Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The 'No Fly List' is Atrocious - Let's Not Make it Worse

It would pretty much be all of us...
Start with an almost comically obvious premise: It would not be good to simply let terrorists buy guns legally. No rational society would allow such a thing - setting aside for a moment whether any rational society would allow broad unlimited access to modern firearms in the first place - and it shouldn't be terribly difficult to make certain such an obvious premise is enforced in day-to-day reality. Of course, we're not really saying what we mean here - if we know a specific individual is a terrorist, they are either in custody or the subject of a manhunt. Obviously what we mean here is 'suspected terrorist', or perhaps a better construct might be 'pre-terrorist', somebody who has come to the attention of law enforcement or Homeland Security but has not been arrested or tried for any crimes. And fortuitously, we have a 'list' of these exact subjects - it's called the 'No Fly List' and it is used to prevent terrorism suspects from boarding or traveling on commercial airliners.

The No Fly List contains about 47,000 names. It's unclear how many are American citizens or permanent residents, but that number is well under 1000 (it was 800 in 2013). Much of the actual intent of maintaining a No Fly List is to keep suspected international terrorists out of the US in the first place. So as a No Gun List, this compilation of names would be very close to useless, another case of 'security theater' writ large. But let me ask you a question: In light of what we know about the US National Security State, given this kind of new unilateral administrative authority to prevent gun purchases, do you think it's at least reasonable that the FBI might expand the scope of people on the No Fly List to more broadly include people in the US and people whose focus isn't necessarily on transportation targets?

And once we have surrendered yet another constitutional right to the whims of the DoJ bureaucracy, are you comfortable that it will all just stop there? What about Drivers Licenses? I mean, cars are little different from airplanes and truck bombs are the most common form of terrorist attack around the globe. And consider the attack on the soccer stadium in Paris. Perhaps the FBI should be able to deny the right to attend large-scale sporting events and concerts?

When you give up your due process rights and allow a government agency to determine whether and how to withhold rights and privileges you take for granted as a citizen - when you allow lists of names to be compiled by agency bureaucrats who can then restrict the rights of those on the list - you give up both any access to information about WHY your name is on that list, and you give up any opportunity to challenge that information, and have that challenge adjudicated fairly.  We've seen these excesses in the No Fly List from the very beginning. So much secrecy and ambiguity exists around the list that people have been denied access to airlines for years because their name was 'similar to the known alias of someone on the No Fly List'. Even after it was established that it was a different person on the list, it was still impossible for the unfortunately named individual to fly.

Look. Guns in America are a crisis. No one spends more time screaming about the gun violence crisis than I do. But children: THIS IS NOT THE WAY. If we're so desperate for a 'win' in the gun debate that we're willing to hand over another victory to the National Security State, then we've already lost the much larger debate. At the very moment when we should be fighting to radically reform or eliminate the No Fly List, instead we find ourselves enthusiastically doubling down on the premise of a society where our 'rights' are limited and controlled by government agencies.

Update: Just want to make sure we're thinking about this. This is what you get when you have a constitutional guarantee of the right to keep and bear arms. You can clearly have an American citizen who is the subject of multiple investigations, who has indicated a tendency to hate, violence and terror. But he's not chargeable, so he can walk into a gun store and buy a pistol, a rifle or a shotgun. This shouldn't be hard - no other country struggles with this challenge. But our toxic 2nd amendment saddles us with these horrific hobson's choices...

Monday, June 20, 2016

Orlando and ISIS - Does it Matter?

If it quacks like a duck...
Once again, in the wake of the Orlando atrocity, we see journalists endlessly pondering what seems to them to be an important question. If the killers were Muslims, and if there was an element of Islamic extremism driving their actions, were they actually ISIS operatives or were they merely influenced by ISIS' ideology? I wonder, however - does it even matter? Is this a distinction without a difference?

In the case of homegrown terrorists, particularly that very large fraction who do not survive their attack to be questioned, motivation is a difficult thread to unravel. Someone raised a Muslim, however, who at some point claims the attack is driven by Islamic fundamentalist or Muslim nationalist ideologies, must be taken at their word that their religious and ethnic indoctrination had some influence on their actions. In the case of the Orlando terrorist, for example, the attack was premised on his hatred for gay people, but it seems reasonable that the root of that hatred - whether for gay culture or self-loathing at his own sexual impulses - was the Islamic fundamentalist indoctrination via his father.

The fact is that, however you feel about the surveillance state and Homeland Security tactics, the US is a very difficult target for overseas terrorist organizations to get to. To move people, funds and weapons into the US, organize and coordinate them for a large scale attack is almost impossible to do without detection and interdiction. The only way to carry out an effective terror attack in the US today without an inordinate amount of luck is if the attacker(s) have NO communications with any known terrorist organization.

The lesson seems to be that people with a predisposition to mass killing will find some justification for doing it. The existence of Islamic terrorist ideology provides people who were raised in that faith (or converted out of some sympathetic feelings for the dogma) with a ready-made formula for both motivation and justification. And with the key factor determining whether someone carries out such an attack being a willingness/desire to die in the process, a motivation rooted in religious mythology that includes eternal life in paradise can be an important enabling factor. But it seems substantially less is important whether the attacker(s) were an active part of the terrorist organization or merely aware of their worldview and doctrine and sympathetic to their cause. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the successful mass casualty attacks will have that specific factor in common - zero communication with any extant terrorist organization before the attack. That kind of operationally secure mission planning is the best way to avoid coming to the attention of law enforcement or Counter Terrorism personnel.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Someday, We'll Look Back on All This and...Be Grateful??

No, seriously, I love this guy
Not to go all Slate-Pitchy on you here, but I can't help but think that it's at least possible that the success Donald Trump enjoyed in this election cycle might turn out to be something we can be somewhat grateful for. Obviously, it exposed some deep flaws in our electoral system, and demonstrated that there is a path to political power in the US for an ignorant, narcissistic demagogue. But he has no real-world chance of actually winning the general election in November, so instead it gives us a chance to examine this bullet dodged, and think about how it might reshape much of the political narrative in the US in the future.

So what beneficial trends might we see come out of the Donald Trump phenomenon? Well, first think about the media reaction to him. It's quite different than what you see from more typical Republican politicians, even liars like Paul Ryan or madmen like James Inhofe. The media has always maintained a frustrating stance of considering both sides of the public policy discussion as equally valid, even when one side has gone very badly off the rails. "Shape of the earth - both sides disagree" we smile and say. It's a real problem - they are so terrified of being accused of bias that they won't just be honest about reality. But with Trump - he's lied so blatantly, said stupid things on camera and then denied he said them, taken both sides of an argument in a single speech and been so hostile to the media that they don't feel like they owe him any of this protection, or that they might be considered biased for calling him out for these laughable positions. And it's worth noting that we've mostly only seen primary campaign coverage so far. After the conventions, the heat on Trump to speak coherently and justify his statements is going to be turned up substantially. And media outlets are going to discover that people have an appetite for honest reporting.

On top of that, Trump has ripped the scab off the Republican party's coalition problem. The party leadership has long known they have a serious demographic problem that prevents them from building a national coalition of voters that support their policies. The leadership had one agenda - the upward transfer of wealth through reduced taxes on the wealthy and reduced regulation on business and the reduction of government transfers to the poor and middle class. But the Republican voting base didn't really care about this policy agenda, and to whatever extent they did they tended to oppose it. They cared about tribal and social issues. White Christian supremacy, immigration, gay rights, gun ownership - these were the empty promises the Republican party has been making them for decades to ensure their votes. Trump simply dropped much of the economic policy plans and concentrated on the issues important to white Middle-American Christianists. Now, while 70% of the non-college white American vote isn't enough to elect a president, the party is going to have to confront a base electorate that wants Trump's policies, not Paul Ryan's. The Republican party is going to have to find a way to build a larger coalition or risk becoming irrelevant. Post Trump, the path to that coalition is unclear, and the American conservative constituency may find itself splintered.

Next, think about money in politics. Despite the massive influx of wealthy donors since the Citizens United decision, it's hard to see what the Koch and Adelson millions have bought. The Republicans have been successful at the congressional district and statehouse levels due to population distribution, gerrymandering and voter suppression. The money from the billionaires doesn't seem to have bought much. And now we have Trump, who has run a campaign based on rallies, social media and free nightly cable news coverage, easily defeated Bush and Rubio and Cruz despite their tens of millions in campaign contributions. It's true that the Clinton campaign will spend a lot of money defeating Trump, but in a sense that's just accomplishing the outcome that would happen anyway. It's beginning to become clear that money - even unlimited money - isn't a guarantor of electoral success.

