Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bombin' Around the Christmas Tree

So we've all heard about the Portland plot by now. Some crazy dude tried to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony. And, of course, being a cynic, my first thought wasn't "thank heaven this plot was stopped," but rather, "this was totally a set-up by the FBI." That, in fact, is what defense attorneys are saying. And if we remember from a few years ago, the Rolling Stone reported that the FBI consistently invented terror plots in order to jail angry young Muslims.

And there are a lot of things about this story that don't really pass the smell test, as Greenwald notes.

It's clear that Mr. Mohamed isn't a particularly sympathetic character. Entrapment or not, if someone asks you to participate in a terror plot the answer should always be "fuck no." But was he really just going to haul off and blow stuff up if the FBI hadn't gotten involved? I mean, could a 19-year-old high-school graduate whose aspirations included a fishing job in Alaska hatch an elaborate bomb plot all on his lonesome? It requires money and know-how, two things that I doubt Mr. Mohamed really possessed.

So it's interesting that this case formed the news backdrop when I read this Wilkinson piece over at the Economist's Democracy in America blog. Wilkinson notes that terrorism, for all our bluster about it, is exceedingly rare in this country. Indeed, a quick Wikipedia search finds that there have been 49 terror attacks or attempted attacks in the U.S. in my lifetime. And that counts each Unabomber and Eric Rudolph attack separately, it counts non-politically motivated attacks like the Beltway sniper, and it counts domestic crazy people with guns like Jim Adkisson (though interestingly, Wikipedia didn't include school shootings, which I guess it classifies separately). If we talk about terrorism the way we generally think of it - complex, politically motivated attack plots - we're talking maybe ten. And of those ten, only two - Oklahoma City and Sept. 11 - had large amounts of fatalities.

If there were only two successful large-scale terrorist plots in the past 29 years, we can safely say that large-scale terrorism isn't particularly common in this country... but that allowing any terrorist plot to succeed is traumatic and unacceptable. So terrorism is something of an awkward law enforcement issue. It's cataclysmic but rare - so you need significant resources, but if you're just investigating already existing plots, those resources are probably lying dormant for years at a time. Leaving those resources just kinda sitting there isn't really viable politically - politicians like to see results. Which means that it's in the FBI's interest to not just pursue existing terrorists but potential terrorists as well.

Which leads me back to the Portland case. What the FBI did with Mohamed was that they found an angry young Muslim man who they thought might turn into a terrorist one day, turned him into an active terrorist, then arrested him. The problem with this is that we don't know if Mohamed would have become a terrorist had the FBI not been involved. Sure, maybe he becomes the next Faisal Shahzad (the incompetent Times Square bomber). But maybe he grows out of it, like many angry young men, and becomes a productive member of society. Now we'll never know.

So we're caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we want terrorism to be investigated and thwarted. On the other hand, it's a bad idea to turn people into terrorists when they weren't terrorists already. So how do you walk that line? My answer would be to keep track of the "potential" terrorists, but not do anything until they actually show signs of wanting to start a plot. That's when you move in and arrest them. But I'm not comfortable having the FBI play the part of the precogs in "Minority Report."

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Some Post-Prop 19 Prohibition Thoughts

Recently I've been reading Last Call, Daniel Okrent's excellent look at Prohibition, and the one thing that has struck me is how similar the alcohol prohibition movement is to the marijuana (and other drug) prohibition movement today. For example, both used official fake pseudoscience to make their case - the modern DARE program can be compared easily with Scientific Temperance Instruction, a pack of bullshit fed to pre-Prohibition schools that told of alcohol's many horrors in the same way the DARE program teaches kids a lot of half-truths about drug usage today. (Also, racism against blacks and Germans played a large part in Prohibition's passage, just as racism against Hispanics played a healthy role in the illegality of marijuana and racism against blacks produced the sentencing disparity between cocaine and crack.)

What's most salient throughout the book, though, is the sheer impossibility of prohibiting the use of alcohol. In order to get Prohibition passed in the first place, Congress had to make exceptions for homemade hard ciders and wines. People were allowed to keep and consume liquor bought before January 17, 1920. Many members of Congress who voted for Prohibition were drinkers themselves. And, of course, criminal syndicates (the analogs of today's drug cartels) distributed liquor within the US rather easily. (For example, the Bronfman family of Canada, owners of the Seagram's empire, had a very profitable arrangement with mobster Meyer Lansky.) The result? If you wanted to drink, you could - in the same way that almost half of Americans have used illegal drugs.

