Thursday, September 15, 2005

fyi Terrorists Don't Do Movie Plots


Pointer to article:,1367,68789,00.html

Kobielus kommentary:
Schneier’s hitting on something I learned in poli-sci class a long time ago. Politics is driven by cultural agendas, and cultural agendas are driven by the latest demons, disasters, and other discontinuities to wrack and rock the body politic. Nothing ever truly moves in a straight line from venerated past to noble future. People—including, especially, politicians—set their agendas to respond to the threat that’s freshest in their nervous system. And those threats are just as likely to be conjured by Steven Spielberg as by Osama bin Laden.

I agree with Schneier’s broad recommendations from this article, which I’ll quote, number, and then comment on individually:

1. “We need to defend against the broad threat of terrorism.”
2. “Security is most effective when it doesn't make arbitrary assumptions about the next terrorist act.”
3. “We need to spend more money on intelligence and investigation: identifying the terrorists themselves, cutting off their funding, and stopping them regardless of what their plans are.”
4. “We need to spend more money on emergency response: lessening the impact of a terrorist attack, regardless of what it is.”
5. “And we need to face the geopolitical consequences of our foreign policy and how it helps or hinders terrorism.”

#1 is about as vague and useless a prescription as you can dish out. It’s like saying we need to defend ourselves against the broad threat of bad weather in all varieties: hurricanes, tornados, hail, lightning, etc.

#2 is a tautology—true by definition. My dictionary defines “arbitrary” as “existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of will.” Yes, any approach to anything is more effective when it’s based on reasonable, not unreasonable, assumptions about that problem domain. So security is in fact almost more effective when it’s based on a solid, valid reason for securing something in a particular way.

#3 is a good actionable statement of what we need to do to deal with particular identifiable terrorists. Of course, it assumes that the “terrorists” are a discrete class of individuals who can in fact be targeted and squelched, thereby alleviating the “terrorism” problem. That’s like assuming that vandals are a discrete class of criminally-inclined individuals, when, in fact, vandalism is a pattern of criminal behaviors into which various individuals (e.g., otherwise non-threatening teenagers with too much time on their hands) fall from time to time. Yeah, of course terrorism is far more serious than most acts of teenage vandalism. But terrorism is a pattern of criminal activity into which various individuals (including those who engage in it to further political aims that, should their side ultimately win, would be lauded by their historians as noble and nation-building) may participate in for various reasons. Yeah, yeah—I know—the whole “terrorists” vs. “freedom fighters” semantic tug-of-war.

#4 is essentially the fatalistic approach that we must take when terrorism/terrorists raise its/their ugly heads and blow things up. No defense is perfect. Determined bad people can and will persist until they make themselves heard. Casualties are inevitabilities—perhaps even of ourselves. Evacuation, rescue, healing, burying, mourning, cleanup, recovery, and restoration are never-ending responses that we must collectively be prepared to activate. How resilient is our society, economy, political system? How hard a hit can we take to the solar plexus and continue to forge ahead? One of the first things that I thought after 9/11 is that this is a test of the US resilience. Nasty as the attacks were, we’re not the first nation to be afflicted by terrorism (or floods, earthquakes, etc.), and more catastrophes will certainly come, as they always have. One of the things I noticed is that our well-developed IT infrastructure provided a shock absorber when the airports closed temporarily: we resorted to phone, e-mail, IM, videoconferencing, etc to continue our lives and businesses after a fashion, albeit with serious disruption. Being a fatalist who has weathered the loss of both parents at a young age, I knew full well that the most important consideration is keeping your soul on automatic pilot through such dark days, which will certainly pass, and putting your old habits on hold (perhaps permanently) as you build workarounds into your life.

#5 is a good general heads-up for US government and business to deal with the occasionally nasty consequences of being a huge powerful country with entanglements, investments, encampments, friends, and enemies seemingly everywhere. Whether or not each of us Americans personally agrees with the policies of this or past US governments, or businesses, we inherit both their halos and pitchforks, in the eyes of others.

Fact is: Those who are inclined to love you for who you are (or what you represent to them) will love. Others will hate you. Just because you’re you. Regardless of what you personally do or have done.

So be aware. Disaster is arbitrary.