Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stupid Things I Hear on Veterans Day

In no particular order:

1. Military service should be required to run for elected office. Veterans love to say this. So do candidates with military experience running against opponents who don't have any. But it's not limited to  hawks and conservatives. I just hear it more frequently on Veterans Day. Without invoking George W. Bush, here's why it's stupid.

First, let's say we're only limiting this idea to the Federal level of government. So that's 535 Congressmen and Senators, the President and Vice President, and throw in a Secretary of Defense for reasonable measure. 538 people total. That means that every two years you need 870 people with military service records campaigning for a seat in the House of Representatives alone. With third-party or independent candidates, say you have an even 900. If there are Senate seats up for a vote, you have another 66 veterans trying to get a seat. Independents would run it up to an even 75, just for argument's sake. If it's a Presidential year, add another 16 people in the party primaries for President, then another two for the Vice Presidential candidates in the finals. All told, you need just shy of 1,000 people with military service records. It's less for midterms, but consider that you still have to find about 400 veterans who live in the appropriate districts and actually want to be in Congress every two years. Just less than 1,000 people graduate each year from West Point, Annapolis, or the Air Force Academy. Not that a candidate has to be an officer or an Academy grad, but these are the people the armed forces like to tell us are the premier leaders in America's military.

That leads to the real flaw in this idea. If military service is required to run for office, then that means anyone who has ambition to run for office will join the military. People who want to be in charge of things like the United States government will most likely want to spend their time in the military being in charge of things like platoons and companies. That means they'll want to be officers. Most politicians come from financially well-off or politically connected families. As it turns out, to get into a place like West Point or Annapolis, you need the recommendation of a Congressman or Senator. So in just a few generations, what should we expect to happen? The entire military would be overrun by officers who are in uniform for no other reason than (mostly unrealistic) political ambitions. The most ambitious of them will be Academy graduates, who will have worked their appointments through political contributions or cozy relationships. The military's premier leadership institutions would therefore become our country's de facto political indoctrination factories. There would be less distinction between governmental and military authority. In other words, you'd go from the military-industrial complex to something that resembles Communist Russia.

So in the end, not only will you have done nothing to stop the corruption and deal-making that goes on in Washington, you'll have infected the entire military with it. May the ghost of General Sherman haunt you forever if you do.

2. We lost Iraq and Afghanistan because the American public stopped supporting the war effort. I will never forget the day I was leaning out the window of a bombed-out house, spraying down wave after wave of Al Qaeda militants through the pain of a sucking chest wound, when suddenly a suicide bomber rushed at our position. My rifle jammed and I thought I was a goner. Luckily, at that very moment an F-16 roared over us and dropped a laser guided American Public Support (APS) bomb right on the guy. Saved the lives of twenty men.

Yeah, it's that ridiculous.

All the yellow ribbons and American flag bumper stickers in 2003 could not possibly have undone the fatal errors enacted by Paul Bremer in Iraq. Nor did the troop surge that many Americans opposed in 2007 do much to reverse the course of events. Public support or lack thereof did not influence the flawed strategy for invading Afghanistan in 2001. It did not factor into Michael Hoh's grim assessment of how we'd fared in that country in 2009. It did not change that we entered a war in an extremely alien environment and culture without appreciating just how much of a radical departure they were from our own.

There is a harsh truth that the American public hasn't been told and that the military is just now coming to grips with. The American public didn't lose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American military did. It was the largest, most technologically advanced and well-funded military force in world history. Iraq and Afghanistan were their wars to lose, and they lost them. The Presidents, the generals and a lot of other senior ranking officers threw the game. But the American soldier and the American citizen did their jobs, and neither one has the right to accuse the other one of not pulling their weight.

3. Veterans and our military are protecting our freedom. No, they're not. They have protected your safety. And I don't know if they've even done that effectively. If you believe the hype from the NSA, CIA, FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security, they had us safe from terrorism since day one (so long as day one is 9/12/2001). No one has really protected freedom in America since 9/11. Your online privacy has been totally compromised. Your government collects data on you constantly. Your local police are armed with military equipment and can gain a search warrant easier than ever before. You can't get on an airplane without a security guard looking at you naked using a full-body x-ray, and even then they'll put you in handcuffs if you have a bottle of lotion or a pair of nail clippers. The process of electing our public servants has been opened wide to unrestricted corporate financing. We are on the verge of internet providers limiting access to public information and effectively restraining the communication of human thought. We have circumvented the laws that prevent our government from arresting and killing people without a trial.

