Bad Examples for Racial Profiling

Amid the fallout of the Crotch Bomber, there’s been a renewed clamoring for profiling, and indeed, President Obama has instituted enhanced security measures for travelers from 14 countries. Spencer Ackerman makes the case for why this is likely to actually enhance radicalization and make intelligence gathering more difficult. Much of the argument against appears to have a veneer of theory to it, but I think David Frum accidentally highlights a good working example in his defense of a more tolerable form of profiling.

On his blog yesterday, Daniel Pipes reminded us of the procedure that saved an El Al jetliner from a terrorist bomb in 1986. A Palestinian terrorist had seduced an Irish-Catholic chambermaid at a London hotel. The woman, Anne-Marie Doreen Murphy, became pregnant. The terrorist promised to marry Murphy, if she would meet him in Israel for the wedding. He then planted a bomb in her luggage. Here’s the conversation that discovered the plot…

The point here isn’t the example itself, but rather where the example comes from. Yes, it’s true that Israeli security procedures have effectively ended that sort of terrorism, but are Palestinian-Israeli relations really an ideal here? Palestinian terrorism and resistance draws not only the tangible oppressions of continued settlement expansion, but also on resentment from second-class or third-class treatment. Granted the enmity between most Muslims and the United States doesn’t close to resemble the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but surely it’s reasonable to expect that similar policies would have similar effects.

Even if we assume that racial profiling would be effective (and there’s plenty of empirical evidence to show it isn’t), is a world where U.S. relations with Muslims more closely resembles those between Israelis and Palestinians a world we want?


Poor Service Is a Bigger Problem than Terrorism

This is a staggeringly poor use of resources:

The Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) now has a dedicated unit devoted to deterring a terrorist attack in the Metro system. The new anti-terrorism team will increase surveillance of the Metro system, conduct more frequent security sweeps of Metro facilities and tunnels, and provide greater visibility of uniformed officers.

Using a $9.56 million Transit Security Grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), MTPD formed the 20-member, anti-terror team in December. The team, whose mission is to deter terrorists from selecting Metro as a target, will use tactics such as increased surveillance and random, unpredictable patrols of Metro buses, trains, stations and facilities to keep the Metro system and its riders as secure as possible.

Is this a joke? We’re supposed to stop terrorists from targeting the Metro with a team of 20 people through “increased surveillance” and “random, unpredictable patrols”? Does Metro realize that virtually every single terrorist attack comes as a suicide attack? What on earth is a random patrol going to do to someone who is willing to kill themselves? What is increased surveillance going to accomplish? People need to understand that if someone wants to strap a bomb to themselves or bring a machine gun into a metro station or train, they’re going to be able to do it.

At a certain point, there’s just nothing you can do. For example, one way to make sure no terrorists get in a Metro station would be require a strip search. Even leaving aside the enormous inconvenience and invasion of privacy, you’d still have a bunch of people clustered somewhere in line, which as it happens, would be a fantastic target for a suicide bomber.

Don’t get me wrong, we should definitely do what we can to make transportation safer. Simple, low cost things like adding locks on the cockpit doors makes a lot of sense. Costly and irrational security theater that does little to make anyone safer while wasting time and money is one of the ways in which terrorists “win.”

Now, as it happens, this crack team of 20 Terror Hunters won’t do much to disrupt anyone’s commute, but consider for a moment the news yesterday that facing a $4 million shortage, Metro is looking to run fewer trains, less often despite the lack of commensurate demand, thus risking a Metro death spiral.

I realize this money comes from a Federal grant, but it’s indicative of the poor choices we’re making. Terrorism is not nearly as big a problem for Metro users as inadequate service.

Transparency of Closed Door Negotiations

So there’s been some debate about whether or not C-SPAN should be permitted to cover any informal negotiations that work to merge the House and Senate health care bills. It sounds obvious that we should strive for maximal transparency, but I agree with this:

Consider the Senate floor debate.[…]Senators from both party played to the cameras. Grandstanding, launching unnecessary rhetorical attacks, but barely tweaking the bill on the Senate floor. The real substantive change, if you’ll recall, came in the form of Reid’s amendment (and when he merged the two Senate bills). At times, the rhetoric on the floor sounded like cable news chatter. The real discussions and compromises — Sens. Lieberman’s and Nelsons objections, for instance — were reserved for private discussions; incidentally, the two Senators didn’t appear on the Senate floor until the 60-vote deal was struck.

