Do we have a disaster recovery plan?

Last week, a deranged gunman opened fire on Republican congressmen practicing for a friendly baseball competition with Democratic colleagues. Casualties were light, given the circumstances, but now some congressmen are pushing for open-carry permits so that they can defend themselves. The only reason that there weren’t many more victims in this shooting is that one of the players, Rep. Steve Scalise, has a full-time security detail as Majority Whip. And these brave officers successfully intervened, at great cost to themselves. But sad as this all was, it reminds us that far worse threats are lurking.

On 9/11, United Airlines Flight 93 was hijacked but crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania. Its intended target, believed to be the US Capitol, was saved by the intervention of passengers who took matters into their own hands. There are many lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, not the least of which is that ordinary people can do extraordinary things given the means and the opportunity. It makes me think that arming at least some qualified, sensible people might not be as bad an idea as it is generally portrayed.

A second lesson is that we came very close to mass casualties on Capitol Hill. So, what if we lost many members of Congress, killed or injured, in a terrorist attack? You might think, given the situation and past experience, that we would have a plan for continuity of government, but you would be mistaken! There are certainly plans for the Executive Branch, with a clear line of succession, a protected safe facility, and rules for assuring there is at least one eligible survivor. The Senate is assured of rapid recovery because Senators who cannot perform their duties can be replaced with interim successors by the Governors of their states. At most a few days would be required to restaff a diminished Senate. But the House of Representatives is another matter entirely.

Our founders believed strongly that our two Houses of Congress should be vastly different in their members and how they conduct business. The Senate was designed as a wise, senior check on the winds of public sentiment. In fact, originally, Senators were not even chosen by popular vote at all. Rather they were selected by state legislatures, presumably from senior political figures, not unlike the framers themselves. There remains a faint memory of this approach in how replacements are still chosen when needed.

The House, however, has no such mechanism. It doesn’t permit unelected members. Indeed, House members pride themselves on the fact that no person has ever voted in their chamber who wasn’t first elected by the residents of their congressional district. States have fairly restrictive rules about conducting elections, so many months might pass before a decimated House could be reconstituted.

What if Flight 93 had caused mass casualties on the House side? Take a worst case, where perhaps only a dozen members were among the uninjured. What if they happened to be all members of one political party? Isn’t it possible that some fairly extreme bills might be passed? Of course the Senate and President could take their normal role as balancing forces. But that assumes they are also able to function. And there’s the rub.

If many House members survived but were incapacitated, they would all still be counted for the purpose of a quorum. So it is possible that the House would be virtually unable to function. If this isn’t enough to raise your hackles, the condition of the Capitol Building after an attack could also be crucial. If it is so badly damaged that it couldn’t be used, and if the House were crippled through lack of a quorum, then even the Senate would be out of business too. That is because meeting at an alternative site requires formal concurrence of both Houses.

I suppose there are some today who might rejoice if we had no federal legislative branch at all, at least for a while. Remember Mark Twain’s cynical quote, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But be careful what you wish for. The wheels of our economy would grind to a halt quickly without prompt and effective reaction to a shock of this type.

So why does the House let this threat go unanswered? It isn’t for want of attention. Efforts to develop contingency plans have foundered because they all abridge fundamental principles of the House that distinguish it from the Senate. Thus we remain a hostage to providence. We can hope, as Bismarck is said to have remarked, that “God protects fools, children, and United States of America.” Apocryphal or not, this seems to me to be a slender reed.

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Trump and Anti-Terrorism

Donald Trump just completed a major address on his anti-terrorism policy. He was uncharacteristically restrained in his delivery but his policies seemed to echo a distant unpleasant past. In 1798, President John Adams signed a set of four bills comprising the Alien and Sedition Acts. If you want a brief history lesson, there is a nice Wikipedia article here. In summary these acts, and most of Trump’s policies, strengthen national security through tight restrictions on immigration and naturalization and through deportation or imprisonment of dangerous or hostile non-citizens.

japaneseorder-23-0311aOne of these acts, the Alien Enemies Act, remains on the books, although I don’t know if its constitutionality has ever been tested. These acts have been used for purposes we would abhor today, like jailing government critics and interning citizens of Japanese descent during WWII. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have no proper application in our present difficult times.