Last, there is a larger ideological benefit to America - not just as a result of Trumpism, but as represented by the excesses of Trumpism. The conventional wisdom - very likely true - has been that there have been hard political limitations on the Democratic party embracing more liberal public policies. The Democrats have had to adopt an 'assume the left to keep the center' approach to the electorate. But now Trump has put away the dog whistles and exposed the core conservative voter for the racist reactionary he is. The center will accept more liberal policies before it will accept a shift to that kind of tribal identity politics. In other words, the Democrats will be able to keep their larger, broad coalition even as the Democratic leadership moves left on social and economic populist policies.

In the end, Trump represents the end of a long, frustrating political era in the US. The voters have finally stood up and forced the parties to show what they really stand for, and what they truly believe. Between Trump and Sanders, the state of American political and economic policy making is better than it has been in a long time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Self Defense in the Age of Rape Culture Awareness

The term 'Cut and Run' has a specific meaning
I see more and more women on social media talking about taking self defense courses, and carrying pepper spray and folding knives with them when they're out. I tend to applaud this trend - first, because once men realize they can be badly hurt or arrested (or both), they will immediately think harder about their more predatory instincts. But also because what you DON'T see is a lot of "I'm gonna get a gun" postings. We have enough guns. We have enough untrained, unskilled Rambo wannabes in our cities and towns. Armed self defense is good, but we're still a nation in peacetime.

That said, the 'pepper spray and folding knife' self defense solution can be problematic. Pepper spray is great - I wish every woman carried both a full power version in her purse and a small short-range version on her key ring. But pepper spray isn't always disabling, and if you miss your 'shot' or the guy has a high tolerance or your pepper spray isn't as powerful as they said it was - well, you've escalated the conflict and now you've got a physically violent confrontation on your hands.

But my concern with knives is greater. Don't get me wrong - I ALWAYS have a combat knife with me. But you need to understand what it's for, and how to use it. If you confront a bigger, stronger opponent and you pull a knife and wave it around and try to stab your way out, you're going to lose. Stabbing is like punching - if you aren't confident of your success throwing punches against a male adversary, you won't be successful fighting him with a knife.

So let's go back to basics. First, think about your knife. Is it big enough? Is it razor sharp? Can you get to it quickly, open it efficiently and discretely and grip it properly? These are things you can practice in your living room. Nobody needs to know. Get a good 4-5" combat folder, half serrated blade, and a sharpening kit. Don't use it as a screwdriver or a prybar. Keep it scary sharp, and keep it where you always know where it is.

Now. How to use it. Stabbing people is surprisingly hard. You need to expend a LOT of force to drive a knife deep into a human torso. But that's ok - we're not here to talk about lethal force. We're here to talk about crippling, disabling wounds that let you disengage and withdraw. You have three targets. The tendons behind the upper arm, the soft tissue inside the elbow and the major tendons in the back of the thighs. Anytime an adversary throws a punch or reaches to grab you, he exposes those muscles and tendons under the triceps on the back of the upper arm. If he's not wearing a leather jacket, reach up, cut hard across the outside of the arm, use the serrated inner part of the blade, and slash around the arm. Use a LOT of pressure - you want to do deep muscle and tendon damage. This damage will render the arm useless, and you will have a physical advantage you can use to end the fight and get home safe.

If you are out of position to reach the back of his arm, the soft meat inside the elbow - where they draw your blood at the doctors office - is vulnerable to a similar deep slash from above, rather than from below. You'll do less structural damage but you'll back him off by getting some spurting arterial bleeding that will scare him into disengaging quickly.

Finally, there's that hamstring tendon behind the thigh. There's also an Achilles tendon behind the ankle, but that's a secondary target. If you open your knife and hold it down by your side, you might be able to go to the ground, wrap yourself around his legs and drive the point of the knife into the meat of his thigh and saw it out. If you cut that tendon, he won't be able to walk - and you can leave, or call the police, or just go ahead and end him, if you want.

