Tuesday, January 12, 2010

underpants of mass destruction

Last month, on December 4th, my friend, Strategic News Service publisher Mark Anderson, posted on his blog part of one of our email exchanges which included the following in the context of global warming:

The so-called “One-Percent Doctrine,” attributable to Dick Cheney, is described thusly: “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

This is a variation of the “
precautionary principle”: “If an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”

If there is a one-percent chance that continuing to pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic climate change, the burden of proof falls on those who would continue to engage in those activities.

Four days later, on December 8th, Thomas Friedman devoted a New York Times column (“Going Cheney on Climate”) to pretty much the exact same point, also citing Cheney’s One-Percent Doctrine and the precautionary principle.

Then, later in the month, I wrote a
blog post about health care costs where I recommended various articles on the subject, including these:

I would start with the excellent piece by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker (“The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care”). … Another good piece on medical costs is How American Health Care Killed My Father by David Goldhill in The Atlantic.

Two days later, David Brooks had a New York Times
column where he wrote this:

This year, magazines had a powerful effect on the health care debate. Atul Gawande’s piece, “The Cost Conundrum,” in The New Yorker, was the most influential essay of 2009, and David Goldhill’s “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” in The Atlantic, explained why the U.S. needs fundamental health reform.

I found these two coincidences deeply troubling. Had my insights really become so conventional they were indistinguishable from those of mainstream pundits? And conservative mainstream pundits, at that.

For that reason, it is with great trepidation that I begin this post by citing … a New York Times column by David Brooks (and without even the mitigating circumstance of beating him to the punch). Last week, he wrote of our current national freak-out over the failed Underpants Bomber:

All this money and technology seems to have reduced the risk of future attack. But, of course, the system is bound to fail sometimes. Reality is unpredictable, and no amount of computer technology is going to change that. Bureaucracies are always blind because they convert the rich flow of personalities and events into crude notations that can be filed and collated. Human institutions are always going to miss crucial clues because the information in the universe is infinite and events do not conform to algorithmic regularity.

Resilient societies have a level-headed understanding of the risks inherent in this kind of warfare.

But, of course, this is not how the country has reacted over the past week. There have been outraged calls for Secretary Janet Napolitano of the Department of Homeland Security to resign … There have been demands for systemic reform — for more protocols, more layers and more review systems.

Much of the criticism has been contemptuous and hysterical. Various experts have
gathered bits of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s biography. Since they can string
the facts together to accurately predict the past, they thunder, the intelligence services should have been able to connect the dots to predict the future.

Dick Cheney argues that the error was caused by some ideological choice. Arlen Specter screams for more technology — full-body examining devices.

In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. …

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions. …

It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.


A big part of the problem, of course, is hyper-partisanship on the right. Responding to childish political attacks almost inevitably creates a childish dialogue. The nearly identical case of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, during the previous administration provides something along the lines of a controlled experiment. The same actions that were met with approval or nonchalance by Republicans in that case are the subject of feigned outrage today. Our formerly reclusive vice president released a
truly unhinged rant against our president (that has to be read to be believed). In all of the spittle he spews at our commander in chief he neglects to condemn … you know, the actual bomb attempt and its perpetrator. The Dark One asserts that President Obama, “seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war.” But, of course, that is exactly what Cheney’s team did in the shoe bomber case – they read Reid his Miranda rights, gave him a lawyer and proceeded to convict him and put him away for life in the Super Max prison in Florence, Colorado. I don’t recall Republicans or Democrats directing a torrent of abuse at Bush and Cheney then.

And it’s not like trying a defendant in military commissions allows the government to disregard all the Constitutional safeguards of a civilian prosecution. The
defendant is also given a lawyer and torture is still illegal. Apparently, Cheney is having trouble getting over the idea that he can’t torture whomever he wants and imprison them forever with no due process of law -- while the American people cower in fear demanding that Daddy protect them. But that old codependency between Cheney and Al Qaeda just doesn’t seem to be working its mojo the way it used to. Nearly two-third of Americans have confidence in the ability of the Obama administration to protect the country from terrorist attacks – a number that is actually up in recent months.

[Bear in mind, this attack on President Obama is coming from the guy who in May of 2001 was named, in
President Bush’s words, to "oversee the development of a coordinated national effort so that we may do the very best possible job of protecting our people from catastrophic harm." The Cheney Terrorism Task Force never met prior to 9-11.]

Cheney also whined about President Obama’s “low-key response” – feeling, presumably, that the president had missed a perfectly good opportunity to terrorize the American people.

Similarly, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, who has never missed an opportunity to turn national security into a partisan issue, criticized Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for appearing "bored" on the Christmas weekend talk shows. "There was no intensity, there was no show of emotion," he said. King obviously would have preferred the female Democrat to appear hysterical and irrational. The GOP’s #1 security guy in the House also had this
great exchange with the host of ABC’s This Week:

George Stephanopoulos: “You are saying someone should be held accountable. Name one other specific recommendation the president could implement right now to fix this.”

Peter King: "I think one main thing would be to – just himself to use the word terrorism more often."

The “main thing” President Obama could do to make us safer would be to use the world “terrorism” more often? That’s the Republican solution? I feel safer already.

Secretary Napolitano took a lot of heat for saying that the “system worked”. What she actually said (
you can read her actual statement here) was the “once the incident occurred, the system worked.” Now, it’s true Hot Pants’ father, a prominent Nigerian banker, reportedly told the US Embassy in that country that he had concerns his son was becoming radicalized. My own father had the same concern when I went back East to law school – he was convinced I would return a liberal. He was right, of course, as was the father in this case. But there are a lot of fathers (and mothers) in the world concerned about the paths their children might be travelling. That doesn’t necessarily constitute “actionable intelligence.” Personally, I always take it seriously when I get an unsolicited message from a Nigerian banker offering to help me. But it’s not like, say, alarmed CIA briefers interrupting a presidential vacation with the warning, “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” Doing absolutely nothing in response to that kind of intelligence – now THAT would be recklessly irresponsible. Nonetheless, I think most people agree that more should have been done with the Nigerian warning.