The major argument of the Clinton camp for why such draconian actions are unnecessary is that immigrants, and in particular refugees from the Middle East conflict, are being subjected to incredibly tight screening before being admitted. I believe that is a conscious and deliberate lie! Evidently, not every time is it groundless when Donald tosses out crude epithets like Lyin’ Hillary.

I don’t make that charge lightly. First, I doubt that we have allocated the resources, either funds or skilled manpower, necessary to accomplish this task. I did a crude calculation based on published security clearance procedures and costs that convinces me of this shortfall. I have been through that process myself. It can be difficult and costly in the best of circumstances, and it requires highly skilled investigators who are in short supply.

But more importantly, I am convinced that the needed information simply cannot be obtained. Records are missing or unavailable in the war zone blazing across the Middle East, and interviewing contacts is almost certainly impractical. Obama and Clinton are letting their charitable instincts drive their decisions. This speaks well of them, in a sense, but it is either dangerously naive or more likely disingenuous, since they undoubtedly understand the true situation.

What they actually mean by their claim of tight screening is that it takes a very long time, perhaps up to two or more years to process each application. They even say that specifically when challenged. But if you think about it, that is a meaningless statistic. It is a bit like Hillary’s claim that a million miles of diplomatic travel means useful experience. Moreover, I don’t think such a process is even contemplated for the flood of Syrian refugees, at least not if we are to meet the admission goals of Obama’s proposals.

Of course, this fatuous response by the Clinton campaign hardly justifies Trump’s policies. Probably the best answer lies in some middle ground, however compromise is beyond unlikely in our current political battleground.

A Calculated Risk

It occurred to me long ago that we may be missing a real opportunity in our war against terrorism. This has always been an awkward war for us. It is unlike any of the wars we have fought before in that our opponents are amorphous, and they have few fixed locations that they control and protect. They are hard to find amongst innocents camouflaging their fighters, and they employ unconventional tactics that blunt our powerful weapons. But now ISIS has arisen as chief among the various terrorist groups and it uncharacteristically professes to want a real state, with boundaries, government structures and even international standing.

We have fought more or less vigorously against ISIS both to defeat it and to prevent the creation of its Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. And ISIS is going to fail in its dream of a Caliphate. It has lost 12% of its territory in western Iraq and northern Syria just this year alone. The end is inevitable given the forces arrayed against it. And when it does, the terrorist threat will get worse!

Wait, what? That’s what FBI Director James Comey predicts. He says that when ISIS’ self-proclaimed Caliphate is finally crushed, a terrorist diaspora will fan out across the world, launching ever more attacks. We already see that developing, in Libya, Yemen, Bangladesh, Nigeria and elsewhere, not to mention the sporadic horrific incidents in the West.

war-truth1So what is this opportunity we have been missing? We should have let the Caliphate develop! I am not proposing that we should have actively promoted it against the opposition of other Middle Eastern countries, just that we should not have interfered. The reason is that it is in our best interest to evolve ISIS into a conventional opponent, more susceptible to the threat of our power and with something substantial to lose. It is true that this Caliphate would present a genuine threat to its neighbors, but then so do established states in the region like Iran and Syria. An actual country, with assets of value, is a potential hostage to constrain bad behavior. Moreover it filters out the enemy from those we wish to protect. As in all conventional conflicts, anyone within the territory and control of our enemy is fair game. The full panoply of our instrumentalities of war can be employed without the niceties of limited rules of engagement.

In other words, let’s give them a place to congregate and lay down roots, then threaten to lay waste to their treasure and society. If they truly want a place of their own where strict Shari’a law prevails, where they can run their affairs to match their absolutist philosophy, that would hold real value for them. They wouldn’t rashly sacrifice it. Anyway, that’s the idea. It’s a calculated risk, but not one that couldn’t be reversed if its hopes are not realized.

Thoughts on Islam and the West

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In the aftermath of each terrorism event, there is usually a flood of comments in the media seeking to explain why it happened. We have had incidents of this type attributed to individuals from the full spectrum of backgrounds and characteristics. Christians, Jews and Muslims have all killed and destroyed in the name of their faiths, and not only in the distant past. Nevertheless it is undeniable that the defining characteristic of violent extremism today is a connection to Islam. Be honest, when you see the latest atrocity on the TV news, don’t you nod your head resignedly when you hear the names of the suspects?

