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Domestic spying
December 20, 2010 6:26 AM   Subscribe

... the United States is assembling a vast domestic intelligence apparatus to collect information about Americans, using the FBI, local police, state homeland security offices and military criminal investigators. The system, by far the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the nation's history, collects, stores and analyzes information about thousands of U.S. citizens and residents, many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing. (previously)
posted by Joe Beese (79 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Other democracies - Britain and Israel, to name two - are well acquainted with such domestic security measures.

I think that sentence gave me all the information I needed to establish my feelings about this.
posted by lauratheexplorer at 6:28 AM on December 20, 2010 [11 favorites]


Technologies and techniques honed for use on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan have migrated into the hands of law enforcement agencies in America.

(...)

The Obama administration heralds this local approach as a much-needed evolution in the way the country confronts terrorism.


Maybe Obama meant change as in coins.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 6:31 AM on December 20, 2010 [20 favorites]


OK, I just clicked on "previously" thinking it was "more inside" and kept thinking to myself "I know I've read all this before....wtf?" Then I got to a comment saying that the commenter couldn't wait for the Frontline doc in October, and which I watched. Then I finally noticed the date of the comments was July 19th.

I'm going back to bed, this is clearly not my day.

Oh, and this is just fucking gross. If my mortgage wasn't just about underwater, I'd consider selling my house and leaving the country. But the assholes in charge messed that up for me, too.
posted by nevercalm at 6:41 AM on December 20, 2010


It isn't a complete day on MetaFilter without a paranoid government conspiracy post.

...nor a flip dismissal. For every paranoiac, there's a sheep.
posted by klanawa at 6:41 AM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


It isn't a complete day on MetaFilter without a paranoid government conspiracy post.... lifted from that locked ward of paranoid conspiracies known as the Washington Post.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:41 AM on December 20, 2010 [24 favorites]


We have to stop the terrorists before they infiltrate the US and institute a hard-line totalitarian government hey wait a second...
posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:41 AM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


"Mulder, I'm warning you. If this is monkey pee, you're on your own!"
posted by Ardiril at 6:45 AM on December 20, 2010


..., many of whom have not been accused of any wrongdoing.
That's why we need all that data. We're sure you've done something we can get you for, we just have to dig it up.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:45 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


The truth was turning out to be even worse than my most "paranoid ravings" during the 1972 election.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:45 AM on December 20, 2010


True, but this is neither paranoid, nor particularly conspiratorial. As far as I can tell, it's happening openly. The paranoid/conspiracy part would be a discussion of the deliberately misleading fear mongering of the people who think a police state is necessary.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:45 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


It isn't a complete day on MetaFilter without a paranoid government conspiracy post.

We have met the teabaggers and they are us.
posted by nomadicink at 6:46 AM on December 20, 2010


So, in every TSA thread, everyone says that the real solution to airport security is to stop terrorists before they get to the airport. How do you all propose to do that without, like, looking for terrorists.
posted by empath at 6:51 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


I beleive Joe is of the opinion that there are no terrorists.
posted by Artw at 6:53 AM on December 20, 2010


We have met the teabaggers and they are us.

"I deeply resent the way this administration makes me feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist." -- Teresa Nielsen Hayden
posted by eriko at 6:54 AM on December 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


"anyone who's not paranoid's an asshole"
William Burroughs
posted by philip-random at 6:55 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


The old view that 'if we fight the terrorists abroad, we won't have to fight them here' is just that - the old view

It's exactly the opposite - we have to fight them here because we went to fight them abroad.
posted by phrontist at 6:55 AM on December 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


empath: "the real solution to airport security is to stop terrorists before they get to the airport bombing other countries."

FTFY

There are many civilization feedback loops, I guess it's a matter of personal preference whether we go for the massively authoritarian and militaristic one...
posted by ivancho at 6:57 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


I believe Joe is of the opinion that there are no terrorists.

Statistically there are barely any in the US. Emotionally, there are because we let them terrorize us.

So, in every TSA thread, everyone says that the real solution to airport security is to stop terrorists before they get to the airport. How do you all propose to do that without, like, looking for terrorists.