And if you think about it, prohibition of private behavior, especially a popular one, is a hell of a task. Government puts tons of money and effort into preventing something, only to see half of America engage in it anyway. Prohibition was beset by corrupt enforcement agencies and a general lack of concern with enforcement at the highest levels. But even with the huge enforcement apparatus set up today to combat illegal drugs - even with the erosion of civil liberties and legalized theft and activity approaching state-sponsored murder, half of Americans have used drugs.

Laws, it is said, are a reflection of our morality. If this is so, our prohibition laws are a reflection of a very mixed morality that, in some ways, is uniquely American.

We aspire to live lives free of vice. We idealize the rejection of intoxicants like marijuana, cocaine, even alcohol. We talk about how horrible drug use is. And so when the opportunity comes to pass laws against it, we register our disapproval with that private behavior by voting for prohibition. Yet we also understand that we live our lives in a liberal democracy, and we cherish our liberties handed down to us in the form of the Constitution and its myriad protections against government intrusion. We like our government distant, not ubiquitous - but ubiquity is necessary to truly enforce prohibition.

So we pass these laws knowing full well that they are, for the most part, unenforceable. We give up some of our civil liberties, but never so much that the laws become viable. We look the other way as those with power and resources manipulate the system so that they get out of paying the full price for violating prohibition, allowing our laws to turn into a system of oppression against the underclasses. We have taken comfort in having our morality affirmed by laws only enforceable by oppression. Prohibition is a blanket, if you will, for our aspirational morality, protecting our vision of what a good society should look like from the harsh, cold reality of a world that never lives up to its lofty ideals.

Eventually, we will understand that a blanket composed of SWAT teams and drug cartels and thievery and racism provides no true comfort, and we will have the courage to shed it. Medical marijuana laws were the first attempts, Prop 19 is the latest but it will not be the last. And when we do, we will realize that the harsh, cold reality isn't really as harsh and cold as it seems. The truth is that our aspirational morality will survive whether or not it is protected by the force of law. And when we come to that realization, we can give the American ideal of personal liberty the full embrace that it so richly deserves.

Update: Jacob Sullum deals well with a similar argument.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Five Stages of Election Wednesday


No. No no no no no. No way could Feingold lose his Senate seat. Not to this schmuck. No way. Not happening. Didn't happen. Can't happen.


FUCK YOU, WISCONSIN. Seriously, let's kick these bastards out of the union. You heard me, cheeseheads. Get out. Go join Canada or something. This country doesn't need you. Milwaukee's beer sucks now anyway. Go away. I'm ripping a star off our flag as we speak.


OK, how about this. I'll give you Dino Rossi and Carly Fiorina if we can put Feingold back in the Senate. That'll get you to 50-50 assuming Colorado goes to Buck. Hell, ask nicely enough and I might even give you Sharron Angle. Please? Just give me this, okay?


Man. Congress is worthless without Feingold. Who the hell's gonna stand up for civil liberties? Now the government can just keep imprisoning people without trial and kill off our legal system in the name of a terrorism freak-out and no one's gonna stand in their way. Fuck it, there's no hope. Let's just shred the Constitution now.


OK, so no Feingold anymore. That's okay, I guess. Maybe Leahy will grow a spine on civil liberties - he just won another six years. Maybe he'll go on the pundit circuit. They could use some good civil libertarians out there. I can't imagine he'd just disappear, right? Hey, and maybe Herb Kohl will retire rather than run for re-election in 2012, and Feingold could win his seat!

Of course, we'd have to let Wisconsin back in the union by then. I'll think about it.

Jesse Walker has more over at Reason (and it's odd enough that Reason is eulogizing a Democratic Senator). There are three other results I wanted to touch on briefly:

  • Prop 19's failure. That's two straight high-profile propositions you've fucked up now, California. You'll be out of the union with Wisconsin if you keep this up. Anyway, congratulations to the murderous drug cartels, who now get to keep making crazy money off Californians. You don't have to compete with legal distribution channels now. Good job.

    Oh, and to Californians who voted against Prop 19? They're the big winners in this whole thing. Hope that's what you wanted.

  • Iowa votes down their judges. Iowans have apparently decided that they know how to interpret their state's constitution better than people who have studied the law and their state's constitution for most of their professional careers, because blah blah blah GAY PEOPLE. Hey Hawkeyes - if your ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional, fucking deal with it. The more you treat it like the end of the world, the dumber you look.

    And your state borders Wisconsin. Just sayin'.

  • Oklahoma passes proposition banning Sharia law. Rumor has it they are also expected to pass a proposition banning faster-than-light travel. Sadly, the question requiring water molecules to have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom did not gather enough signatures to make it onto the ballot.

    Oooooklahoma, where the paranoia comes sweeping down the plains. This song goes out to you, the 70% of Oklahomans that saw fit to protect yourself against a threat that exists only in the dark corners of your amygdala: