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December 2, 2010

Close the Washington Monument
Posted by Patrick at 11:59 AM * 84 comments

Bruce Schneier is sane:

Securing the Washington Monument from terrorism has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult job. The concrete fence around the building protects it from attacking vehicles, but there’s no visually appealing way to house the airport-level security mechanisms the National Park Service has decided are a must for visitors. It is considering several options, but I think we should close the monument entirely. Let it stand, empty and inaccessible, as a monument to our fears.
The whole piece deserves to appear in every newspaper in the country. Read it and pass it along.
Comments on Close the Washington Monument:
#1 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 12:22 PM:

Bruce Schneier speaks from a position of consideration. I don't know if what he proposes is "the right thing", but it woudl definitely be a very symbolic act...

#2 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 12:35 PM:

It's pretty embarrassing to watch how we handle the threat of terrorism, compared with other nations that have done a much more grown-up job of getting on with life under similar threat.

#3 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 01:36 PM:

They could shine colored lights on it every night to show the terror level.

Or just leave it at yellow. That'd be appropriate.

#4 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 01:43 PM:

When you consider what we are doing, if it is so important then yes shut it down. Won't happen, but that kind of shocking statement can be what we, the US as a whole, needs to snap out of the stupid funk.

I think it would symbolize what the US Government has become. An empty shell trying to espouse beliefs that it no longer holds while protecting itself from the people it is supposed to be made of and for.

#5 ::: Alex R. ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 01:53 PM:

I posted a long analysis about the number of deaths by terror versus other causes of death at Daily Kos about 5 years ago. I'm glad to see that other people are finally using numerical comparisons to discuss the real dangers of death-by-terror.

#6 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 02:00 PM:

Wow, that's a great piece. He's more than sane; he's eloquent.

#7 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 02:23 PM:

Anybody else remembers the scene from Harryhausen's "Earth vs The Flying Saucers" where the good guys find a way to bring the saucers down and one crashes into the Washington Monument?


#8 ::: Matthew Daly ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 03:47 PM:

Kip @3: They couldn't do that, since they are discontinuing the five-stage system. It took them nine years, but it must have finally dawned on them that there is no set of future circumstances at which could downgrade our defensive posture.

I'm sure that the thought of shutting the Washington Monument altogether isn't lost on the Parks Service. It wasn't so many months ago that the Supreme Court shut their front doors for security reasons, and they weathered the predictable reaction to such a symbolic gesture. If Bruce is looking for a Modest Proposal to secure the capital, it should be that we build a wall around the whole damned city and have secured shuttlebusses that take tourists from the embarkation center to the various museums and tourist destinations. Only elected officials and corporate lobbyists would be allowed unrestricted travel in the city in order to properly safeguard the city that symbolizes our national heritage and liberties.

#9 ::: Sylvia ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 03:53 PM:

This is a great piece, I'm forwarding it all over the world.

I like Kip's suggestion @3 as well.

#10 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 03:56 PM:

They should really move the monument to a beach, reinstall it at a 45 degree angle, and let citizens rent horses to ride by it, just for the proper Planet of the Apes ending effect.

#11 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 04:48 PM:

Kip W #3: You win several internets.

#12 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 05:20 PM:


I wish to God the costs were only measured in embarrassment. Those are the least of the costs.

The real damage has been done by hugely shifting the balance of power within our society toward the military, spy agencies, and police/internal security agencies. A huge component of this has been increasing the concentration of power[1] in our country, and the closely related concentration of information about everybody[2].

That shift in power and resources is self-re-enforcing, and it has been going on for a long time. But the war on terror has massively accelerated it, and I no longer really believe it will be reversed. I don't think my kids will grow up in a free country anymore. I hope I'm wrong, but I don't see it. For example, I see no reason to expect that anyone who can be elected will reverse it substantially--even if every election from now on optimizes for least police-statey/security-statey candidate, what's the actual impact?

[1] There is a corresponding increase in the concentration of wealth; it's not the same thing, but I think it has many of the same causes.

[2] Those are much the same thing.

#13 ::: Joris ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 05:32 PM:

Bruce has been showing of his saneness for a long time, and this again is a beautiful piece.

#14 ::: philsuth ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 06:54 PM:

Yesterday's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal would appear to be singing from the same songbook.

#15 ::: Dave Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 08:18 PM:

Lila @ 2, Do we handle the threat of terrorism?

