Overreaction

What we knew when the police and FBI started responding to the LAX shooting was that someone had walked into one of the terminals and shot several people. What the authorities did was to help the victims, check for a confederate, and secure the scene (Terminal 3), which sounds about right…and hold incoming flights to the whole airport on the ground before they took off, which gave air travel across the country a coronary; divert a couple of arriving flights; stop nearly all departures for most of the day; and make the airport inaccessible to travelers by clogging roads with emergency vehicles.  In turn, this crippled the 405 and created hours of stopped and crawling traffic all over the west side.  They didn’t know whether they were in the middle of a large coordinated terrorist event; we  never know that for sure when a gun goes off (or a CO2 “bomb”).   But they did not have enough evidence that they were, or might be, to justify the chaos they ordained.

It was over the top.  It will always be possible for someone to come in the front door of a busy place with a weapon in a piece of baggage or a backpack and shoot people before he or she is stopped. One such incident might be part of a plot reaching out to other airports and other terminals, and might conceivably have something to do with risk to aircraft.  But that way madness lies.  It would have been wrong to close all the movie theaters in Colorado after Aurora, or stop having marathons after Boston, or shut down the Postal Service after one of its massacres: the shooting at LAX was, and reasonably appeared to be, a one-off, localized outrage.  Amplifying the costs to society of events like this on unsupported conjecture about what a fever dream of anxiety could blow it up into does real damage to millions of people and may even increase the likelihood of copycats.  I think security services in charge of public places, including airports, need to get a grip. It is not appropriate to bring a city to its knees to demonstrate how risk-averse the various police agencies are.

In contrast, while I’m on this, is the FAA’s mishandling of the small pocket knife issue for travelers.  Recall that they announced they would allow pocket knives with blades about the size of a Swiss Army Knife (one of those is really a useful thing to have with you when traveling, for mundane things like peeling an orange or opening a beer or tightening a loose screw in one of your gadgets), and then changed their mind.  A knife like that used to be a hijacking device before cockpit doors were secured, but now it’s not.  In fact, I would feel much safer if I knew a lot of passengers each had one to help them deal with one or two hijackers who might get something serious through security.  If we are willing to go up in the air in an airplane at all, merely to get somewhere, we cannot rationally believe that there is no risk small enough to tolerate for convenience and comfort.

Does Joseph Lhota support terrorism?

So Bill de Blasio was a sandalista. Does Joe Lhota really want to stand with the Contras?

Joseph Lhota, former Giuliani apparatchik and Goldwater admirer, is attacking Bill de Blasio, his Democratic opponent for Mayor of New York, for de Blasio’s history of supporting the Sandanistas against the Contras in Nicaragua. De Blasio seems inclined to downplay the issue. Maybe his pollsters know something I don’t, or maybe he just figures that when you’re far ahead in the fourth quarter you mount a prevent defense.

But if less pacific counsels were to prevail, it’s not as if de Blasio doesn’t have a potent response to the attacks. It might go something like this:

Yes, when Ronald Reagan made the United States a state sponsor of terrorism, and when Ollie North was funding the Contras – with a mixture of illegal federal expenditures and smuggling cocaine into the United States – to murder nurses, kidnap farmers, and torture captives– I was on the side of the victims.

Whose side were you on, Mr. Lhota?

Was the Benghazi attack “terrorism”?

The Benghazi attack was irregular warfare not terrorism.

No.

One of the silliest criticisms of the US government in the wake of the assault on the Benghazi diplomatic mission was that it was reluctant to describe it as “terrorism”. Initially it did not, because it didn’t know; a little later Obama did use the word. It’s now CW that it was a “terrorist” attack (a) because it was carried out by Islamist extremists, Ansar al-Sharia, (b) because two of the dead (Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith) were US diplomats.

The Benghazi mission was basically a CIA operation, initially to support the revolution against Gaddafi and later to influence it and to pursue Islamist groups. It was a secret paramilitary operation.