You have so much less freedom that you did before you began thanking American troops for defending it that it's ridiculous. The military is not defending your freedom. The ACLU is defending your freedom. Investigative journalists are defending your freedom. The folks at "Save the Internet" are defending your freedom. Pro-gun, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage people are defending your freedom. Hell, even crazy, angry middle-aged white Minnesotans joining militias, pot-smoking PETA and SPCA members and little old Jehovah's Witness grannies volunteering at the ballot box on election day are defending your freedom. But the troops? They are doing zilch-point-nothing to defend your freedom. You want to thank a hero for defending your freedom today? Go hit up the 24-year-old hipster with the flannel shirt that smells like it hasn't been washed in a week asking you to sign a petition to outlaw fracking near your local water source. THAT GUY is keeping you free.

There are probably twenty other things I'll hear, but at least now I'll be able to relax when I do hear them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

An open letter in response to Challenge Triathlon's survey on professional athletes

I recently saw a survey posted by the organizers at Challenge Family Triathlon via a friend's Facebook feed. I clicked on it out of curiosity, and subsequently felt provoked enough to provide some answers to the questions. But the further I went through the questions, the more curious and troubled I became. It occurred to me that the survey had a particular concern that has been discussed with great frequency in the triathlon community in the last year, but the nature of the enquiry gave me the feeling that Challenge was looking for answers to all the wrong questions. Assuming that Challenge is genuinely interested in improving the athlete experience, I thought I'd take more space to suggest a more radical change that would get to the heart of the issue they're exploring.

The survey appears to boil down to a summary question for amateur participants: do you really care about professional athletes, and if so how much money and effort should Challenge put into taking care of them for your benefit? Professional athletes, journalists, certain "activists" and major race organizations held this dialogue throughout the 2014 racing season. However, this survey touches a third rail I haven't seen discussed yet. It questions whether people even care about the pro race. While I believe that WTC has an internal opinion on the matter that they're not sharing, it's tangential to this initiative by Challenge. I think it's good that Challenge is asking, but like I said, they've asked the wrong questions.

For instance, question 1, "Do you think prize money for professional athletes is adequate?", is totally off the mark. Think of it like this. I am a professional writer. I am a twice-published author who has written articles in just about every triathlon magazine in print. When I write something that's good enough for print, publishers pay me for my effort. My payment is a matter of negotiation between myself and the publisher. At no time do we consult the masses of triathlon bloggers throughout the world about the value of my work. If a publisher did that, I would never work with them again on the simple grounds that they've shown a complete lack of understanding and respect for my work. I'm sure Challenge would similarly balk at the notion of a survey asking amateur race organizers how much money they thought the directors of a large professional organization ought to make. In short, by asking amateur athletes how much money pros are worth, Challenge sends the message that they don't put much worth in pros at all. It also shows they don't understand the gripe professional athletes have. In numerous interviews I've conducted with pro athletes over the years-- including Challenge acolyte Chris McCormack-- I've never once heard a pro athlete say they turned pro for money. In fact, most of them explicitly admit they knew they'd never make much money. They didn't do it for profit. They did it for prestige. Some wanted to win the Olympics. Others saw Julie Moss or Mark Allen win in Kona and felt an irrepressible desire to try to do it. These people have sacrificed more money, blood, sweat and tears than they'll ever make back in prize earnings. The argument for payment isn't about giving them what's "fair." There will never be a balanced scale for equity in a professional sporting world where people like Michael Vick and Alex Rodriguez can walk off with hundreds of millions of dollars. This is totally a business discussion. The pro athletes perceive that the race organizer makes a disproportionate profit from races compared to what the athletes do. It would be like a publisher telling me that my royalties from a book would only come to 1% of total sales. That's not a good deal. If Challenge wants to resolve this dispute, they need to open their books a bit to the pro community and have an honest discussion about the business margins. The amateur racing community doesn't factor into that.

The same thing goes for questions like "How important do you think professional athletes are to triathlon events?" and "Do you think pros athletes add value to an event?"

This train of thought continues to question 9, which comes as a bit of a non sequitur: "If there was one thing you could change that would enhance your race experience at Challenge Family events, what would it be?" This could be totally decoupled from the circumstances of pro athletes, and indeed for most amateur participants it is. I'm sure the range of ideas will offer a few nuggets of wisdom to Challenge. But I want to propose something that's more directly connected to the apparent concern Challenge has over the pro issue.

As a triathlete, my background is a nine-or-ten time Olympic distance race finisher with four 140.6-mile races to my name. None of those races were "big brand" events. I have always gone with independent events, both in the U.S. and Europe. But even though I continued to write about triathlon, I stopped actually racing in 2010. Today I'm a competitive cyclist and casual Crossfit gym visitor. I stopped doing 140.6 events because it got boring. And it got boring for the very reason that my racing experience was totally decoupled from the circumstances of the pro athletes.

Let's assume that the typical amateur athlete participates in a long distance triathlon for one of three reasons: to get that "bucket list" finish, to qualify for a championship race like Roth or Kona, or to actually win in their division. If you think about it, Challenge and Ironman both really only succeed at giving people in the first category the best possible experience. They could do much better for the other two categories. And if they made the necessary changes to realize their potential, they would almost automatically solve all their "pro athlete relevance" problems at the same time.

Here is a question for Challenge: Why is there a pro athlete category of racers defined by their athletic ability, and everyone else races according to the year of their birthday?

The answer to that question is "there is no good reason." It's a completely arbitrary assignment. And it's that very arbitrary nature that not only ruins the race experience for those other two categories of athletes, but strips pro athletes of their relevance and value to the race. It kills the race experience for the second two categories because it concentrates the competition and dedication to the sport in a few specific population clumps, thereby reducing the relative opportunity while also obscuring the participants' sense of being in a race. It kills pro relevance because it sets them aside as a special category defined by a completely different set of metrics and affording them a race experience wholly unique from what the age-groupers go through. In other words, Tim O'Donnell and Frederik Van Lierde know each other and are acutely aware of each others' progress at any time during a race against each other. As a 30-35 year old competitor, I never have any clue where the other guys in my race are. I started in a mass of men and women much older and much younger than me. We probably all wore the same color swim caps and other than the indistinguishable markings on our legs there was never any way to know who was who. On top of all this, if, as part of my goal, I've come to a race to achieve a faster time than ever before, I am at a disadvantage because I will spend the first 40 miles or so battling through a mass of slower swimmers and cyclists before I can "break free." This is an extremely aggravating expense of energy on my part that could have been spent on making time rather than negotiating packs. It's another way in which the pro experience is completely different from my own.

All these problems can be solved in one fell swoop with a radical yet simple change: scrap the age-group system and go to an ability classification like amateur cycling.

For a long time, cycling has categorized amateur participants according to their finishes in previous races rather than age. This makes races much more competitive. It makes them more fair for the participants and more efficient for the organizers. It gives athletes of all stripes an added sense of drama and a basis for comparison with elite and professional competitors. Athletes derive a sense of their progress both personally and on a comparative basis. Not only that, but it also gives them an "extra goal" to achieve in their racing. Maybe a second or third-year athlete can't qualify for Challenge Roth, but they can move up from Category 4 to Category 3. And that change in status would bring a much greater sense of accomplishment than simply blowing out the candles on a cake. They would have accomplished something in the interim. In short, it would be a landmark on their "athlete's journey."

In all honesty, I might have started racing Challenge events in 2009 if I'd heard about such a system, and I might still be racing them today if I'd been on the verge of upgrading in 2010.

I think this also creates substantial opportunities for Challenge as a race organizer. First, it would create a broader sense of competition at levels just below pro. It would help recognize athletes on the cusp of making the pro ranks. It would facilitate drug-testing by putting people of a certain "at-risk" ability level in the same group and allow more careful and targeted observation of them. It would present the opportunity to offer prizes to the lower tiers of competitors; perhaps not cash, but something that rewards their high level of performance. It would reconnect amateurs with professionals by allowing us to compare the finishing times of second-tier athletes with top competitors.