We don't look for murderers, arsonists, rapists, muggers before they actually commit crimes, not because there are no benefits to stopping a crime before it happens, but because it's impractical to do so without intruding into everyone's lives to the point where every minority (racial, sexual, religious, etc...) would feel horribly oppressed. Why should we make an exception for terrorism?
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:00 AM on December 20, 2010 [28 favorites]


I would enjoy seeing international and intrAnational graphs showing on the X axis "average educational level attained" and on the Y axis "amount of insane totaliarian/authoritarian tolerated".
posted by DU at 7:02 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


TUTTLE TUTTLE TUTTLE BUTTLE TUTTLE
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:03 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


Why should we make an exception for terrorism?

A noun, a verb and 9/11.
posted by DU at 7:03 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


There are many civilization feedback loops, I guess it's a matter of personal preference whether we go for the massively authoritarian and militaristic one...

I don't think a lack of privacy necessitates an authoritarian regime. The death of privacy and secrets is pretty much inevitable. Ubiquitous recording devices and infinite storage are just a reality, and the sooner people adapt to that, the better. It goes both ways, you know (see the wikileaks saga and the various recordings of police misbehavior).
posted by empath at 7:04 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


We don't look for murderers, arsonists, rapists, muggers before they actually commit crimes, not because there are no benefits to stopping a crime before it happens, but because it's impractical to do so without intruding into everyone's lives to the point where every minority (racial, sexual, religious, etc...) would feel horribly oppressed. Why should we make an exception for terrorism?

We certainly do try to stop criminal conspiracies before they commit crimes, and the first crimes in a terrorist plot tend to happen well before the actual plot comes to fruition (immigration offenses, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, etc...)
posted by empath at 7:06 AM on December 20, 2010


It goes both ways, you know (see the wikileaks saga and the various recordings of police misbehavior).

It only goes both ways if it's legal to go both ways. Many states have laws against recording the police even on your own property. As for "see the wikileaks saga" I think those words don't mean what I think you think they mean.
posted by DU at 7:08 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Napolitano has taken her "See Something, Say Something" campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation's capital for "Terror Tips" and to "Report Suspicious Activity."

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.


Oh dear.
posted by stuck on an island at 7:11 AM on December 20, 2010 [10 favorites]


Yeah, and the flight instructor called in on the suspicious activity of one of the 9/11 pilots that trained with him. That information got lost in the noise, now we're pursuing a data-mining activity against the entire US population. Do you think the signal to noise ratio will improve? I suspect instead someone will have a huge budget to do very little of use in fighting terrorism, and they'll jealously guard their fiefdom against any cuts. I'll give a tinfoil hat tip to J. Edgar Hoover at this point.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:12 AM on December 20, 2010 [14 favorites]


I've made this comment before. One of the things they did in Germany after the fall of Nazism was pass legislation that put clear limits on the abilities of the various regional police forces to communicate with each other, share information, CENTRALIZE -- all measures to make sure that another Gestapo wouldn't take form.

Though I don't think too many fall for it here on MeFi, one of the greatest delusions I notice among North Americans (raised on various movies and TV cop shows) is that cops are somehow inherently good.
posted by philip-random at 7:14 AM on December 20, 2010 [26 favorites]


Just like with Wikileaks, if you haven't done anything wrong, then you don't have anything to worry about.
posted by Legomancer at 7:15 AM on December 20, 2010


So once we've done away with all those "freedoms" we keep sending kids overseas to defend, we can bring them all home, right?
posted by JaredSeth at 7:15 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Napolitano has taken her "See Something, Say Something" campaign far beyond the traffic signs that ask drivers coming into the nation's capital for "Terror Tips" and to "Report Suspicious Activity."

She recently enlisted the help of Wal-Mart, Amtrak, major sports leagues, hotel chains and metro riders. In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.


Seriously, Arizona, do you have *any* elected officials who aren't crazy? Is it the heat or something?
posted by jackflaps at 7:16 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


A transparent society does not change the imbalance of power. As a matter of fact, it often makes it easier for power to be abused.
posted by warbaby at 7:18 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Many states have laws against recording the police even on your own property.

I don't think that will last. Courts have been throwing them out.
posted by empath at 7:19 AM on December 20, 2010


...one of the greatest delusions I notice among North Americans (raised on various movies and TV cop shows) is that cops are somehow inherently good.

I don't think it's because of movies and TV. I don't know what it is, though, and it isn't limited to police. Witness the complete fetishization of the military.

