Category Archives: Security

Winners and Losers

A child who was in 2nd Grade when the 9/11 attacks took place would now be old enough to go fight in Afghanistan. A whole generation of young adults can barely remember a time when America was not at war. We have undermined the traditional values of American society, creating a culture of fear and obedience, and destroyed our economy, all in pursuit of an unattainable objective.

Every war has winners and losers, and the common people of both sides are usually among the losers. We aren’t just losing the War on Terror; we have lost.

What The Hell is Wrong With Us?

Seriously, America, what the fuck are you thinking? Here, go read this:

Meet the Resistance

Got it? The TSA is insisting that they either grope you or get to see you naked before you get on a plane. Least you have any illusions about what those scanners show, here’s a picture:

That’s low resolution, like you’d get with a bad cell phone camera. The actual scanner image is much more detailed, but that’s about what a TSA employee would get if he snapped a picture of the scanner image with his cheap cell phone, to enjoy later.

Now, do you really think this is a good idea? You’re okay with the the government mandating that you be either exposed or sexually assaulted before getting on a plane? Okay, maybe you are. But are you okay with your KIDS being exposed or sexually assaulted just to get on a god-damned airplane?

Are we not only to prostitute ourselves to any government employee who insists that access to our bodies is his right, but we must pimp out our children too? Are we, as a people, really THAT pathetic?

“Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Frederick Douglass

What the fuck does it take before we get our fat asses up off the couch and say, “Enough!”

He Would Be Ashamed

“We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep into our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.” — Edward R. Murrow

Have We Lost?

The TSA’s latest crazy scheme to find and remove any shred of human dignity from American air travelers has gotten a lot of attention lately. (I’ve collected a number of stories at Everyone wants to be safe, but no one wants the TSA’s hand up their ass. How to reconcile those positions?

First, we must look at a basic assumption of how the TSA works; that they can make us safe. They can’t. I have yet to see anything at an airport that would stop me from carrying out a major terrorist act, and I haven’t put any real effort into thinking about it. You can bet that the people who want to carry out such attacks have given it a great deal of thought.

So, we must concede that if the terrorists get to the airport, some of us are going to die. There is nothing we can do about that.

Let me repeat that:

If terrorists are determined to kill some of us, they will succeed, and there is nothing at all that we can do to prevent that.

The TSA’s efforts have been increasingly frantic and intrusive because they are tasked with preventing something that cannot be prevented. Imagine if you were given the job of eliminating darkness from your home town. You might run around setting up floodlights, checking people’s houses to make sure that every closet had a light on inside, begging for a bigger budget for more streetlights…and you would fail. For all of your efforts, for all the laws passed to make people keep their lights on, there would still be darkness.

If a bad-guy wants to badly enough, he can find a way to kill Americans. Accept that.

Once we have accepted that there is no 100% foolproof way to prevent every terrorist attack, we can start looking at serious answers. The most obvious is to catch the terrorists before they carry out their attack. Stop them before they get to the airport. That’s what happened with the liquid-explosives bombers. We still have to dump out kids’ sippy-cups, but it doesn’t matter what kind of explosives they had because they never made it to the airport.

We need better intelligence gathering, and better sharing of that information between agencies. The real failure in the recent ‘underwear bomber’ incident wasn’t that the explosives in his underwear weren’t detected by airport security. The real failure is that all of the information saying ‘this is a bad guy who you should do something about’ (including a tip saying exactly that from the man’s own father) was completely ignored.

If we get information saying, “This man right here is going to try and carry out a terrorist attack” and let him on the plane anyway, does it matter how thoroughly we search everyone else?

The other thing we need to do is control our responses. The way to fight terror is not to strip-search six-year-olds; the way to fight terror is to not be afraid. If a terrorist attack does take down a plane, or a train, or a line full of people waiting patiently for some underpaid high school dropout in a TSA uniform to grab their balls, the thing to do is NOT PANIC. Treat it as we would any other plane crash or accident; investigate what happened to see if there are any lessons to be learned, and go on about our lives.

