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Tuesday, October 2, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the NYT: Obama to Urge Elimination of World’s Nuclear Weapons

Senator Barack Obama will propose on Tuesday setting a goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons in the world, saying the United States should greatly reduce its stockpiles to lower the threat of nuclear terrorism, aides say.

This is a fundamentally unserious proposal.

There is no doubt that nuclear weapons are hideously powerful and terrible. Indeed, unlike al Qaeda, the nuclear-powered Soviet Union did have the power to truly end the United States as a living entity.

However, the nuclear cat (perhaps Schrödinger’s) is out of the bag and there is no putting it back. The knowledge is out there, the weapons exist and this fact is one that all states and their leaders must address. No proposal, no wish will change that fact. Indeed, like it or not the realistic likelihood is that there will be proliferation over time. The incentives for states to acquire the weapons are too strong and the ability of other states in the international system to stop that acquisition is too weak.

Further, despite the potential harm represented by these weapons, the argument can (and has) been made that the basic stability of the international system during the Cold War was the direct result of the presence of the nuclear arsenals of the US and USSR. Because of the risk of triggering a global conflagration the two sides avoided direct confrontation, and thereby WWIII, for roughly five decades. Even on a regional level the argument can be made that India and Pakistan avoided war earlier this decade over Kashmir as both sides knew that escalation of the dispute could have lead to a nuclear exchange. As such, the question of nuclear weapons is a bit more complicated than Obama appears to be acknowledging.

As a campaign issue this is one of those that perhaps sounds good and visionary, but really indicates that the candidate is either cynically trying to manipulate a specific segment of the electorate with fantastical proposals or that the candidate really doesn’t understand the world with which he will have to deal as President.

There is no doubt that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists is incredibly frightening , but the answer isn’t proposing impossible policies.

Update:
James Joyner has more. James is a bit less critical than I, but ultimately is in basic agreement with my position.

Update II: Post edited for typos and an awkward sentence.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Tom Friedman’s piece in this morning’s NYT
(9/11 Is Over) is going to make a lot of people mad, I suspect (some examples already here and here). While I do not agree with every sentence in the piece, and think some of his comparisons towards the end are strained, his fundamental point is sound:

We don’t need another president of 9/11. We need a president for 9/12. I will only vote for the 9/12 candidate.

What does that mean? This: 9/11 has made us stupid. I honor, and weep for, all those murdered on that day. But our reaction to 9/11 — mine included — has knocked America completely out of balance, and it is time to get things right again.

It is not that I thought we had new enemies that day and now I don’t. Yes, in the wake of 9/11, we need new precautions, new barriers. But we also need our old habits and sense of openness. For me, the candidate of 9/12 is the one who will not only understand who our enemies are, but who we are.

(All italics from the original).

Many will take substantial umbrage at being called “stupid” and will similarly show outrage at the suggestion that the war on terrorism isn’t any less than a true threat to our very existence. There is also the fact that those who wish to see the threat as existential also like to use the phrase “9/12 mindset” (or other similar formulations) to indicate their point of view, so Friedman is not only contradicting their views, he is appropriating their rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Friedman’s basic point seems to me to be threefold: 1) we are overly focused on the actual day and the events of 9/11, 2) this has led to an overly zealous approach to fighting terrorism, and 3) this has ultimately affected our own national progress and our place in the world.’

In regards to the first point, the bottom line is that overly focusing on that day, those events and the tragic deaths of that days is unhealthy. Like someone who loses a spouse to a violent crime, there comes a time where one has to let go and move on. Holding the anger, the fear and the need for revenge in one’s heart is poisoning over time. Many continue to allow the events of 9/11 to so thoroughly traumatize them that they haven’t moved on. Yes, we should remember. Yes, there were very important lessons to be learned, but at some point the past has to be the past, no matter how traumatic and tragic that it was.

