Pop Quiz -- Do you have the brain God didn't give a politician?

OK, pay attention carefully here. This is not a trick question.

You're a terrorist. You can bomb a subway, an airplane, or a sporting event. Elsewhere, other terrorists bomb a subway. You notice that all of the local police are now focusing a most of their anti-terrorism energy and making sure that subways aren't bombed here. So, do you bomb the subway, the airplane or the sporting event?

It's really not that hard, folks. If you're a terrorist, being caught in the act of trying to bomb something sort of defeats the point. So whatever you bomb, you can bet it's not going to be the subway for the same reason you and I don't walk into a biker bar and yell "Harley riders are pussies!" (If you do this, please note that your LiveJournal account will be suspended for inactivity.)

So you, the terrorist, wait for a bit, go to an NBA game where the players have longer rap sheets than you do and admire that beautiful off-balance shot from the top of the key right as you vaporize the innocent people all around you1. So what happens then? The politicians demand the police run from the subways to the stadiums and hold inquiries into why the minimum wage security staff trying to stop kids from filching licorice wasn't the elite anti-terrorism squad everyone wants.

And the next terrorist thinks "hey, look! What a pretty skating rink in this mall."

Or they'll notice an uncovered water supply.

Or they'll walk into an elementary school.

Or they'll do any of a million things we can't stop.

This begs the question, if we're so vulnerable, why aren't all of these things happening? Well, despite how hard Rove is trying to play up the Middle Eastern Bogeymen with his Middle Eastern Bomb strapped to his Middle Eastern chest, the reality is, there aren't a lot of terrorist attacks on US soil. Why?

I'll give you a hint: it's not the valiant members of NYPD2 doing random bag checks on the subway. It can't be. If you stop and think about it, you know that.

If you want to prevent terrorism, you have to try and get the most bang for your buck (or the least bang, in this case). Maybe you feel OK about the government violating your civil liberties in an attempt to make the US safer for something or other, but that's not what protects us. What protects is law enforcement doing their regular job. Follow up on those tips. Look into that theft at the gun shop. When the flight school instructor calls and complains that his students don't care about landing the plane, pay attention to that clue. It's experienced, well-trained law enforcement officials who pay attention to what's really going on who make a difference. Not highly publicized random searches that make the public feel good.

Consider a police officer watching two cars switching lanes without turn signals. One is a brand-new Lincoln Town Car and the other one is an old beat-up Ford Mustang with a cracked windshield. Which one does the cop pull over? He knows, from experience, that the Town Car will have insurance (unless it's an NBA player driving). He knows the Mustang driver is more likely to have a suspended license or no insurance. The police officer knows where the likely crime is.

Is this profiling? You betcha! Profiling works if it focuses on true indicators of crime, not when it focuses on DWBs (Driving While Black). Profiling works when the law enforcement official at the border notices that the driver is sweating and nervous, not when the official notices that the driver is an Arab male. Plenty of Arab males are crossing the border and few of them are terrorists. Targeting an entire ethnic is a sure-fire recipe for breeding resentment.

This isn't to say that we should just focus on responding to real crime. We should also be considering viable terrorist prevention techniques. That means finding out the terrorist's real motivations ("they hate freedom" is, at best, a taunt worthy of Kindergarten). That means finding ways of removing the motivation to commit terrorism and that means the United States needs to be a leader in solving some of the real problems in the Middle East. For whatever reason, the United States has never had the will power to do this. The American people have never had the will power to do this. Doing this requires leaderships and administration after administration has failed to realize something that any competent manager could tell them. Leadership is not barking orders. Leadership is inspiring others to follow. Leadership is getting down on your hands and knees while wearing slacks and a tie and showing the new guy how to scrub a toilet. We're not willing to do this.

Instead, we think we're Globocop but ignore the idea of community policing. Instead of punishing innocent people who live near the terrorists, what's wrong with talking to them? What's wrong with getting to know them? What's wrong with trying to help them? Economists have long noted that those who commit crime tend to do so because they think it's easier to get ahead. Terrorists didn't fly planes into the Twin Towers because they hated freedom. They did so because they felt their people were down-trodden and the only way to make the world sit up and take notice is to kill. Unfortunately, they may not be wrong about what it takes to get the world to notice. Palestinians were largely ignored until they started killing people. The IRA would have been a non-entity without guns. When the hell are we going to learn that helping people before things go wrong is better than punishing them after the fact?

Heck, let's face it. Most people don't give a damn about other countries and news organizations see no profit in reporting tragedies oversees unless it's too big to ignore. Do you know about the famine in Malawi? Do you even know where Malawi is? Do you know their infant mortality rate is greater than 10%? Do you know their average lifespan is less than 37 years? Do you know that most of this is preventable? Hell, 80% of the population is Christian. Even Falwell would have trouble objecting (if he fails to notice they're black).

The United States can't prevent it alone. However, we're capable of demonstrating the leadership necessary to inspire the world to work together on problems like this. But we won't. As I sit here drinking a Fresca, typing on my iBook G4, living a life that is fabulously wealthy by the standards of most of the population on this planet, I know that I can't make a difference by myself. So I write my essays hoping that just a few others might be inspired to think about things like this. More and more countries are voluntarily trying to become democracies. No war. No threats. Financial incentives and international peer pressure are doing the trick. In 1994, Malawi held multi-party elections for the first time 30 years. We didn't even have to invade them.

But we did invade Iraq. The recent terrorist attack in Britain was inspired, according the terrorists themselves, by the US invasion of Iraq. Instead of preventing tragedy, we're inspiring it. Meanwhile, police officers are checking random bags in the subways of New York City and making the world a safer place for something or other.

Note that this ramble is loosely inspired by the brilliant writing of Bruce Scheier.

1. It would be less of a tragedy if you rushed onto the court and eliminated the players but people would mourn longer and these petulant, whining millionaire criminals would be heralded as national heroes.

2. That's not meant tongue-in-cheek, either. NYPD has a phenomenally difficult job. Yes, there are definitely some bad apples and I have no way of knowing how decent their police force is overall, but being a cop is not an easy job. We should appreciate the fact that people are willing to do such an important job for such rotten pay.
An excellent piece of writing, C. When I read this, i think the rest of the world must functionally retarded if the common sense doesn't resound obviously to them. the fact that you HAVE to write something like this is discouraging. So the world is cheerfully going down the shitter, but at least we have your brilliant essays as a result. It's a fair cop.
I applaud your insight and exceptional writing skill! It would be great if more people would think like you.
I haven't read that (yet), but it looks like it's going to be disturbing, but fascinating.

Distributed parallel open source mass murder weapons? Was that a tongue-in-cheek jab at the hysteria? (Sometimes subtle humor escapes me)
I don't think it is a joke. The power available to the average individual right now is truly awesome. An incomprehensibly large number of people have near-unfettered and inexpensive access to computing power, comprehensive knowledge, technique and instruction, accelerated social networks, and inexpensive physical materiel.

The vast majority of people are taking this confluence and contributing to movements like open source software, personal fabrication, online education, instant messaging and voip, local networks like craigslist, and *shudder* journablogging.

I think it is an amazing thing because it allows people with imagination to bring imagined graces to life and share them, in a massive outpouring of collective personal creation.

I think it is a serious thing because the forms of power I listed in the first paragraph, which have no inherent morality of their own, lend themselves quite as easily to a massive increase of amateur-level destruction. Pendulums will swing.

It has occurred to me more than once that terrorism is a collection of memes, and that the viral spread of it looks uncomfortably familiar. You can't fight memes with bullets. I wouldn't mind hearing the great scientific and sociological minds of the present/future offer up some radical ideas on picking the battleground and how to fight specific terrorist memes, for those individuals courageous or crazy enough to do it.

Distributed parallel open source mass murder weapons == a mesh of multiple simultaneous cell-phone detonated explosions, the plans for which could be downloaded if one wanted, the materiel for which could be locally sourced on a web forum if one wanted
The New Yorker had a great article several weeks ago about the NYPD's counter-terrorism efforts and how they're leading the nation in terms of effictiveness. I couldn't find it only, but there's a Q. & A. with the author here. I can probably dig up my hard copy for you if you're interested, Ovid.