Month: July 2005


Humanitarian Intervention


Chrenkoff asks, since there are 250,000 Iraqis living in Britain, how come none of them are doing suicide bombings?

Separately, Judith Klinghoffer points out that two of the suspects are from Somalia, where the invasion by Westerners was carried out at the urging of the U.N., but was abandoned in the face of strong resistance.

At the same time, the anti-war Neil Craig reminds us of some of the uncomfortable facts about Western intervention in Yugoslavia.

Now my gut feeling has always been against sending armies overseas. It may come as a surprise to my (literally several) readers, and I tend to forget it myself, but if asked outright whether it was the right policy to invade Iraq in 2003, I would say I think it was probably wrong.

There are several reasons why, believing this, I still am generally much closer to the “Pro-war” side than the “Anti-war” side.
I think the policy, mistaken as it may have been, was nevertheless an improvement on the policy it replaced, as I discussed here.

Read the rest


Freedom and Photography

31st July 2005

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Further to my earlier piece, I’d like to point out what the “opposite” of having cameras everywhere is:

It’s having people follow you around to make sure you don’t take photographs.

That sounds silly, but it’s not hypothetical, it’s real, now.

Where’s the principle here? Am I more free if I can take a photograph in a public place, or if I can’t. And if I can, why can’t a shop-owner or a bus company or the police? And if I can’t, how intrusive to privacy is it going to be to stop me?

I admit that just because it is legal for someone to do something, that doesn’t make it good public policy for the Government to do it, too – that has to be argued separately.

But I do think the freedom to take photographs in public is more fundamental than any right not to be photographed in public.

Related: Kinds of Privacy


Crime and Terrorism

30th July 2005

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From time to time we hear criticism of the “crime-fighting” approach to counter-terrorism: the line is that the terrorists aren’t restrained by law, and we cannot afford to disadvantage ourselves against them.

As I mentioned previously, the flaw is that I as a civilian am at least as concerned not to be wrongly convicted of terrorism as of crime – removing the protection of the law for any action removes my certainty of not being punished without a chance to defend myself in court.

In any case, criminals aren’t restrained by law either, so what’s the difference?

Well, terrorism is a much bigger problem than crime, isn’t it? Um, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t. Check this out:

Violent death rate in Baghdad, from March 2003 to March 2005, from Iraq Body Count: 20.1 per 10,000 population. That’s 100 per 100,000 per year, and it includes the invasion itself. I can’t get accurate figures for the period after the invasion, but from the feel of the report, I would knock about a third off for “peacetime” Baghdad: say 70 per 100,000 per year

Murder rate in Washington, D.C. 69.3 per 100,000 per year.

That’s it – the capital of Iraq, the epicentre of world terrorist activity, has, as close as I can measure it, the same violent death rate as the capital of the USA with no terrorists.

OK, admittedly, Washington D.C has by far the worst murder rate of any “peaceful” city in the entire world, but compare any other city in the world to Baghdad, and terrorism is negligible.

Maybe, since car drivers kill more people than terrorists, we should suspend basic freedoms for drivers, as well.

Oh yeah, we did that.

Update: Apparently Scrivener discovered this back in January


Kinds of Privacy

30th July 2005

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Our ability to keep our private business private has been declining steadily for decades, but it’s not often recognised that the decline takes two quite separate forms.

One is that information that was available to the public, but only easily available to a relatively small number, is now very easily available to anyone who wants it. That is a simple result of information technology that makes the communicating of all information easier. It ranges from simply inverting the index of a telephone directory to make it easy to identify a person from their telephone number, to businesses compiling and trading details of their customers’ shopping habits.

The other, quite different phenomenon is that the government is demanding, with legal force, information that by previous standards would have been totally private. They demand to be informed of every transaction of various types, even if all parties would rather keep them private.

Read the rest…


Policing Terrorism

29th July 2005

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The normally reliable Bruce Schneier weighed in on security camers on 12 July

Surveillance cameras didn’t deter the terrorist attacks in London. They didn’t stop the courthouse killing spree in Atlanta. But they’re prone to abuse. And at the end of they day they don’t reduce crime.

In New York, the authorities are doing random searches to look for explosives.

Yesterday, the London transport system was flooded with police, many of them armed.

All these policing measures are controversial – how to evaluate them?

The exceptional density of CCTV in Britain, and especially London, is a legacy of previous terrorist campaigns. I am surprised to see Schneier dismiss them so totally, as they are a cheap way of getting substantial benefit. Cheap both in money and in “social cost” – when you are out in public you can be seen, but with cameras you can be seen by people who weren’t actually there at the time. You can disguise or hide yourself, at the price of looking a bit suspicious. The images (unlike, say, number plate recognition cameras on motorways) can’t be used for broad sweeps to track people over months or check everyone for a particular behaviour. (note also many of them are in private hands – the police have to ask for them, and they need support from the public to get them). I’m absolutely opposed to compulsory ID, large-scale telecoms interception, etc., but not CCTV.

From where I sit, it looks like CCTV has been the key tool in breaking up the terrorist organisation behind the London bombings; tracing the 7th July team back to Luton and Leeds, identifying the 21st July team, and following both leads back to contacts and resources.

To be fair to Schneier, all these developments happened after he made the quotes above, but they are consistent with previous terrorist campaigns. Possibly we in Britain see counter-terrorism differently — Schneier, like Arnold Kling, is thinking in terms of preventing a one-off attack like 9/11 (which is almost impossible), while we naturally think in terms of winning an extended campaign, in which we take hits but use intelligence gathered to disrupt the enemy organisation. Even a suicide bomber, who is very hard to deter and who can’t be captured afterwards, is part of an organisation – large or small – which is more vulnerable if he is identified and traced.

Random bag-searches, on the other hand, score very badly on price-performance. The expense and social cost of searching commuters’ bags are very high, and the likelihood of them having any effect at all is quite low.

The large police presence yesterday was expensive (I would guess it cost on the order of a million pounds), and slightly unnerving.

Both of the last two are not cost-effective over a longer period, but each might make sense as a one-off or very occasional measure when the threat is judged to be high. I don’t know whether that is the plan in NY, but it probably was the plan yesterday; if two of the 21st July bombers were arrested today, then yesterday was the day they were most dangerous. It’s easy to imagine a suicide bomber succeeding in a mission under the noses of all those police, but there’s a distinct chance that they would have been able to interfere with the mission. Estimate say 2% chance of an attack on that day, 20% chance of foiling it, a million pounds is fairly reasonable.

Ian Blair – disagreeing with me among others – says the 21st July team were not the B-team or amateurs. This is a relative question, and I would not expect or wish those with the job of catching them to be as blase about them as I am, but I stick to my guns:

Any fool can kill people; the chief attribute of these guys is not skill but bloodthirstiness – but even killing a few hundred people a year would only really affect our way of life if we let it.

This lot are much less sophisticated and professional than the IRA, and most importantly, don’t have the community support the IRA had (how may IRA bombers were ever grassed up by their mothers?)

Sir Ian needs to take this as seriously as a football manager facing a lower-league team in a cup game, but for the rest of us we ought to be confident that we can beat these scum, without losing our sense of perspective.

Related entries:


John Kay on global warming

26th July 2005

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In today’s FT (and his own site)

Many of the people who express concern about climate change do not want a technological solution. Their concern is really an expression of guilt about materialism, distaste for capitalism and fear of technology. It is because Mr Bush does not experience any of these feelings that he is right on this issue.

Spot on.

Update: I’ve spent hours reading articles on his site – I’d forgotten how good he is. Here‘s an article on copyright.


Deport this terrorist mastermind immediately

21st July 2005

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And I mean right now!

Update: it has been brought to my attention that one of the Telegraph’s most insightful journalists made a similar point in today’s paper. It is sobering to think that, had the authorities had the courage to act, today’s shocking events could have been averted.

link

Looking Grim

21st July 2005

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England are 18-3

190 is starting to look like a decent score.

On a related point, this article by Professor John Adams is an eye-opener. I was well aware that the 52 murders a couple of weeks ago was, statistically, pretty minor, but I never suspected that even Israelis run substantially higher risk of being killed in road accidents than by terrorists. If you want to have reasonable cause to worry about terrorism, you’ve pretty much got to move to Baghdad. And I imagine they have pretty serious traffic problems too.

The other concern is that terrorists can achieve serious death tolls with the famed Weapons of Mass Destruction. The trouble with this theory is of the “NBC” triad, the B and C – Biological and Chemical weapons, just aren’t up to mass destruction. Time and again, on the battlefield or the underground train, they’ve proved inferior to conventional weapons. Indeed, the real weapon of mass destruction is a large quantity of high explosives.

That leaves nukes. I will return to this subject later.

In the meantime, let’s watch the sodding cricket and wait for the trains to start running.

Australia 178-8

21st July 2005

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Harmison 3 for 39.

(Also some more bombs have gone off on the tube).

Update: Good news! Australia all out for 190

Five wickets for Harmison!

Really Suicide

19th July 2005

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The Mirror and others are questioning whether the “mobile self-demolition specialists” who visited London a couple of weeks back were really planning to die.

I’m still quite willing to believe they were, though there is room for doubt.

Classifying the evidence:

  1. Left no notes, wills, video messages or whatever
  2. Bought return train tickets, and possibly car park pay & display tickets.
  3. Detonations were nearly simultaneous (apart from the one that wasn’t)
  4. Didn’t make any announcements at the moment of detonation
  5. One or two of them had pregnant wives
  6. They were British, dammit! One of them played cricket!
  7. Obviously the Mossad was really behind it all.

6 and 7 I disregard.

5 – well, the September 2001 hijackers had full and apparently enjoyable lives. Of course, not all of them necessarily knew exactly what they were getting into. These four might have declared themselves willing to die, and volunteered for a mission without knowing until a late stage that it was a one-way trip. Security, you know.

2 3 and possibly 4 could be explained by my earlier theory, that they were acting on the cautious assumption that the security forces were close on their tails. They had had (very indirect) contact with previous blown operations, nothing in Britain had yet come off succesfully, the #1 priority was to get the job done before anyone could grab them.

The lack of any message is the strongest point, but even that I think might be because of the risk of exposure. Unlike the Palestinians, these people were really operating entirely in enemy territory: the fact of going out and buying a video camera might have triggered some investigating authority to ask for a search warrant.

I’m probably not going to blog about this much more. 50 murders is a significant news story, but a sense of proportion is still important, and we don’t want to go overboard.

Here’s my decision: once the Piccadilly line is open, I will consider the story over.






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