Look. None of these things are easy, and if you just throw a knife in your bag without thinking or practicing you're going to get badly hurt. Not everyone can use a knife in defense, and not everyone can do it even if they want to. But these are the realities of using a knife in self defense, and if you are carrying a knife out with you, you owe it to yourself to at least think about how you're going to use it effectively.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

An Open Letter to Bernie Sanders

Nope. Not buying what this guy is selling
Dear Bernie~

Your candidacy has been truly remarkable. You have done something I would have said was impossible until you proved otherwise. You took a platform with which I am 100% in agreement, and with your dishonesty, your style, your refusal to take the role of the US Presidency seriously and your refusal to consider political realities as part of the demands of the job of the professional politician, you drove me into implacable opposition to your candidacy.

That's amazing. When you first began your campaign, I thought "Wow - an American presidential candidate who speaks clearly about the need for stronger federal government intervention in the community to reduce inequality, end poverty, guarantee education and health care - that's amazing and I want to support you". But then, almost immediately, I began to have doubts. First, none of your campaign messaging seemed willing to address the problems in passing this kind of liberal legislation in the US. In fact, you didn't seem willing to address the legislature at all - you just kept saying YOU would do these things, which is, of course, impossible in our system. You insisted that we break up the banks, even though the consensus of the economic community is that's nowhere near the best way to address the 'too big to fail' problem. And when I tried to learn your positions on other issues, outside of economic inequality and social justice, you didn't seem to have any. You can't be a 'one issue' president - it's an executive management job, and you'd better be ready to deal with everything that would be on your plate.

And then, as time passed, your campaign seemed to just stop being about you and your ideas and your policy goals. It morphed into something vile and ugly, a non-stop 24x7 attack on Hillary Clinton. I knew most of the smears of Ms. Clinton were wrong, premised on decades of unrelenting attacks from the Right, but still I wondered "even if Clinton is truly evil personified, what is that saying about why I should vote FOR Sanders?" Indeed, if the Sanders campaign couldn't make a case for why he should be the President - if all they could do is make a case for why someone else should NOT be the President - they have given me no reason to vote for him.

I would still love to see much of the Sanders policy agenda enacted in the US. But I want to see the plans for passing and funding and implementing those policies. If you can't even tell me that, you're just a huckster promising the rubes anything to get into the office - you're a liberal Paul Ryan.

Nope. I can't support you, Senator Sanders. You were a good man with good ideas who was completely unprepared to operate at the highest levels of American governance. I hope you started something that can be picked up and moved forward by a smart politician who will drive toward these solutions with something more than empty promises.

But for now? For now I'll happily see Hillary Clinton win the White House. She will fight to get what incremental change is possible in the real world, and as the first female American president her election will be a historic moment of pride for us all.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

President Hillary Clinton - Wars and Assumptions of Wars

We're gonna keep on getting what we have been getting
I determined fairly early in the primary cycle that I preferred Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders for a number of reasons - electability, experience, knowledge/expertise and her willingness to tell me the hard truth, that political change is hard and no matter how hard we clap we ain't getting a pony. And heaven knows, I prefer almost anyone to egomaniac ignoramus Donald Trump. Having said that, and despite what Senator Sanders' most fervent supporters will tell you in repeated spittle-flecked tirades, no candidate is perfect. In the case of Ms. Clinton, I'm not concerned about the breathless innuendo around corruption, but I AM concerned about her willingness to use the US military in ways I believe to be inappropriate and counterproductive. Now, let's be clear - this is not because she is a bloodthirsty warmonger - I think she knows enough about the human cost of modern urban warfare to be reluctant about it - but rather because she comes out of a long tradition of Democratic interventionists, liberals who saw the use of America's overwhelming military power as a way of containing and even rolling back the more brutal, oppressive regimes around the world.

It's important to remember, however, that these Democrat-supported or even initiated interventions tended to be small, sharp engagements - think Mayaguez, Grenada or Panama - characterized by a small, focused objective against an overwhelmingly weak opposition force with little chance of becoming a larger, longer-lasting conflict. Those types of applications of US military power were coupled with ongoing support for strategic deterrence against peer-power expansion and an explicit or implicit promise to defend smaller allies against aggression. So the belief (or, common among many on the left, the certainty) that President Clinton II will initiate one or more GW Bush style large scale invasions/occupations in the third world and engage in belligerent saber-rattling against Russia and China is, historically, entirely unjustified.

