Category Archives: 9/12

So What Have We Learned?

I’ve moved on to the 9/12 world, but yesterday Charles Stross wrote:

Twelve years ago today, a cell of angry, highly committed, and (by the standards of their peers) extremely well trained young men executed the simultaneous hijacking of four airliners, and used them to mount a suicide attack on those they perceived as their enemies.

What have we learned from this?

I thought it was an interesting question, and I left an answer in the comments on his post. I’ve decided to expand on it a bit here.

I don’t know what we learned, but I learned that my country was a hell of a lot closer to reverting to totalitarianism than I thought. We didn’t go all the way, or even get very close, but for years after 9/11, every moderate voice was shouted down as we stampeded away from freedom.

I learned that many people thought that the wall between national intelligence and domestic law enforcement was a flaw that allowed 9/11 to happen, rather than a carefully constructed bulwark against tyranny  After various abuses in the latter half of the last century, we made the explicit decision to rein in the security state by keeping those two activities separate. But after 9/11, a lot of people started insisting that this was a loophole we had to close. (Happy now, bitch?)

I learned that surprisingly few people thought that “Patriot Act”, “Homeland Security”, and “If you see something, say something” had creepy totalitarian overtones.

I learned that airport security could get much, much, much, much more annoying than it already was. And that my fellow Americans really don’t seem to mind having internal checkpoints.

I learned that there’s no such thing as a temporary security measure. When Congress started discussing emergency temporary security measures in the form of the Patriot Act right after 9/11, I remember thinking that, yeah, it could be a worthwhile tradeoff to tighten security for, say, the next 90 days, just to try to head off any terrorist plots in motion. Instead, Congress passed the Patriot Act with a two-year expiration, and then when it was about to expire, a bunch of national-security panic-mongers acted like the expiration date was a terrible oversight that had to be remedied, rather than an intentional policy decision.

I learned that anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry was more common than I realized, although not as bad as it could have been.

I learned that every government agency in the country was willing to exploit fear of terrorism to get more money and power (and Lenco Bearcats — they really wanted those things). And that it would work out very well for most of them.

I learned that just because a President’s most vocal critics are idiots, that doesn’t translate in any way to redeeming qualities for the President.

I learned that grabbing foreigners and torturing them is something we do now.

I learned that when some pundits and politicians argued in favor of sacrificing personal liberties for national security, they don’t really mean the word sacrifice, because they don’t actually see us losing our liberties as a loss.

I learned that just because our leaders want to do a good thing (“Let’s democratize the Middle East!”) doesn’t mean they actually have a plan that will work. Really, I knew this before, but I somehow thought military planning would be more realistic…I don’t know why.

I’ve learned that the FISA courts act on a much broader scale than I ever anticipated. They don’t just let the NSA look at some people’s records, they let the NSA look at all our records.

I learned that after all the tough talk about the evils of the Bush administration, once the Democrats were in power they did nothing to punish anyone, and they took everything Bush did and ran with it.

in 9/12

A Few Thousand Other People Worth Remembering

I’ve written a few posts about 9/11 over the years. My wife used to work for Aon, which lost over 170 people on 9/11, and she’d met at least one of them, a nice guy named Jim Berger. And a few years ago, I stumbled across the memoral for U.S. Navy Commander Dan F. Shanower in Naperville. Then last year, I wrote about my discomfort over the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan, and I explained why I had nothing more to say about 9/11.

As it turns out, I have a few more thoughts about 9/11 bouncing around in my brain after all, and this is as good a time as any to ramble on about them.

First of all, remember that the number of Americans who died on 9/11 is much larger than the three thousand people who died in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and on the hijacked airplanes. I don’t have an exact figure, but the true death toll for September 11, 2001, is much closer to ten thousand people.

That’s not some conspiracy theory, it’s mortality statistics. There are about 300 million people in the United States, and a small percentage of them die every day. If 9/11 was otherwise a typical day, it means that in addition to the 3000 deaths from terrorism, another 7000 Americans passed away for other reasons.

I can’t get it out of my head that the families of some of those people have got to feel a bit…cheated, maybe? Imagine, for example, the wife of some liquor store clerk who was shot to death in a robbery on the night of September 10th, 2001. She wakes up the next morning for one of the worst days of her life, only to discover that nobody seems to care.

I don’t want to be all holier-than-thou about this, but just this once, when we think of the people who died on 9/11, let’s try to think of all the people who died on 9/11.