The second point follows on from the first: if one remains too much in the tragic moment, it colors the way one acts. We have overreacted and continue to overreact. Clearly we launched the Iraq war for the wrong reasons. The fact that the war could only have been launched in the context of a focus on 9/11 illustrates this fact. Further, we have moved to substantially empower the government in a way that has substantially increased the ability of the government to damage the liberties and privacy of innocent American citizens.

On the third point, I know many will say that we shouldn’t care about what others think. However, one of America’s greatest strengths has long been its values and its image. We have seriously damaged that image. That has long terms political and economic implications that we shouldn’t ignore. The numbers on tourism that Friedman cites are alarming. Sure, tourism may not seem like that big a deal, but we are talking about millions of dollars in the economy, and Friedman’s point about contact between the US and the rest of world is not a small one.

Further, along those lines, one may scoff as Friedman’s suggestion that we have infrastructural and other problems, one has to admit that the billions and billions of dollars that has gone to fight the Iraq war in particular represents national wealth being drained away from other uses, be they governmental or private.

In terms of the “stupid” claim, it is noteworthy to point out, that 1 in 3 Americans believe that:

“Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

[…]

Four in 10 Republicans still hold this view, compared with 32% of Independents and 27% of Democrats.

The poll of 1,035 adults was taken Sept. 4 to 8.

Further, many still believe that Saddam’s WMD were shipped to Syria or are still buried in the desert. They base these claims on that notion since it is possible that such scenario could have happened, that they probably did-forget the fact that we have no empirical evidence whatsoever to confirm such theories, such views help validate the fact that the war had a real basis, so they ignore reality and hope that fantasy is true.

At a minimum, therefore, there is clear evidence of a lack of fuzzy thinking and conclusions based on faulty evidence out there. Another example of this is the notion that we face an ongoing and imminent threat of al Qaeda via our southern border, despite the fact that has been no evidence of such a threat. It just sounds good, so it must be so.

Let me confess that I, too, allowed 9/11 to make me stupid. Those events coupled with the still unsolved anthrax attacks made it appear at the time as if we had entered a new phase of global politics that allowed me to be more persuaded than I should have been by a number of policy proposals of the Bush administration-most especially the Iraq policy. I will note that the administration took those events of 2001 and did nothing but fuel the notion that we were, in fact, faced with imminent and repeated attack.

At some point we are all going to have to assess the world away from images of planes flying into buildings and the smoldering heaps they left behind. Politicians who seek to continually take us back to that moment as a way to stoke to fires of anger and revenge do us all a disservice. President Bush and Vice President Cheney have gone to that well quite often over the last six-plus years. Rudy Giuliani seems to have based roughly 95% of his campaign on the continual revisiting of those events. We need to move beyond those events.

I don’t mean that we forget them, or that we ignore the real threats that exist in the guise of al Qaeda and similar groups. There are real threats out there. But like my arguments concerning assessment of Iraq itself, we need candidates, and eventually a president, who will realistically assess these threats, not simply conjure images of 9/11 as if any minute another such event is going to take place. Policies based on rational and empirical assessments rather than fear would be a nice change of pace.

h/t: A&I for the polling story on Iraq and 9/11 linked above.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Yet another example that raises an ongoing question: who have most anti-terrorism policies annoyed the most, terrorists or American citizens….

Certainly it seems that most of these policies have done a far better job of making it more difficult for everyday Americans to pursue their lives than they have in stopping terrorists in pursuing theirs…

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Friday, September 21, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via WNZ: MIT Student Arrested For Fake Bomb At Logan

An MIT student wearing what turned out to be a fake bomb was arrested at gunpoint Friday at Logan International Airport and later claimed it was artwork and that she was there to meet her boyfriend, officials said.

Star Simpson, 19, had a white computer circuit board and wiring over a black hooded sweat shirt she was wearing, said State Police Maj. Scott Pare, the commanding officer at the airport.

[…]

The battery-powered rectangular device had nine flashing lights, Pare said. Simpson also had Play-Doh in her hands, he said.