#16 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 08:42 PM:

albatross: My kids are more or less grown up already, but I kind of hope if I have any grandchildren they grow up elsewhere.

Dave @ #15, if "give the terrorists everything they want" counts as handling, yeah. Mission accomplished, as Bruce pointed out.

#17 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 10:27 PM:

The Park Service's ideas have upset a lot of people.

As you might imagine, this is a big topic here near DC and someone suggested that they ought to open the stairs again -- if people have to walk to the top, they won't wear bombs.

#18 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 10:55 PM:

Words fail me.

This is pathetic. We've become a nation of screaming cowards.

#19 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 11:26 PM:

("Bringing to an end the hours-long standoff between police and the approximately eight-inch tall figurine.")

#20 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 02, 2010, 11:30 PM:

Cowards is the wrong word.

Words or phrases that might fit better:

"Officious," "grandstanding," "role playing tribal guardians," and "fucking idiots."

#21 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 12:01 AM:

Naw, Stefan. Cowards. Fracking morons too, to be sure, but...oy.

#22 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 12:29 AM:

PHN @ 19:

I'm wondering just how much explosive they figured could be packed into an 8" high figure that they felt it necessary to clear a 100 yard radius around it. I can recall being no more than 20 yards from a one pound block of TNT and not even having an ear drum broken by the bang.

Perhaps the problem isn't fear of terrorists, but rather fear of litigation if they don't err on the side of extreme caution and someone gets hurt.

#23 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 12:59 AM:

#21: Really, I don't think any of the "experts" were actually afraid of the thing, or thought it could do any harm. They're more like medieval witch hunters telling us to be afraid of dotty women. Puffed up authoritarian status hogs.

#24 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 01:15 AM:

At least we can rest easy knowing that if Denver is ever invaded by Micronauts, the cops can handle it.

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 01:28 AM:

Bruce Choen (STM):

I suspect the concern was that it was near a bridge support. It still would be better if they knew how big a hole it could make in solid concrete, and how much damage a bridge support can sustain without the bridge falling.

I also suspect that there was a verbal ratcheting-up of concern there. You know the sort of thing: one person suggests a possibility, and then no one has the formal expertise to say, "no, that's ridiculous." Even if they're all thinking it.

#26 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 02:49 AM:


No tamping, almost no close contact: almost all the energy would have gone into the air. The coupling between air and solids is very inefficient.

The safety distance doesn't sound crazy: look up nail-bomb. The old cast-iron grenade--the American "pineapple" or the British Mills bomb--scattered a few large fragments over a huge distance.

There's a huge amount of irrational fear in that situation, but, once you cross the line into possible-bomb territory, there are some quite rational fears.

#27 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:50 AM:

Also consider the audience-slant here on Making Light: The most likely reaction to seeing a toy robot in an incongruous place would probably be "Hey, neat!"

#28 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:14 AM:

At least we're not like those crazy Islamic fundamentalists1 who see unbridled sexuality2 in every innocent conversation between unmarried adults3 or uncovered head of female hair4. You can't do anything innocent and fun without the Morality Police5 swooping down and arresting everyone in sight.6

Hate to live in a completely obsessed and paranoid society like that. It must totally repressive there. Thank God we live somewhere more rational and free.

(Hm. My irony meter appears to be broken. Must look into fixing it.)

1. Americans
2. terrorism
3. toy left unattended
4. art project
5. Bomb squad
6. blowing stuff up

#29 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 05:15 AM:

Dave Bell @ #26:
Going by the write-up for the (Swedish, as that's the manuals I have easy access to) m/56 hand grenade, the approximate distances are:

** "explosive shockwave - deadly very close up" (no distance given, from conversations with peopel on the design side of things, this is at most a few inches from ~200 g of TNT)

** "fragments - deadly up to ~5 metres"

** "furthest fragment - couple of hundred metres"

#30 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 06:17 AM:

Avram @ 24... if Denver is ever invaded by Micronauts

I still have that sketch of Acroyear that Al Milgrom had done for me.

#31 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 08:10 AM:

Bruce Schneier is also unexpectedly off-Web at this instant, and I don't much like the way my automatic reaction seems no longer to be, "Damn! Site maintenance!"

#32 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 08:45 AM:

Gray @31: relax, Bruce is just travelling. (I had email from him a couple of hours ago.)

#33 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 10:09 AM:

abi: does this mean you think I should rethink my dream of leaving a paper mache 14 m sperm whale in a public place in Boston to Denver instead?