Military worship and extreme nationalism have not, historically, been a good thing.
posted by DU at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


One of the things they did in Germany after the fall of Nazism was pass legislation that put clear limits on the abilities of the various regional police forces to communicate with each other, share information, CENTRALIZE -- all measures to make sure that another Gestapo wouldn't take form.

Imagine if Hitler could have ferreted out Jews without having to rely on paper birth records but just by datamining their Amazon wishlists.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:20 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Imagine if Hitler had sharks with fricking lasers on their forehead.
posted by empath at 7:23 AM on December 20, 2010 [7 favorites]


FBI. The other Facebook.
posted by effluvia at 7:24 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian government is its fixation on hiding everything it does behind a wall of secrecy while simultaneously monitoring, invading and collecting files on everything its citizenry does. ...

Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry -- led by most transparency-hating media figures -- has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

posted by Joe Beese at 7:33 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's because of movies and TV. I don't know what it is, though, and it isn't limited to police. Witness the complete fetishization of the military.

Well, propaganda in general ... mixed some kind of infantilism that some never grow out of, I guess. Witness how much little kids seem to naturally go for uniforms of pretty much any kind (cops, soldiers, firemen, sports teams, superheroes). I've recently been watching a bunch of Sharpe movies and one thing they keep touching on is the inherent narcissism of officers in uniform -- grown men poncing themselves up just so, waxing their mustaches, posing in the mirror, then going off to battle and behaving incompetently with disastrous results.
posted by philip-random at 7:36 AM on December 20, 2010


One of the hallmarks of an authoritarian government is its fixation on hiding everything it does behind a wall of secrecy while simultaneously monitoring, invading and collecting files on everything its citizenry does. ...
posted by empath at 7:36 AM on December 20, 2010


from 2004: The Surveillance-Industrial Complex
posted by various at 7:40 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


You guys - you always cheer me up.
posted by newdaddy at 7:41 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Being born in the late 60s, the Red Scare was winding down right around the time I became politically aware.
I'm *so* glad that I now have the opportunity to witness that kind of irrational self-destructive paranoia firsthand.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:50 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think we should just go back to how things were in the 1990s. If we get bombed and a bunch of people die, oh well. Sucks to be them.

I really mean that. This country's response to terrorism has killed way more Americans than terrorism itself (not to mention all the other people). It's also costing a fuck ton of money. If we're so eager to get our citizens killed by IEDs, I'd just as well it happen domestically and pocket the savings.
posted by ryanrs at 7:52 AM on December 20, 2010 [15 favorites]


I don't think a lack of privacy necessitates an authoritarian regime. The death of privacy and secrets is pretty much inevitable. Ubiquitous recording devices and infinite storage are just a reality, and the sooner people adapt to that, the better. It goes both ways, you know (see the wikileaks saga and the various recordings of police misbehavior).

I don't think the death of privacy immediately necessitates an authoritarian regime, but it certainly sets up a nice infrastructure for administrations that lean that way.

I used to think that the death of privacy would be horrific for atheists, gays, furries, etc... However, I've noticed with the Facebook generation there seems to be a lot more tolerance and acceptance of differences when there's a significant enough population of a minority that everybody has one as a friend. There's still a threshold below which minorities are forced into a status of other though (probably still so for furries). For those people, true transparency is going to be painful.

We certainly do try to stop criminal conspiracies before they commit crimes, and the first crimes in a terrorist plot tend to happen well before the actual plot comes to fruition (immigration offenses, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, etc...)

Granted, and there are existing law enforcement mechanisms to develop and follow those leads.

My main beef with a data-mining is that it seems like for political reasons it tends to be owned by the agencies I least trust to effectively implement such a program for useful results. It's never the analyst heavy organizations or criminologists from academia in charge of such efforts, but instead agencies that tend to promote field agents to leadership positions. They tend to a narrow focus and have issues with confirmation bias that frighten me in this context. I'm not saying the FBI should promote more analysts, I guess they don't have the blend of personality and skills to effectively manage the operational side. But if the NSA ran this, and the algorithms to mine the data for effective leads and/or audit the whole program for effectiveness came from academia I'd be happier about it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:58 AM on December 20, 2010


The whole US law enforcement branch still has PTSD on the organizational level.
posted by pracowity at 7:59 AM on December 20, 2010


I used to think that the death of privacy would be horrific for atheists, gays, furries, etc... However, I've noticed with the Facebook generation there seems to be a lot more tolerance and acceptance of differences when there's a significant enough population of a minority that everybody has one as a friend.

