would be very easy to make train switches so that two trains collide, affect or disrupt water and electricity, or release water from dams, where the computers are involved.  How our money moves, they could stop that.  Any part of the country, all of the country, is vulnerable. How the Internet and telephone systems work, attackers could handle that rather easily.

If you take this at face value, it does seem pretty scary.  But believe me, as one whose whole career has been in software development and system implementation, just asserting something is  possible a very long way from actually being able to do it.  Mostly, in all the Congressional hearings, and in Clarke and Knacke, all we get is this kind of talk but with no empirical evidence discussing how these attacks would possibly work.  And unfortunately, all this loose talk is treated as the foundation for hundreds of billions of dollars of public expenditures, and this is nuts.

I won’t bore you with further examples of this breathless hyperbole, the references at the end of this post contain many more, if you need further proof.

Why is it we in the public seem to be falling for such histrionics?  I think there are a couple of things at work here.  First, individual people, and people they know, feel vandalized by spam, identity theft, and Facebook account-hijacking by password theft or guessing.  They hear about the theft of corporate and governmental databases, which seem to continue unabated.  They don’t understand how to protect themselves, so they fear the worst, and extend that fear to the country and to the rest of the government.

Another thing at work here is a long-standing generalized fear of technology “moving too fast for us,” a fear that has reared its head in many guises during the last 150-200 years (in other words, since the invention of modern technology):

  • Frankenstein came out about the time when electricity was being explored and tamed, and explored the whole concept that somehow we might be able to create and animate soul-less beings through this mysterious power;
  • In the book Victorian Internet, there is a whole section devoted to the social and personal stresses brought about by the invention of the telegraph, and these stresses were not inconsiderable;
  • The early years of the 20th Century spawned lurid tales of “wire devils,” crooks and confidence men who people felt would exploit and victimize them via the telegraph, because they could not see who they were dealing with face to face;
  • After World War II there were large numbers of movies that featured Godzilla or other prehistoric monsters awakened from their unknown lairs by the explosions of atomic bombs, to come ashore and lay waste to humanity, in retribution, I guess, for being bothered.

So, we have a long history of fearing the impacts of technologies we don’t understand and attributing vastly unrealistic powers to them.  This is going on right now, re: the Internet and foreign hackers, in spades.  But as stated in Brito and Watkins (reference below):

Fear is not a basis for policymaking.

And yet, fear appears to be our driving stimulus in this situation.  That is not a good sign.


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I was very distressed the other day to hear President Obama continuing the use of the term, “War on Terror.”  Probably nothing hampers our ability to deal with the Middle East and the rise of Neo-Islamist extremists more than talking about it as a “war.”  Are we at war?  Against “terror?”  Terror is just a tactical or strategic decision about using a weapon in a certain way.  Was Hitler at war with “strategic daylight bombing?”  No, he was at war with most of the rest of the world.  If we’re going to be at war against terror, we might as well be at war against howitzers.  Neither concept makes much sense.

Whatever it’s against, are we in fact “at war?”  I’m sure as  a paean to the (mainly) Republican saber-rattlers in Congress, Obama stated “we are surely at war . . . ”  But a war should be against some tangible objective, over a limited amount of time, and it should require the mobilization of massive resources and the will of the population to persecute it.  In this case, we are (by the Bush Administration’s calculus) really at war with Islamic populations world-wide.  Do we mean to do this?  Do we want to, if we can help it?

No, I submit we are NOT at war, not in any meaningful sense of the word.  We are not out to defeat Islam, or Pakistan, or whatever.  What would our objective be, then, defeat Osama bin Laden?  That’s pretty pathetic, and probably pretty unlikely, too.  It may sound stirring, I guess, to talk about being “at war,” but thinking that this business will resolve itself the way World War II did, with the utter defeat of the enemies, is just delusional.  Remember, the Japanese populations were eating the bark off of trees to live near the end of that war.  Are we willing to do this to the Islamic population of Pakistan?  Or Indonesia?  Are we really?  If we are, believe me our current strategies won’t take us there, not by a long shot.

