Reasoning about Terrorism

I try to present facts and logic and solutions rather than just opinions.

Contact me If your facts and logic are convincing, I'll change my mind !

The central lesson from the 9/11 terrorism is that the USA federal government is massively incompetent.

Before 9/11

  • The government tested airline security every year, and every year it failed (50-80% of the fake weapons got through). The government did nothing about it.

  • The government apparently failed to enforce the visa rules: they didn't track down and deport people who overstayed or misused visas.

  • The (G W Bush) government had lots of fun alienating a lot of our allies, shooting down the Kyoto treaty, the World Court, etc. Now we suddenly need help from those people. And we're still trying to demand it on exactly our terms.

  • Attacks via commercial airplane had been speculated about, such as in Tom Clancy's "Debt of Honor" where a jetliner was crashed into the Capitol building. But apparently even the Pentagon building had no air-defenses.

Ryan Cooper 's "The idiotic myth that everyone believes about fighting terrorism"

After 9/11

  • Creating a new federal agency (TSA) and "federalizing" the airline security people is a huge mistake.

    Putting anything inside the federal government centralizes and fossilizes it. It becomes harder and slower to change, less able to adapt to local variations, less efficient. Where are the small-government conservatives when you need them ?

  • Transferring much of the police and some of the National Guard into "show the uniform" and "clog up the airports" duty is of little use.

    Would any of that have prevented the 9/11 terrorism ? And who's out arresting normal criminals and policing the idiot drivers on our streets ? We lose as many people to automobile accidents every month as we did on 9/11.

  • Violating the constitution by holding lots of people without charges, representation and trial is very bad.

    God help you if the government decides you are dangerous; they'll take your rights away. Where are the less-government conservatives when you need them ?

    What kind of example is this setting for the rest of the world ? We're undercutting our own "moral authority" to speak of the virtues of democracy, rule of law, human rights, etc. In a way, the terrorists won: they got us to ruin our own system at home and our credibility abroad.

    They shout terrorism the way they used to shout witchcraft

    The only reason I can see for this is that the evidence against these people must not be able to withstand the light of day. I'll bet most of them eventually get deported for minor violations [I was right].

    The same holds for the "enemy combatants" captured in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo or secret prisons. Why can't they have legal representation, at least as a group ? Is the justification for holding them, and the evidence against them, so weak ?

    Tom Tomorrow on constitutional rights

    Every debate about the Guantanamo prisoners seems to assume that every single one of them is a guilty horrible terrorist, but isn't it possible that some are innocent ? Would you grant at least a 1% error rate ? Even some prisoners who end up on Death Row after a decade of legal proceedings have turned out to be innocent; why not some of those in Guantanamo ? So, how would you feel if you were one of the 1% innocent sitting in Guantanamo ? In prison forever with no representation or legal process.
    [As of 11/2008, the govt has released some 2/3 of the people it held in Guantanamo. Many weren't guilty of anything. Many were "guilty" of fighting US soldiers in a war zone.]
    [In 4/2011, WikiLeaks released files showing that of 780 prisoners who passed through Guantanamo, about 150 were completely innocent of any offense, and about 220 were low-level gunmen or criminals of one sort or another.]

    Even if denying them any rational legal process is Constitutional and legal, it shouldn't be.

    Turns out that Guantanamo, secret prisons, rendition, torture, "enemy combatant" isn't stuff authorized by the Patriot Act. It is stuff the Bush administration claimed is part of the president's inherent powers, and Congress was too spineless to challenge that.

    Larry Siems's "How America Came To Torture Its Prisoners"
    This Modern World on "Real Americans"
    This Modern World on "Threat Assessment"

  • Hiding information about nuclear power plants etc from public view is not a solution. This behavior is called "security through obscurity", and it is well known to fail. It lets those in authority hide their incompetence and pretend things are okay. And when the information does leak, maybe through disgruntled insiders or just through trial and error, the system fails badly. Putting the information in the open so everyone can see and evaluate it leads to improvements in security. If the system really is secure, it should be able to stand public scrutiny.

  • Apparently the new Homeland Security Department is a disaster: see article by Michael Crowley in 3/15/2004 issue of "The New Republic". Disorganized, personnel fleeing it, duplicating lots of other agencies, etc.

  • The Bush Administration keeps saying "no attack has happened since 9/11 because of all the things we're doing to prevent attacks". But they could have said the same just before 9/11.