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 10:28 AM:

Bruce @33:

I think you shouldn't be flaunting your fearlessness in front of patriotically terrified Americans. Even if your sperm whale is harmless, it sets a bad example and contributes to creating an atmosphere where anyone can just leave stuff in public places.

That's what you people don't understand. It doesn't matter if that robot was full of explosives or not. If we create a culture where people promiscuously leave things about, then when the terrorists do it, we'll be caught unprepared. Because leaving things lying around will be the norm. It's practically giving aid and comfort to the enemy, putting a toy in a public place.

Look at it this way. Respectable, righteous people can either leave things around in public, or they can leave them in their own houses. Only malefactors have to put things up in public. So if we get the respectable people to restrain themselves, to refrain from leaving things about in public, then we can more readily identify the terrorists.

You're still free to leave whatever you want, wherever you want in your own house where no one can see it. That's freedom enough, isn't it?

Now that we're clear on that, can I point out that all airplane hijackers have one thing in common? They all got on airplanes. This is something that a responsible and safety-conscious American government should discourage.

Ah, wait, I see someone is already on that job.

#35 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 10:47 AM:

Entrenched false memes:

1) Risk can be eliminated

2) Security equals peace

3) Doing something is always better than doing nothing

4) More information equals better decisions

The problem with these is that they're all somewhat true. Risk can be reduced, security is important, actions are (mostly) necessary, and good information is useful. But sometimes I think our national motto is "whatever is worth doing is worth overdoing".

But I'll be cautiously optimistic. I think we'll finally get tired of the ghosts jumping out and yelling "BOO!".


#36 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:00 AM:

So, to recap: terrorists need no longer purchase, manufacture or possess dangerous and/or illegal items such as explosives.

Terrorists need no longer expose themselves to danger by scouting out locations of critical importance or maximum symbolic value.

Terrorists need no longer risk incarceration by commiting acts obviously intended to cause alarm or disruption.

Instead, they can pretty much place any object anywhere in the U.S. where people might notice it and think it looks odd, and then sit back and wait for the neighborhood to be shut down and the police and emergency services to waste several dozen person-hours and tie up a crapload of equipment.

And of course, all they need do to interrupt public transportation is to dress funny or look nervous.

#37 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:09 AM:

I knew there was something fishy about that Tom Servo.

#38 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:25 AM:

abi #34:

So much for Book Crossing, then?

#39 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:28 AM:

joann @38:

It's a major topic among geocachers, certainly.

#40 ::: Madeleine Robins ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:36 AM:

Bruce Cohen@22: it's not the explosive power of the robot the HSA should be worried about--it's the fact that it was in contact with its Alien Overlords and sending back data on the woefully misplaced defensive tactics of our species. Next come the flying pie plates...

#41 ::: Ingvar M ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:43 AM:

Recent Schneier on airport scanning techniques (also, as mostly, well worth a read).

#42 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 11:47 AM:

Just for the purposes of meme-tracking, it seems germane to mention that the Soviets used to disguise anti-personnel mines as toys in Afghanistan, with results that I shouldn't need to elaborate on.

#43 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 12:02 PM:

it seems germane to mention that the Soviets used to disguise anti-personnel mines as toys in Afghanistan

For the purposes of meme-tracking... I'm not sure if this is actually true. Air-dropped PFM-1 butterfly mines certainly look as though they could be toys, and were often mistaken for toys by kids - but they weren't deliberately designed to look like toys.

#44 ::: eric ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 12:23 PM:

Oh what I wouldn't give for the Onion quality reporting that would follow someone leaving a 6" pianist in some similarly exposed location.

#45 ::: Dave Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 01:52 PM:

Eric @ 44, I'm not convinced that the staff of the Onion is not, in fact, writing our news stories.

#46 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:02 PM:


A CIA-agent memoir from a few years back revealed that the "bombs disguised as toys" story was just that: A story. Anti-Soviet propaganda.

It worked. I remember feeling outrage and indignation when I read about those back in '80. The "proof" included pictures of kewpie-doll like items.

NB: This doesn't mean that actual landmines, cluster bombs, and unexploded ordance weren't and don't continue to be a horrific problem. Or that the Soviet's invasion was in any way justified.

#47 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:08 PM:

Bruce E. Durocher II @ 33:

No, put that whale on the beach in Southern Oregon. They know what to do with whales down there.