At the very least, it would finally destroy this dreadful malaise that has plagued long distance triathlon ever since the sport became "mainstream" in the late 90's-- the sense that professionals are a privileged class who get to actually race and amateurs are people who, regardless of ability, are forced into something between a slog and a death march.

In conclusion, I applaud Challenge's concern about this issue. The heart is in the right place, but the thinking is off in left field. The issue of professional athlete compensation is not related to pro/amateur relations. The race organizer is the solution to both issues, though. Sort out the prize money issue by speaking directly to pros about their sense of worth from both their perspective and that of the race organizer. If you want to get more value out of professional athletes by connecting them to the amateurs, then make amateur racing more like pro racing. Like any other race organizer, Challenge is a business that profits by providing people a platform for a recreational experience. It's no different than a pinball machine manufacturer. If people aren't getting what they want out of the experience, then you tweak the pinball machine. Pros are like the pinball itself. If it's not rolling toward the player often enough for them to bounce it back up the table and watch it go, what's the best way to fix things to ensure people will keep coming back to play: blame the pinball, or adjust the tilt of your platform?

Monday, September 8, 2014

I'm not afraid of the Islamic State

 Last month, the news program 'Frontline' broadcast a 2-hour show titled "Losing Iraq." It traced America's recent history in that country in an attempt to explain how the U.S. military enterprise there ended so badly. Perhaps most striking, however, was the way the producers chose to end the program, giving a few key interview subjects extended time to discuss the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (known better then as ISIS, and now simply as the Islamic State or IS). Most prominently featured was former ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who had this to say:

This is analogous to Afghanistan, say, in August 2001. And this time, it is Al Qaeda version 6.0. They make bin Laden’s 2011 Al Qaeda look like Boy Scouts. They are far stronger; they are far more numerous. They have thousands who hold foreign passports and require no visas to get into the United States or other Western countries. They are well funded, they are battle-hardened, and they are well armed. And they now control far more territory exclusively than bin Laden ever did. They have the security; they have the safety to plan their next set of operations; and they are a messianic movement. Believe me, they are planning those operations. That’s why the Saudis moved 30,000 troops up to their border. They know that ISIS wants Mecca and Medina. They also want to come after us. And I can tell you, as we sit here today in Washington, they’re sitting in Mosul figuring out how they’re going to get at us next.

A few weeks after Crocker issued that ominous prediction, the United States began dropping advisers, special operations forces, and high explosives on the ground in Iraq again. All of which intended to stop IS from pouring out of Syria and annexing northwestern Iraq and threatening Baghdad. The American media remains fixated on IS with a mixture of anger and panic. Crocker's "AQ 6.0," which has proclaimed itself the new caliphate, has torn a painful scab off the arm of American national security and foreign policy watchers. It represents the enduring and worsening failure of our intervention in the country as well as a new threat emerging to challenge us at a time when our military is trying to recover. President Obama's recent response to the beheading of American journalists and the assurance that the U.S. will strike back make for a good analogy of America's reaction to IS at large. We don't know whether we're more indignant or afraid, but whichever way we feel, the most healthy way to deal with our emotion is with a military response.

The problem is that Americans really aren't into the whole proposition of military responses these days. Truth be told, they're sick and tired of them. So to keep the people at least unsure enough of the necessity of military intervention in Iraq, those pushing the issue are trying to sell it by employing the same ominous language as Crocker. General Martin Dempsey referred to the IS plan beyond a renewed caliphate as an "apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described them as "beyond a terrorist group." Representative Peter King of New York had a great soundbyte on "Meet the Press."

"They are more powerful now than Al Qaeda was on 9/11. [Sen.] Dick Durbin [(D) of Illinois] says we’re not going to do this, not going to do that. I want to hear what he says when they attack us in the United States. I lost hundreds of constituents on 9/11. I never want to do that again.”
From Sandy Hook to the Tsarnaev brothers, it seems any time the specter of a nationwide threat rears its head, the probability that someone will pre-blame another person for "the next 9/11" increases at a rate that follows Godwin's Law. It's the ultimate weapon of the foreign policy hawk. You're essentially calling someone a dirty traitor to the red white and blue for things that haven't happened yet. It's a powerful rhetorical device because its underlying foundation is, once again, fear.