    I just caught a terrorist, said no TSA agent ever

Quote from Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon's "Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession With Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk" in Ask The Pilot's "Express Blog":
Remember, for example, that not a single one of the restrictions that have been put in place for travelers since 9/11 would have prevented those atrocities.

From Jesse Singal's "In Airports, Security Theater Is Morphing Into Ebola Theater":
[During Ebola outbreak in 2014:]

... reporter Anders Kelto interviewed Larry Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown. "Let's not have the false impression that this is a tried-and-true method and it's gonna keep Ebola out of the United States - it's just not the case," said Gostin. There's little evidence such screening would actually detect Ebola patients, he explained.

It raises an obvious question: Why, then, is the government instituting this policy? Gostin's response:
[People who are scared] insist to their government, "Do something. It doesn't matter what it is - show us that you're doing something. Tell us that we have no risk." And governments, even if they know better, will sometimes respond to that political outcry. They're under a lot of pressure to do something, [to] make the public feel reassured even if it really doesn't make them safer.
Remember that Ebola just doesn't appear to be a major threat to the U.S. - none of the factors that turned it into a West African pandemic are present here. That doesn't mean people aren't freaking out, though - and understandably so given how horrific a disease this is. So how does the government respond? Um, we'll screen people at airports! Yeah! Which leads to an odd situation in which the government wins political points for taking ineffectual action against an imaginary threat.

Odd, yes, but not particularly uncommon. Think of all the 9/11 TSA reforms that people love to gripe about. Was taking off our shoes going to provide any sort of meaningful defense against the next Al Qaeda plot? Probably not (just ask the administrators at the many, many top-tier airports around the world that did not enact these measures). But even as we complained and struggled to bend over and get our footwear off, it made us feel like the authorities were responsive to our fears. At a time of great uncertainty, that was important.

The same logic applies here. As human beings, we derive a real psychological benefit from tangible evidence that the people charged with protecting us are doing a vigilant job - even when the substance of the action in question is questionable. So thank you, government, for soothing our misplaced Ebola fears in a highly visible but ultimately ineffectual way. Or something?

From Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times, 26 June 2011:
... radical jihadist Islam. It is fed by money and ideology coming out of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. The attack of 9/11 was basically a joint operation by Saudi and Pakistani nationals. The Marine and American Embassy bombings in Lebanon were believed to have been the work of Iranian agents. Yet we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, because Saudi Arabia had oil, Pakistan had nukes, and Iran was too big. We hoped that this war-by-bank-shot would lead to changes in all three countries. So far, it has not.

Until we break the combination of mosque, money, and power in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, which fuel jihadism, all we're doing in Afghanistan is fighting the symptoms. The true engines propelling radical jihadist violence will still be in place. But that break requires, for starters, a new U.S. energy policy. Oh, well.

From "Six Questions for Michael Scheuer on National Security" by Ken Silverstein in 2006:
Q: We're coming up on the five-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Is the country safer or more vulnerable to terrorism?

A: On balance, more vulnerable. We're safer in terms of aircraft travel. We're safer from being attacked by some dumbhead who tries to come into the country through an official checkpoint; we've spent billions on that. But for the most part our victories have been tactical and not strategic. There have been important successes by the intelligence services and Special Forces in capturing and killing Al Qaeda militants, but in the long run that's just a body count, not progress. We can't capture them one by one and bring them to justice. There are too many of them, and more now than before September 11. In official Western rhetoric these are finite organizations, but every time we interfere in Muslim countries they get more support.

In the long run, we're not safer because we're still operating on the assumption that we're hated because of our freedoms, when in fact we're hated because of our actions in the Islamic world. There's our military presence in Islamic countries, the perception that we control the Muslim world's oil production, our support for Israel and for countries that oppress Muslims such as China, Russia, and India, and our own support for Arab tyrannies. The deal we made with Qadaffi in Libya looks like hypocrisy: we'll make peace with a brutal dictator if it gets us oil. President Bush is right when he says all people aspire to freedom but he doesn't recognize that people have different definitions of democracy. Publicly promoting democracy while supporting tyranny may be the most damaging thing we do. From the standpoint of democracy, Saudi Arabia looks much worse than Iran. We use the term "Islamofascism" - but we're supporting it in Saudi Arabia, with Mubarak in Egypt, and even Jordan is a police state. We don't have a strategy because we don't have a clue about what motivates our enemies.

From David J. Rothkopf's "The Black Hole of 9/11" 8/2011:
In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most -- right in our sense of perspective. ...

... ask ourselves, looking back over the past 10 years, what other developments took place that exceed 9/11 in lasting importance ?