Trying to understand this absorbs us. We ask, “Why do Muslims hate the United States?” No one, other than perhaps Donald Trump, thinks that this is a universal attitude. But the general perception persists, based on recurring terrorist acts and also the sight of cheering crowds in the Muslim world whenever some disaster befalls the West, and in particular the United States. If they don’t hate us, they are certainly putting on a great performance. Nevertheless, any generalization encompassing 1.5 billion individuals world-wide must be viewed skeptically, many of whom probably have little or no interest in the United States.

This topic whetted my curiosity, so I made my usual excursion into the wilds of the Internet. There is no shortage of opinions, many filled with supporting data. The sources cover the gamut from academic scholars to the clearly deranged. It is fairly easy to filter out the latter since their diatribes usually veer into off-topic rants. Keeping in mind the limitations of this kind of research, I did find a fairly clear dichotomy of views.

One large group of postings challenges the premise of the question. They usually point to peaceful statements and actions of many Muslims, here and abroad. They note the great contributions of American Muslims to our culture and economy. They record almost universal condemnation of terrorist acts. In other words, they see the terrorist incidents that worry and inflame us as an aberration, unrepresentative of Muslim attitudes. Their conclusion is that Islam is a peaceful faith with no ideological animus to the West or the United States. Scholars also mention that readings from the Qur’an that seem antagonistic to nonbelievers are taken out of context and often represent anachronisms or mistranslations. Our Judeo-Christian texts certainly are subject to the same problematic interpretations.

The second equally large group of postings, quite to the contrary, point to historical actions by the West over centuries that fully justify fear and hatred by Muslims, including here at home. These actions include direct conflicts between Christianity and Islam as far back as the Crusades. To demur on the basis that such ancient grudges are irrelevant today is to misunderstand the way Islamic scholars pass down oral histories from generation to generation. In addition, western colonialism and the slave trade are also cited as more recent wrongs. While we may view these as secular issues, Islam doesn’t make the same fine distinction between matters of church and state that Christianity does. Or course these perspectives are often overstated for effect. Nevertheless, the basic historical context appears reasonable to a degree. Their conclusion is that Islam has every justification for seeing us as an enemy to be feared and opposed, violently if necessary. Far from denying that Muslims hate us, they see this as an entirely reasonable attitude, exactly as we would feel in their place.

So where does that leave us? Both of these viewpoints can’t be simultaneously correct, or at least not generally speaking. The Islamic world is no more uniform than is the Christian world. For those portions properly characterized by the first viewpoint, we have nothing to fear and should not paint them with such a broad brush. For the rest, we must be wary and careful in our dealings. The problem is that people don’t come with nice identifying badges on their clothing. So the widely mocked proposal by Trump to “ban them all” can’t be rejected out of hand. The real problem is that we cannot insulate ourselves thereby. No wall is tall enough and no immigration policies are impenetrable enough to keep out a determined foe.

I have no prescription for resolution of this issue, and I suggest that anyone who tells you he does is likely a fool or an ideologue. But some actions could help, and for these we must look both to ourselves and to those Muslims in leadership roles, here and abroad, who desire a rapprochement.

For ourselves, our first step should be to recognize the dichotomy I have described and cease lumping all Muslims in the same category. We can have friends in the Muslim world if we treat them as we would wish to be treated. We should not hesitate or fear to negotiate with Muslim nations, regardless of their discouraging rhetoric. It is true that we have made mistakes in the past in some negotiations and treaties, but avoiding diplomacy on that basis is to assume that we don’t learn from our mistakes. I believe that, in general, we do. Most importantly, we need to cease assuming that our ways should be theirs too. Beliefs that we deem unseemly or even barbaric may be intrinsic to their way of life and not, as we often assume, simply deviant behavior. Basically, trying to “reform them” to our way of life, politically or socially, is none of our business and, worse, is a fool’s errand.

But as I have said, both sides of this dispute have a role. I don’t claim to be well-informed, but it appears to me that friendly Muslim leaders here and abroad have not been pulling their weight in resolving our differences, even if we take at face value their remonstrations to the contrary. The promotion of hatred within Mosques and Madrassas is a matter of record. I see little evidence that those in a position to change this have done much at all, while it is no secret that some governments continue to provide financial support for this regressive activity. None of our actions will succeed while this pattern of subversion continues. All this talk of spying on religious institutions at home betrays our values and would likely be counterproductive. However, American Muslim leaders surely know where to look and they could reform from within if they truly wanted to. I think we should put them to the test.