But even if you honestly believe her instincts or downright bloodthirsty nature will drive her to engage in more large-scale combat, you have to examine that belief by thinking through the where and why of these presumed new wars. There are four regions of concern - South Asia, Middle East & North Africa, Eastern Europe and the South and East China Seas. And frankly, no matter how much you believe that Senator Clinton WANTS to use American Military power in some or all of those hot spots, I submit that you'll find it hard making a compelling case that she will.

The middle east is a non starter. Too many factions, too many allies and adversaries and proxies, too much history both regional and domestic. Large scale US troop presence in Iraq? The Iraqis don't want it, the Iranians don't want it, and the American people would sour on it very quickly. In Syria? Maybe, but risking war with Russia, Iran and even Turkey over what is essentially a regional multi-factional sectarian war? If you believe Clinton is delusional, perhaps. I don't believe that. Saudi Arabia loves having the US fight its wars, but they do NOT want the US to damage their Sunni Islamist proxies, so they'd be very selective about what they would permit in their neighborhood. All in all, there's nothing for American troops to do in the middle east at this point that wouldn't harm US interests and Clinton's own standing. No matter what you believe are her motivations, there's no fruit left on that tree to be picked.

South Asia is a mess. You can count on American troops remaining in Afghanistan for years to come, even if Jesus was the American President. There's just no politically viable path to drawing down to zero. But for the same reasons, there's no politically viable path to a large scale escalation, either. Pakistan is toxic - they (along with Saudi Arabia) represent the root of the Islamic terrorism problem, and yet we must pretend they are our allies. Obama started a cautious creep away from Pakistan and towards India, but in this particular part of the world any destabilization risks an immediate nuclear exchange. Hillary Clinton, no matter what else she is, is not in favor of nuclear war.

Eastern Europe will become increasingly problematic over the next few years, but despite America's traditional bellicose rhetoric, it has become fairly obvious to all concerned that the US is not going to actually risk a nuclear war with Russia over the likes of Latvia or Poland. And even more so, Germany, France and the UK are actively working to make sure they aren't turned into a smoldering radioactive wasteland because the US and Russia didn't know when to back down. The NATO treaties all come with asterisks today, and while the tensions will rise and fall from event to event, ultimately the US and her western allies will acquiesce to any small scale Russian aggression like we saw in Ukraine. The appetite for a shooting war with a near-peer adversary in Europe is exactly zero.

That leaves the waters off eastern China. And while Clinton would continue the Obama 'pivot', increasing ties to our allies in the region while challenging any Chinese limits on freedom of navigation through those international waters, it ultimately matters more what China does (and what Japan does) than what the US does. The US, for all it's bluster about the most powerful military in the world, is at a tremendous tactical disadvantage in east Asia. In a conventional war, China is fighting within a thousand kilometers of the mainland, while the US is trying to operate in those same waters from a distance that approaches ten thousand kilometers. Recognizing this asymmetric condition, the Chinese began working on a regional warfighting doctrine called A2/AD over a decade ago. A2/AD is shorthand for Anti Access/Area Denial - the concept that all China has to do is make it impossible for US navy surface combatants to operate within that 1000 km arc. Using a combination of missiles, submarines and aircraft and small littoral vessels with modern anti-ship missiles they are well on the way to accomplishing this.

Even now, if the shooting started, the US will almost certainly lose at least one and probably more than one aircraft carrier. The loss of life - and the blow to global American prestige - would be devastating. This is the one potential regional conventional war that America would very likely lose. And let's remember that accepted wisdom is that it is the nation in the process of losing a conventional war that is likely to turn to nuclear weapons. That's the concern in Europe, in Pakistan, and it must be the concern in the China Sea. As president, Hillary Clinton will get the briefings, and will understand that the US is not in the dominant military position it claims to be in Asia, and will therefore work very hard to avoid conflict with the Chinese.

So there you have it. If you believe Hillary Clinton is a demented bloodthirsty warmonger, then I have nothing to say to you - I'd merely direct you to your patron saint, Alex Jones. But if you believe that she is an intelligent - even brilliant - professional politician and statesman, then you need to explain where she would go to war and why. I'll stipulate that American forces will remain in action in dozens of places around the globe, mostly utilizing SpecOps and drone attacks, but I remain unconvinced that the US will fight another large scale war like Iraq during her Presidency.