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More balance in fighting terror July 23, 2007

Posted by Sharath Rao in America, geo-politics, politics.
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This post is about this whole business of terror and fighting it and will only tangentially refer to Mr. Haneef’s case. therandomizer has raised some interesting points and the commenter on his post has taken the time to educate readers. If you have time, consider reading them before going ahead with this post – sort of sets the background for what I write here.

In late 1999 the Indian Airline plane was hijacked and a demand was made for the release of the terrorists. Those were troubled times, soon after Kargil. While this demand was being considered, thousands of family members of the over 200 passengers were on the streets in Delhi demanding that the terrorists be released and whatever ransom was demanded be paid. The government gave in and since then the then foreign minister Jaswant Singh is often made fun of for having ‘escorted’ terrorists to Qandahar to secure the release of the hostages.

What if the government had not given in ? Its hard to say what would have happened. There were suggestions that we do an Israeli type operation and send in commandos. And there were suggestions saying don’t give in, lets see what will happen. The commando operations don’t always work ( see what happened in Beslan, Russia) and even if they do, rarely do we avoid at least some casualties. How will governments cope with the aftermath ? Let us sit and watch policy is of course not practical because we have no idea what is the worst case scenario. Given that the Taliban knows that India is not in a position to do any hot pursuit/invade Afghanistan, they could have afforded to blow up the plane. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but we did not know then. (nor do we know now)

Why am I raking up a seemingly unrelated incident as we talk of racial profiling and the non-battleground aspect of the War on terror ? This is to illustrate that this war is heavily loaded against nation-states and their law enforcement agencies. As the popular cliche goes, the terrorists have to be successful just once while the law enforcement has to be correct every single time.

Take another example of 9/11.

One of the attackers involved in 9/11 apparently took flying lessons at a Florida training school. Apparently FBI had him on the suspect list for some reason and was aware of his activities in Florida, but they did not take action. Now imagine –

He was apprehended and his activities investigated. the media is informed and the left-wingers in the media step in and defend his right to learn to fly a plane and accuse the FBI and the Bushies of racial profiling and the like. The right-wingers demand tough action.

What actually did happen – nothing. He managed to get his lessons and be a party to the events of 9-11. Now the left-wingers accused the FBI of sleeping in the face of evidence or worse, of deliberately letting this through because Bush wanted to attack Iraq anyway. The right-wingers, as always, think the one can never be tough enough. They accuse the government of protecting the rights of the accused and in the process compromise the right of the general public to a safe society.