I've long thought that the death of privacy would lead to an increase in tolerance, over all.
posted by empath at 8:05 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unless it leads to everyone just killing each other. It could go either way.
posted by empath at 8:24 AM on December 20, 2010


I've long thought that the death of privacy would lead to an increase in tolerance, over all.

I think it's tricky. I feel like it leads to an increase in what is considered mainstream, but at the same time those groups that don't make the cut may be marginalized even more.

For me the parallel is the rise in political power and civil rights of groups like Blacks in America, while at the same time it seems like Hispanics have not gained any ground at all. Instead the route to acceptance for Hispanics is to assimilate into the mainstream culture, leaving behind those without the resources or position to fully assimilate. Meanwhile, as Homosexuals have become more open they've made huge strides in cultural acceptance, but as Atheists have become more open it seems like they are still below the threshold where acceptance is possible (perhaps more Atheists being outed will change this).

While there's arguably a social good to less privacy and secrets, I don't think I can support such intrusive efforts by the Government even if they amended the constitution to nullify the 4th and 9th amendments.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:34 AM on December 20, 2010


Where oh where is Hunter S. Thompson when we need him????
posted by spicynuts at 8:36 AM on December 20, 2010


Meanwhile, as Homosexuals have become more open they've made huge strides in cultural acceptance, but as Atheists have become more open it seems like they are still below the threshold where acceptance is possible (perhaps more Atheists being outed will change this).

I mean, accept for the best selling books about atheism and all. The only sphere where atheism isn't acceptable in the US is the political sphere, and I think that will change over time.
posted by empath at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


EXCEPT
posted by empath at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2010


Empath:

I think the need for transparency in government is completely necessary and is a definite GOOD thing.

That said, individuals should always be given the option to choose the details of personal information that they are willing to divulge into the public sphere. If someone wants to be a totally private shut-in, that's their prerogative, and greater transparency in peoples personal lives doesn't override the human right to privacy.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:05 AM on December 20, 2010


The ONLY way to effectively fight terrorism is simply to NOT BE TERRORIZED.

If a tragedy the scale of "9/11" happened once a year, it would still be dwarfed by the number of preventable deaths caused by automobile accidents or the flu.

With priorities like these, we have already lost everything.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:06 AM on December 20, 2010 [9 favorites]


The only sphere where atheism isn't acceptable in the US is the political sphere, and I think that will change over time.

How about school teachers and other people who work with children? I think Americans are afraid atheists are all secretly up to something evil -- something only an atheist could do -- rather than just people who don't believe in gods.

Not very soon. Americans are more likely to vote for a Muslim than for an atheist and they would rather their children married almost anyone but an atheist.
posted by pracowity at 9:09 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

It's a very fascinating thing that we're enlisting a corporation that sells products almost exclusively from a Communist country to do this.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:21 AM on December 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

Oh, that's OK then. Because the threat of communism was never exaggerated at all. Taking on enormous debt for a vast expansion of our military was the only possible way to keep up with the economic juggernaut of the Soviet Union.
posted by straight at 9:21 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


/hamburger
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 9:26 AM on December 20, 2010


Jesse the Governor Ventura hosted this episode of his show.

It aired once before it was yanked from the air and isn't even available on TruTV's website.

This is spooky stuff. How many MeFi-tes are actually fusion center operatives looking for bad guys?
posted by brando_calrissian at 9:31 AM on December 20, 2010


Who's to say it can't be both Brave New World and 1984? Let a thousand oppressive flowers bloom.
posted by Naberius at 9:36 AM on December 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's obvious. The terrorists have infiltrated the government and are promoting policies to limit our freedom and liberty.

Until we purge from government anyone trying to limit our freedom and liberty, we won't be safe...
posted by mikelieman at 9:37 AM on December 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


In her speeches, she compares the undertaking to the Cold War fight against communists.

Is your washroom breeding terrorists?
posted by steambadger at 9:39 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


In unrelated news, one way flights to Costa Rica are down to $130 on Spirit Air. I booked mine last week. Keep in mind, you'll pay extra for bags. I got the "Big Seat" upgrade and a carry-on for less than $250.
posted by notion at 9:42 AM on December 20, 2010


PS: It will hopefully be the last time I am stripped of my rights for the crime of being a passenger on an airplane.
posted by notion at 9:48 AM on December 20, 2010


oneswellfoop: If a tragedy the scale of "9/11" happened once a year, it would still be dwarfed by the number of preventable deaths caused by automobile accidents or the flu.

I don't disagree with your perspective at all and I hope to see more people express the same point of view. At the same time, I think it's important to remember that the tragic loss of human life was not the only cost. There was a huge financial cost in terms of property destruction, clean-up, repair, and lost productivity (to name just a few) caused by the attacks that took place in September of 2001.

I'm worn out with all the security theater and the invasion of privacy, and I fear the looming police state that is portrayed in the OP's link. And while I'm frustrated because I see how futile (not to mention invasive) the current efforts are, I can't bring myself to dismiss it all at the cost of fewer human lives than "automobile accidents or the flu".
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm cosidering joining the neighborhood watch. They have cool flashlites.
posted by clavdivs at 10:29 AM on December 20, 2010


* Seeking to learn more about Islam and terrorism, some law enforcement agencies have hired as trainers self-described experts whose extremist views on Islam and terrorism are considered inaccurate and counterproductive by the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.

Ah, yes, pay an informant $100,000 a year to make shit up. It's pretty amazing what people in authority will do so that they never have to say, "I don't know" (or, more reasonably and productively, deal with said people as actual people and learn about things without having to get an "expert" to do it for them).
posted by yeloson at 10:36 AM on December 20, 2010


I'm cosidering joining the neighborhood watch. They have cool flashlites.

I want to be Gladys Kravitz! Abner!
posted by pracowity at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2010


There was a huge financial cost in terms of property destruction, clean-up, repair, and lost productivity (to name just a few) caused by the attacks that took place in September of 2001.

Dwarfed by the financial costs of the overreaction to 9/11. On the week following 9/11 I was pissed off about the planes being grounded not because I had to be anywhere, but because it was playing right into the hands of the terrorists. Since then we've had trillions of dollars worth of security theater. Sure we shouldn't ignore such mass murder, but our spending should be on par with the NHTSA ($867 million/yr) or the $100 million we spent safeguarding the flu vaccine shortfalls. Yes 9/11 was a tragedy, but so are flu deaths and auto accident deaths. Murderous intent or a callous universe both leave the same exact grief and loss behind. Those tragedies have the same meaning or more so, they are human deaths that you trivialize by giving them less weight only because the 9/11 deaths occurred on the same day. Your emotional reaction while understandable doesn't elevate the 9/11 deaths to some kind of godlike status. OTOH, If you are saying that our morale as a nation took a hit and we need to spend all the money it takes to fix that, I can kind of understand the thinking even if I disagree with it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:08 AM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


"And while I'm frustrated because I see how futile (not to mention invasive) the current efforts are, I can't bring myself to dismiss it all at the cost of fewer human lives than "automobile accidents or the flu".

Few people can. That is exactly why fear mongering is such an effective tactic.
posted by Xoebe at 11:22 AM on December 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm gonna take a break from this thread lest I become increasingly shrill. I'll check in tomorrow.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:23 AM on December 20, 2010


But if the NSA ran this...

You say this as though you think they don't have a program already in place...

Anyone remember Total Information Awareness? I think it didn't just go away.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:02 PM on December 20, 2010


I want to be Gladys Kravitz!

That would the bureau of scry. A ring of X-ray vision is required.
posted by clavdivs at 2:18 PM on December 20, 2010


The ONLY way to effectively fight terrorism is simply to NOT BE TERRORIZED. If a tragedy the scale of "9/11" happened once a year, it would still be dwarfed by the number of preventable deaths caused by automobile accidents or the flu.

With respect, suggesting that everyone should just change their feelings/perspective is not much better than the belief that only pornoscanners can save us now. Although I see where you're coming from, this kind of argument ends up being just as asinine as the the argument for endless security theater. There was a comment the other day (not from the same person) to the effect that the US should not have responded to 9/11 at all, and that it would have been much more impressive to enemies of the US if the government/society had shrugged it off 'like the tough guy at the pool table.' While that is arguably true for things like shoe and underwear wannabe-bombers, the idea that any government would, could or should blow off a 9/11 sort of attack is just foolish.