The way to fight terror is to not be terrified.

The point of a terrorist attack is to make people afraid, and to make them overreact. Since 9/11/01 we have done exactly what the terrorists wanted, at every step of the way. How smart is that?

Some of us may die in a future terrorist attack, but that would be true no matter what the TSA’s policies are. People are dying now because of those policies. ‘What?’ you say. ‘How can that be?’

Because of increased, and increasingly humiliating and intrusive, security at the airports, more people are driving instead of flying. Driving is more dangerous than flying. An estimated 40 people a month die on the roads who would have lived if they’d flown. (Full story here.) That’s at least 4,000 people since the TSA was created.

The 9/11 attacks killed about 3,000 people.

Our airport security has killed more Americans than the terrorists have. How smart is that?

If the TSA backs down on their current ‘scan and grope’ regimen, and some future terrorist takes down a plane (and one will, whether the TSA is scanning and groping or not), there will be people who say, “See! We told you that this would happen if we stopped grabbing your balls!”

Ignore them. Do not panic. Do not overreact. Yes, if we force the TSA to let us retain our dignity when we fly some of us will die. It might be you; it might be me. But some of us will die anyway, without their dignity, and some of us our dying already.

The terrorists cannot destroy our way of life. Only we can do that. And we are.

TSA: Broken From The Start

The real problem with the TSA isn’t that they have stupid rules and arbitrary rules that don’t do anything to protect us. The real problem is that that’s the only way they can work.

The TSA is focused on stuff. They have a list of stuff that they’re not supposed to allow on the plane. That seems like an easy way to keep air travelers safe, right? Keep dangerous things off the plane, then there won’t be any danger.

The problem is that dangerous stuff isn’t the problem. A person could get on an airplane with a box full of hand grenades, an M-60 machine gun, a knife, a sword, and even the most dangerous thing of all, a pair of nail clippers, and that flight would not be in any slightest danger at all if that person doesn’t intend any harm.

But a person with evil intent could wreak havoc with a pencil and piece of string.

There is an old saying that there are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people. That is absolutely the case when you are talking about things like airplane security. Taking things away from people who don’t intend to do any harm does absolutely nothing for passenger security. (In fact, it may do harm, by reducing the passengers’ ability to protect themselves from the people of evil intent. Imagine if the non-terrorist passengers on 9/11 had all been carrying pistols.)

I’ll say that again: Taking ‘dangerous’ stuff away from good people is totally useless.

Taking dangerous stuff away from bad people isn’t all that useful either, because practically anything can be dangerous. The trick isn’t to try and stop dangerous stuff; the trick is to stop dangerous people.

The TSA is completely hopeless at that. They don’t even try.

People say that the Israeli method of doing airport security wouldn’t work here because of the volume of air travel, and that’s true enough. The lesson to be learned from how the Israelis do security isn’t to copy everything they do, but look at where their emphasis is. The Israelis do some scanning for bombs and the like, but most of their passenger screening efforts are on looking at the people, not the stuff.

That is what we don’t do, but what we should. There are no dangerous weapons, only dangerous people. The TSA isn’t interested in dangerous people, only in looking at their list of dangerous stuff and making sure nothing on that list gets past them. (Though they’re not even very good at that.)

That is why the TSA must go. It is a broken organization; no matter how good they get at doing what they do, it won’t make us safer because they do the wrong thing. And they aren’t even any good at that.

Welcome to 2010, Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair has a nice article saying just what I’ve said for a while now. The ending is practically verbatim.

Whose Security Are We Spending For?

This is a start. Not a very good start, but a start. Panetta is talking about cutting back some of the unnecessary increases of the last decade, not actually reducing military spending to a reasonable level.

The looming cuts inevitably force decisions on the scope and future of the American military. If, say, the Pentagon saves $7 billion over a decade by reducing the number of aircraft carriers to 10 from 11, would there be sufficient forces in the Pacific to counter an increasingly bold China? If the Pentagon saves nearly $150 billion in the next 10 years by shrinking the Army to, say, 483,000 troops from 570,000, would America be prepared for a grinding, lengthy ground war in Asia?