Thirdly, how many people in the days following 7/7 paused to remind yourselves of the unfortunate but immense naivete of that Brazilian man running away when challenged in the subway station only to be shot by nervous officers ?

~~~

In both the above cases, I am not really talking of the facts. We have no evidence either way about FBI’s attitude or the plans that the hijackers in the Indian Airlines plane had just in case the Indian government called their bluff. All we know is the attitude that we, as people completely unaware of the complexities of anti-terrorist investigation, demonstrate.

It is no secret that the human brain contains within it numerous biases of different kinds ( read this document please ! ). These biases are well on display in the attitude of the public to make judgments. Here we have some examples –

a) Hindsight bias – evaluating past decisions made using evidence not available at the time of making decisions.

b) Selection bias – blaming the government for that rare terrorist event, while not taking into account the fact that for several years there were not any. Surely it was not because the terrorists did not try. You thus pick the evidence that support your hypothesis.

c) Just as often that you find white Westerners alarmed by innocuous events such as the brown man with the camera, you also find brown people overplaying the race card and at every available opportunity. I don’t know what kind of bias this is, but it is one anyway.

d) Profiling is a part of life. We all do it, all the time especially in the absence of complete information. Institutional mechanisms such as law enforcement, insurance and credit card companies (age), self-defense (Indian women don’t undertake night journeys sitting alongside male strangers – remember that male stranger has a human rights too ), street-side bargaining (if you are in good clothes, you are quoted a higher price), that must make such decisions involving incomplete information must engage in some kind of profiling.

As for this whole hullabaloo about Islam and terrorism, another case of confusing conditional probabilities ! Probability of A being a terrorist given A is a Muslim versus Probability of A being a Muslim given A is a terrorist are two different things. The general public’s lack of understanding of ‘simple’ probabilistic reasoning and its relevance to decision-making is further evidence for the need to compulsorily teach probability and statistics in high school.

In the light of all this, why are we expecting a system that is crime free, terror-free, has no profiling of any kind in its institutions, that is rich, healthy, that has no disadvantaged minorities and no aggrieved citizens of any kind, that is not the subject of envy and jealousy? The presence of these humanrights-wallahs and Jhola-wallahs of course helps check the excesses of the state, but taken to an extreme degree is perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting terror – be it Islamist/Marxist or counter-insurgency operations.

It helps to remember that of the millions of brown folks traveling through US and European airports everyday – and once perhaps in 6 months you hear a case of unfair treatment which makes some of you go on and on about racial discrimination. Personally, I think they are doing an incredible job.

It helps to remember that the law enforcement has a tougher job than most of us do – technology and special laws make their job slightly easier. On the other hand, terrorists have an easier job than many of us do and our technology and public vigilance go some way towards making their job harder. The number of terror incidents is a delicate equilibrium between how tough it is to catch them and how easy it is for them to get us. Mighty hard to have that equilibrium around zero.

P.S : On Haneef’s case, my position is that from the facts coming in Aussies have indeed majorly screwed it up – whether that is simply paranoia about security in a country that is yet to see its first terrorist attack (they lost several in Bali a few years ago) or religious profiling of the invidious nature is something I am not sure of.

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Comments»

1. Racial Profiling: Statistics vs Prejudice [Updated] « Realm Of Randomness - July 24, 2007

[…] Update : Sharath has added on to this discussion as well […]

2. Randomizer - July 24, 2007

“The presence of these humanrights-wallahs and Jhola-wallahs of course helps check the excesses of the state, but taken to an extreme degree is perhaps the biggest impediment to fighting terror – be it Islamist/Marxist or counter-insurgency operations” ….

…”and once perhaps in 6 months you hear a case of unfair treatment which makes some of you go on and on about racial discrimination. Personally, I think they are doing an incredible job.”

While I seem to agree with most of your post, I do see a reason to debate these statements above. The premise of a free America is being constantly attacked by anti-terror legislation… be it Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot act, and so on. When the person being investigated is some other guy, of course, we all love that extra security… which is why most of white America is happy with all these anti-terror acts that blatantly attack basic human rights -> but only when these are the human rights of some suspected terrorists.

If everyday white folk were being picked up and sent to Guantanamo bay for possible torture, this prison wouldn’t have lasted a day. The point I’m making is that Anti-terror legislation is moving this democracy to more of a military state … and though preventing terror is important, it is not as impt as upholding basic human rights.

Now, what makes the whole situation difficult is that we cannot quantify these differences . For instance, what is worse – 30 ppl dying in a terrorist attack, or having the entire country’s email being monitored by anti-terror agencies ? What is more sacred to this country ? Lives or values ? Tough call, I’d say.

I definitely feel that the Human-rights guys are AS important as the Anti-terror guys … in fact, I would rephrase your statement to say ‘Taken to an extreme degree, the Anti-terror-wallahs are the biggest impediment to Human rights’.

The balance the government has to strike is not just between the terrorists and the law enfocers … but between the founding principles of the country and the new face of terrorism.

I agree that for the most part, the anti-terror agencies are doing a good job … but calling their work ‘incredible’ in the face of blatant human rights violations in Guantanomo Bay is opening yourself up to a little criticism.

3. Randomizer - July 24, 2007

P.S. If the ‘incredible’ was only meant for the airport security, then I guess I’m with you on that. 😛

4. Sharath Rao - July 24, 2007

oh yeah ..just to clarify I was talking about general airports/city centers/national monuments security. ( how often have you been stopped and checked at Times square ?)

About your other arguments, a lot of this comes down to whether one objects to the principle itself or the execution. Is there recognition of the fact that fighting terrorism is different – that it often requires detention on the basis of reasonable suspicion, not necessarily charges and evidence at the time of arrest ?

I don’t support abuses at Abu Grahib ( though I am not surprised at what happened ) or even the execution of the Iraq War as a whole. But I do believe that there is a need to hold suspects. In fact I would argue that if there were no provisions in the law for arresting and detention of suspects, we would have more ‘encounter’ killings. The reasoning is that – “if I have risk my life, catch him now and then let him go day after tomorrow for want of evidence, I might as well kill him now.” This is similar to the argument that if you have a death penalty for rape/kidnapping, rapists tend to murder their victims ( cos they are often the only witness to the crime ). That is what happened in terror-time Punjab and often happens even now. One thing you don’t want is for the police/military to lose faith in the judicial process or be convinced that legal mechanisms are inadequate for fighting crime.