On another matter, I’m bothered by how often we we make the mistake of judging people’s actions by the results, rather than by the expected probability distribution when they acted. Consider a guy who buys a lottery ticket and wins a million bucks. Was he smart to buy that lottery ticket? If you say yes, because he won all that money, you’re part of the problem.

At the time he made the decision and acted by purchasing a ticket, he didn’t know he was going to win. All he knew is that there was a very small chance he would win, and a much larger chance he would lose. A typical state lottery probably only gives away half the money as prizes, which means that, speaking in terms of probability (and simplifying a lot), he could expect to lose half of what he spent on the ticket. Financially speaking, buying that ticket was a bad move. It’s only pure luck that prevented him from paying the price.

I bring this up in connection with 9/11 because the exact same argument applies to the firefighters, police officers, and EMTs who responded to the World Trade Center and died in the collapse. We call them heroes, and indeed they are. But they didn’t know they were going to die when they made the decision to respond to the scene and enter the towers. All they knew was that there was a risk —  a non-zero probability of death — and they went ahead and did it anyway. They are heroes not because they died, but because they risked death.

I think that’s an important distinction because there are plenty of other people — other firefighters and police and EMTs and anyone else who helped — who took the same risk that day, and happened by chance to survive. That they didn’t die does not in any way diminish their heroism. So remember the dead heroes, but also remember the heroes who still walk among us.

Exclusive WindySat Imagery!

In an effort to keep you up-to-date, Windypundit has sent its spy satellite (WindySat) to check out the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan to see if we could spot the downed Black Hawk helicopter. Sure enough! There it is. That black “X” shaped object to the left of the building.

OK, I admit it. WindySat is down for repairs so I had to get this from GeoEye.
Still, pretty cool…

Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead!

Yes, the Wicked Witch is dead.

The world is certainly a better place without Osama Bin Laden in it.

I would have preferred that Bin Laden had been captured and put on trial, but I suppose he had no intention of allowing that to happen. A capture and trial would have highlighted the difference between vendetta and justice. It also would have softened the inevitable images of Americans celebrating.

I feel satisfaction, not joy, at Bin Laden’s death. Crowds of Americans exalting in celebration over the death of an enemy is predictable, and even understandable, on some level. Despite this, all I can think of when seeing such displays is the footage of extremists around the world celebrating like fools the death of thousands on 9/11. I despised them for celebrating death.

It would have been nice to think that Americans were better than that, but I suppose a mob is a mob, no matter how enlightened the individuals.

Update: Damn. Now I can’t get that blasted song out of my head…

Police State Security Meets Puritan Morality

For almost a decade we have had heavy-handed rights abuses all in the name of keeping people safe from threats which kill far fewer people than traffic accidents do each year. We allow the files on your laptop to be perused with no cause. We take for granted that people can be detained indefinitely without being tried or even accused of a crime. The United States now condones tortuous acts, which we ourselves once prosecuted others for, as normal. We think it’s OK to listen in on private conversations of anyone without any judicial review at all. The American public accepts all this, and more, in the name of safety.

But there is something that your average American, bred with a history of puritan ethics, just wont stand for. That is allowing someone else to either see or touch your private parts.
I understand this on an intellectual level, from a sociological perspective, yet am still gravely disappointed by it. Personally, if someone wants to look at me naked before getting on an airplane, I really don’t mind. They won’t enjoy it, but it won’t bother me. If someone would like to fondle my family jewels while waiting at an airport, they can give it a go. In fact, I know people who would pay someone to do that while still in the airport parking lot.
I suppose it does make a difference that I’m not sought out by GQ as a male model, and that when you pay for an “aggressive pat down” you get to chose who does it. But again, these are things that just wouldn’t bother me that much, especially when compared to getting arrested and detained without warrant or trial.
Of course, I’ve never been a particularly good Protestant. I don’t have the ingrained moral outrage at pornography, prostitution, revealing swim wear at the beach, or anything else that reminds us we are humans who, on occasion, have sex.
So let me join the masses of people who are complaining about the new invasive full-body scans and new aggressive pat down policies now being used by the TSA. I’m not complaining about these new systems, though. I’m complaining about all of the Americans who couldn’t be bothered to complain about their freedoms being wrenched away in the name of security, yet can’t overcome their moral outrage at being seen naked in a fuzzy, monochrome image by a bored security worker before getting on an airplane.
The new security scans do, at least, provide one good service to the country. We will finally be able to see (or feel) if the American citizen can grow a set of balls.
in 9/12