#48 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:15 PM:

Madeleine Robins @ 40:

I understand the robot was heard to mutter "Klatuu barada nikto" just before they blew it up.

I think I'm going to take the action figure of Beethoven I've got on my shelf and put it over by the Freemont Bridge just to see what happens. Come to think of it, the reaction to the stuffed figure of the mayor of Munchkin City might be even more interesting.

#49 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 03:21 PM:

My statue of Atomic Robo is less than 6 inches tall, but he's holding a big gun.

#50 ::: Larry ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 04:58 PM:

Steve C. @ #35: That reminds me of a conversation I had with someone recently. I explained you build your systems and procedures around it with the intent that they will fail. Your job is not to prevent all failures (which is impossible). But to prevent as many as possible while mitigating risk and impact of the failures that occur. I am starting to think most people don't understand the idea that total security or total reliability is a pipe dream.

#51 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 06:34 PM:

Paging We Have Issues Publishing? The ZynVaders' cover is blown!

#52 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: December 03, 2010, 07:44 PM:

@50 you build your systems and procedures around it with the intent that they will fail. Your job is not to prevent all failures (which is impossible). But to prevent as many as possible while mitigating risk and impact of the failures that occur.

Larry, can you come to work with me on Monday and explain this part to my boss? (An individ whose chief complaint is "But this would work fine if [everybody] did [everything] exactly [the way I want it] every time!" They can't, they don't, and it doesn't.)

#53 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 09:25 AM:

In re Patrick's #18 and the terrorists winning, I present to you a bit from Eric Frank Russell's Wasp (a favorite novel of mine when I was in young, well over forty years ago).

To give a little background: There is an interstellar war in progress. The Terrans are outmanned and outgunned by the Sirian Combine. To destroy the fighting capacity of the Sirians, the Terrans resort to unconventional tactics.

The novel follows the adventures of a Terran agent, James Mowry, who is placed, solo, on a Sirian planet called Jamec.

We join the novel already in progress:

This sudden switch from phase four to nine meant that the oncoming Terran spaceship must be carrying a load of periboobs which it would scatter in the world's oceans before making a quick getaway. Almost certainly the dropping would be done by night and along the known sea-lanes.

At college Mowry had been given full instruction about this tactic and the part he was expected to play. The stunt had a lot in common with his previous activities, being designed to make a thoroughly aggravated foe hit out left and right at what wasn't there.

He'd been shown a sectionalized periboob. This deceitful contraption resembled an ordinary oil-drum with a twenty foot tube projecting from its top. At the uppermost end of the tube was fixed a flared nozzle. The drum portion held a simple magneto-sensitive mechanism. The whole thing could be mass produced at low cost.

When in the sea a periboob floated so that its nozzle and four to six feet of tube stood above the surface. If a mass of steel or iron approached to within four hundred yards of it, the mechanism operated and the whole gadget sank from sight. If the metal mass receded, the periboob promptly arose until again its tube poked above the waves.

To function efficiently this gadget needed a prepared stage and a spotlight. The former had been arranged at the outbreak of war by permitting the enemy to get hold of top secret plans of a three-man midget submarine small enough and light enough for an entire flotilla to be transported in one spaceship. Mowry now had to provide the spotlight by causing a couple of merchant vessels to sink at sea after a convincing bang.

Jaimecans were as capable as anyone else of adding two and nothing together and making it four. If everything went as planned the mere sight of a periboob would cause any ship to race for safety while filling the ether with yells for help. Other ships, hearing the alarm, would make wide, time-wasting detours or tie up in port. The dockyards would frantically switch from the building and repair of cargo vessels to the construction of useless destroyers. Numberless jetplanes, copters and even space-scouts would take over the futile task of patrolling the oceans and bombing, periboobs wherever they might be found.

The chief beauty of this form of naughtiness was that it did not matter in the least if the enemy discovered he was being kidded. He could trawl a periboob from the depths, take it apart, demonstrate how it worked to every ship's master on the planet and it would make no difference. If two ships had been sunk, two hundred more might go down. A periscope is a periscope, there's no swift way of telling the false from the real and no captain in his right mind will invite a torpedo while trying to find out.

Used copies of Wasp are widely available in the ten-dollar range.

#54 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 09:36 AM:

James Macdonald @ 53... Is that part of the novel supposed to be satirical? I'm afraid you'll say 'yes'.