But on one level, the system did work. As Bruce Schneier wrote (“
Stop the panic on air security” – a good little piece):

The security checkpoints … forced whoever made the bomb to construct a much worse bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or another reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc homebrew -- and a much more inefficient one,
involving a syringe, and 20 minutes in the lavatory, and we don't know exactly
what else -- that didn't explode. …

The Underwear Bomber is precisely the sort of story we humans tend to overreact to. Our brains aren't very good at probability and risk analysis, especially when it comes to rare events. Our brains are much better at processing the simple risks we've had to deal with throughout most of our species' existence, and much poorer at evaluating the complex risks modern society forces us to face. We exaggerate spectacular rare events, and downplay familiar and common ones. … I tell people that if it's in the news, don't worry about it. The very definition of "news" is "something that hardly ever happens." It's when something isn't in the news, when it's so common that it's no longer news -- car crashes, domestic violence -- that you should start worrying.

But that's not the way we think. The more an event is talked about, the more probable we think it is. The more vivid our thoughts about the event are -- again, think television -- the more easily we remember it and the more convincing it is. So when faced with a very available and highly vivid event like the Underwear Bomber … we overreact. We get scared.

And once we're scared, we need to "do something" -- even if that something doesn't
make sense and is ineffective. … Yes, it's security theater, but it makes us feel safer. …

As our favorite statistics whiz, Nate Silver,

Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.

These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 miles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.

Assuming an average airborne speed of 425 miles per hour, these airplanes were aloft for a total of 163,331,261 hours. Therefore, there has been one terrorist incident per 27,221,877 hours airborne. This can also be expressed as one incident per 1,134,245 days airborne, or one incident per 3,105 years airborne.

There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

As Nate notes in
another post:

Since the beginning of commercial air travel, a total of about 6,500 people have been killed as the result of Violent Passenger Incidents -- nearly half of those, or 2,995, came on 9/11 itself. … [T]he innovation of secure cockpit doors and increased scrutiny of suspicious persons at flight school make a literal repeat of 9/11 unlikely …

[W]ith the exception of the 1930s, when there wasn't really enough commercial air travel to provide for a sufficient sample size, and the 1990s, a decade which was a positive outlier in so many ways, the death rate from VPIs has been remarkably constant from decade to decade.

Even though no one died in this incident, it may nonetheless have been a “success”. As Andrew Sullivan

I keep hearing this even described as a failed terrorist attack on an airplane. But was it really? … Think about it. First, what is the major goal of terrorism? It is not to bring down airplanes. It is not to destroy the West. It is, pure and simple, to create terror in people. Why? Because when people are afraid they overreact. … If the intent of al Qaeda in this latest instance was to bring down an airplane, then it failed. But if its intent was to create fear and overreaction, then it succeeded
Heck, 19 bearded fanatics with boxcutters took advantage of a couple of security lapses (unlocked cockpit doors and crew training that emphasized cooperation with hijackers to get the plane back on the ground) and got us bogged down in a couple of wars in the Middle East for a decade or more spending trillions of dollars. Let’s see what a guy with a detonator in his diaper can do. Maybe cause our air transportation system to break down on a busy holiday weekend and provide a pretext for partisan division of the country.

Dick Cheney certainly isn’t alone when it comes to wild overreaction. As Gail Collins said (in a
different context): “Personally, in these moments of crisis, I generally recommend looking to see where Joe Lieberman is going. Then head the other way.” Cue Lieberman:

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), for one, said last weekend that Yemen would be "tomorrow's war" if pre-emptive action is not taken to root out al-Qaeda there.
Now would that Yemen war be before or after
attacking Iran? But why stop with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Yemen?

"We can see the more we learn about the Christmas bombing attempt we could have another conflict on our hands in Yemen, and likewise in Somalia," John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush, told The Hill.
We can’t even escalate in Afghanistan without pulling troops out of Iraq. And now we’re supposed to invade and occupy Yemen and Somalia? Just because some guy incinerated his junk? Al Qaeda is not a country. They are a small group of fanatics – more an idea than an army. As Harry Shearer
wrote in Huffington Post:

The problem with pretending we're at war, rather than understanding we're dealing with a criminal syndicate -- like the Mafia -- is that it gets our resources overextended and tied down in geographical areas, like Afghanistan, while the opponent is free to move and relocate (hello, Yemen!, hi, Somalia!). In fact, the war model weakens us, makes us less able to respond nimbly and quietly …In short, we lumber, they scamper.
Personally, I think the best way of reacting to an incident like this is … mockery. What better way to deny Al Qaeda victory than to avoid overreaction and make fun of their competence and masculinity? I mean, the guy barbequed his own meat. Let’s turn THAT into an Al Qaeda recruiting poster. As Jon Stewart
said, “taint full of gunpowder.” He added:

“Even if the bomb works, there’s gonna be 72 very disappointed virgins.”
Conan O’Brien chimed in:

"Legal experts are saying that if he’s convicted, the underwear bomber could be sentenced to life in a federal prison. But even worse, for the rest of his life he’ll be known as 'The Underwear Bomber.'"
Not to be outdone, David Letterman added:

"Hear about the guy [who] tried to get his underwear to explode? ... He was wearing a pair of Fruit of the Lunatic."

And I leave you with ... Tom Tomorrow:

[click on cartoon to enlarge]

There you go.

Mission Accomplished!

No comments: