The World My Son Will Inherit

My son Vishnu was born a bit more than three months ago – and what a wonderful whirlwind it has been! Being a father doesn’t leave much time for introspection, but now that I find myself thinking further into the future, I wonder: what sort of world are we leaving our children? The usual laments can be heard throughout mainstream media, that we are running up an insurmountable debt to be born by our children, that Medicare and Social Security are both going bankrupt, that global warming will wreak havoc, and so on. While it’s obvious that the media tends toward hyperbole to draw an audience, some of these are real concerns. Here’s my short list of major American and global issues, and why I’m an optimist with regard to most:
Read the full entry (621 words) …

Crazy AND Competent

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks in the United States? Or in other developed countries, for that matter? With the exception of Israel, which is involved in an ongoing conflict and is surrounded by hostile states, terrorism is still relatively rare in the industrialized world. In many developing nations, on the other hand, from Latin America to Africa and Asia, terrorism and irregular conflict are commonplace. Most of these conflicts have a political root, and internal political stability clearly prevents this kind of ongoing insurgency within the United States. There is another safety net protecting the US, however: there simply aren’t that many individuals in the United States that are both crazy enough AND competent enough to execute a real terrorist plot.

The US market economy provides an amazing wealth and diversity of opportunity for a striving individual; one need look no further than the Mexican border to see that millions desire the opportunity to participate in the US employment market. The great majority of individuals competent enough to even contemplate a terrorist plot find themselves engaged in a productive career path from high school onward. The US, like any place on Earth, also has its share of individuals that harbor destructive or anti-social thoughts, and occasionally even plans for terrorism. Most in this group have no capability to execute on their dangerous ideas, and generally have nothing more than hate-filled invective stewing about in their heads.

Who then is left to cause terror in the homeland? There certainly are skilled and competent individuals in the United States who dislike US policy, and who may even harbor destructive plans. Even within this group, only very rarely will an individual choose to sacrifice the good life of America for the risk incumbent in prosecuting an act of terror. In the US, Timothy McVeigh is a rare example of such an individual. Among the millions of annual visitors to the US, the 9/11 hijackers represent a similarly rare breed.

All of this doesn’t mean that the US government can just drop its guard in securing the nation. Rather, it means that an intelligence-based approach is the only viable option for ferreting out the minority of minorities that is intent on causing harm. With the FBI, CIA, and NSA woefully understaffed in areas such as Arabic translation, it looks like we have a long ways still to go in catching that rare and elusive beast: the terrorist.

Detaining terrorists, or any foreigner?

The United States Constitution and its common law judiciary protect the writ of habeas corpus, a means by which an unlawfully imprisoned individual can petition for release from detainment. Habeas corpus is considered among the most important protections against wrongful imprisonment, so important that it is part of the main body of the Constitution, predating even the Bill of Rights. Why then did Congress attempt to take this right away from individuals living in the United States in the recently-passed bill on detainee treatment?

According to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Senate bill S.3930 (House H.R. 6166), “No court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant or is awaiting such determination.”

Non-citizens of the United States, including permanent residents, could therefore be held indefinitely by the government without ever being provided any of the rights we cherish here in the US. No right to an attorney, no right to a trial, nor even the right to be taken before a judicial body of any sort. If the United States government mistakenly designates a non-citizen as a terrorist, they could theoretically be held until death without having ever seen any aspect of legal or even military justice!

How does such a provision increase the security of the United States? If the government has evidence against an individual, why not allow that evidence to be brought before a judge, or even a military court, to decide whether continued detainment is warranted? If there is a need to temporarily hold potential terrorists before bringing them before a court, then why not establish a 90-day holding period? This would surely be Constitutional, and would enable the state to fight terror while preserving individual rights.

The current form of the Military Commissions Act is repugnant and un-American in its current form, and it is probably also unconstitutional. It is far worse to take away an individual’s right to contest detainment than it is to practice mock executions, forced nudity, and other forms of interrogation banned in the same Act. After all, the latter may humiliate, but do limited permanent damage, while there are few punishments worse than a life imprisonment without a conviction.

Post 9/11 – Are we any safer?

Yes, we are safer in that our sense of vigilance in the US has been heightened, both within the government and within the population as a whole. But in terms of broader American policy since 9/11, has it made us any safer?

We’ve successfully conquered unfriendly regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Numerous unfriendly regimes remain, however, and the population of almost every Muslim nation (and many non-Muslim nations) became vehemently anti-American after the Iraq war. If the US were to conquer Iran and Syria, effectively controlling the entire Middle East, we might gain security against these enemy states. Ah, but enemy states did not attack on 9/11 – stateless terrorists attacked on 9/11. These sorts of terrorists would have thousands of hiding places remaining, and we can never conquer and hold all of them.

Better intelligence and policework have led to the capture of more terrorists than our invasions; it’s time to redirect investment in that direction. At the end of the day, the US will have to come to terms with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. We’re spending 10 billion per month and losing a couple of soldiers per day to control one small nation of 25 million – this strategy cannot work on a wider scale. It’s time to invest in intelligence gathering, domestic security, and arms control. These are the realistic anti-terror strategies for the long run.

On True Costs – and airline security

First, welcome to my blog. I hope to take my incessant ramblings on politics, economics, and societal issues and crystallize some of those thoughts into coherent entries here; if my entries aren’t well written, I hope that they are at least thought provoking!

So, what is the concept of “True Cost”? If we had the power to know the true cost and benefit of each action we intend to take, surely decision-making would become a trivial process. In reality, people cannot predict the future, and they often disagree agree on the cost or benefit of a particular outcome. Still, this form of analysis has its place in policy-making, as it enables us to rationally approach topics that too often are debated in purely emotional terms.

Take, for example, the current security measures implemented in the airline industry. While fears of terrorism are well-founded, given events of recent history, at what point will the cost of extra security, delays, and trashed cosmetics outweigh the perceived benefit of increased security? No real terrorist has ever been caught by airport screeners (which is not to say it will never happen); but is this really the most effective way to effect airline safety?

More broadly, more Americans died from slips and falls (according to the CDC) during 2001 than from terrorism. Should we then live in fear of ladders and slick floors? Thinking individuals can work to balance security and risk in airline security – but they can do so only by weighing the cost and benefits, and not by reacting irrationally in the face of a new threat.