#55 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 10:37 AM:

I don't know what you mean by "satiric," Serge. While Russell wrote generally light and humorous SF, and the tone of Wasp is light, the entire novel reads like a textbook in unconventional/asymmetric warfare.

Before he's done, our protagonist is sending letter bombs with intent to kill, for the purpose of causing the government to waste resources and turn against their own population:

If some Sirians could be given the full-time job of hunting down and garrotting other Sirians, and if other Sirians could be given the full-time job of dodging or shooting down the garrotters, then a distant and different lifeform would be saved a few unpleasant chores.

But to the original point: Yes, the terrorists won. With substantial help from our own ruling class. The guys who lack the strength of F.D. "We Have Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself" R., and who are still running things.

#56 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 10:53 AM:

James Macdonald @ 55... I used 'satire' to describe a tale whose author doesn't really believe could happen, but plays the mind game of asking "What if this trait were exagerated?", to make a point about, for example, human folly. I'm not sure I'm coming across right.

That being said... I'm not so sure that the ones at the top really are afraid, but there is money to be made, and power to be gained, by encouraging others to be afraid.

#57 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 12:24 PM:

Unfortunately for him, Neil Gaiman bought the film rights for Wasp just before Sept. 11th made it impossible to raise financing, get a director, or find a distributor for it...

#58 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 02:37 PM:

James D. Macdonald @ 55:
the entire novel reads like a textbook in unconventional/asymmetric warfare.

The story that I've heard is that at one point during WWII Russell worked for a psyops organization along with Ian Fleming. Russell proposed a campaign of spoofing like the periboob, and Fleming argued against it; Fleming won out in the end. After the war, Russell wrote "Wasp" to show that the idea could have worked.

#59 ::: BigHank53 ::: (view all by) ::: December 04, 2010, 08:16 PM:

Steve C. @ 35:

We may very well get tired on nonsensical security measures.

I assure the people who make their livings from providing said security procedures will never, ever get tired of them. Should their procedures fail (inevitably) they will put on dark suits, shake their heads sadly, and proclaim that they could have stopped the terrorists if only $PROCEDURE were done, for the low, low cost get the picture.

#60 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 12:36 AM:

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones offers a rebuttal to Schneier's idea:

I need to be clear here. I'm not pretending that our reaction to potential acts of terror has been correct or proportional or anything else. It hasn't been, and our overreaction has been damaging on a number of levels. I'm only saying that we hypereducated types need to at least try to understand how most people react to the prospect of directed violence.
To Drum, the "hypereducated" are
. . . a certain class of people to whom his prescription sounds great. Refuse to be terrorized! Stop being such babies! I'm a member of that class.

But those of us who feel that way really have an obligation to understand just how out of the mainstream we are. I'm willing to bet that most of us are a bit nerdy, sort of hyperanalytical, maybe even slightly Aspergers-ish. We're comfortable — too comfortable, probably — viewing the ebb and flow of human lives as an accounting exercise. We're also very sure of ourselves, generally pretty verbal, and we have soapboxes to shout from.

And, at a guess, we represent maybe 10% of the population. At most.

#61 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 03:27 AM:

Linkmeister @ 60

I really disagree. As a society, we have to be able to balance limited resources, and define levels of acceptable risk. We can't take all the risk out of the world, without seriously infringing personal freedoms.

And a legitimate part of that conversation is -- look, in order to drop the risk of dying from terrorist actions, we have to cut back your freedoms in these other places (like on airplanes, and your free expression rights, and your free assembly rights, and ...). And we have to spend a lot of money on ensuring you don't do these things we have prohibited, which is money that is not going to addressing other risks. And at what point is it reckless and irresponsible for us to focus singlemindedly on trying to reduce the risk of terrorist-caused deaths, when it's taking money and focus away from deaths that can be more effectively and affordably prevented? And at what point are the tradeoffs in individual freedom no longer worth marginal increases in individual safety?

I mean, if we assert that we are willing to fight and die for democratic principles, isn't it kind of inconsistent to throw away those principles in pursuit of an impossible expectation of zero risk?

It isn't inhumane, or mechanical, or "too abstract" to say that these are moral weights that have to be carefully balanced. It's necessary to moral decisionmaking that we not be distracted from our various responsibilities to our fellow human beings, by a single emotionally-resonant issue.

#62 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 03:49 AM:

Finishing the thought, which on second glance, isn't as clear as it was in my head -- it's true that there are people who don't see the issues in the same terms I do.

