Critical Thinking – Islamic Terrorism and Appropriate Defensive Measures

I have come across a few articles having to do with terrorism, especially attacks on commercial aviation, that you do not often read in major news outlets that I think stimulate some good critical thinking. I am honestly not advocating a specific reaction since elected and non-elected government officials are not earnestly seeking my opinion. I offer these tidbits as food for intellectual thought and do not expect any comments. Key points: suicide bombing is a purely Islamic phenomenon, we reject profiling on the commendable grounds that human beings ought not to be treated as statistical probabilities, the failure to profile puts lives at risk since there are limits to what can be accomplished with databases, technology, and human performance/attention, we do not acquit ourselves morally by trying to abstain from a choice of evils, we just allow the nearest evil to make the choice for us, if one does not utter the magic word "terrorism," the notion that it is actually in the best interests of the country for the government to do everything possible to keep its citizens safe becomes self-evident nonsense, balancing our security needs with privacy rights is a lot harder than it sounds in a death match with people who harbor no compunction against using our morals against us, and our zeal to apply expensive technology to airport screening puts the greatest onus on American resources and actions  rather than on the great majority of moderate Muslims and their getting involved at the ground level in the mud and muck.

Our Incompetent Civilization, Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, 4 Jan 10

a civilization becomes incompetent not only when it fails to learn the lessons of its past, but also when it becomes crippled by them. One of life's paradoxes is that we are as often undone by our virtues as by our vices.

[It is]… a predictive certainty: Not one non-Muslim from [Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia Nigeria, or any predominantly Muslim country] will ever become a suicide bomber. The localized case of Sri Lanka's Tamils aside, suicide bombing is a purely Islamic phenomenon.

…  we have finally reached the outer bounds of a politically correct approach to airport security. To wit, the U.S. government is now going to profile Muslim passengers, albeit partially, indirectly and via the euphemism of nationality instead of religion. Insofar as actual security is concerned, it would be both more honest and effective if it dropped the remaining pretense.

The obvious rub is that profiling goes against the American grain. We shudder at the memory of previous instances of it, particularly the internment of Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. Our …  incompetence stems from an inability to recognize the proper limits to our own virtues; to forget, as Aristotle cautioned, that even good things "bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage."

Thus we reject profiling on the commendable grounds that human beings ought not to be treated as statistical probabilities. But at some point, the failure to profile puts innocent lives recklessly at risk. We also abhor waterboarding for the eminently decent reason that it borders on torture. But there are worse things than waterboarding—like allowing another 9/11 to unfold because we recoil at the means necessary to prevent it. Similarly, there are worse things than Guantanamo—like releasing terrorists to Yemen so they can murder and maim again (and so we can hope to take them out for good in a "clean" Predator missile strike).

Put simply, we do not acquit ourselves morally by trying to abstain from a choice of evils. We just allow the nearest evil to make the choice for us.

We can be proud of how deeply we mourn the losses of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a nation that mourns too deeply ultimately becomes incapable of conducting a war of any description, whether for honor, interest or survival.

Intelligence Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, L Gordon Crovitz, WSJ, 4 Jan 10

Timothy Healy, the head of the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, explained the unit's "reasonable suspicion" standard like this:

"Reasonable suspicion requires 'articulable' facts which, taken together with rational inferences, reasonably warrant a determination that an individual is known or suspected to be or has been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to, terrorism and terrorist activities, and is based on the totality of the circumstances. Mere guesses or inarticulate 'hunches' are not enough to constitute reasonable suspicion."

…this language is adapted from Terry v. Ohio, a landmark Supreme Court case in 1968 that determined when Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches allows the police to frisk civilians or conduct traffic stops. In other words, foreign terrorists have somehow now been granted Fourth Amendment reasonableness rights that courts intended to protect Americans being searched by the local police. Thus was Abdulmutallab allowed on the airplane with his explosives.

The difference between law-enforcement procedures and preventing terrorism could not be clearer. If a well-respected banker takes the initiative to come to a U.S. embassy in Nigeria to report that he thinks his son is a terrorist, we expect intelligence officers to make "hunches," such as that this person should have his visa reviewed and be searched before getting on a plane. Information is our defense against terrorism, but evidence of terror plots is often incomplete, which is why intelligence requires combining facts with hunches.