One way or the other, there are going to be backroom negotiations. As Ezra Klein argues, televising these will ensure that participants eschew candor for fear of reprisal from opportunistic political opponents and result in negotiations between staffers (who are unelected). What’s more, there will unquestionably be leaks during closed door negotiations and the final bill will be released to the public before a vote, so it’s not even clear how much this increases transparency. What it will do will further delay reform and boost ratings for cable news networks who make hay out of day to day legislative grandstanding.

Finally, the argument that C-SPAN is merely attempting to hold President Obama to his campaign promise of increased transparency is clever, but doesn’t really apply. President Obama didn’t campaign to be princeps, this is an issue of the legislative branch.

Metro Suicides and the Press

Here’s the latest from WMATA on the most recent “Metro Suicide.”

A 50-year-old woman from Kensington, MD, who was struck by a Red Line train at the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metrorail station at 11:36 p.m., on Monday, Jan. 4, died this morning (Tuesday, Jan. 5) as a result of her injuries.

The Metro Transit Police continue to investigate, but preliminary information shows that the woman intentionally placed herself in the path of the train.

She was hit by a six-car train traveling toward Shady Grove.

Beyond the disruption these cause to thousands of people, consider the emotional trauma experienced by train operators who find themselves unwitting suicide accomplices. Imagine opening a door to discover it had been tied to the trigger of a gun and simply by going about your daily business, you had played a direct role in ending the life of another human being. It’s a horrible thing to force to upon someone else.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain experienced by someone who sees fit to take their own life or the anguish that their loved ones and friends must experience in the wake of a such an event, but we ought to do whatever we can to prevent these types of things. It’s really quite difficult to prevent suicides structurally, but the WMATA, DCPD, and local press really ought to read these recommendations from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as there is a demonstrated effect of “suicide contagion.”

…between 1984 and 1987, journalists in Vienna covered the deaths of individuals who jumped in front of trains in the subway system. The coverage was extensive and dramatic. In 1987, a campaign alerted reporters to the possible negative effects of such reporting, and suggested alternate strategies for coverage. In the first six months after the campaign began, subway suicides and non-fatal attempts dropped by more than eighty percent. The total number of suicides in Vienna declined as well.

Whack-A-Mole and Priorities

It seems like the newest hot spot in Terrorist Whack-A-Mole: Global Edition is Yemen. I’m pretty confident there aren’t a lot of observers in the United States who know much about it, as evidenced by the strange framing of this article in the New York Times on the diplomatic challenges of working with the country.

SANA, Yemen — The United States is quickly ramping up its aid to Yemen, which Washington sees as a revived new front against Al Qaeda. But one of the most delicate tasks will be managing the relationship with the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has filled his government with numerous members of his family and who wants to ensure that his son Ahmed succeeds him, Yemeni officials, analysts and Western diplomats say.

Well, certainly that’s not helpful, but we don’t get to the real rub until several paragraphs later.

Mr. Saleh presents the Obama administration with a problem that is all too familiar in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is amenable to American support, but his ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy has limited reach. And his willingness to battle Al Qaeda, which he does not view as his main enemy, is questionable.

Much of Yemen is in turmoil. Government forces on Monday killed two militants suspected of being with Al Qaeda. There is another round of rebellion in the north and a growing secessionist movement in the south. In important provinces where key oil resources are and where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is strong, government troops and the police largely remain in their barracks or in the central cities. Order outside the cities is kept by tribal chiefs, with their own complicated loyalties.

In other words, our objective interests in Yemen do not align well with those of Yemen. This, much more than Ali Abudal Saleh’s penchant for promoting family members, dims prospects for fruitful cooperation. While it’s likely the U.S. can entice Yemen to more vigorously pursue Al Qaeda within it’s own borders by significantly boosting aid, it’s not really clear what this gets us in the long term when you consider that one of Al Qaeda’s motivating principles is fighting corrupt governments that are supported by the United States. Finally, it’s not like there aren’t any number of other failed states to which Al Qaeda can head to hatch their next crotch bomber.

