Thursday, February 18, 2010

So am I supposed to be afraid or not?

The NY Times (among others) reports:


A man crashed a small plane Thursday morning into a seven-story office building in Austin, Tex., that houses offices of the Internal Revenue Service, the authorities said. The pilot was killed. Two people were hospitalized, and one person was still unaccounted for Thursday afternoon.


However...


... federal officials emphasized that they did not consider the case to be a terrorist attack.


Eh? Why not?


Officials said the crash was being investigated as a crime.


Huh? I thought terrorism was a crime.

All the data seem to be consistent with the following theory: if a Muslim does it, it's terrorism. If a Tea Bagger does it, it's "merely" a crime.

[UPDATE: Apparently he wasn't a Tea Bagger, he was just crazy.]

16 comments:

jonabbey said...

Eh. Those of us in Austin aren't, particularly. The guy did a lot of property damage, hurt a few people, and snarled traffic for hours on end in the biggest traffic flow areas in town.

But scared? Nah. The guy was a loser.

Curt Sampson said...

Why should it be considered a terrorist attack?

Ron said...

> Why should it be considered a terrorist attack?

It shouldn't be. But neither should Richard Reid or the underwear bomber.

*If* you are going to consider Reid and Abdulmutallab as terrorists (and the government does) I don't see any way of distinguishing them from Joseph Stack except that Stack wasn't a Muslim and his attack actually succeeded whereas the other two failed. But maybe you see something I don't?

Curt Sampson said...

Well, first of all I have to say that I think we need to be very careful about what we do and do not label terrorism. Any time we label something as terrorism, we suffer a small defeat, since that label (and all of the emotional baggage that goes with it) is part of what terrorists want.

This leads to the question of, "what is a terrorist attack?" That's complex, and I don't have anything I'd consider a definitive answer, but perhaps we can start with, "a terrorist attack is intended to generate fear in the general populace by making everybody think that they might be one of the targets in the next attack." In other words, regardless of who got killed this time around, the terrorists wanted to and want to kill you.

By that criterion, I think that Abdulmutallab did successfully commit a terrorist attack. It may not have killed anybody, but it appeared to instill the desired panic. Abdulmutallab should be considered a terrorist because he was trying for that effect with his attack.

It appears to me, however, that the fellow who crashed the airplane was not trying to strike fear in the hearts of the populace in general, and probably not even into all of those who work for the IRS. He was just trying to bring attention to a situation he found very frustrating. He was not a terrorist; he was a protester.

Ron said...

How do you know whether someone's intent is to instill fear or to draw attention? And why do these two things need to be mutually exclusive? Do you really think that the people our government labels terrorists are really trying to generate fear for its own sake? Or do you think that the fear might just be a means to an end, like, oh, I dunno, trying to draw attention to a situation that *they* find frustrating? Or do you think they just wake up one morning and say, "Hey, Abdullah, what say we go instill fear in some Americans today? Wouldn't that just be a hoot 'n' a holler?"

And while we're at it, do you not think that the intent of those government officials who get on TV and say that no one is safe from terrorism might be to instill fear? And would that not make them, by your criterion, terrorists?

Curt Sampson said...

1. There are some fairly obvious cases where, though some people might have been put in danger, there's clearly no continuing threat to others. I cannot see how someone could possibly interpret the airplane incident as a reason to change their behaviour in order to become more safe. We've had whackos doing that same sort of thing practically since the dawn of general aviation, and this incident is no different.

2. Instilling fear and drawing attention need not be mutually exclusive. I don't think that my argument rests on them being so, either. Do you think it does?

3. Yes, using terrorism to instil fear might also be seen by some practitioners as a means to draw attention to a cause. And it certainly does, as a side effect, draw some attention. Again, I don't see how this changes my argument.

4. It's hard to judge, for many terrorists, whether they truly do see terrorism as a means to an end (though most claim it is), or whether it has indeed become a goal in and of itself. There are plenty of circumstances where it's reasonably clear that terrorism is counter-productive towards reaching the stated goals of the terrorists, and yet the terrorists continue that tactic. Given human nature, this is not unexpected; people often cling to things that give their lives meaning even when these are no longer aligned with the original goals that caused them to take up those things.

