Saturday, November 3, 2007

Flag on the Play: Schneier Gets It All Wrong

This started out as a comment on a post over at Enrevanche, but just got too long. So, if you're coming to this fresh, you can either dash over to Barry's place and read the post, which is actually an excerpt from a longer article, filled with so many fallacies, some factual and some logical, that I hardly know where to begin; or, you can trust me to convey the gist fairly. Personally, I'd rather you read the original to keep me honest. At any rate, here is how it opens:

We've opened up a new front on the war on terror. It's an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it's a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.
I'm sorry, but, "Uh-oh, flag on the play. It looks like Doc just tossed a Bullshit Flag. Here's the official call from the field: 'If you act different [sic], you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested -- even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong.' GET USED TO IT."

Let me explain. I particularly liked the example of the girl wearing a circuit board and carrying a fistful of PlayDoh. Hello!! I looked at the photo. I might know it's not a bomb, but I wouldn't expect everyone to. Used to be you could do really off the wall stuff and be considered eccentric. Now you can do really off the wall stuff and be considered eccentric, or possibly, scary and dangerous. Why? Because it used to not be possible to conceive of any but the most insane among us killing innocent people indiscriminately using things we'd never thought of as weapons. Now, that's one of the world religions (I'm not picking on Islam, so don't start working yourself into a religious tizzy). I simply mean that wanting to blow yourself up and take a crowd of people with you whose main attraction is that they did nothing in particular to deserve it other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time is no longer merely an isolated psychotic condition.

So, how do we combat that? Well, the term is becoming overused, but it's still the right term: vigilance. Whether you say "Be Vigilant," "Be Watchful," or "Be Suspicious," matters, but only in terms of connotation and perception. In terms of denotation and actual action, not so much changes. So, expect a new campaign soon, one that will change all the terms with which we refer to the new role of the citizen in keeping us all in one piece (along with our dams, powerplants, landmarks, etc). Look for an effort to find some wording that makes us all feel a little less like Big Brother, while still urging us to do essentially the same things.

Is there something wrong with that? Absolutely. But it's not the fault of "the authorities" whose "CYA attitude" and "knee jerk" responses Mr. Schneier laments. Those reactions are hardly knee jerk. They're well thought out, carefully planned, and even rehearsed. Why? Because that Y in CYA stands for "your" Mr. Schneier. That's your ass their covering. Yours and everyone else's who has nothing in common with you except having done nothing at all to deserve being being blown out of their clothing as they go about their business.

You want them to protect you. You pay them for it. They have begun, as a group, to begin imagining the previously unimaginable on a daily basis. Why? Because that psuedo-religion out there has been at it for a while already. They have a head start. Our anti-hijacking training ten years ago taught us to cooperate. Always cooperate. What might have been different if the training had taken into account the potential use of a fuel-laden airliner as a weapon? Who can guess. Herein lies the problem with another of Mr. Schneier's "points," that, "People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so." How, pray tell, are we to know what looks suspicious anymore. The obviously suspicious is the least frightening.

I'm as saddened as you are at this new need to view everyone whose actions are out of the ordinary with extra scrutiny. It's sad that I have to teach my daughters that if they're ever stranded by the side of the road and someone stops to help them, that they should get in the car and lock the doors and talk to their possible good Samaritan through a closed window. But that's the reality we live in. You can adjust, or you can call my daughters ungrateful and rude.

Personally, I choose to adjust. When I've come upon a woman or youth in such a situation, I've tried to think what I would want them to do if they were my son or daughter or wife, and then not to be insulted when they act as if I might be an axe murderer. I try to modify all my actions in such a way as not to threaten, and I'm not at all insulted if they never get out of the car or unlock the door. I'd rather they not. Frankly, I might be a little wary of them. I can call for help and watch over them until the authorities arrive, or, if that makes them nervous, I can drive on.

By the same token, it may be sad, but if I choose to wear a circuit board on my sweater and carry a handful of something with the same consistency as C4 in my hand, I'm not going to be surprised when the cops surround me. I might kick myself for not stopping to think how I could look to others. I expect, if I keep my cool, I'll have a good laugh over it later.

Covering your ass Mr. Schneier is not an easy job. There was a day when such acts were inconcievable. Perhaps we'll see that day again. Until then, be watchful, be thoughtfully scrutinous of extraordinary behavior, be whatever euphemism makes you, in your new role as anti-terrorist, feel less threatening or less a puppet of the doom mongers you seem to think we are, because it is, Mr. Schneier, your role, whether you want it or not. To reject it, is to embrace the role of victim. And you are wrong, sir, to cast aspersions at those who ask for your help in this battle, or who have decided that it's better to assume the worst and then back down than to under-react then have the task of calling parents and loved ones. We study, study, damn you, events like the Virginia Tech massacre. If that unpleasant professional task tends to tilt us toward overreaction, then so be it. I'll accept that. I know parents who expect it. Demand it. I happen to be one of them.

We all wear many hats. Parent, soldier, journalist, anti-terrorist observer. It's not as if you're being asked to turn in your sister for being a Republican or voting for Bush, but you do try to make it sound that way. You make it sound as if the "relentless campaign to convince ordinary citizens that they're the front line of terrorism defense" is some effort of those who really hold the front line to shirk their jobs. I'll grant you one thing: I'd like to believe that those who share my profession are the front line. I'd like to believe that what we do, in intel, in ops, in forward locations, under fire, at great risk, is the real front line. I think that campaign, in as much as there is such a campaign, gets one thing wrong. Ordinary citizens aren't the front line. You're told that to make you feel more important and to avoid frightening you more than is absolutely necessary. Fact is, you're the last line, the inner perimeter, the nanny in the closet with the baby and the cell phone while the burglar ransacks downstairs.

And I'll close by violating a rule of mine and following a rule of mine. I detest name calling, especially when it serves as a stand-in for well thought out argument or debate (I hope I can safely avoid that accusation at this point). On the other hand, I also despise those forms of euphemism which rather than seeking to soften bad news, seek to conceal the moral cowardice that refuses to call things by their rightful name. Thus, when you say, "Causing a city-wide panic over blinking signs, a guy with a pellet gun, or stray backpacks, is not evidence of doing a good job: it's evidence of squandering police resources," then I can't help but recall that at least one of those "blinking signs" was placed on a support girder under an interstate and over a bus depot and when I remember that, I think I would be shirking my duty if I did not say, straight out, you sir, are an idiot.

Instead of bewailing the need for watchfulness that terrorists have foisted upon us all, and the necessity of exercising more caution than ever and risking the occasional overreaction, I suggest that you use whatever influence you have to move people toward more objective self-scrutiny. Don't you think, that if the advertising whiz kids had stopped and thought about it for a minute, they might have foreseen how that device might appear? That maybe an airport isn't the place to invent new forms of adornment that involve things that are, any way you look at it, similar to the components of some IEDs? They didn't think. She didn't think. Okay. I can forgive that. But for you to then lay blame on those charged with covering your ass for what you consider over-reacting? That, I have a problem with. For that, I have to throw the bullshit flag.