But I think, to a great extent, except for the wealthy power-elite-who-are-out-for-themselves, that's largely a problem of dialogue and effective outreach, where the onus is on me (and people who agree with me) to make a more effective persuasive case. I don't feel like it accomplishes anything to pretend that the issues are anything other than what they are -- we need to put the issues out there, in clear terms, so that people can make fully-informed decisions about the explicit kinds of values-tradeoffs they are making. I think if we aren't effectively making that case (and we aren't), then we need to figure out how to do a better job of reaching people with an alternative to terrorist-focused scare-tactics.

And I don't feel like this particularly smug sort of self-othering -- saying "see, how out of step we are, for thinking critically about these issues in a global way?" -- is productive or fair, to anyone. In particular, I think 10% is an insultingly low percentage of the population, which itself bespeaks a certain arrogance. Sure, anyone who self assesses as one of the smartest 10% in their nation could do with a bit of humility. But his assessment of where the humility gap exists seems to me to be way off.

#63 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 08:12 AM:

KayTei #61-62: Yeah. If anything, what makes us different isn't being smarter -- it's simply that we have forums we can speak in without Getting Permission. (It's no accident that both our and other governments have been putting a lot of energy into finding some way to put a leash on the Internet.)

#64 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 09:30 AM:

Besides, isn't this what we have Leadership for? Why can't the president hold a press conference in front of the monument announcing that he's directing everyone to back down from the bunker mentality, and say, "yes, there are scary guys out there, but we can't let them run our lives for us"? It's possible to phrase this in terms of national will and character and embody the statistics in moral language which resonates with people outside the chattering classes.

#65 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 09:46 AM:

C. Wingate - "nothing to fear except fear itself," you mean?

#66 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 10:39 AM:


I think the argument for fearing and overreacting to terrorism is just easier to make, in current American culture, than the argument for not overreacting to it. Look at our reaction to crime[1] , our weird cultural wrangling with child sex abuse[2], our general safety culture[3], etc. We don't do risk calculation (we mostly don't do calculation, being broadly innumerate), we don't put risks in sensible perspective as a culture, and our news stories and fiction tends to have this subtext of "be afraid, they're coming to get you."

I think for any culture, history, language, shared knowledge, etc., there's always some range of topics where it's much easier to argue for X than for not-X. And on those topics, that culture will just overwhelmingly make bad decisions. For our culture, discussions involving risk, violence, race, and gender, among other things, are seriously difficult--the shared language and assumptions and knowledge (including knowledge of stuff that ain't so) skews discussions, making one side or the other so much easier to argue that the truth of some statement is almost irrelevant to how the arguments come out in public.

[1] Statistics show it's falling, and has been for many years; polls show increasing anxiety about it.

[2] You'd imagine there was a pedophile under every bed to watch some fraction of TV news. "Stranger danger" is taught to every kid everywhere, despite the fact that the great majority of child molestors are known, trusted adults or older kids. And those "recovered memory" witchhunts that sent people to prison for pretty obviously impossible stories are creepy beyond words.

[3] Wherein every object has a warning label urging that children never be allowed within reach of it, and people talk as though letting a child out of your sight to play outside, or letting him ride a bus or subway, is borderline neglect, and many other things.

#67 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 01:41 PM:

C Wingate @ #64, John Kerry tried that approach in 2004 ("Terrorism is a law-enforcement issue") and was unrelentingly derided by his opponents.

I agreed with him, but fat lot of good that did me. I don't agree with Drum's "we're 10% of the population; deal with it" attitude. I do think we need leadership, but there's way too much CYA ingrained into the security establishment to expect that to happen.

#68 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 03:33 PM:

re 65: Exactly.

re 67: Kerry wasn't president; Obama is. Beyond that, saying "terrorism is a law enforcement issue" is an infelicitous turn of phrase, or to be more precise, it is an uninspiring turn of phrase. There has to be a way to succinctly say "it's time to put this security obsession behind us" so that it doesn't sound partisan or wonkish or oblivious to reality and, more importantly, expresses an aspiration to American ideals which the Inevitable Opposition cannot gainsay without getting tagged as UnAmerican Naysayers.

#69 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 03:51 PM:

C Wingate @68:

Considering the proportion of people who already think Obama is a Kenyan socialist Muslim, what do you think that scaling back on intrusive security will come across as? What do you think Rush Limbaugh and all the conservative columnists would say? "Death panels" would be nothing on it.