How many ‘everyday folk’ (non-white) are in the Guantanamo Bay ? I don’t know of people picked up from the (American) streets and sent over to GB. I do think that lots of innocent Iraqis, Afghans, Arabs are holed up there – but I would judge them on a case by case basis rather than make a blanket statement that “its worth it”/”its wrong”. I don’t of course agree with some of the other stuff going on there, certainly not torture.

I believe that the peace-loving Europeans (even countries that did not send troops to iraq) are paying the price for being too lax on extremism. For too long they have taken pride in their human rights record ( which stems partly from the excesses of the 400 odd colonial years) and have allowed militant islam to flourish in their backyards, provided refuge to organizations such as the LTTE. They have set too high a bar to declare some organization of a terrorist nature and have taken “innocent until proven guilty” to somewhat ridiculous lengths. Thats how you have them accepting asylum-seekers from conflicts they were not responsible for ( yeah, such conflicts do happen ) and these ungrateful folks turning back on them.

5. Randomizer - July 24, 2007

“Is there recognition of the fact that fighting terrorism is different – that it often requires detention on the basis of reasonable suspicion, not necessarily charges and evidence at the time of arrest ?”

I’m not very sure what you mean by reasonable suspicion if there is neither evidence nor charges at the time of arrest. ‘Reasonable’ according to a xenophobic onlooker might merely be ‘brown man taking pics of public property’. Unless ‘reasonable’ is appropriately defined, us browns can be picked up for anything… detained for anything .. interrogated for anything. I do not agree that this is ‘fair game’ and/or is exempt from the usual laws. If a rapist/murderer is given basic rights, so should a suspected terrorist.

Most right wing politicians have used this ‘war on terrorism is different from everything’ argument a lot of times, and have spun out a lot of laws with this argument … which is why I am a little wary about agreeing with your statement.

The whole premise of Guantanomo bay was to run away from US Laws … no legal representation, wide-open permission for any forms of torture/abuse, etc… Military tribunals for sentencing, etc. The very fact that this is trying to sidestep all accountability is proof enough for me that there are many things wrong with GB…

While I agree that some European nations are paying the price for being lax on the rise of islamic terrorism, I do not believe that the upholding of human rights is something that should be compromised whenever a government deems fit. The government is not only there to save the people of the country, but to save the values and freedoms of the country as well, and this is not a trivial matter.

‘Fighting terrorism’ is and should never be the only aim/goal with everything else revolving around it. We already had two terms of Bush revolving around terrorism, the Iraq war revolving around terrorism, blatant abuse of human rights again justified by ‘terrorism’.

There is just too much being excused and shrugged off in the name of the war on terrorism, and I am worried that this trend will eventually rob us of everything we are trying to save.

6. Sharath Rao - July 24, 2007

“Most right wing politicians have used this ‘war on terrorism is different from everything’ argument a lot of times,”

– exactly how the left wing has gained momentum by painting doomsday scenarios and slippery-slope arguments – (“this trend will eventually rob us of everything we are trying to save.”, “xenophobic onlooker might merely be ‘brown man taking pics of public property’.” or by comparing racial profiling to Hitler’s treatment of the jews or by arguing that that there is no definition of what is reasonable. )

“‘Fighting terrorism’ is and should never be the only aim/goal with everything else revolving around it. ”

The above you mentioned are worst case scenarios and must not completely inform policy making either.

And yes, they have been as successful in fear mongering as the republicans have been.

Of course there is no definition of “reasonable”, but there is an idea of what is reasonable – else out of over 5 million brown people in America (S Asia+ Middle East), at least a few hundred people should have been behind bars for various suspicions. If circumstantial evidence is an acceptable form of evidence to hand out prison sentences, then why is it not enough to detain someone and investigate.

To believe that a day or two is sufficient to find evidence against a person to charge him is not applicable to terrorist activities – and yes, terrorism is different from murder/rape. It is a group activity, it is organized over long periods of time, it is backed by lots of money, it is armed to the teeth, it is often regional/international in nature, it often has the support of a large group of people, it is always planned, picks arbitrary and large but soft targets and very often they (if and when its the suicide bombers) have nothing to lose – which makes it impossible to completely eliminate. It is a stealth activity and a war against the state, often with no clear objective.

And most importantly its an asymmetric war ( and not between two nations) – they know who the military is, the police is, they know their targets, they have absolutely no such compulsions and compunctions as “geneva convention”/”human rights”, they don’t hesitate to harm unarmed folks. I am not certainly saying that the state can afford to adopt such tactics, but I think it is sufficient basis to understand that terrorism is different and requires a rethink of how it can fought – including political solutions when feasible.

Will that result in a perfect system – of course not. Human rights violations will result – and as we agreed, the point is about deciding what is the acceptable cost of such undertakings.

And merely because the Bushies have screwed it up in terms of implementation does not it is incorrect in principle. Just like ruling out military options altogether for all time to come is not reasonable just because some war was lost or turned out to make things worse.

7. Randomizer - July 24, 2007

“exactly how the left wing has gained momentum by painting doomsday scenarios and slippery-slope arguments”

Okay I agree that the right and the left are both equally guilty of exaggerating the fallacies of their opponents’ policies.

” The above you mentioned are worst case scenarios ”

Worst-case scenarios are things that rarely happen and only serve to generate fear. However, one cannot argue that the years after September 11 haven’t primarily revolved around fighting terrorism – from the elections to the iraq war to the patriot act, terrorism has defined most of the policy over the last few years. Hence I’d like to protest its classification as a ‘worst case scenario’, since it has already happened, and is not merely a dooms day scenario that left-wingers dreamt up for political points..

” And merely because the Bushies have screwed it up in terms of implementation does not (mean) it is incorrect in principle.”

Ok, I agree that the implementation has been messed up and in principle, it is perhaps not bad. I myself agree with racial profiling as one of the attributes for suspicion… I also agree that terrorism is different, only not as different as certain politicians try to paint it to be.

At the end of the day, since values, civil liberties, and rights are not as quantifiable as lives lost, they will always suffer during policy making… and lose out eventually. And as you said, we may probably never arrive at a perfect system, but I believe it is important for human rights groups and the ACLU to continue fighting so that there is at least some semblance of a balance to it.

8. Sharath Rao - July 24, 2007

🙂 … been fun man.. ur last para sums up our entire discussion …

9. Randomizer - July 24, 2007

Yup, been fun 🙂


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