How can you describe the attack on it as terrorism rather than irregular warfare? This would only fit if the attack were essentially designed as an assassination of the US Ambassador, a protected civilian, which does not seem to be the case. The militants didn’t know where he was when they set fire to the mission building, the cause of his and Smith’s deaths.

Would you call the Taliban’s 2009 attack on the CIA compound at Khost terrorism?

It was the USA that decided to define its conflict with al-Qaeda as war not law enforcement. Military operations by al-Qaeda and its associates against US soldiers and spies are therefore just that, unless they target civilians, the definition for terrorism. Collateral damage to civilians isn’t enough, as with US drone strikes. The ex-SEAL security men Doherty and Woods died bravely in battle, not as terrorist victims. (For the record, I’d better repeat that however you define it, it’s a conflict the US has to win.)

Of course you can always twist the word to mean “killing while Muslim”.

Grover Norquist, terrorism, and the stopped-clock rule

Yes, Malkin is always wrong. Goes without saying. But what if she’s right about Grover Norquist?

Frank Gaffney says it. David Horowitz agrees. Michelle Malkin chimes in.

Right. So you already know it’s a lie.

But what if there’s some truth hidden there?

No, of course Grover Norquist wasn’t trying to convert the country to Islam or infiltrate terrorists into the government. All he’s interested in is getting rich by helping make rich people richer and more powerful. But Grover Norquist did identify wealthy American Muslims as likely collaborators in his scheme to make the country a plutocracy, partly on the grounds that the misogyny expressed by some forms of Islamic fundamentalism would be compatible with the misogyny expressed by some forms of Christian and Jewish fundamentalism. (That’s called “family values.”)

And just as George W. Bush was willing to ignore the complicity of the Saudi monarchy – including his good friend Prince Bandar bin Sultan, aka “Bandar Bush” – in the 9/11 attacks, Norquist hasn’t been overly fastidious about his Islamic allies. It’s a fact that Norquist collaborated extensively with Abdul Rahman al-Amoudi, long after al-Amoudi had expressed his support for Hamas and Hezbollah. It’s a fact that al-Amoudi is now doing 23 years in federal prison as the bagman in a plot by Qaddafi to assassinate the Saudi Crown Prince. Yes, the fact that the Boston bombers attended a mosque of which al-Amoudi was the founding president is rather incidental to the current story, but it’s still a fact.

And it’s also a fact – as Malkin says – that any Democrat with comparable ties to terrorism would have long since been hounded out of public life by Malkin’s friends on the Red team. The correct interpretation – that her friends hate liberals more than they hate terrorists – won’t occur to Malkin. But I don’t see any good reason for the rest of us not to remind the world that the majority of elected Republicans in the country have pledged their allegiance to someone with some pretty damned unsavory connections.

Getting what you measure?

Incentives and the Tarnaevs: You get what you measure, even in the counter-terrorism business.

A friend who spent years working for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in a giant federal department reflects on how the Tsernaevs might have slipped through the cracks:

I wonder if law enforcement management and incentive systems contributed to Tamerlan Tsarnaev being discarded as a risk. At OIG, new cases are entered as “open and assigned” randomly to investigators. It then rewards them for “closing” the most O&As. Assembling a difficult case for prosecution counts the same as classifying a case for no threat-no action. Would such a system subtly encourage rapid closure of low-level cases (and cutting corners on the cases handed to the prosecutors)? Theoretically, random assignment evens out the work load within an office.

I think the FBI used a similar system, since OIG originally borrowed it from them. The FBI may have modified the original system, but OIG continues to use the original.

Note that we don’t know that the FBI made a mistake in this case, because we don’t know how many utterly harmless people the KGB tried to make trouble for. But the question is a sound one: What are the incentives facing officials who get such reports?

Does Richard Falk actually exist?

Or is he a piece of Breitbart fakery?