First, consider how justifiably angry people were with the Bush administration's failure to perceive the existence of such a threat despite an abundance of evidence. One could also lay blame with the previous administration, the Republican congress and so on as well. The main asset of the 9/11 attackers was the complacent belief that terrorism was fundamentally limited by its practitioner's nihilism. The worst risk people could imagine involving an airliner was that the passengers would be held hostage or the plane would be blown up - both very bad outcomes to be sure, but outcomes whose maximum impact was a function of passenger capacity. We had experience of such things and more or less agreed on the baseline level of danger they represented for air travelers. The idea of multiple interdependent terrorist actions for cumulative effect would have been dismissed by most people prior to 9/11 as being too obvious to go unnoticed during the planning stage. People assumed that domestic intelligence services operated with sufficient awareness and efficiency to present such things, and were startled to find out that they did not.

Second, ask yourself how well a speech from Bush about such attacks being 'the price of freedom,' or similar would have gone down. Do you remember Bush reading about the pet goat, and the arguments from his defenders that his lack of attentiveness to events in NY and DC were rooted in a desire to avoid alarming the kids in that classroom? That sort of 'not being terrorized' is not an effective or appropriate response. I didn't think much of his subsequent exhortation to people to 'go shopping,' either. Being any more laid back about it would have either legitimized the attacks, or led to claims that the administration was happy to trade away a few thousand civilian lives on a regular basis rather than go to the effort involved in making the country safer. On a larger scale you can make the same argument about military lives and long-term foreign policy, in fact, but since the elimination of the draft this has had a good deal less emotional force across the population as a whole.

The problem with making statistical comparisons like this is that it's relatively easy to mitigate your individual risk of being in an automobile accident or catching the flu. And while it can't be mitigated completely and getting killed by one of such things is just as scary and sad and dead as getting killed by an act of terrorism, such fatalities are distributed in space and time across a large population. An act of terrorism can result in a large number of fatalities or casualties that are concentrated in space and time, and whose risk the victims have little or no ability to mitigate. Historically it's cases like this which lead to things like mandatory building codes, workplace safety regulation, acceptance of manufacturer liability for product defects, stricter controls on industrial waste and so on - and opponents of such changes make the same argument about excess reliance on an unusual case. It's like asking why there's a media fuss over multiple births - aren't there thousands of babies born every day? Of course there are, but it's very rare for 8 of them to be born to the same lady at once, and people are going to focus on the exceptional case by an amount proportional to its improbability, rather than to its actual significance as something which might affect anyone.

So, on one level the over-reaction is inevitable and does not represent any kind of social failure, but rather our very human tendency to be interested in the exceptional and attempt to learn from it - especially when the exceptional results from prior underestimation of its probability. On another level there is a desire to go to great lengths to keep it exceptional, because of evidence about the long-term costs of allowing it to become normalized. When the IRA were actively engaged in terrorism against the British government, for example, you had bombings taking place with more or less loss of civilian life every couple of months on average, and disruption of regular life by by false alarms and evacuations every couple of weeks. If you lived in London at the time (1988-95 in my case) you could expect to be late for work once a month, since one of the many security alerts was likely to affect the particular subway line or interchange station you used to get to/from work. The cumulative costs of this add up to quite a lot across the local economy, and they have a psychological cost too.

It's wearing simply as a resident of a city like London to have that constant risk in the back of your mind. It was additionally wearing for me as an Irish person to have to deal with extra police/customs scrutiny when traveling, or when having any contact with officialdom, or just when going to work: I heard so many nervous jokes about whether I had a 'bomb in my briefcase,' that I came up with jokes of my own (like that I carried it around so I could hide inside it if one did go off). There was a bit of latent anti-Irish prejudice at work here, but at that time I was working mostly in London's financial and legal districts which were particularly attractive targets for terrorism, given that they were far easier to infiltrate than the areas near parliament. I found such questioning somewhat offensive at first (not least because I had zero sympathy for the IRA) but got more thick-skinned about it because it's hard to blame people for being nervous.