10. The response to 9/11.
9. The Arab Spring.
8. The rebalancing of Asia.
7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies.
6. The Invention of Social Media.
5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices.
4. The Crash of 2008.
3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012.
2. The Failure to Address Global Warming.
1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs.
A response to the Rothkopf article:
Politicians are supposed to run a country calmly and with its best interests in mind (and not the best interests of their own and campaign sponsor's wallets). Politicians are not elected to run the country by emotional knee-jerk reactions. We wouldn't need politicians for that, we could toss coins for office at the local pub, if we wanted that sort of government.

So let's look at what it means for a politician "to save American lives":

- every year we have 10x 9/11 on the streets, because we have annually 30000 traffic deaths, of which 15000 are from drunk driving. So in the last decade we had more than a quarter million people die because of automobile traffic, bad infrastructure, bad signage, lax enforcement of DUI laws, etc.

- we have each year tens of thousands that die of preventable heart attacks from bad nutrition, people who suffer from diabetes due to bad nutrition, etc.

- we have easily tens of thousands who die prematurely because they lack health insurance and bear early warning symptoms and show up in emergency rooms when it's too late.

So what do US politicians do? They spend TRILLIONS of dollars to avenge a few thousand that ONCE died on 9/11 while sending a few more thousand US troops to die in a senseless and unrelated war (Iraq), when a few MILLIONS of dollars could have saved ANNUALLY at least as many lives as 9/11 cost.

If one adds up the victims of terrorism of the last DECADE it's less than the number of people who die EACH YEAR from preventable causes. If that doesn't spell political failure, I'm not sure what does, and I'm not even including the violation of democratic, American, etc principles that still happen daily, such as torture, wire-tapping, suspension of habeas corpus law, retroactive immunity for law-breaking telecomm companies, etc.


Never mind all the useless security at the airports: My karate teacher of yesteryear is more dangerous naked than any Arab with a box cutter. ...

From Rami G Khouri's "World leaders perpetuate failed anti-terror policies" 7/2016:
... the long-standing dilemma that Egypt and all Arab and Western powers experience: the more they use military force to defeat terrorism, the more governance and economic chaos they create on the ground, the greater becomes the pool of millions of desperate people in places such as Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Libya, and the easier it becomes for terrorists to recruit new members and establish satellite bases in those lands.

Not only has the straight military battle against ISIL, al-Qaeda and their ilk for the past two decades failed to quell these movements, it is now also obvious to any observer or official who deals with the realities - rather than the fantasies - of our world that terrorism in these forms will remain with us as long as underlying social, economic, political, and environmental conditions in many Arab and other developing countries remain unchanged.

These include notable lack of any democratic rights for citizens, high and stagnant unemployment and underemployment rates, increasing informal labour, significant declines in education quality, steadily rising numbers of children out of school - likely to reach 25 million in the coming years - and rampant deficiencies in adequate housing, public transport, clean water access, and, recently in some countries, reliable electricity supplies.

Danny Sjursen's "Mission unaccomplished, 15 years later: The misuse of American military power, the Middle East in chaos"

Lessons we should learn from 9/11, so we don't repeat it

  1. We're connected to the whole world. What we do in other countries may come back to bite us at home.

  2. There's no such thing as perfect security or safety. We can't obtain it by surrendering our rights and liberties, by imposing a surveillance state, by bombing or drone-striking other people.

  3. We can do incredible damage to ourselves by panicking. We lost some 3000 lives on 9/11. That's about the same number we lose on the highways each month. In reaction to 9/11, we lost close to 6000 lives of our troops, probably 5 times that many horribly disabled for life (brain injuries, multiple limbs lost, etc), spent several trillion dollars, killed probably several hundred thousand people in foreign countries (including lots of bystanders such as children). Ruined our reputation by using torture, rendition, indefinite detention without justice, mercenaries, drone-strikes.

  4. Govt has been shown to be massively incompetent. For example, before 9/11 they assured us airport security was fine. After 9/11, they missed getting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, then kept us in Afghanistan for more than a decade trying to "fix" the country. And attacked a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with 9/11. Those who think govt is engineering complex conspiracies or hiding aliens or something should see if those ideas square with the demonstrated incompetence related to 9/11.

From Patrick Smith's "TSA Hypocrisy Underscored by Boston Arrests" 5/2014:
For the past thirteen years, pilots and flight attendants have been forced to undergo to the same tedious and intrusive screening as passengers, while baggage handlers, cleaners, mechanics, caterers and the like, all of whom have access to aircraft, have been able to saunter through unmanned checkpoints, subjected only to occasional random screening.