I wouldn't say that government officials who help to scare the populace are terrorists in and of themselves, as they don't directly promote violent acts, but I would certainly say that, especially where their actions are of no use in the fight against terrorism, they are assisting the terrorists. It's a sad comment on the state of the U.S. at this point that the politicans are acting as such a force multiplier for terrorists.

I have to admit, I'm not quite clear on where you're going with your argument here. Do you truly not see a difference between terrorism and "normal" criminal acts, and believe that we should not distinguish between the two?

Ron said...

> Do you truly not see a difference between terrorism and "normal" criminal acts, and believe that we should not distinguish between the two?

More or less.

There is, of course, a very wide variety of criminal acts, ranging from letting your parking meter expire at one extreme, to nuking a city at the other. But in between it's a continuum, and I personally do not see a sharp dividing line between where "ordinary" criminality ends and "terrorism" begins. It really does seem to me that the dividing line that has de facto been drawn is a racist one: if a muslim does it, it's terrorism. If a non-muslim does it, it's "merely" criminal. (And if the government does it it's collateral damage.) And furthermore, I think that apart from being immoral, it's also a huge mistake. There is a real problem out there that needs to be addressed, and that is that the world is full of unbalanced people who are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to cause mayhem. And the technology available for causing mayhem is much better than it used to be. That's a serious problem, and we don't do ourselves any favors by clinging to the myth that Islam has a monopoly on destructive irrationality.

Curt Sampson said...

Lack of a sharp dividing line is a terrible reason to avoid distinguishing between two things. There's a lack of a sharp dividing line between gas giants and stars; does that mean it's not useful to distinguish the two of them?

While it's true that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, your argument that, in general, western society does not call non-Muslim terrorist actions "terrorist" is not supported by the evidence. The FLQ and the Baader-Meinhof Group are just two examples that come instantly to mind.

To say we should abandon the whole concept of terrorism is to say that distinguishing terrorist acts from mere criminal acts is not useful. I disagree; I believe terrorists have different motivations from ordinary criminals, and thus different techniques are applicable to fight and reduce the number of instances of that sort of crime.

We don't use the same techniques to reduce muggings that we do to reduce organized crime; why would the same techniques we use for either be the most effective way to fight terrorism?

Ron said...

> Lack of a sharp dividing line is a terrible reason to avoid distinguishing between two things. There's a lack of a sharp dividing line between gas giants and stars; does that mean it's not useful to distinguish the two of them?

In that case, the cost of getting the distinction wrong is not nearly so high.

> The FLQ and the Baader-Meinhof Group

You forgot the IRA. But all those examples are pre-9/11. Things have changed.

> To say we should abandon the whole concept of terrorism is to say that distinguishing terrorist acts from mere criminal acts is not useful.

I am not saying that we should abandon the whole concept. To the contrary, the problem is not that we are making the distinction at all, but that we are making it badly. I think we need to strive for more clarity on exactly what the distinction is. Allowing the definition to remain fuzzy is fraught with peril. Right now the de-facto definition seems to be that terrorism is whatever the government says it is, and a terrorist is whoever the government decides is a terrorist. I hope I don't need to explain why that worries me.

Curt Sampson said...

While I agree that the distinction is not being made well, I think that is for the most part a side-effect of a much larger problem: the over-reaction to 9/11 is making people fear terrorists in every corner. That, and its consequent detrimental effects on liberty, morale and the economy are really the big problem.

Thus, I think the most important thing we can do right now is to stop labelling things terrorism that are not. If that happens to take effect faster for non-Muslims than Muslims, that's unfortunate, but we should not consider labeling non-Muslims as terrorists just to try to be fair. Reducing terrorism hysteria overall will help make the problem you describe, if it even exists, go away.

That said, I myself don't see any large amount of evidence that Muslim non-terrorist criminals are getting it worse than anybody else, except in the case of FBI stings where undercover FBI agents were provoking potential criminals to be terrorists. Can you tell me why you believe there's a systemic problem here?

Ron said...

> Thus, I think the most important thing we can do right now is to stop labelling things terrorism that are not.