The phrases “Socket to me” and “Course VI” were written on the back of sweat shirt, which authorities displayed to the media. Course VI appears to be a reference to MIT’s major of electrical engineering and computer science.

First, off: of the airports at which to test airport security’s aesthetic acumen, Logan International is an especially poor choice.

Still, given the description of the device (and the video at WBZ’s site) and the following response, one has to wonder about how far we have come in the last six years (and I don’t mean in a good way) in terms of overreaction to possible threats:

“She was immediately told to stop, to raise her hands and not to make any movement, so we could observe all her movements to see if she was trying to trip any type of device,” Pare said. “Had she not followed the protocol, we might have used deadly force.”

I am not sure that flashing lights on a circuit board qualifies for the potential use of deadly force. Indeed, the incident reminded me of a post at OTB yesterday. It seems as if we have decided that we need to jettison common sense because of what happened on 9/11/01.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Given my recent posts on the topic of “Islamofascism” (for example) it was with interest that I noted this column in the CSM Fawaz A. Gerges: Bin Laden’s new image: younger, more Marxist:

Projecting a younger look, Mr. bin Laden gives his most ideological address since the early 1990s with an assault on capitalism and liberal democracy loaded with Marxist and socialist terms. Indeed, this new bin Laden sounds more like Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary, than some of his rifle-toting Al Qaeda cohorts.

[…]

In the video, bin Laden addresses Americans and rails against the ills of economic exploitation, multinational corporations, and globalization. He tells them to liberate themselves from “the deception, shackles, and attrition of the capitalist system.” Similar to his incitement of Muslims against their oppressive, “apostate” rulers and the meddlesome West, bin Laden now seems to be trying to galvanize Americans against their own harsh socioeconomic and political system.

“Poor and exploited Americans, unite against your capitalist laws that make the rich richer and the poor poorer,” the former multimillionaire businessman tells the camera. Never before has bin Laden utilized the grandiose language of Marxism in his statements to the American people. And yet, he says, Muslims and Americans are alike; they are both victims of the capitalist system, which “seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of ‘globalization’ in order to protect democracy.”

While in the past bin Laden emphasized the clash of cultures and religions as the basis for confrontation, he now talks about commonalities of victimhood and suffering. He blames the global system of capital and class for the tragedies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the poverty of Africa, and “the reeling of many [Americans] under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes, and real estate mortgages.” According to the new bin Laden, big capital, class interests, and multinationals – not religion or culture – are responsible for perpetuating war and killing.

I am not saying that I am convinced that bin Laden has become El Che of the East (although I suppose we should keep an eye out for a beret to go along with the new beard color), but this piece does create an intriguing juxtaposition to the assertions that fascism is the appropriate ideological category in which to place bin Ladenism.

At a minimum it is true that the language and categories cited above have a lot more in common with Marxism than with fascism.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the CSM: Record drug seizures on US-Mexico border

Seizures of illegal drugs – from marijuana to heroin – are on the rise along the US-Mexican border again this year, breaking the previous record for major busts set just last year.

“We’re overwhelmed with marijuana,” says Anthony Coulson, assistant special agent in charge of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Tucson. “We passed last year’s record about two months ago.”

Marijuana is the most-seized drug, followed by cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin, Mr. Coulson says. “All of them are trending up.”

While seizures are up in part owing to increased border security, such increased seizures have historically had more to do with increased levels of supply than anything else. Indeed, this was, as the story notes, a good year for the crops in question, which further suggests that the main variable here is increased availability of the products.

Whenever we seize large amounts of drugs, some take this to mean that we have increased our interdiction capabilities, and therefore that we are making progress. However, the records for seizures constantly fall and the supply of the products in question continue unabated.

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Friday, September 7, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the Blotter: New Videotape From Bin Laden; Al Qaeda’s No. 1 Still Alive

The jihadist Web site announced the tape with a banner, showing a still picture of bin Laden, now 50 years old, looking fit with a full beard of dark black hair, no gray at all.