A Stack of Needles

 

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It’s premature to draw confident lessons from the recent terrorist atrocity in Orlando, but information from official sources strikes a somewhat discordant note in my mind. FBI Director Comey seems to be saying that there are very few radicalized Islamic terrorists in our midst, at least in proportion to our native Muslim population. Yet these are far too many to follow every lead intensively or to take action beyond what has been done. That implies two things. Our internal security services are overwhelmed and underfunded for the job we have assigned them, and their rules of engagement, which treat this as a criminal matter, preclude some possible preventive actions.

We don’t allow preventive detention. We disavow hard interrogation. We place no onus or responsibility on family members who almost certainly are aware of the situation. We act only on verifiable evidence that a crime has been committed, and that evidence must meet strong legal standards. Self-incrimination cannot be either forced or used. These are our values and we fervently wish to keep them. In fact, it isn’t too strong to express this belief by paraphrasing Patrick Henry’s famous declaration, “Give me all of my constitutional rights or give me death!” And that is where we seem to have taken a stand.

needles-istock-365But consider this background information. The Orlando killer had openly expressed support for terrorist acts and associated groups in the Middle East. He had applauded with glee when his high school class was informed about the Twin Towers attack almost 15 years ago. His association with another Florida man, who was the first known American suicide bomber in Syria and who attended the same Mosque in Orlando, led to the first of three FBI investigations. Moreover his openly expressed support for ISIS so alarmed fellow employees at his work location that they reported this to authorities. These investigations clearly revealed his radical sympathies but there was no evidence of either a past or imminent crime. He made several trips to the Middle East, at least one of which had no obvious purpose. The other two were purportedly to attend the Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Regardless of all of this, he had dropped off the FBI radar. So, was he truly a needle in a haystack, or is it possible that there are so many who seem even more threatening that he is more like a needle in a large pile of needles?

It pains me to say this, but I suspect that incidents of this type will become commonplace. Its success will breed copycats even if ISIS plays no direct role other than applauding the perpetrator. Comey told a truth that no one is taking to its logical conclusion. We are intrinsically and probably permanently vulnerable. It won’t be like Iraq, but everyone will have to keep in mind that venturing anywhere in public will be about as dangerous as life often was in early 19th century America, particularly in the West. Of course, we survived these dangers and indeed prospered, so that is not a dire prediction. However, our lives will be changed in some uncomfortable ways.

One possible outcome will be serious infringements on our civil liberties in a probably vain attempt to defend ourselves. Another might be vigilantism, with the kind of armed populace that gets wild applause at Trump rallies. From the left I expect calls for far more restrictive gun and/or ammunition controls. While that might help at the margin, experience in the EU is discouraging. They have much stricter rules than us and yet that has hardly impeded the proliferation of terrorism. Frankly I see no happy solution. In the aftermath of the latest tragedy, as always, everyone is talking and speculating about this issue. But I see little evidence that either its seriousness or the limitations on our responses are recognized. I surmise that Director Comey and President Obama both do recognize this but feel that they can’t reveal it openly because they fear the consequences.

Dealing with Terrorist Threats

E-mail threats were delivered to both the New York and Los Angeles school districts today, resulting in widely different responses. LA consulted officials and enforcement authorities within the state’s school hierarchy and decided to close all schools in an abundance of caution. NY widened their consultation to include the police and FBI and decided that it was a hoax. Whether either of them took the right course is not dependent on how things turn out. That involves hindsight. The point is that we probably need a systematic approach managed by the federal government for dealing with what will no doubt be a continuing situation.

As I write this, word is coming out of the specifics of these e-mail threats. I think NY got it right.

It doesn’t seem plausible to me that simply assuming the worst in all situations can possibly make sense. That would allow either real terrorists or even pranksters to bring our normal life to a halt. On the other hand, who wants to make a call that might place innocents at risk? Actually, such threats have been occurring for a long time. It is only recently, with the rise of Islamic terrorism, that they raise special concerns.

One relevant aspect occurs to me. There have certainly been instances where Islamic terrorists have made general threats to harm us, sometimes even referring to specific cities or types of venues. But I can’t recall an instance where a particular target and general time frame was provided in a threat that turned out to be a genuine precursor to an attack. That doesn’t match their modus operandi. Their primary goal is to inflict maximum harm, not just to frighten us. In contrast, IRA terrorists in the UK often did exactly that because they wanted to make a point without mass casualties.