I don't think there is a way for a Democrat to say it that won't be turned into "liberals are soft on security" by the right. And I don't think there's a way for a Republican politician to say it without losing their constituency.

#70 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 04:13 PM:

C.Wingate @ 68... an aspiration to American ideals which the Inevitable Opposition cannot gainsay without getting tagged as UnAmerican Naysayers

I love how you make it sound like both Parties use that word.

#71 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 04:35 PM:

re 69: Abi, I think there is room for a little more faith in the power of rhetoric, or at least rhetoric from someone besides Rush. It is perhaps possible that Obama is so compromised that nothing he says can sink in, though I think that if this is true it is more strongly attributable to his failure to make a clean break from the Bush regime on all these points. On the other hand he could take the approach that he has nothing to lose. See, that's where he is different from Kerry: he could get up in front of the monument, make a speech expressing everyone's doubts about the intrusiveness of it all, and even have the security checkpoint padlocked and hauled away. And nobody could stop him from doing that. And if two years pass without someone blowing it up (as will almost surely be the case) when November 2012 comes around he can say, "look, I got this crap off your back."

#72 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 04:50 PM:

I think there is room for a little more faith in the power of rhetoric, or at least rhetoric from someone besides Rush.


#73 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 05:01 PM:


The Republicans have been pushing harder on the "protect us from the terrorists" line (though there have been times when Democrats have pushed to demand more "protection" than W wanted to give--see the Dubai Ports controversy). And they use somewhat different language. But are you suggesting that Democratic politicians wouldn't attack someone for being too weak on terror, assuming they could find any Republicans who could get the nomination for high office in their party while not proclaiming themselves in favor of torture, assassination, and unlimited executive power?

I seem to recall some pretty sharp attacks from Democrats against those who have disagreed with Obama's Bush-lite war on terror policies. Perhaps I am merely imagining that?

#74 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 05:18 PM:

So, says Bruce Schneier, the terrorists have won.

Posit that (which is at least arguable - I've been arguing it for years), and note that you still can't find a member of al-Queda in his house living the life of luxury, and respond as Cassius:

"Cui bono?"

Who, in fact, won? And are they, therefore, the terrorists?

I hate thinking this way.

#75 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 05:30 PM:

albatross @ 73... But are you suggesting that Democratic politicians wouldn't attack someone for being too weak on terror, assuming they could find any Republicans who could get the nomination for high office in their party while not proclaiming themselves in favor of torture, assassination, and unlimited executive power?

I guess I am indeed suggesting that Democratic politicians wouldn't attack someone for being too weak on terror, assuming they could find any Republicans who could get the nomination for high office in their party while not proclaiming themselves in favor of torture, assassination, and unlimited executive power.

Hell, we're not the ones who called someone a traitor if we disagreed. Maybe a Democrat not hounded by the likes of Fucks News would have set up REAL protection measures instead of the crap that makes certain people rich while we become afraid of saying anything that could be considered treasonous - like wearing a t-shirt with the Fourth Amendment printed on it while we go thru Security Theater.

So, damned right, my answer is yes.

#76 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 05:38 PM:

As for Democrats publicly disagreeing with Obama... Yes, we do that too. That's a bad thing?

#77 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 07:49 PM:

@74: The fearmongers won. Fearmongering is an excellent and very profitable business, and a very useful political tool, right now.

To the fearmongers, the people actually planning and carrying out terrorist attacks are useful idiots. The fearmongers have to make a show of opposing terrorist attacks, but actually depend on them for the continuing success of fearmongering in either business or politics.

#78 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 08:10 PM:

My apologies for losing my temper, Albatross...

#79 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: December 06, 2010, 09:15 PM:

chris @ 77: "The fearmongers won. Fearmongering is an excellent and very profitable business, and a very useful political tool, right now."

The defining struggle of War on Terror isn't between the jihadists and the West--it's between the fearmongers of whatever ideology, and the rest of us. So far, we've not been doing so well.

#80 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:57 AM:

C Wingate @71:

One of the most painful things about these last few years is how much faith I have lost in the power of rhetoric, of words, to do good in the world. I'd like to believe that someone, somewhere, could write and deliver that kind of speech: words strong enough, in a coherent enough whole, to stand against the inevitable storm of criticism, insults, and downright lies that would follow. But I simply don't see it happening.