Ask The Pilot's "Security Lines are Longer Than Ever. But the Most Sensible Fix is the One Nobody Will Talk About."
Richard A. Serrano's "Critics say air marshals, much wanted after 9/11, have become 'bored cops' flying first class"
Justin Peters' "It is Shockingly, Terrifyingly Easy to Breach Perimeter Security at Most Airports"
Robert Evans and Rafi Sela's "7 Reasons the TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective)"
Jason Edward Harrington's "Confessions of a former TSA officer"
Dara Lind's "The Department of Homeland Security is a total disaster. It's time to abolish it."
ABC's "TSA fails most tests in latest undercover operation at US airports" (11/2017)
Bruce Schneier's "Why are we spending $7 billion on TSA?"
David Kravets' "TSA airport screeners' ability to detect weapons declared 'pitiful'"
Jeff Jacoby's "Time to close the TSA"

The government seems to be making the same mistakes they made in losing the wars against drugs and AIDS: when you start losing, do the same old stupid things, but harder. Longer prison terms, harsher rhetoric, more macho stuff, louder patriotism, more god-talk. As if any of that worked in the past. War on Terrorism compared to War on Drugs

Drone program

Flag-waving jingoism: Remember 9/11

It irritates me every time someone says "citizens stopped a terrorist"

Pundits and officials keep saying that citizens stopped the "underwear bomber" by jumping on him in that airplane, or citizens stopped the propane-bomber in Times Square by seeing smoke and calling police, or passengers stopped the terrorists on United 93 in 9/11 by crashing the plane. All of those things are untrue.

On United 93 on 9/11, the passengers never made it into the cockpit. The terrorist at the controls dove the plane into the ground as they pounded on the cockpit door.

In the cases of the "shoe bomber", "underwear bomber", and "Times Square bomber", each bomber got to his target and detonated his bomb, and each bomb fizzled. Then passengers piled on or citizens called police. None of these cases are a "triumph for the American spirit" or an "example of citizen power". In every case, only the fact that the bomb fizzled saved us.

Some good things they're doing

  • Citizen Corps has the potential to tap a lot of citizen energy and ideas, unless it gets bogged down by local politicos.

  • Starting efforts to get America's point of view out to Arab mass media.

  • Attacking terrorists on their home territory: Afghanistan.
    But after we missed Osama bin Laden, we should have gotten out. No way we should be nation-building over there.
    (USA finally killed bin Laden 5/1/2011 in Pakistan; doesn't seem to be a strong correlation between our ability to kill him there and having 80,000 troops in Afghanistan. Seems that the CIA tracked a courier to get him, using some tips from non-torture interrogations of a non-rendered suspect by a foreign country, a lot of electronic and satellite surveillance, and probably some agents on the ground in Pakistan.
    Bin Laden country villa
    Greg Sargent's "John McCain to Bush apologists: Stop lying about Bin Laden and torture". And an interesting take on it by Noam Chomsky.)

From Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker 10/3/2005:
... Graham Allison's "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe" is the indispensable text on the subject of nuclear terrorism. "Americans are no safer from a nuclear terrorist attack today than we were on September 10, 2001", he writes. "A central reason for that can be summed up in one word: Iraq." The invasion and occupation have diverted essential resources from the fight against Al Qaeda; allowed the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan; fostered neglect of the Iranian nuclear threat; undermined alliances critical to preventing terrorism; devastated America's standing with the public in every country in Europe and destroyed it in the Muslim world; monopolized the time and attention of the President and his security team (for simple human reasons, an extraordinarily important factor); and, thanks to the cry-wolf falsity of the claims about Iraqi weapons systems, "discredited the larger case for a serious campaign to prevent nuclear terrorism." ...

Brad Plumer's "Eight facts about terrorism in the United States"
Patrick Smith's "Letter from Boston"
Nathan Myhrvold's "Strategic Terrorism: A Call to Action" (PDF)
Odds of Death

My recommendations for anti-terrorism

  • "Harden" the government and the country by reducing the number of big targets.

    • Instead of concentrating government and Defense in Washington DC, disperse them to smaller groupings around the country and use tele-conferencing to communicate.

    • Instead of huge skyscrapers, shopping malls and stadiums, have offices and stores near residences, and discourage personal attendance at large sporting events (use networks of smaller stadiums ?).

    • Instead of massive central power plants and long transmission lines, move to localized power generation (solar, wind, smaller natural gas turbines). Each neighborhood or office complex could become self-powering.

    • Instead of massive movements of oil and natural gas (with vulnerable drilling platforms, tankers, tanks, refineries and pipelines), change to localized generation of hydrogen (wind turbines or solar cells that drive electrolysis of water) and use of hydrogen fuel cells. Each house could become self-fueling.

    This will take 50 years to do and be costly, hugely resisted and very disruptive. But it is the only long-term solution. Just as the Internet was built to be fault-tolerant, we must make the country attack-tolerant. Because more attacks will occur. And they will be worse than 9/11.

    This reduction of targets and increase in self-reliance will have other benefits: protecting against domestic terrorists, insane people, natural disasters, accidents.

  • Remove some of the "sicknesses" of the USA that hurt the entire world:

    • The USA's demand for oil.
      The USA should increase taxes on gasoline, mandate higher-mileage vehicles, encourage alternative energy, encourage mass transit, increase reclamation and recycling, etc. This would help the USA trade deficit, increase our security, reduce environmental risks, and weaken the power of oil-based dictators (Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc) around the world.

    • The USA's demand for drugs.
      The USA should legalize fairly harmless drugs (marijuana), focus enforcement on deadly drugs, treat addicts instead of imprisoning them, give away clean needles. This would increase the USA's health (reducing AIDS and hepatitis), save us money, stop the spiraling size of our prison system, increase respect for our justice system, and weaken the power of drug-based warlords (in Columbia, southeast Asia, etc).
      See my Drugs page.

    • The USA's economic behavior that leads to unemployment in developing countries.
      Our agricultural protectionism keeps farm products from the rest of the world from competing with our farmers. This leads to unemployment, which provides recruits for terrorism, as well as general instability and poverty and organized crime.
      Great book that includes this point: "McMafia" by Misha Glenny.

    • The USA's arrogance.
      The USA should admit that we're not always right, that we've done some bad things, and that other ways of living and government and religion are valid. Some behavior is intolerable to us, but most differences are acceptable. We should stop trying to control every behavior of other countries. Sometimes we should bend to the collective will of other countries even if it hurts our economy a bit. We should lead by example, not by force of arms and money.

  • Use incentives and penalties to get the private companies to do the right thing.

    • Instead of "federalizing" the airline security people, keep them private and fine the airports $5,000 every time a fake weapon gets through the screening, and send 20 fakes through each checkpoint each day. Get ordinary passengers to carry them through; the passenger gets $500 if they sneak the fake through successfully.

      The airports will react by improving security, whether that means paying employees more, buying new machines, new procedures, or whatever.

    • Instead of "federalizing" airline security, make the airports and airlines fully legally liable for any damage done by their insecurity. If one of their planes kills 3000 people, they're liable. If it bankrupts them, fine: some smarter company will take their place. If their insurance premiums skyrocket, that gives them and their insurance companies a big incentive to work hard to improve security. They'll be far more innovative and hard-working than the federal government ever could be. If air-travel proves to be inherently unsafe, the resulting prices will make train-travel more attractive.

  • Get some messages out to potential terrorists, and to the whole world in general:

    • Biological weapons don't respect national boundaries; something used against the USA will quickly spread right around the world, to the terrorist's home also.

    • If you produce these weapons, there's a good chance that your local enemies (neighboring tribes or countries) will produce them also and use them on you. Or that your own weapons will leak or something and hurt your own country.

    • [To Islamic terrorists:] Your own people have done more to oppress and kill each other than the USA or Israel have ever done. The Iran/Iraq war, the Taliban killing Hazaras, Sunni versus Shia versus Sufi versus Wahhabi, Saddam Hussein killing Kurds and Shia, warlord versus warlord. You should be fighting that more than external "enemies".

      The reason you and your country aren't doing well (in terms of money, health, education, etc) isn't that the USA or Israel or "the infidel" is holding you down. You're holding yourself down, by discarding the talents of half of your population (women), obeying a strict (and often wrong) central authority (mullah, imam, dictator, etc), spending all your time studying the Koran instead of practical subjects, alienating most countries in the rest of the world who might help you, etc.

      We (the Western world) believe in separation of church and state. We are trying to push our state principles (peace, trade, and to a lesser extent human rights, justice, and democracy) onto the rest of the world. If you disagree with those, maybe you are right to resist us. But you can stay faithful to your religion while accepting those state principles, can't you ? (Apparently Bangladesh has done something in this direction, by banning fatwa's and keeping state control of the schools, but otherwise not interfering with religion.) We're not pushing our religion(s) on you (although some of our people would like to). And those state principles can make you as prosperous as the USA, eventually.

      From Charles Hill in "The Age Of Terror":
      ... frustration over the region's humiliating failure to succeed economically and resentment at the absence of political avenues toward progress ... the states of the Arab Middle East seemed poised to join Asian nations as entrants to the "First World". ... Even without substantial oil resources, the Middle East and North Africa should command geopolitical importance by the shape and location of their lands on the globe. ... Why has the Islamic world not been able to parallel the economic and political modernization of ... other non-Western civilizations ?

      ... Oil revenues go to the producer-country regime, reinforcing their views of themselves as dispensers of bounty. A rapidly growing population expects a level of benefits from government that can not be sustained over time owing to the governments declining revenues and failure to diversify its economy and range of exports. The possession of oil resources creates an expectation of widespread prosperity while deterring the regimes from taking serious measures to build a healthy, broad-based economy. Were it not for oil, the Middle East would rank lower than Africa in economic development.

      What can account for the Middle East's lowly world ranking ? The answer lies in the miserable state of politics and governance in that region. ... variations of a single approach to the political ordering of society. Sultan, military president, king and family, king and constitutional monarchy, etc. ... Power is held by a strongman, surrounded by a praetorian guard. ...

      Every regime of the Arab-Islamic world has proved a failure. Not one has proved able to provide its people with realistic hope for a free and prosperous future. The regimes have found no way to respond to their people's frustration other than a combination of internal oppression and propaganda to generate rage against external enemies. Religiously inflamed terrorists take root in such soil. ...

      Book "What Went Wrong ? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East" by Bernard Lewis:
      Fascinating book, about why the Muslim world is "behind" the Western world.

      But ultimately the book is a failure. After interesting discussions of the history of the world, and a chapter about the various reasons proposed for the decline of the Muslim world and the rise of the Western world, the author does not find an explanation for this.

      Reasons proposed for the decline of the Muslim world, and some rebuttals of those reasons:

      • Mongol invasions destroyed Muslim world.
        [But Muslim world was powerful before and after the invasions.]

      • Western imperialism / colonialism, first by French and British.
        [But other countries also colonized have prospered afterward: India, Singapore, Hong Kong. And the Muslim decline started well before the colonization.]

      • Jewish conspiracy.
        [Mostly a result of anti-Semitism from Russia and Nazi Germany. Hard to believe given the small number of Jews, their long history of being tolerated in Muslim society, and many similarities between Islam and Judaism. Not to mention a lack of evidence of conspiracy.]

      • Islam itself is the problem.
        [But the Muslim world was powerful, under Islam, for many centuries. And many forms of science and industry and new thought flourished in the Muslim world during those times. And in many ways there was more freedom inside the Muslim world than inside the Western (Church-dominated, feudal) world at the time.]

      • Islam has become polluted by Western ideas.
        [But the Muslim world fell behind militarily, politically and commercially long ago.]

      • Islam is stuck on the old 8th-century ideas (and since Islam completely controls life and commerce and government, that is particularly damaging).

      • Key Western features (separation of Church and State; some equality of the sexes) are better.
        [A review of this book says "separation" is the key factor: Islam binds religion, state, commerce, and personal life together rigidly, so everything is frozen, and state and commerce suffer.]

      • Islam holds that it supersedes older religions (Christianity and Judaism) and has nothing to learn from them or their followers, either religiously or politically.

      • Various environmental factors have dragged down the Muslim world (exhaustion of precious metals, tribal inbreeding, goat-herding turning land into desert).

      From Thomas Friedman in "The World Is Flat":
      The founders of al-Qaeda are not religious fundamentalists per se. That is, they are not focused simply on the relationship between themselves and God, and on the values and cultural norms of the religious community. They are a political phenomenon more than a religious one.


      ... unlike the Leninists, who wanted to install the reign of the perfect class, the working class, and unlike the Nazis, who wanted to install the reign of the perfect race, the Aryan race, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri wanted to install the reign of the perfect religion.