Or is he just a sick figment of Glenn Beck’s twisted imagination, in which “leftists” hate America and root for the people who kill Americans?

As faithful readers will know, I demonstrated years ago that there is no such person as “Governor Sarah Palin”; she’s just a Tina Fey character. Surely the same must be true of “Professor Richard Falk.”

Not only would an actual Princeton IR professor who had peddled the Ayatollah Khomeini to the American people as a freedom-loving friend of “moderates and progressives” have certainly shriveled up and died of shame when the truth came out, rather than writing incomprehensible tracts in self-justification, but even someone stupid enough to confuse Khomeini with George Washington couldn’t possibly have written this drivel, which mostly amounts to saying “Since I lack the guts to murder my fellow citizens, all I can do is cheer for those who have the guts, while celebrating the imaginary ‘decline’ of the country I so despise.”

Seriously. “Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return”? What “evil” was done to the Brothers Tsarnaev by anyone in the United States? When their family was driven from Russia as part of the Chechen wars, the U.S. gave them asylum. They then turned around and murdered three people and wounded hundreds, none of whom they had ever met. Neither Israeli policy toward the Palestinians – of which I heartily disapprove – nor Falk’s loathing of Israel has anything to do with their actions. There’s simply not a word of logic in the entire piece; it’s just the script for a two minutes’ hate directed at America and Israel.

Since no one as loathsomely foolish as Falk could possibly exist, let alone get tenure at Princeton, I conclude that Falk does not, in fact, exist, and that someone at Breitbart simply invented the “Richard Falk” persona and website.

As I tried to explain to Tina Fey, you need to keep your satire within the bounds of plausibility, or it stops being funny.

Boston

It’s always dangerous to make judgments while something like the marathon bombing/murder of MIT policeman/shootout in Watertown/search is underway.  But recognizing that there is much I don’t know yet, my tentative judgment is that the leadership of my former city has kind of lost it.  As I understand it,

  • A murderer, probably armed and dangerous, is on the loose.
  • His appearance, identity, associates, history, family and more are well known and widely disseminated.
  • He is 19 years old,  not Carlos the Jackal with safe houses, a network, and years of experience being on the lam, and especially not [the fictional!]l Jason Bourne.
  • His partner is already dead and not helping him.

The response of the city and nearby suburbs has been to essentially close down: taxis are on the street again, but no public transit, businesses closed, streets empty, Amtrak into the city stopped. [My daughter relays the delicious tidbit that Dunkin Donuts shops remain open at the specific request of the police!] A population of about three million people is doing nothing but hunkering down and being afraid: the back of my envelope says the price tag for this is 3 million x $56000 [median per capita income for Boston] x 1/200 [fraction of working year lost] = 840 million dollars, not to mention the enormous unpriced costs of anxiety and inconvenience.  This response, it seems to me, is appropriate to learning that a dirty bomb or biological WMD or Oklahoma City-scale ANFO device has been set somewhere, not to a kid who might kill a few more people.  Indeed, the conditions in my bullet list above exist quite commonly in every big city and I’ve never heard of a reaction like this.

Someone needs to get a grip. Leadership seems to be wallowing in a positive-feedback orgy of too much adrenaline and too much media attention.

Marathon

Obviously a terrible tragedy yesterday in Boston. It is all the more sinister because of what the finish line of a Marathon typically represents: a supportive, celebratory place of individual achievement.

I have finished two Marathons in my life, the 2004 Richmond and 2005 Marine Corps races. For me, these races were culminations of my losing about 60 pounds that I gained during graduate school (a decidedly unhealthy time for me in many ways) and the birth of my kids (my wife lost weight after childbirth, I just kept going!). One of the most beautiful moments of my life was making the left turn at around the 26 mile mark of the Richmond Marathon and seeing the finish line: I knew that I would finish. I began to weep as people shouted Go Don Go, you did it! (I had my name printed on my race bib) and the crowd roared, even for someone like me who finished in the 4 hour 40 something minute time range.