That's circular. There's no way to know whether you are "labeling things terrorism that are not" unless you first know what terrorism is and isn't.

And it's far from clear that "labeling things terrorism that are not" (whatever that means) will make the real underlying problem (about which we agree) worse. People no longer fear "communists" the way they once did, but it's not because the government got more careful about who they labeled a communist. In fact, the analogy between the red scares of the 50's and the "terrorist scares" of the present day is a pretty good one. It's not that the communists weren't a threat; they were (and are), but they were never as big a threat as they were made out to be. And neither are the "terrorists." Perhaps if Joseph Stack were labelled a terrorist then the word would lose some of its sting.

> Can you tell me why you believe there's a systemic problem here?

You said it yourself: the over-reaction to 9/11 is making people fear terrorists in every corner.

Curt Sampson said...

No, I was asking whether you could show me why you believe we are truly applying different standards for "terrorism" to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Curt Sampson said...

As far as a definition of terrorism, I think the U.S. is so far into moral panic at this point that whatever definition you chose hardly matters; just take the half of "terrorists" that are least terroristic (waving arms broadly--pinpoint accuracy doesn't really matter here) and declare all of them not to be terrorists.

When you have a room with a hundred people and one terrorist, and you've declared that there must be fifty terrorists in the room, it's extremely hard to go wrong no matter how you tighten the definition. Whether you end up afterwards with thirty terrorists or ten, you've still taken a substantial step in the right direction.

If you really need me to provide you a definition, use the one from the Wikipedia page.

Ron said...

> I was asking whether you could show me why you believe we are truly applying different standards for "terrorism" to Muslims and non-Muslims.

Because no one has produced a plausible alternative explanation of the observed data. In particular, no one has been able to explain to me why Abdulmutallab is considered a terrorist but Stack isn't.

> If you really need me to provide you a definition, use the one from the Wikipedia page.

"At present, the International community has been unable to formulate a universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism."

Which would be my point. In the absence of a definition, but in the presence of a universal belief that this undefined thing is a serious problem, all manner of abuses commonly follow. Whether it's witches, communists or terrorists, if everyone is afraid of something but no one know what that something is, the end result seems unlikely to be remembered as a society's finest hour.

Curt Sampson said...

If you look a little further down the Wikipedia page, around where it says, "Nonetheless, Hoffman himself believes it is possible to identify some key characteristics of terrorism," you'll find a definition.

You're giving me the strong impression that you believe in a binary state of, either we have a definition of terrorism that everybody agrees with, or we have nothing at all and the term has no meaning. I don't know if you mean to sound like that, but that's what I'm hearing. We're never going to have a precise definition of terrorism any more than we're ever going to have a precise definition of music. However, the music world gets along quite successfully without such a precise definition, and we can as well.

As for Abdulmutallab and Stack, that seems a pretty clear-cut case to me due to several major differences between them.

1. Both expected to die, but Stack was working alone, whereas Abdulmutallab was part of a movement. After a lone nutjob kills himself, the threat, at least from that particular "movement," if you could call it that, is gone. Nobody's terribly worried about another similar attack or series of attacks from that source. Clearly Stack did not configure the situation to inspire terror. Abdulmutallab, to the contrary, was in the context of his movement trying to show that attacks would continue until, well, until whenver.

2. Stack made a direct attack on those whose policies he objected to: the IRS. This does not instill in non-IRS people a sense of fear; in fact it instills in them a sense of control: even were there a movement, I could easily avoid trouble simply by not working for the IRS. Abdulmutallab, to the contrary, was attacking people with little connection to his complaint; certainly they were not persecuting him directly.

If you look at Hoffman's definition of terrorism, you can see that Stack clearly fails to meet the last three of the five criteria, and I'm rather doubtful about how well he meets the first. Abdulmutallab, on the other hand, meets all five.

It's particularly telling that Stack didn't succeed in inspiring much fear even though he injured people and killed himself. Had he been nominally unsuccessful (say, by crashing the plane in an area where no damage was caused, and surviving the crash), would he have been anything but a joke?

Ron said...

OK, I concede the point.