“It does look oddly like he is wearing a false beard,” Richard Clarke, a former White House counterterrorism official and now ABC News consultant, said. “If we go back to the tape three years, he had a very white beard. This looks like a phony beard that has been passed on.”

The “phony beard” may be an important clue as to where bin Laden is hiding, according to Clarke.

“One place where a beard would stand out would be southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia,” Clarke told ABC News. “No one’s thought he was there, but that is an environment where most men, Muslim men don’t have beards.”

An interesting theory, and one that would make US intelligence and its Waziristan/”hiding in a cave” theory look a bit silly.

I will say it would have been funnier if he had been wearing a glasses with a fake nose and mustache…

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By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Judge strikes down part of Patriot Act

A federal judge struck down a key part of the USA Patriot Act on Thursday in a ruling that defended the need for judicial oversight of laws and bashed Congress for passing a law that makes possible “far-reaching invasions of liberty.”

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero immediately stayed the effect of his ruling, allowing the government time to appeal.

[…]

The ACLU had challenged the law on behalf of an Internet service provider, complaining that the law allowed the FBI to demand records without the kind of court supervision required for other government searches. Under the law, investigators can issue so-called national security letters to entities like Internet service providers and phone companies and demand customers’ phone and Internet records.

A past posting on the national security letter situation can be found here and a WaPo column linked to the lawsuit in question can be found here. I would recommend that the column in particular. The situation is one that should be utterly unacceptable in the United States of the America.

All of this boils down to the fact that in the post-9/11 context that President and the Congress have been quite willing to gut judicial oversight from information gathering activities that could easily lead to private information of innocent citizens being obtained simply because the FBI wants it. That establishes a system that could very easily be abused.

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Friday, August 10, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via Attywood I discovered a rather ridiculous column in the Philadelphia Daily news by one Stu Bykofsky: To save America, we need another 9/11

ONE MONTH from The Anniversary, I’m thinking another 9/11 would help America.

What kind of a sick bastard would write such a thing?

A bastard so sick of how splintered we are politically - thanks mainly to our ineptitude in Iraq - that we have forgotten who the enemy is.

It is not Bush and it is not Hillary and it is not Daily Kos or Bill O’Reilly or Giuliani or Barack. It is global terrorists who use Islam to justify their hideous sins, including blowing up women and children.

Iraq has fractured the U.S. into jigsaw pieces of competing interests that encourage our enemies. We are deeply divided and division is weakness.

If I may say, it is unclear to me that America needs “saving” per se-despite a lengthy list of problems, we are doing just fine, thanks. And while the public debate is often rancorous, the degree to which there are deep divisions that we must be saved from is rather dubious. Witness the FISA debate in Congress last week-despite a great deal of rhetoric over the issue, it didn’t exactly lead to a constitutional showdown.

Beyond that, I would note that a good bit of the damage/splintering of late that we have suffered, whether we are talking about debates over the powers of the president, domestic surveillance or the Iraq policy, flowed directly out of responses to 9/11. As such, it is not so clear to me that another massive terrorist attack would do us a lot of good, and indeed would liken deepen many of our current divisions. Sure, we would be more unified for a moment in time, but those moments fade.

Indeed, from the beginning I have found these arguments about how we lost something after 9/11 that we should seek to regain in terms of unity (whether it be internally or with other states) has always been based on sentimentality rather than reality. For example, many have argued that we had the world on our side after 9/11, usually followed by a reference to the Le Monde headline that stated “Today We are All new Yorkers” and so forth. Of course everyone came to our defense and was sympathetic towards us, we had just been attacked without provocation. It was hardly a surprise that there was a groundswell of support, much of which was based on emotion. But emotions are transitory. To expect that sentiment to persist was foolish. And yes, we had national unity after the attacks, but that is what happens to families where other members are attacked, or when there is a death. Families come together and rally around one another. However, once the immediate threat is gone, or once the death has been mourned, families go back to remembering why the other members of the family annoy them so much, and the internal fighting resumes. If you have ever been to a wake for a family member, you will know what I am talking about. Everyone is sad that Grandma has passed on, and in a shared moment of grief you feel closer to that cousin, aunt or brother who normally drives you nuts. That feeling does not persist-and nor should we expect it to.