I’m not suggesting that we should simply ignore our interest in Yemen, but it does highlight the difficulties inherit to a highly activist foreign policy. If the United States seeks to project its power all across the globe, we will have to understand that the trade offs, both in terms of resentment bred abroad and in the actual cost of these undertakings, which divert resources from domestic priorities to arguably minimal concrete gain. Think about health care. Studies show that 45,000 Americans die annually owing to lack of health insurance, yet there’s considerable disagreement about the value of a universal health bill that would cost $87.1 billion per year and actually lower the deficit. Now consider that that in 2010, we will spend literally 10 times that figure funding the Department of Defense — not to mention even more time and money towards TSA — to what demonstrated value, exactly? The crotch bomber doesn’t hold a candle to the suffering and death caused by our health care crisis.

Tiger Woods Is Not Normal

Sigh. I don’t think I can resist commenting on the reaction of anyone who is finding themselves profoundly disappointed by the fact that one of the richest, most famous, successful athletes in the world cheated on his wife. I’m not sure what in the long history of philandering sports superstars would actually surprise anyone about Tiger Woods’ marital indiscretion, but I’m constantly amazed by the expectation that professional athletes to adhere to some woefully unrealistic ideal of white collar wholesomeness. To borrow a quote friend of mine, “it’s just disappointing to see that we’re not more than the sum of our urges.”

Believe it or not, I sympathize with the general theme my friend expressed. But not as it applies to people like Tiger Woods. Chuck Klosterman has made a similar point about Gilbert Arenas, but why would anyone expect someone like Tiger Woods to be a normal Joe (and we won’t even get in to the fact that many normal Joes and Janes engage in extramarital dalliances themselves)?

Consider for a moment what makes Tiger Woods so much better than his peers. Sure, here’s a very talented golfer, but more than anything else, other golfers live in constant fear of his competitiveness. You’ve heard all the cliches on TV before, “Tiger never gives in,” or “Tiger just wants it more.” Ask yourself, what kind of person does it take to be so relentlessly competitive, to care that much about winning, to feel such an urge to dominate that anything less than first place, every time is a disappointment? I’ll tell you: not the kind of person you’d expect to be the standard bearer of modest bourgeoisie morality. We’re talking about someone who — to borrow a common descriptor used in sports — is like an animal, a person driven by a near evolutionary impulse to never relent. Why would it be reasonable to expect someone with such a competitive drive to have otherwise flawless impulse control? It’s completely absurd.

To be perfectly clear,  none of this justifies Woods’ actions and I’m not apologizing on Woods’ behalf. There’s little question his actions have been hurtful to his wife and will have lasting repercussions for his children. But it seems odd that people would celebrate Woods’ near inhuman will to dominate in one arena and hold some expectation that he’s an otherwise normal guy. That sort of compartmentalization really would be inhuman.

If you want to root for a normal guy, root for Phil Mickelson.

War Spending Is Monopoly Money, Apparently

Evan Bayh thinks paying for foreign policy commitments lowers its priority.

In case you haven’t heard, House Appropriations Chair Rep. Dave Obey has proposed that the 30,000 additional troops to be deployed in Afghanistan in 2010 be paid for with a tax. Predictably, soi dissant fiscally responsible deficit hawks absolutely loathe the idea. Ezra Klein has the goods.

David Obey’s effort to fund the expansion of the Afghanistan war with a surtax is running into some opposition. Evan Bayh, who generally presents himself as a paragon of fiscal rectitude, flatly said it’s not going to happen. “National security comes first,” he said, though it’s not clear how paying for a war relegates it to coming second. Ben Nelson wants to sell war bonds, which is to say, he wants us to borrow.

I’m really having difficulty summoning the language to describe how galling this is. These are the same centrists who oppose health care reform on the grounds of fiscal responsibility even though CBO has projected that reform will actually reduce the deficit. So somehow, it’s controversial to think we’d take measures to simultaneously lower the deficit and save some 45,000 preventable American deaths per year, but it’s unthinkable to pay up front for just one year of military commitment in Afghanistan? If the Afghanistan “surge” is such a first order national priority, then why can’t we be expected to pay for it? What’s the logic here? Does a willingness to pay interest on a war signal that it’s really a priority? Like, you don’t really want it if you aren’t overpaying?

Or maybe it’s that if Americans actually had to pay for a hyperactive foreign policy, the public might actually lose appetite for endless commitments with loosely defined objectives? I don’t know, you be the judge.

I’ll also note from a historical perspective that taxes increased significantly during World War II, which whatever your thoughts about Afghanistan, we can all agree was a national security priority.