The result of prohibiting hunches was that Abdulmutallab was waved through. Information about suspected terrorists flows into a central Terrorist Screening Database, which is then analyzed by the Terrorist Screening Center, where FBI agents apply the "reasonable suspicion" standard to assign people to various watch lists including "selectee" lists and the "no-fly" list. It's at this point where an approach based on domestic law enforcement trump prevention, undermining the use of information.

Aside from concluding that we are misapplying a reasonableness test, the Abdulmutallab investigation likely will conclude that information in the databases of the National Security Agency, CIA and State Department weren't properly mined to connect dots. His name went onto the list of 400,000 people who might have links to terror, but not the list of 14,000 subject to multiple screenings before boarding an airplane or the list of 3,400 people who are not permitted to fly.

After 9/11, the key political issue that went unresolved was what Americans expect from their intelligence agents. We send the mixed message that we want them to prevent attacks, but only if they operate under strict restrictions based on rules crafted for domestic law enforcement.

We have a choice. We can limit how information is used or we can allow smart use of information to prevent attacks. If we continue to choose to limit how information can be used in our defense, we shouldn't be surprised when our defenses fail.

Groups Say Screening Invites Bias, WSJ, 8 Jan 10

Twenty-seven organizations on Friday asked the Department of Homeland Security to change newly tightened airport-security rules that they say will result in racial and ethnic profiling.

In a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, the groups -- about half representing Muslim Americans -- criticized a new policy that requires extra screening for people traveling to the U.S. from or through 14 countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism or countries "of interest." The terror-sponsor list includes Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria, while the countries of interest include Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.

The groups said in the letter that with the exception of Cuba, the directive targets individuals traveling from Muslim-majority or Middle Eastern countries with no regard as to whether the passenger poses an individualized threat.

The groups also said the extra screening diverts attention and resources from legitimate leads and suspicious behavior.

Undressing the Terror Threat - The U.S. is locked in an irrational game with only one outcome: The terrorists win. How to change the rules, WSJ, 9 Jan 10

The world's greatest nation seems bent on subjecting itself to a … humiliating defeat, by playing a game that could be called Terrorball. The first two rules of Terrorball are:

(1) The game lasts as long as there are terrorists who want to harm Americans; and

(2) If terrorists should manage to kill or injure or seriously frighten any of us, they win.

These rules help explain the otherwise inexplicable wave of hysteria that has swept over our government in the wake of the failed attempt by a rather pathetic aspiring terrorist to blow up a plane on Christmas Day.

... what the government should do rather than keep playing Terrorball, the answer is simple: stop treating Americans like idiots and cowards.

Indeed, if one does not utter the magic word "terrorism," the notion that it is actually in the best interests of the country for the government to do everything possible to keep its citizens safe becomes self-evident nonsense. … banning private gun ownership and making life without parole mandatory for anyone convicted of murder would reduce the homicide rate in America significantly.

… politicians and other policy makers generally avoid discussing what ought to be considered an "acceptable" number of traffic deaths, or murders, or suicides, let alone what constitutes an acceptable level of terrorism. Even alluding to such concepts would require treating voters as adults—something which at present seems to be considered little short of political suicide.

Crunching the Risk Numbers, WSJ, 9 Jan 10

a more rational anti-terrorism policy would focus resources heavily, perhaps almost exclusively, on threats of nuclear and weapons of mass destruction terror. Other sorts of terrorist attacks are not so easily deterred. There's really nothing preventing someone from committing a suicide attack at a shopping mall, or a movie theater, or a sporting event. This is not to suggest that no efforts should be made to stop them. But surely we must understand that, at best, we will reduce the risk from an extremely small nonzero number to a slightly smaller nonzero number.

Guantanamo 1, Obama 0 How the president took on reality and lost

Two weeks from today is the deadline for emptying the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, a cutoff that the newly inaugurated President Obama established as one of his first acts in office. No one anymore expects his administration to meet the deadline, and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff reports that there is increasing doubt as to whether it will carry out the promise at all.

Obama's promise has run up against reality in several different ways. The revelation that former detainees (released while George W. Bush was president) now based in Yemen were involved in planning the Christmas attack in Detroit prompted the administration to announce a halt to repatriation of Yemenis.

The administration is already blocked from moving any Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. for purposes other than putting them on trial. That's the result of a rider to a congressional appropriations bill that passed overwhelmingly last spring and which expires Sept. 30.

    In order to move the Yemenis and other Gitmo detainees to Thomson, the administration needs to persuade the Congress to lift the rider--in an election year, no less--a much more difficult task when the proposal is to move more than 100 detainees to the U.S. rather than 20 or 30.

But here's the kicker. It turns out the detainees themselves prefer to stay put:

    Many of the detainees may not even want to be transferred to Thomson and could conceivably even raise their own legal roadblocks to allow them to stay at Gitmo.

    Falkoff notes that many of his clients, while they clearly want to go home, are at least being held under Geneva Convention conditions in Guantánamo. At Thomson, he notes, the plans call for them to be thrown into the equivalent of a "supermax" security prison under near-lockdown conditions.

To the limited extent that the Geneva Conventions have been held to protect unlawful enemy combatants, the detainees would enjoy that protection at Thomson too. They would also have additional rights under U.S. law, since they would be under the jurisdiction of the local U.S. district court rather than the special federal jurisdiction created by the Military Commissions Act of 2006. As a practical matter, though, their lives are cushier at Guantanamo than they would be at Thomson, in part because the risk of escape from a military facility in the middle of nowhere is considerably less than from a prison in the American heartland.

Is there any argument left for closing Guantanamo? Claims of detainee abuse were mostly bunk to begin with (remember when Isikoff's magazine claimed falsely that an interrogator had flushed a Koran down a toilet?), and any irregularities have long since been remedied. The president is reduced to making the frivolous claim that the existence of Guantanamo is dangerous because it is somehow useful to al Qaeda's recruiting efforts.

One "Allegedly" Too Many - In her raw and disastrous way, Janet Napolitano is revealing, Dorothy Rabinowitz, WSJ, 7 Jan 10

… ethical counselors, privacy advocates and civil liberties sentinels [were] aghast at the possibility of government snooping ... They were around in force for media interviews, equipped as ever with a variety of arguments for the sanctity of privacy rights, warnings against surveillance that threatened the rights of citizens in a democracy. Day after day came the same breezy assurances—we had only to balance our security needs with privacy rights. As though, in this deadly war or any other, sane people could consider the values equivalent. The latest threat to privacy rights, advocates charged, was the use of full body scanners…

With an unbeatable, ever resourceful enemy working night and day devising ingenious strategies, what point could there be in developing better detection capacities? Historians of the future may one day well ponder the powerful streak of defeatism in the U.S. in the era of its terrorist wars—and the superhuman characteristics Americans ascribed to their enemies in that 21st century battle against terrorism: a view in no small way nurtured in their media and political culture.

Asked in an interview with the German magazine "Der Spiegel" last March
why [Janet Napolitano] had avoided using the word "terrorism" in her testimony to
Congress, she explained that she had instead preferred to use another term: "man-caused disasters." That choice of words demonstrated, she said, that "we want to move away from the politics of fear." The idea now, she added mysteriously, was to be prepared for all risks that could occur. …emphasis on terrorism was to be dispatched, along with the words war on terror and terrorists. The use of such references was to be equated with the low, the deceitful, the politics of fear, with indeed, a false claim of danger.

Only Muslims Can Stop Muslim Terror, Former Council on Foreign Relations President Les Gelb writing 7 Jan 10 in the Daily Beast:

President Obama warns against "extremism." Former Vice President Dick Cheney declaims against "terrorists." But they hardly ever bark the essential word, the almost always absent critical adjective: Muslim. Almost all the terrorist and extremist violence in the world today is committed by Muslims—and in most instances, the victims are Muslims themselves. What's afoot here is Muslim extremism—despite the fact that the great majority of Muslims aren't radicals and condemn terrorism.

The omission of the word "Muslim" usually stems from political correctness, the desire not to offend. On most occasions, this gloss does no great harm and can be overlooked. But the failure to nail the problem squarely by name causes grave difficulties: It impedes the process of finding realistic solutions. Specifically, it leads Washington to think of American solutions to terrorism more so than Muslim ones. It puts the greatest onus on American resources and actions, on our values and our philosophies—rather than on the great majority of moderate Muslims, their values, their religion, their culture, their concrete actions, and their getting involved at the ground level in the mud and muck. If the battle against Muslim terrorism is to be won, moderate Muslims will have to do the heavy lifting, and explain to us how we can best help them. If Americans and Westerners continue to take the lead, it will remain an "us vs. them" war.