That is the point of the finish line at a Marathon. Long after the race winner has had a meal and a massage, normal people do extraordinary things, cheered on sometimes by family, but always by loving, supportive strangers. The finish line of a Marathon is quite an experience, and one that cannot be ceded to the acts of yesterday.

cross posted at freeforall

Does Obama claim the power to take you out?

What extraordinary claim of Presidential power is Holder supposed to have made? If it’s unlawful to kill U.S. citizens on American soil without legal process, then police snipers can’t take out hostage-takers. If military force can’t be used domestically Washington had no right to use military force against the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln was wrong to order the killing of Confederate soldiers, and Eisenhower shouldn’t have sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock.

Update Answer: No.

Holder to Paul:

“Does the president have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?” The answer to that question is no.

****

I’ve been known to ask a snarky question from time to time, but right now I’d like to ask a completely serious question: What extraordinary power is Eric Holder supposed to have claimed for the President?

Surely it’s not extraordinary to claim that an official may kill a citizen on American soil without a warrant or an indictment: an FBI sniper can certainly shoot a hostage-taker if it seems the best way to save the life of the hostage. Is there any controversy about that? Or about the authority of that person’s supervisors, up to the President, to give the orders under which that is done?

Nor is extraordinary to claim that military force can – in extreme circumstances – be used against citizens on American soil: cf. Washington personally leading an army to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln ordering the attack at Bull Run, and Eisenhower sending the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. No indictments, no warrants: just the use of the military to assert government control against unlawful combinations.

Is it the combination of the specificity of a sniper going after a hostage-taker with the use of the military? If the Union Army had possessed drones, would it have been “assassination” to use one to kill Lee or Jackson – or Jefferson Davis – even away from an active battlefield? And yet that would have been the targeted killing of an American citizen on U.S. soil without any process of law.

If in fact Anwar al-Awlaki was waging war on the United States from Yemen, then I don’t see why his citizen status should have protected him from being killed, any more than citizenship would have protected an American who enlisted in the German army in one of the World Wars.

Now imagine that al-Awlaki’s base of operations had been Yonkers rather than Yemen. How would that have changed things? It would have made it much more likely that he could be captured rather than killed without undue cost. If he were walking down the street, so that he could be arrested (for murder or conspiracy or treason) or captured (as an enemy combatant), then the decision to kill him rather than giving him a chance to surrender would be unjustifiable. (Surely the mere difficulty of conducting a trial couldn’t justify it.)

If instead he were in a fortified place, or surrounded by armed men, or in a position to throw a switch setting off an explosion when the arrest attempt was made, then the practical situation would have been more like his actual situation in Yemen: killing him might have been possible at acceptable cost, capturing him perhaps not.

The demand for some sort of transparent accountability for such actions – now sadly lacking – seems to me sound, though the notion that having a judge sign a warrant would make everything better doesn’t. But to claim that killing al-Awlaki was “assassination” rather than warfare seems to me a mere rhetorical flourish unsupported by convincing argument, unless someone wants to argue that al-Awlaki was not waging war on the United States.

If Holder were claiming for the President the authority to decide, in non-exigent circumstances where arrest is practicable, that some citizen is merely better dead, that would be an outrage. (Though I’ve got a little list … .) But can someone point me to where Holder has made such a claim?

So I’m trying to figure out the jump from “people – even citizens – making war on the United States may lawfully be killed by military means, even inside the country” to “The President claims the right to kill anyone he dislikes.”

What am I missing?

[Given the sensitivity of the topic, let me reiterate the RBC’s “Play Nice” rules: no insults directed at posters or other commenters. If your only response to my question is that I’m a fascist or blind Obama-lover, you’re welcome to say so: on some other blog. I’d like to devote this comment thread to serious argument about the topic at hand.]