I have heard numerous pastors and religious figures mourn the fact that right after 9/11 there was a swell in church attendance that subsided. Hardly a shock: people react to a crisis, and then as the effects of the crisis wane, they move on.

Anyone who gives this any thought should recognize that it was totally natural and normal for the post-9/11 unity to fade and they should further recognize that the same thing will happen again if there is another attack.

Going beyond the 9/11 business, the following a line of “reasoning” that I keep hearing from time to time that I think is largely nonsense and misdiagnoses public sentiment towards the situation in Iraq:

Americans have turned their backs because the war has dragged on too long and we don’t have the patience for a long slog. We’ve been in Iraq for four years, but to some it seems like a century. In contrast, Britain just pulled its soldiers out of Northern Ireland where they had been, often being shot at, almost 40 years.

The issue in Iraq is not the length of the engagement, it is the fact that it hasn’t been very successful and the prospects for success remain rather dim. If we were taking years to root out an entrenched WMD program whilst rousting the terrorist cells that Saddam had harbored/trained in the midst of successful policies to build the physical and governmental infrastructure (or, really, any one of the three) then I suspect that there would be far more patience. The problem is that there is a perception, grounded in reality, that we are fighting int he middle of a country that doesn’t know how it wants to define itself against terrorists who are fighting primarily because we are there and, oh yeah, there are no (and never were) any WMD to speak of. As such, the vast majority of the American population looks at the policy and wonders why we are wasting the lives and limbs of US soldiers, not to mention billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars. Further, they look at this situation in the context of rosy scenarios being oferred by persons whose previous rosy scenarios (i.e., soldiers greeted with flowers and oil revenues that would fund the reconstruction) didn’t exactly pan out.

As such, we are not looking here at a situation in which American simply are unwilling to hang in a necessary fight. Rather, we are looking at a situation in which objective reasons for optimism are few and it is unclear what “victory” would even look like in Iraq in any realistic sense. And, I would note, the word “realistic” is especially key in that sentence. Conjuring unrealistic definitions of “victory” is quite easy, but then again I’d like a sportscar and a giant raise (so long as we are wishing…).

Bykofsky also goes on to talk quite a bit about remembering who the enemy is. I don’t think anyone has forgotten who al Qaeda is, and what they did. The question, however, that we really haven’t addressed, is exactly how severe a threat that they are. The degree to which they should be treated as a existential threat to the US in the same way the nuclear missiles of the USSR were treated is a dubious proposition, I would argue, but that seems to be what Byofsky thinks.

He makes this rather odd claim

:
Is there any doubt they are planning to hit us again?

If it is to be, then let it be. It will take another attack on the homeland to quell the chattering of chipmunks and to restore America’s righteous rage and singular purpose to prevail.

Since when, even immediately after 9/11, did we have a “singular purpose”? I am not sure we had one of those during the Cold War. Perhaps we did in WWII, but that is an especially poor analog to the current situation. If anything, I would submit that rage, righteous or otherwise, is a terrible state in which to make public policy of any kind, and most especially the kind where the coercive powers of the state are involved.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2007
By Dr. Steven Taylor

Via the AP: Man smuggles monkey into NYC airport

The monkey escapade began in Lima, Peru, late Monday, when the man boarded a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Spirit Airlines spokeswoman Alison Russell. After landing Tuesday morning, the man waited several hours before catching a connecting flight to LaGuardia Airport.

During the flight, people around the man noticed that the marmoset, which normally lives in forests and eats fruit and insects, had emerged from underneath his hat, Russell said.

Having flown out of the Lima airport, I must confess to being somewhat surprised that no one noticed the monkey. Still, what’s going on with our amazing TSA? That monkey could’ve been a member of al Qaeda!

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