I'd like to believe, too, that the idea of inventing an incident (say, where the Bad Terrorist gets a bomb through and is only stopped by a Brave Off-Duty Soldier, said incident then hushed up by the Usual Suspects for the Usual Reasons) and repeating the narrative until it's believed to be true would never occur to anyone unethical enough to do it. But I've seen too many email forwards to buy that either.

I'm gravely disappointed in myself for this. It's a sign of a deeper discouragement in the state of the world than I ever thought I would reach; I believe deeply in the fundamental goodness of people and the great power of ideas. Or I thought I did.

#81 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 02:21 AM:

What I really don't understand is why the Democrats don't invoke historical patriotism and the brave defense of American ideals like freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Put it into a context where we accept the risk that we will face violent opposition for doing the right thing. It goes straight back to the founding fathers! The idea that meaningful freedoms require the willingness to sacrifice complacency and false illusions of security for a spirited defense of what is right! Tell me you couldn't win over an entire nation with that line of rhetoric, if anyone had the courage to invoke it...

I'm not, actually, arguing for invoking mindless patriotism, but for a call to courage and a reminder of what it is that we have historically fought to preserve (and which we are in danger of giving up for all the wrong reasons).

If Al Quaeda makes us afraid to live our lives boldly, and forces us to sacrifice those values and principles that we hold most dear, then we've lost what's most important, no matter how many of their leaders we assassinate.

#82 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:09 PM:

Serge #78:

Don't worry about it. No harm, no fowl. :)

This is the sort of thing that makes me skeptical about the unwillingness of Democrats to play the same game as Republicans. (h/t Greenwald.)

In general, the way it looks to me:

a. Democrats and Republicans in power look far more similar than their rhetoric does. It is true that there are differences, and some are quite important, but most stuff stays the same regardless of which party has power[1].

b. There is a very broad "ruling class" which is almost always in power--they make up most of the elected and appointed politicians, top journalists, publishers, think-tank denizens, etc. with substantial influence in the world. This class is not precisely defined, but it broadly shares a certain worldview which is neither liberal nor conservative. That worldview drives a great deal of our practical policies year after year[2].

c. The worldview in question tends to track more with Republican rhetoric in national security, war, free trade, drug legalization, and antitrust law. It tends to track more with Democratic rhetoric on immigration, abortion, gun control, and affirmative action programs. It doesn't really track with either party in some areas--tax and regulatory policies tend to be tangled up in technocratic arguments and special pleading by particular interest groups, and in general, the interest groups win over the technocrats[3].

d. Both Republicans and Democrats are willing to, and demonstrably do, use awful rhetoric to win elections and score points. This rhetoric is often actively destructive, almost always dishonest, but effective.

e. In at least the last ten years, the Republicans have been notably more willing to engage in destructive, crazy, scary rhetoric than the Democrats. They also seem more willing to *do* actively destructive things to win than Democrats. Also, where the parties' actual policies differ, their policies seem to me to be worse about 90% of the time. The Republicans' use of Muslim-baiting in the last couple years has added substantially to the list of people I, personally, will walk out of a voting booth before I give my vote to.

[1] Continuing the drug war, continuing the war on terror, domestic surveillance, intrusive TSA searches, drone fired missiles, secret wars, silencing whistleblowers, bailing out big banks and well-connected companies, continuing our weird immigration policy, keeping military bases in a hundred countries all over the world, protecting everyone in the spy agencies from any consequences for anything illegal they might have done--all of these are demonstrably bipartisan policies. And that's a small subset.

[2] You can see this, when all respectable media treat some issue or movement like a bunch of obvious wackos, report on them with an undertone of "look what the rednecks/DFHs/geeky libertarians are saying now." Talk about legalizing pot, then talk about invading and occupying Iran. One of these will be reported as a joke, one as serious talk by serious people.

[3] This is how libertarians, social conservatives, greens, and progressives usually get mugged by what we think of as our own side. The Democrats will be getting rid of the drug war or imposing a serious carbon tax at just about the same time the Republicans make divorce really hard to get, substantially shrink the deficit, or do away with farm subsidies and other corporate welfare.

#83 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: December 07, 2010, 12:19 PM:

albatross @ 89... Democrats and Republicans in power look far more similar than their rhetoric does. It is true that there are differences

Tomorrow's episode of "MythBusters" has the gang revisit Archimedes's Death Ray because of a challenge from Obama. Can you imagine Bush or Palin or any of their mouthpieces doing that, or giving a tin whistle about Science? Especially if said Science might go against their beliefs or if it were to cost their friends money?

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