No, I think we’re really trying to deal with mainly extra-governmental entities (think: al Qaeda) who are religious fanatics with an agenda against the West, and specifically the US as a proxy for the whole West.  They infest places with weak or minimal governments, and reach out to strike at their presumed enemies.  They are going to be plotting against us for a long time and we’re going to have to devise ways to restrict their actions and blunt their blows, but they’re always, like cells waiting to become cancerous, sitting there looking for an opening.  And unless we’re willing to utterly destroy the countries that harbor them, really destroy them and much of their civilian populations, military action is the wrong tool.

I don’t have a perfect solution to this, but I do know that stopping maniacs from carrying out terroristic actions will require something much more like police work than anything military.  It will require tracking people and their behavior, using little clues to home in on individuals before they make it to the airport with their bomb or their gun.  This isn’t as glamorous as sending in the Marines, but it will be, in the long run, much more effective against these guys.

And of course we could figure out what we’re doing to create all these Islamic terrorists and stop doing that at least for a while.

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Maureen Dowd in the Times said it the best in a recent editorial:

If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?

Seems oddly like the recent White House Party Crashers, when in spite of the mission of protecting our President, the Secret Service failed, and no one has been held accountable — i.e. fired.  I suspect that in this case, no one will either, because the charge of “systemic failure” spreads the responsibility around too far and too thin, so in the end, we just keep right on rolling along.

Except of course for the usual “locking the barn door” reaction by TSA.  Just as post-Richard-Reed, we all dutifully take off our shoes at the security checkpoints, 60 million people a year uselessly inconvenienced because of one failed terrorist attempt, now will we be taking off our pants for them?  And so, international travelers (only) will not be able to use the rest room in the last hour, or have a book or magazine in their laps?  This stuff doesn’t protect us, it just costs us.

And then, the next idea is millimeter-wavelength or backscatter x-ray machines to do full-body scans.  Just for the record, the potential for these images to be captured and disseminated to perverts and voyeurs is virtually 100%.  Please — the images that have been released to the press to show how these machines don’t really invade your privacy have had the genitals blocked out, which, folks, they won’t be when the machines are actually in use.

This reminds me of my time as a systems consultant to manufacturers.  One of the mantras we preached was “you can’t inspect-in quality, you have to build it in” and that’s the case here.  Trying to catch terrorists at an airport checkpoint, or worse yet at the gate, is just trying to inspect-in quality.  Per the quote above, you need to find them before they get to the gate.

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Ever leery as I am about only throwing stones at other people and never offering anything useful as a solution, I now present my Four Great Suggestions for reducing the terrorist threat to the US. I do this as the current Bush administration seemingly seeks to prepare us for additional losses of personal rights and privacy in the name of “combating terrorism.” And administration shills like Senator Rick Santorum have started touring the country drumming “there’s going to be another attack, there’s going to be another attack” to try to scare us into submission. So rather than meekly giving in to this bogus raising of boogeymen, let’s just actually look at why these people are attacking us, and counter those reasons! Much simpler and more cost-effective.

I presented these earlier in a comment I posted to an article on Newsvine, which you all ought to be reading anyway, but here is my solution to this mess we have walked into:

1. Dramatically reduce our dependence on middle-eastern oil so they have less leverage on us;

2. Stop attempting to meddle in middle east politics and issues, those people have to work it out for themselves, they have to kill until they’re sick of killing and finally want to find common ground with each other;

3. Stop depending on a spy-counterspy mentality to save us, the Brits and the Germans catch terrorists with good old-fashioned police work, and we can do this too, we don’t need to sacrifice our hard-won freedoms on the altar of Homeland Security;

4. Ensure that we remain a (however flawed) melting pot that can absorb immigrants and make them part of a long-term American dream. We must BE the shining beacon on the hill to the rest of the world, we must implement in our hearts Emma Lazarus’ poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

None of this has the satisfaction of slaughtering people we disagree with, or reducing their countries and economies to absolute ruin, and watching their children starve in the street or be blown to smithereens because they disagree with our politics, but I believe in the long run it will bring us more safety and security than comes out of the barrel of a gun. “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.” The standard we set in the world is the standard by which we, and our civilization, will be judged. What will that standard be? Rule of law, or Guantanamo? Geneva Convention, or torture? Freedom, or repression? It’s our choice, in fact, it’s US.

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Start out by remembering that “terrorism” is really just a tactic that various groups use to achieve their ends, it’s not a unifying political or social philosophy. Groups don’t just decide to become terrorists, they employ terrorism because it works to further their cause. There are other possible tactics; the PLO for most of it’s existence built it’s political base by running schools and opening health-care facilities in the occupied territories when the Israelis refused to do so. But if “terrorism” is a particularly barbaric set of tactics that we wish to discourage in the name of humanity, then we need to understand who is doing it and why.

I’ve posted several times regarding the problem with the Bush Administration’s simple-minded “us vs. the world” approach to dealing with terrorists, and argued that we need a more nuanced and localized analysis framework to understanding them, uncovering their motivations, and devising suitable strategies to combating them. Just click on the “terrorism” category to the right to read these earlier posts.

I just ran across a very clear and analytical viewpoint of terrorist types in an original article in Newsvine, by someone who writes under the name “Belarius,” and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you (I recommend Newsvine to you in general, but that’s another story).

For the purposes of his article, Belarius lumps various terrorist or terrorist-support organizations into these groups:

  1. Nationalist revolutionaries (the IRA, Hamas, and Basque separatists)
  2. International ideologues (al Qaeda)
  3. International mercenaries (Blackwater, and other “contractors” we employ in Iraq)
  4. Criminal organizations (mainly traffickers in drugs and women)
  5. Black-market weapons dealers
  6. Governmental organizations

The agendas of these groups sometimes are in alignment and sometimes diverge, and at the least are ever-shifting. Given all this, it’s no wonder that we are being unsuccessful in combating them with infantry and heavy weapons! And certainly the Bush Administration’s constant drumbeat against a single, unified “International Terrorist Organization” accomplishes nothing useful at all.

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There is a growing body of opinion that our greatest strike against Islamic extremists would not come from our military, but by freeing ourselves from Middle-Eastern petroleum, and one of the best steps we could take to start healing our environment would be to wean ourselves generally from petroleum.

First I have to admit that due to work-related reasons I have to drive a car from my home to downtown Minneapolis every day. I mitigate this somewhat by (a) driving a Toyota Prius and (b) hosting a carpool. On occasionally lucky days I manage to ride the bus in, a welcome relief. I also own a Harley motorcycle, which for many months of the year would be viable daily transportation, even in Minnesota, and which gets around 45 MPG. OK, OK, the bike is fun, but would it make a difference?

In Europe, motorcycles and especially scooters are refined and civilized urban transportation machines, see Kymco, Peugeot, and Piaggio just for example. Most European cities are alive with these cute little buzzers, and they’re not being ridden by the tattoo-and-black-leather set, either, but by ordinary people carrying briefcases. But do they actually make a difference?

New York City, which is drowning in cars and emissions, is really taking some steps to address the problem, including Mayor Bloomberg’s recent proposal to charge vehicles to enter Manhattan (referred to professionally as “congestion pricing”). Another step was to commission the respected traffic-management consulting firm of Sam Schwartz PLLC to examine the impact of changing the Manhattan vehicle mix to include motorcycles and scooters.

The study examined the Manhattan central business district, from 60th Street to Battery Park, substituting scooters for cars in varying increments and then simulating the traffic patterns and loading. Note that they did not factor in lane-splitting, space sharing, or any other two-wheel-specific maneuvers, they just treated each buzzer as a car, but one taking up much less space and getting much better mileage, so the results are conservative.

By shifting the daytime vehicle mix from 100% cars to 80% cars and 20% scooters, the results show:

  • A reduction in CO2 emissions by over 26,000 tons (tons!) per year;
  • The saving of 2.5 million gallons of gasoline per year;
  • The saving of 4.6 million hours of delay time, or roughly 100 working (or playing) hours per person, and
  • A total saving of $122 million per year in fuel and labor productivity.

This is of course not to mention that being on two wheels is much more fun than being trapped in a four-wheeled cage, so people would be arriving at work in a much better frame of mind than otherwise.

Could we really substitute scooters for 20% of cars in Manhattan? I think it would be realistic for much of the year. Experience shows that people will make changes in their behavior in response to financial incentives — if this substitution is a desirable result, just tariff cars until you get the right percentage, offer reduced-rate and buzzer-only parking, etc. The same approach holds true for any city.

So, going Green and lightening the load on our environment can be beneficial and enjoyable at the same time. Hopefully we’ll all come to realize this, and see that making some of these changes will generate positive economic benefits across the board, in contrast to the currently-entrenched view that any changes for energy efficiency will somehow harm business and bring on doom and despair.

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I keep hoping that somehow, against all reason, something right will happen in Iraq, what with everything and everyone we’re sacrificing there, and that somehow that “right” will then free our resources to really tackle Afghanistan, where we actually ARE in a battle to the death with the Taliban. However, these two news stories fill me with a cold and sinking feeling that we’re going to lose both of these struggles, and that the results will be with us for a generation, as they were from Vietnam.

First, the Iraqi Surge. Ah, this is where the people are coming from: it turns out that we’ve started cycling units back into Iraq faster than the standard 2-year rest period — the Times reports today that the 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters unit will be redeployed after only 7 months “back home.” Two more units will be recycled also: The 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division gets to go back after about 10 months, and 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division went back about 11 1/2 months. And everybody’s getting stretched: the 25th Infantry Division Headquarters unit (from my old stomping grounds in Hawaii) will be extended a month-and-a-half.

Two years off? Actually, for the last two years, the “realistic goal” is a single year between deployments, much less two. But I guess those experienced soldiers in the White House, and the generals they command, think this’s OK. Rubbish. They’re squandering our military human and equipment resources they way they’re using up our environment and our civil infrastructure (highways and bridges, for example) — just use ’em up and leave the cleanup for whoever follows them. Or maybe they’ll just privatize our bridges and let somebody else fix them.

Then, back in Afghanistan (where it all started, 9/11 and all that, and where it still rages, thanks to our inattention), President Hamid Karzai last week entered into a real Faustian Bargain by trading five Talibani fighters for a kidnapped Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Now while I don’t mean to be hard-hearted about the fate of Signor Mastrogiacomo, the absolute level last thing you ever want to do is give in to kidnappers like this — it means you have proved to them that it works. Aid workers, community and economic development specialists, health-care providers, and everyone else not surrounded by a company of our Marines will now be a ripe target for capture, and hence the few that remain in that part of Afghanistan will be out of there shortly, one way or another.

What this illustrates is that the “tribal areas” including the whole of the province of Helmand, is rapidly slipping from the grasp of Karzai’s government and into the hands of the Taliban, who have been expanding their influence from the adjoining safe havens tolerated by the Pakistani government, which has its own Faustian Bargain with the Taliban and its supporters in their own government.

There’s no good way out of these predicaments, except of course to prevent kidnappings to begin with; the fact that you can’t is a powerful signal to everyone in the area about where the power lies. And the reasons we can’t prevent this are: 1) the complicity of the Pakistani government in allowing taliban safe-havens, and 2) we’re so tied up in Iraq’s civil war that we don’t have either the manpower or the management energy to properly address this resurgence of the Taliban.

It’s too bad this dismal event hasn’t been reported more in Western news media, it’s a real warning to us and we’re just not listening. Kathleen McGowan, whose fiancé was killed in Afghanistan in 2005, wrote recently in the Times:

The governments of Italy and Afghanistan should be applauded for valuing Mr. Mastrogiacomo’s life — after all, the struggle in Afghanistan is, at its most elemental level, about recognizing the value of all human lives. But this deal, however expedient in the near term, comes at a tremendous cost to Afghanistan’s future prospects for building a peaceful, tolerant and just society.

. . . and to our own ability to win against one of our most dangerous adversaries, the Taliban.

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