These questions are, frankly, stupid. Let me rephrase them.

Would 10 US carriers, backed by decades of experience in carrier operations, be sufficient to defeat China’s single barely-completed aircraft carrier that they bought from a salvage yard? Would five US carriers be up to the task?

If we were stupid enough to get involved in a major land war in Asia, would the difference between 570,000 troops and 483,000 really make a difference? Or even 250,000?

Arguments against reducing the size of the military establishment aren’t about national security. They’re about making sure that money keeps getting funneled to defense contractors (and back to the politicians, in the form of ‘campaign contributions’). Our actual military needs are tiny, and could be (and have been) served by a substantial navy (about half the size of the one we have now), and a minuscule army. Our needs are small, but the people hooked on that spending are strong.

Generals and admirals will always ask for more troops and ships. It is old wisdom that generals who go over-budget get scolded, but generals who fail get fired. Even so, our Congress spends even more on defense than the military asks for. Ask yourself why, and who is served by that spending. Is it you? Or the members of Congress, and the corporations that pay them?

Cost of War

The ‘War on Terror’ has cost us between 3 and 8 trillion dollars.

Do you feel safer, or just poorer?

We Won’t Be Fooled Again — Oh, Hell; Yes We Will

Just The Facts

Jason Alexander is almost completely wrong. His heart is in the right place, but, I’m sorry, he’s just flat wrong on most of what he says there. The one point he has right is that this is not the time for reasonable people to be silent on gun control and the sorts of tragedy we recently had in Colorado. As in so many other areas of public debate, we cannot leave the debate to the crazy people on either extreme.

On pretty much everything else, he’s wrong. We should have a reasonable discussion about this issue, but that should start with a firm understanding of the facts and, in his words, the ‘hard statistics.’ I would love to find some way of keeping any weapon–not just a particular scary-looking weapon, but any weapon out of the hands of the kind of nutcase who is going to go out and slaughter a bunch of people, but the problem is harder than it’s often made out to be. I have a few, probably futile, thoughts at the end, but first let’s look at some of Jason’s points.

He starts out by dragging out that old saw, long disproven, that the 2nd Amendment only applies to militias. (It was exactly this argument, by the way, back in the ’90s that led to the rise of right-wing groups calling themselves ‘militias.’) For the record, the explanatory clause at the beginning of the sentence doesn’t change the meaning of the main clause: “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” To argue otherwise is to argue that ‘the people’ means something different in the 2nd Amendment than it does in all the rest of the Constitution. There is no basis for doing so, and courts up to and including the US Supreme Court have upheld that the 2nd Amendment right to arms is an individual right.

You may not like it, but that’s what it says, and means. Change it if you like, and can, but until you do, that’s the constraint that you have to work in.

Jason says:

100,000 Americans that die every year due to domestic gun violence

Not true. The figure for 2007 (the most recent year I have numbers for) is 31,224. Of those, 17,352 were suicides, leaving 12,632 homicides. (Including criminals killed by the police.) 12,632 is a tragic number, but a far cry from 100,000.

By the way, in 2007 there were 41,059 motor vehicle deaths in the United States. More people died on our roads on July 20, 2012 than James Holmes shot. No one outside their families cares about them, though.

What purpose does an AR-15 serve to a sportsman that a more standard hunting rifle does not serve? Let’s see – does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes. Does it fire farther and more accurately? Yes. Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? Yes.

Allow me to correct his answers.

Does it fire more rounds without reload? Yes.

Does it fire farther and more accurately? No. Most hunting rifles fire a more powerful cartridge to a greater distance with more accuracy.

Does it accommodate a more lethal payload? No. See above. The Remington 700, to pick an archetypal ‘hunting rifle,’ fires a 7mm cartridge. There are a number of bullets available for that round, but one example fires a 7.1 gram slug at 1,100 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 4,057 joules (2,992 foot-pounds).