      From Theodore Dalrymple:
      ... the problem is that so many Muslims want both stagnation and power: they want a return to the perfection of the seventh century and to dominate the twenty-first, as they believe is the birthright of their doctrine, the last testament of God to man. If they were content to exist in a seventh-century backwater, secure in a quietist philosophy, there would be no problem for them or us; their problem, and ours, is that they want the power that free inquiry confers, without either the free inquiry or the philosophy and institutions that guarantee that free inquiry. They are faced with a dilemma: either they abandon their cherished religion, or they remain forever in the rear of human technical advance. Neither alternative is very appealing, and the tension between their desire for power and success in the modern world on the one hand, and their desire not to abandon their religion on the other, is resolvable for some only by exploding themselves as bombs. People grow angry when faced with an intractable dilemma; they lash out.

  • The USA should stop supporting dictators and thuggish regimes. Our support for Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein (in the 80's), and the Shah of Iran (60's and 70's) made us a target for the people they oppress, and undercut any claim we had to the "moral high ground". When people are oppressed viciously, they get desperate and grab the weapon of last resort, terrorism.

    David Wallechinsky's "Why Do They Hate Us?"
    Doug Bandow's "Terrorism: Why They Want to Kill Us"

    Similarly, we should push Israel to give the Palestinians a viable state (see my Reasoning about Israel and the Palestinians page).

From "McMafia" by Misha Glenny:
The War on Drugs, by nurturing a huge and unmanageable criminal swamp in which all manner of undesirables roam freely, almost guarantees that the War on Terror can never be won.

Suggestion for improving airline security and efficiency

Ban all overhead-stowed carry-on baggage (still allow under-the-seat carry-on luggage). This ban would mean:
  • Less material available to passengers in flight (thus improving security),
  • Less luggage going through the passenger security screening (reducing wait times there, and allowing more attention to passenger's bodies and hand-carry-ons),
  • Reduced time while each airplane occupies a gate (boarding and deplaning would take less time), thus increasing overall airport throughput,
  • Fewer airline personnel needed in the gate passageway, taking back luggage that passengers tried to carry on but wouldn't fit in the overhead compartments.

Sent this idea to Patrick Smith's Ask The Pilot and got:
It would certainly speed things up. A lot. But it will never, ever, ever happen.

For one, there isn't enough underfloor space on many planes to hold both checked and unchecked luggage.
But a baggage handler doing an AMA on reddit said there usually IS enough spare space in main "pit" to hold what goes in overhead. Another person said "Depends on the size of the plane. If it's small like a CRJ/CPJ, then we may not have enough room. If it's a 747/777, then yeah we'd probably have enough room."

Someone else's idea: reverse the way baggage is charged today. Charge for each bag carried onto the airplane.

Ask The Pilot's "Security Lines are Longer Than Ever. But the Most Sensible Fix is the One Nobody Will Talk About."

From Stephen Flynn interview on NPR 2/2007:

From James Fallows article in The Atlantic magazine 9/2006:

From Patrick Smith's "Ask The Pilot":
Airline security:

The fundamental problem is the Transportation Security Administration's relentless fixation with the in-flight takeover scheme last perpetrated on Sept 11 2001; that is, the fallacy that physical weapons, rather than the element of surprise, were ultimately responsible for the hijackers' successes on that day. In truth, the hijackers' possession of box cutters was irrelevant -- a deadly weapon can be fashioned from virtually anything, including many objects and materials found on planes -- and for any number of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the confiscation of pointy objects at the concourse checkpoint, the 9/11 blueprint is all but off the table to a would-be saboteur. Yet we continue to devote our money and resources toward the preposterous and ultimately unattainable goal of keeping any and all weapons out of the hands of passengers. In doing so, we are forced to treat every last flier, regardless of age, race or gender, as a possible terrorist or criminal, resulting in an apparatus so massive and cumbersome that it cannot adequately enforce the very policies it claims are so important. Civil liberties are subverted, billions of dollars are wasted, and millions of people are hassled and inconvenienced, all with little or no effect on actual safety. It is a national embarrassment.

What we need is a TSA willing to concede that the real nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes take place well out of view. We need to immediately rescind most of the rules restricting sharp objects and liquids, with a return to basic screening for firearms and bombs. With respect to the latter, the emphasis should be put squarely on improved anti-explosives screening of all luggage and cargo.

And although the attacks of 2001 took place on U.S. soil, the greater threats are at airports abroad. American carriers now operate throughout Asia, South America, Africa and beyond, where they remain potentially high-profile targets for extremist groups or rogue terrorists. Here we are confiscating scissors from somebody's grandmother in Indianapolis when most of our security in foreign countries is outsourced to local authorities. How about relocating some of our domestic manpower overseas to help prevent a bombing or shoot-down?

Send airline security suggestions to FAA

Send suggestions to Citizen Corps

Humor about security levels

  • The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved". Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross".