Naturally, government policy and anti-government terrorism have a sort of chicken and egg relationship. But fear makes voters less inclined to buy into negotiation in the short term, and long-term political grudges play into the hands of extremists. For example, England invaded Ireland for the first time about 800 years ago, so when feelings ran high during the troubles you'd often hear self-appointed Irish patriots going on about '800 years of oppression.' Of course this doesn't resonate nearly as strongly with any British people because for 2/3 of that period they were oppressing or rebelling against each other with great gusto in this or that dynastic war, only rarely developing sufficient domestic hegemony to go conquering or oppressing people in other places. So a lack of engagement with the political concerns of one territory (Northern Ireland) is due less to insensitivity than to having so many other historical issues to deal with: colonial history in India, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as ongoing social and political complexities. Any random Londoner might be a fanatical defender of the British Empire, or they might be an immigrant grocer, or some 5th generation anti-establishment Marxist or just someone whose main concerns in life are their kids and immediate neighborhood. But for an IRA terrorist, the fact that they all had British passports made them The Enemy and put them at about equal risk of getting blown up. That sort of thing tends to unite people against an exterior threat. It's the same thing with terrorism directed against America; the lives of individual Americans are complex and reflect a wide diversity of political opinion, both for and against 'the establishment' or a particular set of policies. But when someone blows up a plane or a building, the casualties and knock-on effects tend to be indiscriminate and hurt everyone equally.

That lack of selectivity is only possible when a terrorist convinces themselves that Americans are homogeneous and can thus be attacked en masse, whether it's a foreign terrorist or a domestic one who has decided that everyone outside their immediate social circle are 'sheeple,' whose indifference perpetuates the existence of an unjust establishment. Conversely, when that sort of perspective becomes entrenched among law enforcement or other government institutions, it can result in freedom being curtailed more or less severely. I've had no desire to martyr myself or my travel plans to the whims of the TSA in recent years, because I can't feel a great outpouring of anger against them as individuals: they're there as much to reassure the frightened as much as anything else, and they are scared of screwing up. Rather than direct confrontation I've been content to not adjust my routine for security convenience by wearing slipons instead of lace-up boots or keeping a lighter or bottle of water as I normally would despite the knowledge that it would likely get thrown away and need to be replaced - and comments on the inconvenience involved have always been replied to with an apology rather than with unpleasantness. As with terrorism itself, the unusual cases of security personnel abusing their authority attracts far more media coverage than the uninteresting cases of them just trying to get everyone to their destination politely and efficiently.

I do think that security theater and intelligence gathering have become too entrenched and too profitable for either efficiency in their immediate mission or for sustainability in a broader context of civic society and personal liberty. But it's a mistake to assume that because a policy is flawed everyone involved is necessarily guided by base motives or hostile to all other considerations, just as it is mistaken to argue that the low incidence of terrorism over the last decade is proof that the TSA/wars/Fox News/military-industrial complex is 'keeping us safe'.

.....

It also strikes me that some of the people in this thread who are most angrily denouncing the Evil Fascist State and trading hip radical epigrams with each other are equally anxious to condemn those who seem to threaten the establishment, such as earlier this year when the FBI picked up some fringe group who were (maybe) conspiring to kill a cop, or other research into right-wing extremist groups. I do not care for an over-powerful state, but don't care for extremism either, regardless of where it originates on the political spectrum. Others seem to condition their support or opposition on whether they perceive their interests are being served.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:52 PM on December 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


BrotherCaine: Dwarfed by the financial costs of the overreaction to 9/11.

QFT.

I absolutely agree with you, and that's why I'm so frustrated with the situation. I hate living with what the US government is doing in the way of fear-mongering. In my earlier post, I was pointing out that there is more "cost" than just the human lives, and that there is a need to do SOMETHING preventative. HOWEVER I am certain that the current approaches suck, quite frankly.

So I end up being torn between two sides of myself and not liking either of those sides. Not to needlessly repeat myself needlessly, but that sucks, quite frankly. ;-)

Hopefully, BrotherCaine, my inability to express myself well the first time didn't contribute too much to your increasingly shrill state of mind. I hope some time and distance helps. If not, have a beer and put it on my tab. Cheers!
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 4:53 PM on December 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised this relevant piece of info was left out of the article: Feds Warrantlessly Tracking Americans’ Credit Cards.
posted by Marla Singer at 6:03 PM on December 20, 2010


I would like to turn in Jeff, my next door neighbor. That front yard Christmas tree violates the HOA rules and I'm certain that no-account son of his doesn't report all of his tips.
posted by Askr at 7:32 AM on December 21, 2010


Expanding the Surveillance State
posted by homunculus at 8:10 AM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


FBI Expands Probe into Antiwar Activists
posted by homunculus at 8:49 AM on December 23, 2010


this is getting out of hand
posted by clavdivs at 8:50 AM on December 23, 2010


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