The AR-15 fires a 5.56mm cartridge. The common 55 grain (3.56 gram) load has a muzzle velocity of 965 meters/second, for a muzzle energy of 1,658 joules (1,223 foot-pounds). We can easily see that the ‘more lethal than a hunting rifle’ AR-15 fires a bullet with less than half the energy of a common (and not particularly powerful) hunting rifle. (More powerful rifles, like a .458 Winchester Magnum, pack over 7,000 joules of muzzle energy.)

Jason asserts that if ‘these weapons’ were regulated, James Holmes might have been caught before he carried out his atrocity.

Regulated, he would have had to go to illegal sources – sources that could possibly be traced, watched, overseen.

Does Jason really think that illegal sources are more closely monitored than legal channels? That someone is tracing every illegal firearm transaction? Do I even have to explain how silly that is? It’s the legal transactions that have a greater chance of someone noticing an unusual purchase going on. (More on this later.)

These weapons are military weapons

This is a common misconception. The AR-15 style weapons that civilians can buy are not military weapons. They are designed to look like military weapons, but looking like something doesn’t make it that thing. The biggest, most crucial different between the civilian AR rifles and the military M-4 and M-16 rifles is the thing that makes the military version worthwhile as a military weapon; the ability to fire bursts or full-auto.

I’m afraid we must here digress back a few decades for a bit of history. A hundred years ago, military rifles were much like the Remington 700 that I mentioned above; slow-firing rifles that shot a big, powerful bullet a long way with great accuracy. In the 1930’s and ’40’s, as arms-makers were trying to shrink the machine gun so every soldier could carry one, studies found that most soldiers never took advantage of the great range and power of the full-sized rifle. The rifle might be accurate out to over a mile, but a soldier on the battlefields of Europe would almost never see a target that far away.

The big full-sized rifle cartridges were also too powerful to fire full-auto (where the gun continues to shoot as long as the trigger is held back) in a hand-held weapon. Arms makers began to look at ‘intermediate’ cartridges; something in between the large rifle cartridges and the smaller, pistol, rounds fired from submachine guns.

Thus was born the modern ‘assault rifle,’ in the form of the German StG 44 (Sturmgewehr–Storm Rifle 44). It fired a cut-down version of the German 8mm Mauser rifle cartridge and carried 30 of them in a removable box magazine. Compared to the older, full-sized, rifles it was crude, cheap, underpowered, and inaccurate. Its only virtue was that it could put out a lot of those underpowered bullets quickly.

The influence the design had on the AK-47 and M-16 is obvious.

The civilian AR-15 rifles and carbines imitate the military M-4 and M-16, but lack the ability to fire full-auto or bursts (three bullets for each trigger-pull). (You also can’t get an M203 grenade launcher attachment.) They shoot faster than a bolt-action hunting rifle, but still only a tenth as fast as a military assault rifle.

(An aside; the Batman shooter, James Holmes, started his rampage with an ordinary shotgun. Then he switched to his AR, but the imposing 100-round magazine he had attached to it jammed and he switched to a pistol. It would be interesting, in an admittedly morbid way, to know how many people were killed by each sort of weapon.)

These are the weapons that maniacs acquire to wreak murder and mayhem on innocents. […] I’ll say it plainly – if someone wants these weapons, they intend to use them. And if they are willing to force others to “pry it from my cold, dead hand”, then they are probably planning on using them on people.

As of 2008 about 2.5 million AR-15 type rifles had been sold in the US. Over 300,000 were sold in that year, so now in 2012 we have probably about 3 million floating around the country.

Of those 3 million inherently evil guns that are only acquired by people who plan on using them on other people, how many have been used in mass-shootings over the past, oh, twenty years? Ten? Fifteen? Let’s say thirty, though I don’t think it’s been that many, just to make the math easy. That’s .001%.

Would it make you uncomfortable to point out that police departments are the most eager AR-15 purchasers of all?

I have been reading on and off as advocates for these weapons make their excuses all day long. Guns don’t kill – people do. Well if that’s correct, I go with @BrooklynAvi, let them kill with tomatoes. Let them bring baseball bats, knives, even machetes — a mob can deal with that.

The (common) mistake Jason is making here is assuming that if weapons like the AR aren’t available, mass-murderers would use something less effective. Unfortunately, history doesn’t bear that out. As I explain above, the AR-15 isn’t the most potent rifle available, and besides the biggest mass murders (by individuals; states are still the all-time champions, by many orders of magnitude) of all time have been carried out by bombs. Timothy McVeigh didn’t use an AR to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City. Andrew Kehoe didn’t use an AR to kill 45 people at the Bath Consolidated School. They both used bombs. Vasili Blokhin used a humble .25 caliber Walther pistol, about as weak a firearm as can be found, to murder about 7,000 Polish officers, but that’s something of a special case.

James Holmes’s apartment was booby-trapped with numerous explosive and incendiary devices. Who is to say that if he hadn’t been able to buy an AR-15 he wouldn’t have firebombed that theater? Anyone who thinks that firebombing a crowded theater wouldn’t have killed more than twelve people has never seen the inside of a crowded theater.

The Problem

There are two things that determine how much harm an individual can cause other people; capability and intent.

An invalid who can’t raise his arm from his hospital bed might have all the malign intent in the world, but hasn’t the capability to go on a murderous rampage. Most healthy adults have the capability to go forth and slaughter, but no intent to do so. I’ve talked about this before.

When there is a tragedy like the Aurora shooting we as a society make the same mistake as when there’s a terrorist attack; we focus on the capability. In particular, the tools used to carry out the attack, and where the attack took place. We look for bad stuff, and we want to make the bad stuff go away.

The problem isn’t the capability; the problem is the intent. I could kill every person in a crowded movie theater. So could you. But, I don’t want to do that. I presume you don’t either. Most people don’t. It’s not bad stuff that makes people do bad things, it’s bad people using stuff to do bad things.

Most people have the capability to do great evil, but not the desire.

We can’t stop bad people from getting their hands on stuff. There are too many things that can be used to hurt people. You want to take away all the guns, everywhere in the world? Okay. How about gasoline? That’s what Tim McVeigh used; gasoline and fertilizer. There are a lot of other nasty things you can do with it too, which I won’t go into for obvious reasons.

To me, “Why do some people want to do this?” is a more interesting and productive question than, “How can we keep people from getting this kind of gun?” or “How can we protect our movie theaters?” What in our society is causing this sort of alienation and hate, and what can we do about it?

The Solution

Hell if I know.

An outright ban on guns, or even certain types of guns isn’t the answer. The UK has enacted a sweeping ban of all semi-automatic weapons over .22 caliber, but gun crime has gone up. Knife crime has also gone up, even as stricter knife bans are passed. The US ‘Assault Rifle Ban’ of the ’90s had no impact on crime.

(Update 7/23/12: Some very polite (of course) people from the UK have pointed out that my information here is out of date. After some years of trending upwards, gun crimes in the UK have been trending downward, since about 2004. I’m not sure how much of that is due to the ban finally eroding the pool of firearms available to the public, how much is the rise in CCTV surveillance in that decade, and how much is a change in crime reporting that went into effect in 2003, but credit where credit is due. Despite one mass shooting incident in 2010, gun crime in the UK is steadily declining.)

Focusing on the bad stuff doesn’t work. We keep trying it, it’s so easy and tempting and obvious, but it just doesn’t work.

As with terrorism, we have to look at the bad people. This is hard, very hard, because until the nutcase goes on his shooting spree, or sets off his bomb, he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. We can’t, as much as some people might want to, arrest ‘pre-criminals.’ That’s a very scary road to go down.