    The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorised from "Tiresome" to a "Bloody Nuisance". The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was during the great fire of 1666.

  • The Scots raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards" They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the frontline in the British army for the last 300 years.

  • Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

  • The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

  • Americans meanwhile are carrying out pre-emptive strikes on all of their allies, just in case.

  • New Zealand has also raised its security levels - from "baaa" to "BAAAA!". Due to continuing defence cutbacks (the air force being a squadron of spotty teenagers flying paper aeroplanes and the navy some toy boats in the Prime Minister's bath), New Zealand only has one more level of escalation, which is "Sh*t, I hope Australia will come and rescue us".

  • Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be alright, mate". Three more escalation levels remain, "Crikey!', "I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend" and "The barbie is cancelled". So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.

Airport logic

Personal defense in case of terrorist attack

  • Chemical or biological attack may be signaled by oily droplets on surfaces, unusual clouds or vapors with strange colors or odors, small animals dying first, widespread nausea among people.

  • If nuclear, chemical or biological attack, evacuate the area. Get upwind.

  • Chemical weapons often are heavier than air: climb to higher stories or altitudes.

  • If you don't have a gas mask, breathe through a cloth soaked in water and baking soda.

  • From 12/2001 issue of Scientific American, about gas masks:
    "... you need to know whether the mask really works (surplus units are untested), how to put it on (the fit must be airtight), when to put it on (by the time you recognize the symptoms, it is probably too late) and when to take it off (the masks are too uncomfortable to keep on indefinitely). None of the experts interviewed for this article bothers to own a mask."

  • From 1/2002 issue of Scientific American, about gas masks:
    "[Breathing through a mask] demands 3 times the lung power of normal breathing ... the typical shelf life [of a filter] is only 3 to 4 years ... a good filter alone costs $30. Anything advertised as military surplus is too old. A current, approved mask sells for $150 to $250. ... Manufacturers generally don't make gas masks for children, and regulators wouldn't approve them. ... breathing through a mask is too strenuous for children and [it's harder to get a good seal on their faces.]"

  • If dust or droplets get on your skin, wash off quickly. Use warm soapy water, or water-and-bleach. If no water available, scrub with powder such as flour or talcum powder.

  • Evacuate before the government tells you to. By the time they make the decision, broadcast it, and then everyone clogs the roads, it will be too late.

The "avian flu virus" scare may be a good thing: it will get us ready for a bio-attack. I'm completely convinced one is coming; it's just a matter of when.

Laurie Garrett on The Science Show about Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC)

From Martin Rees in's "2013 : What *Should* We Be Worried About?":
... the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We're entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed.

Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: after all, human societies have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence. But these human-induced threats are different: they are newly emergent, so we have a limited timebase for exposure to them and can't be so sanguine that we would survive them for long - nor about the ability of governments to cope if disaster strikes. And of course we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that even more powerful future technologies could do.

The 'anthropocene' era, when the main global threats come from humans and not from nature, began with the mass deployment of thermonuclear weapons. ...


Nuclear weapons are the worst downside of 20th century science. But there are novel concerns stemming from the impact of fast-developing 21st century technologies. Our interconnected world depends on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. Unless these are highly resilient, their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system.

Moreover a contagion of social and economic breakdown would spread worldwide via computer networks and 'digital wildfire' - literally at the speed of light. The threat is terror as well as error. Concern about cyber-attack, by criminals or by hostile nations, is rising sharply. Synthetic biology, likewise, offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture - but it could facilitate bioterror.

It is hard to make a clandestine H-bomb, but millions will have the capability and resources to mis-use these 'dual use' technologies. ...

Interesting article that says a "dirty bomb" is not really a physical threat, but would use our own policies and fears of radiation to cause huge disruption and panic: Richard A. Muller's "The Dirty Bomb Distraction"

Nuclear lunch detected

Religion, Islam, terrorism, jihad

Some terms:
  • Islam = the religion.
  • Muslims = believers in Islam.
  • Islamists = think everyone should be Muslim.
  • Jihadists = think everyone should be FORCED to be Muslim.

Some items:
  • Most Muslims are good people.
  • The religion used to support most terrorism these days is Islam.
  • Religion in general is bad, and I see little difference between the fundamentals of most of them.
  • Most religions have had their terrorist or genocidal periods.

Sam Harris's "Sleepwalking Toward Armageddon"
Hemant Mehta's "Criticism of Islam Is Not 'Islamophobia'"