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Saturday, August 12, 2006

England's Own-Goal

As the fifth anniversary of September 11th approaches, the terrorists have struck again. A tale from a parallel universe? Weren't last week's attacks on American planes leaving England foiled?

What constitutes success for the ‘Islamicist Fascists' (to use President Bush's terme du jour)? Is it killing a couple of thousand innocent Americans? Heck, cigarette companies do that every two days, but I don't see Osama bin Laden teaming up with Philip Morris. No – the key concept is disruption. Disruption of Western economies and disruption of everyday life.

The images of the twin towers falling and the Pentagon in flames are the enduring memories of September 11th. The vast majority of the victims of those atrocities died invisibly. Hollywood is beginning to personify and memorialize them, but there were no news pictures of mangled corpses and burnt flesh.

Al-Qaeda won that particular battle by frightening America's citizens and damaging its economy. Terror abounded and terrorism therefore prevailed. But the emotional impact of the images of 9/11 was enough to justify extreme reactions and allow extreme political measures to be implemented.

August 2006 is different. The images in the news have been of garbage cans full of soft drinks and perfume; travelers tired and stranded; British police with machine guns. Nobody died and no buildings were leveled, yet bin Laden and his cohorts must be rubbing their hands in glee. The economic impact of the security forces' decisions to ban various items on board planes with be immense. Many people will stop traveling by air altogether; it just won't be worth the trouble. Every Muslim man carrying a sports drink or an iPod will receive fearful glances, even on trains and in shopping malls.

So what should the authorities have done? Isn't it their job to protect us, and aren't these new procedures the only effective way to do so?

Almost no human activity is risk-free. Everything becomes a cost-benefit analysis. For the average person, this analysis is subconscious. Nobody thinks, as they get in their car, "I might be involved in a fatal crash today," but they know it's possible. The benefits of personal mobility simply outweigh the improbable costs. The same is true of air travel. However, as of this week, the subconscious has become conscious. That's exactly what terrorists want.

If the British and American governments would like to save lives at the expense of personal mobility, why not ban automobiles? Traffic accidents kill over 40,000 people every year in the US alone, while the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 and 7/7 ‘only' managed to kill about 3,000. Since the terrorists' goal is disruption, surely banning everyday substances from air travelers' carry-on luggage has achieved that goal for them. What is the cost-benefit analysis here?

War creates casualties, but nobody suggested evacuating the entire city of London during the Blitz; the cost-benefit analysis calculated by Churchill and his ministers must have included the psychological effect on both the enemy ("Those Londoners are a tough lot.") and the public under attack ("We'll never run, we'll never give up.")

The ‘stiff upper lip' legacy of the Blitz is being destroyed by the British government itself, egged on by a Bush administration which takes every opportunity to grab more power at the expense of its own citizens' freedom. A conspiracy theorist would surmise that Bush and bin Laden have more than just oil wealth in common – they have both made political gains from last week's events.

And mine is not the only view that terrorism didn't lose completely last week. Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of low-cost carrier Ryanair, said the government, "by insisting on these heavy-handed security measures is allowing the extremists to achieve many of their objectives."

The good news is that the British security forces succeeded in preventing a catastrophe. But, by implementing extreme measures at airports, they've blindly played into al-Qaeda's (or other Islamicist fascists') hands. If instead they had done nothing to affect the lives of ordinary citizens in the wake of the arrests, wouldn't the victory have been even greater? The answer depends on whether the politicians' ultimate goal is to protect liberty or to increase their own power.

British Home Secretary John Reid responded on Sunday to an open letter from several British Islamic organizations accusing the government of providing ideological ammunition to the terrorists through their policies in the Middle East by saying, "We make decisions in this country by democracy, not under threat of terrorism." But this statement is mere empty rhetoric, as last week's travel restrictions were quite clearly made under threat of terrorism.

Trumpeting the intelligence forces' success in foiling the plot and advising travelers to be alert would surely have been a more effective course of action for the British government, allowing life to continue without disruption, while incurring minimal risk that an actual attack might occur. A cost-benefit analysis that in the long run would frustrate the terrorists and reduce panic for the general public.

This time, the battle was won, but while we allow cowardice to reign, the war is still being lost. Let's just make sure our leaders are shooting in the right direction.

(1) comments

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Who is Hugo Chavez?

Yes, he's the democratically elected president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but he's also a royal pain in the ass for George Bush and his cohorts. On the day that the US banned arms sales to Venezuela for no apparent reason (why not ban arms sales to real dictatorships in Africa?), Chavez is in England at the invitation of the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. He gave an interesting interview to two reporters from The Guardian.


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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Too much security means no security

A fascinating article in today's London Guardian outlines just why the US's obsession with the collection of personal data for travelers (whether to protect the public from terrorism or plagues) undermines the very security it's supposed to improve. Because it's now ever more simple to steal someone's identity, which of course is exactly what would benefit a terrorist.


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Monday, April 03, 2006

Who were the good guys?

Following a campaign by the Guardian newspaper for the release of secret files, it was revealed today that the British military ran secret torture camps in the mid-to-late 1940's. Inmates were interrogated, starved, beaten and tortured in an attempt to extract information about Soviet methods and plans.

The photographs, which required an extra appeal from the newspaper to get the British government to release them, are reminiscent of images from Nazi-run concentration camps.

Links to article 1 and article 2.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

American Gulag

That's the title and subject of a revealing opinion piece in today's LA Times by Thomas Wilner, a lawyer who represents six Kuwaiti prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay for over four years. Very few people outside the US military are allowed inside the prison, so Wilner's eye-witness account is particularly precious. Needless to day, the worst fears of human rights organizations are true. Still no sign of capturing Osama bin Laden, however...

Link (reg. reqd. or use

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Monday, February 13, 2006

The New Venice

It's difficult to know what to say about Dubai. Limitless investment, limitless power for the governing families, and expansion so fast that this article sometimes reads like science fiction to me. I certainly don't feel like visiting, but rich people do, apparently. Is this the city that could lead to an Arab renaissance?


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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Cartoon circuit-breakers needed

This well-reasoned piece by Muslim Malaysian political scientist Dr. Farish A. Noor examines the Danish Muhammad cartoon furor from the perspective of a rise in 'Muslim globalization' and also proposed the need for individuals who act as 'circuit breakers' in such situations to prevent demagogues on both sides stirring up more trouble.


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