The only thing I can think that might work, at least a little–and I hate like hell to say this–is running all firearm-related purchases through a national database. Guns, ammunition, accessories, training classes, all of it. Let people buy what they want, but track it. Any unusual purchases–someone who’s never bought a gun before goes out and buys five in one week, for example–throws up a flag in the computer system and that person’s information gets routed to a special investigative division of Homeland Security, who would then check this person out.

Here’s the thing; this can’t be some ordinary beat cop, some TSA package-grabber, who does the investigating. The investigator has to be more psychologist than cop, because the idea isn’t to determine what the person has done, or what they’ve bought, or what they may be guilty of. We already know that what they bought, and they may not be guilty of anything, yet. The idea is to determine their mental state, to try and get an idea of what they might do.

In other words, if someone starts buying a bunch of guns out of the blue, send a smart person over to talk to them and try to find out if they’re a fucking nutcase who’s about to flip his shit and kill a bunch of people.

Sure, there are problems with this system. Private party sales won’t be tracked. I don’t like the idea of the government doing the tracking in the first place. A lot of perfectly innocent people are going to be pissed off by some badge-flashing shrink knocking on their door and wanting to talk for a few minutes. Good lord, the idea of Homeland Security actually being able to do a competent job of setting up a system like this?

The thing is, though, it could work. And I can’t think of anything else that can.

Edit, 2/2/13: I was always uneasy, as I say above, about having the government track this sort of information, but suggested it as something that could work if done properly. In the six months since, though, the government has shown, most emphatically, that it is interested in banning guns, not controlling crime. That is, gun control is the goal, not the means to an end. So, to hell with that. Even their response to a plea for help with a mental health issue is a swat team assault. Pretty much exactly not what I suggested.

So, fuck them.

The Morning After The Night Before

A little follow up to my last post.

Jason Alexander was kind enough to retweet a link to that post, and I’ve gotten an amazing amount of feedback on it, from a number of very nice people. Many of those people think I’m crazy or full of shit, of course, but they were very nice about it. It’s humbling to have so many people have kind things to say about a little piece I knocked out in an hour or so before bed.

I had been keeping mostly silent on the issue of gun control, because it seemed like a dick move to be talking against gun control while people were still mourning their loved ones. Jason Alexander’s post made me realize that that wasn’t stopping the dicks. If reasonable people (and I do try) stay silent, that leaves the extremists to define the debate, and that doesn’t do anyone any good, so I decided to speak up. I’m glad I did.

A few more thoughts.

With the system we have now in the US, everyone has to pass a background check before buying a gun. The check is supposed to prevent convicted felons and people with a history of mental illness from buying guns. That’s a good thing. It can’t stop every nutcase–there are too many who don’t yet have any kind of record–but it’s a good start.

The problem with it is that too many of the relevant agencies don’t submit mental health data to that database. Fixing that seems to be a much simpler, less contentious, and more effective preventative than banning a single type of gun. Just get these agencies to follow the law and submit their data to the national background check database.

Combine that with the purchase flagging system I described last night and I think we could have something that’s pretty effective. (Implementation detail; when a person is flagged for questionable purchase patterns, it doesn’t just tap an investigator. It would also flag that person in the background check database, stopping any further purchases until they’ve been checked out.)

The purchase-flagging database and investigation idea isn’t perfect, of course. It wouldn’t catch everyone. There would have to be controls to keep it from being abused. But it would catch a lot of people. It probably would have caught James Holmes. He was crazy enough that just his voicemail message made a gun club think he was too unstable to be a member.

Whatever we do won’t be perfect. We can’t stop every bad person from doing bad things. But the ones we can stop, we should.

I believe very strongly that people have a right to own the means of self-defense. But I also believe that people have a right to not be shot by some nutcase while they’re just trying to watch a movie. Reconciling those positions is not easy, and anyone who claims it is is either lying or foolish. Or both.

We should also try to live up to the example of the Norwegians; a year after their own tragic massacre they haven’t changed their laws at all. They haven’t panicked.

“The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation.” –Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

These are tough issues that reasonable people can disagree on, but only by disagreeing reasonably do we have some chance of finding common ground, and a solution.