Monday, January 12, 2004

The Almaknack of Looking Like a Flatfoot

I consider myself fairly middle of the road about the government using information gathering tools to thwart potential terrorism. While many of the proposed extremes of invasion of civil liberties are ludicrous, at least you can see why they might be effective at law enforcement. And data mining of public sources of data -- without having to break into private information without probable cause -- can probably be a really effective way of spotting potential trouble before it starts. But the FBI's recent warning to law enforcement that terrorists might resort to the use of almanacs, maps, and other reference materials boggles the mind in so many ways. The idea that a potential terrorist couldn't find targets, hard, soft, or easy-over, without one is incredibly dumb. Perhaps they didn't notice the information in every almanac is already irrevocably available; by its nature, an almanac is a compendium of common-knowledge derived from other sources. And maybe the FBI wasn't aware that the CIA publishes a freely-available almanac on-line.

The problem, over and over again, is that it's very hard to see how so many of these random alerts do anything to help with security. It's one thing to monitor who's enrolling in flight schools; it's another to cast suspicion on anyone using a reference book! The paranoid reaction of the American Library Association to the prospect of occasional searches of library patron records seems, well, rational if 'suspcious' books are going to include almanacs and maps and atlases.

This is what drives me the craziest about the conduct of the War on Terrorism: it seems completely disconnected with reality of threats. It's crying wolf over and over at the slightest provocation. And we know the story of the government agency that cried wolf. When real threats come, when real action should be taken, the credibility of those real warnings and sage advice will be called into question because of the inane brainlessness of warning cops to look out for people walking around with almanacs. And that, friends, actually makes things more dangerous for all of us.

I grow increasingly concerned that the terrorists are winning in every real, measurable way. Our fear has made fools of us. We jump at shadows, tells stories of the bogey man, cower in our beds, we spend endless blood and treasure going after the wrong guy. We trample on the constitution, we send our magnificent military on foreign adventures with no exit plan, we spend billions of dollars and yet no one feels safer. If Bin Laden and his gang wanted to disrupt American society, make our values a joke to the world, pull down our great economic strength, and make themselves seem bigger than they actually are and us smaller than we actually are, they've succeeded by leaps and bounds. If I can't buy the Old Farmer's Almanac without putting myself on a terrorist watch list, but Osama still sleeps in peace protected by our "allies" in Pakistan, something is extremely twisted.

The War on Terrorism is, in reality, a hearts and minds war. Not "theirs" -- ours. If we can harden our hearts so that casualties can be borne, then no terrorist attack can harm us. If we toughen our minds so we react with logic and precision in response to our threats, we can defeat terrorism head to head and hand to hand. What we're not doing is sacrificing our comforts, the security blanket of consumer goods and consumerism. If we cannot at least sacrifice, say, civilian production of Hummers to produce more armored Humvees for our troops, or spend our money on bullets for our troops instead of tax cuts for the multinationals, or each spend some time volunteering above and beyond for something that will save other hands and hearts and minds to fight our fight -- we will all remain soft targets.

Starting the slippery slope of willful ignorance implicit in making readers of almanacs terrorism suspects only softens the skull and and makes the heart beat faster.

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