But if our fear is genuinely that IS is the new Al Qaeda and of the next 9/11, then being fearful of the organization itself and trying to attack it in the Middle East would mean that we've learned nothing from history. If IS is organized on the Al Qaeda model and is planning an asymmetric attack to cause massive damage and loss of life to the United States, then I'm not afraid of IS.

I'm afraid of Washington, D.C.

Some people might remember that the U.S. government formed a commission to investigate the events of 9/11, and that it wrote a detailed report on the subject. It doesn't seem like many people today do remember it, though. Or, if they do, they forget what the report said. To quickly summarize, 9/11 happened because:

- Multiple intelligence gathering agencies failed to share information in an adequate way such that analysts could access it.

- Federal law enforcement agencies were limited in their ability to collaborate with intelligence agencies on the matter of terrorism and espionage.

- Airport security administrators failed to uphold standards at the targeted airports, and multiple safeguards that should have caught the hijackers failed.

- The FBI was unable to collate information gathered by its own field agents around the country and assign data from reports to cases of national scale.

In other words, 9/11 didn't happen because Osama Bin Laden was some kind of terrorist genius or because the hijackers were a squad of elite ninjas. 9/11 happened because the agencies we created to stop 9/11 failed in the most epic way possible. If we are really afraid of another 9/11, I would prefer the government to check all the systems and measures at the FBI, FAA, DHS and CIA, rather than spending time dropping bombs around the Haditha Dam. On that, while the dam is a key piece of infrastructure that would be nice for IS not to have, Americans are far too afraid of IS gains in other parts of Iraq. The news headlines displayed utter shock that IS had managed to take the town of Jalula. My immediate reaction to seeing this news: Johnny, tell 'em what they've won!

Then there's the matter of the "IS laptop of doom," which supposedly contains plans to build a bubonic plague bomb. Al Qaeda experimented with this for years before 9/11. They couldn't get their program off the ground. I'm not sure why we think IS will have more success, especially when they keep losing their laptops with the instructions for building one.

And even if they do still have a laptop, should we be afraid of it? The answer is still no. As the United States' chief counterterrorism official recently explained, IS isn't actually a threat to America. The greatest threat at the moment is that individual American citizens travel to Syria, train with IS, and then come back to conduct terrorist attacks in their home country.

Therein we have the final brush stroke in the big picture. What is the threat, what should we genuinely fear, and how should we react to it? Our top counterterrorism guy just said that our greatest problem is American citizens coming back from Syria. Why then, are so many generals and politicians telling us that we should be afraid of this large group of people from Middle Eastern countries invading Iraq? The threat comes from individuals returning to the U.S., not armed groups lingering overseas. If there's any terrifying parallel to be made with 9/11 at this juncture, it's in how similarly misguided our national leadership is about how to deal with the problem.

I'm not afraid of IS, or at least not any more than I am of Al Shabab, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or the Haqanni Network. President Obama is wrong to call IS "a cancer." It's a bad metaphor. Cancer either kills you, or you operate on it, remove it, and eradicate it with chemo and radiation. Terrorism is more like salmonella. It's not going to kill your country, but at the same time it's an extreme pain in the ass because you can never completely get rid of it. It's always going to find some bad cilantro to grow on. If you can't eradicate it, then it's silly to dread its existence. It's always going to be there, and all we can do is learn the lessons of the last bad experience with it and try to guard against a repeat of history. The existence of the Islamic State does not equate to threat level Jack Bauer for America. It's no more or less dangerous than Iraq, or Russia, or North Korea, or global warming. If we're able to wake up with those every day and not feel utterly terrified of them, we should be able to get along with the existence of the Islamic State a little easier.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

National Insecurity

Wikimedia Commons
Most people don't give much thought to national security. When we do, those thoughts are usually bent in the same direction of those that lend extraordinary thought to the principle. Television and internet-based graphics obligate us to perceive national security in very geographic terms. Whether it's Ebola or ISIS, we view threats to the American way of life as little red dots trying to infiltrate the fragile membrane of our coastline. But our actual concept of national security that dominates our existence is very different. We don't spend our days worrying about more planes crashing into the structures of our governmental and financial institutions, or about outbreaks or disasters decimating local populations. Our fears are much more personal and localized. We put the greater conflagrations raging across the world on the same level as the specter of unemployment or an unexpected auto repair bill. We feel safe so long as the chaos around us doesn't interfere with the predictability of our daily commute. We don't want to be bothered as we go about our way, minding our own business. "National security," in the mind of the average American citizen then, is just a euphemism for personal security.

With that scale in mind, how tragic would it be if suddenly our most private thoughts and feelings were put on global display? How violated would we feel if suddenly the world did not let us mind our own business, and bothered us in the harshest and most persistent way with its unforgiving judgments? For more than a decade, the witnesses of 9/11 have contextualized an event that changed world history in the form of personal narrative. For whatever value such stories hold in their detail and humanity, there is no ignoring how profoundly myopic the "through their own eyes/in their own words" stories are. It seems reasonable (and patterns of human behavior bear out) that we would contextualize a personally traumatic event as a global catastrophe. "My world is over," as we say. It doesn't take a tsunami followed by a nuclear disaster to compromise one's sense of security. In fact, the amount of effort required to visit the suffering of Job on a person is terrifyingly small.

So why did Americans receive the news of this very sort of thing happening to 100 women this week so lightly? Why did so many people around the world make crude sport of the theft and publication of nude photos of their fellow human beings? A legion of people were made to feel extremely insecure about themselves. They were exposed to the world, humiliated and shamed. No person could possibly conceive of such a thing happening to themselves without being mortified. And yet we neither demonstrate sympathy for the victims nor consider the threat to ourselves.

Consider the scope of the operation necessary to accomplish this cruel stunt. A person (ostensibly one individual) achieved the capability to locate and identify a hundred specific women living all over the world, break into their files stored on the servers of the world's most popular and successful technology company, download, sort and find very specific files and content, and then broadcast it. It is the height of folly to think that this sort of thing can only happen to other people. It can happen to anybody. It already does. The revelation earlier this month that more than a billion usernames and passwords were compromised in one fell swoop shows the vast capabilities people can already levy against society. We wring our hands over the possibility of terrorist attacks somewhere in our country as we ignore the ongoing assaults directly against us. These are not attacks that can turn buildings to rubble or kill the president, but they can still end life as we know it. We view pornographic content. We purchase underwear. We have pap smears and prostate exams. Some of us are secretly gay or transgender. Some of us are secretly in love with our coworkers. Some of us flagellate ourselves before a crucifix in our bedroom. Some of us are alcoholics or recovering heroin addicts. Some of us once shoplifted, or were sexually abused, or used a racial slur in a joke, or hit our spouse or child in a fit of anger. We all have secrets. We all have regrets. We all have intimate thoughts and feelings. And our entire existence, as individuals and a collective species, depends on our ability to maintain a vital wall of privacy around those things. It is the analog firewall of humanity-- a boundary that parses who we were from who we are. Without it, the code of our being is corrupted and we lose our identity. There's no distinction between milestones in our moral and ethical development.

Yet we are tearing down those walls. The exposure of the celebrity women is not the first case. After the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, the New York Journal News obtained license information of all handgun permit owners in surrounding counties, and published maps showing the addresses of gun owners. In retaliation, someone obtained the addresses and personal information of members of the paper's staff and published it on the internet. Included in the data were the names and schools of the editor's children. The hacktivist group Anonymous similarly published the private information of the mayor and police chief of Ferguson, Missouri during the protests there. The practice of "sexting" among young people is on the rise, and consequently many young people are finding themselves the subjects of public humiliation and private torture. Some of them have killed themselves over threats and bullying as a result of something they thought was private and intimate being distributed to the public.

We find people we disagree with, whose ideas or causes we dislike, and instead of holding a debate with them about the issue at hand we hold a gun over their privacy. It's the nuclear option of human dignity, and we are using it at a frightening pace. 

Our minds have evolved technology that allows us to collect, share and broadcast information, thoughts and feelings at a rate and on a scale that are incomprehensible. Part of the problem is that we don't comprehend the destructive nature of that power. Imagine if this capability had existed sixty years ago. What would have been the consequence of outing every LGBT person, communist or Black Panther Party member to the world? What if the papers had decided to show Franklin Roosevelt in his wheelchair? What if Jane Austen hadn't been able to maintain the secret of her identity?

It's very likely the world would be a radically different place, and not necessarily for the better. Now we do live in a world where we have the ability to deny such people their privacy, and we use it to deliberately silence and damage the very thought and creativity that helped create it in the first place. We are thrusting successive generations of potentially great people into it. How will they grow up in and respond to it? Few things shape a person's character like mistakes and regrets. Do we still live in a world where a person can make mistakes, accumulate regrets, and still leverage the experiences to achieve greatness? We may someday soon face a choice. Are we willing to respect our neighbors and give them their privacy and dignity, or are we prepared to abandon the idea of privacy entirely? What happens to our private and intimate thoughts, feelings and relationships when they are no longer private or intimate? What happens to our humanity without privacy or intimacy? If we can never do something that we'll regret, what lessons will we be unable to learn?

Part of living is moving on with life. We are ephemeral beings traveling on a linear timescale. We are born. We live. We die. It is required of us that we have a past, present and future. It violates our deepest sense of self and humanity to live with the prospect that we may never have any future, yet that is precisely the type of existence we are creating for ourselves. Without the ability to leave the past behind, there can be no future. With only the cloud of shame on the horizon, there can be no sunrise tomorrow.

Our society's greatest advances have not been on rails or roads or even rockets. We are propelled farthest by our minds. If we compromise the idea of privacy, then we do irreparable damage to the endeavor of thought. That constitutes a critical-- potentially fatal-- breach of personal security. The legend says that when Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy, he ran naked from his house screaming "Eureka!" Perhaps the combination of his society's immodesty and the potency of his idea made such a thing acceptable. It's unthinkable that the physicists at CERN could have done the same today upon discovering the Higgs-Boson.

A hundred women who have given us incredible performances in sports and entertainment have been humiliated and shamed for no other reason than the notoriety wrought of what they've given to us. The message we've sent is clear: society will punish people who contribute to it. More than any threat to our physical infrastructure from across the oceans, this form of terrorism-- the terrorism of insecurity-- vies to spread decay across the intangible fabric of thought. It will do worse than tear our country down brick by brick. It will doom us all to spend our entire existence at a fixed place in time, and die in our own past.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

What cops ought to fear more than young black men: young white men

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri continues to simmer. But with Michael Brown's funeral scheduled for this weekend, it is far from over. I anticipate it will get worse before it gets better, and even then "better" will only be a relative term. Much ado has been made of the police response to crowds of black citizens gathering in the streets. It's obvious that Ferguson law enforcement is extremely hostile to the town's black residents. In the videos and photos I've seen, I cannot say that this hostility is bred of fear, at least of physical harm. If anything, the police are afraid of losing their sense of control and dominance. It's almost like some kind of territorial animal. If they back down in the face of these demonstrations, they'll be perceived as weak. You have to watch how they carry themselves and speak to others as they go about their business, but it's evident. Indeed, this attitude is apparent even at the organizational level. The closure of airspace, the blockades preventing people from entering the town and the handling of journalists show that there is an institutional sense of invincibility in the Ferguson Police Department. And against the disorganized, unarmed and unarmored groups of people in town, they are. Police south of the Mason-Dixon have been dealing with angry black people for decades. They became very good at it during the 1960's, and it is eerie how culturally indoctrinated racism have given these sorts of tactics the same shelf life of weaponized plutonium.

However, what is being overlooked is the Ferguson and St. Louis governments' impotence against another threat. Since Tuesday, hacktivists from Anonymous have pulled the original audio from the police transmissions at the time of Brown's death, potentially obtained the identity of the officer that shot him, and released the personal information of several public officials, including the mayor and police chief of Ferguson. Local government networks, to include phones, have been disrupted or completely shut down.

This is nothing new for Anonymous. The group has gone against national government agencies around the world, and been very successful. What is glaringly important here is the racial dynamics. Anonymous is primarily made up of computer-savvy men in their early 20's to 30's. They are reasonably educated, come from a middle class background, and are politically active. In short, they have very little in common with the people most abused by cops in Ferguson and America at large. Yet they have become involved because they feel common cause with the people there.

This is an extraordinary turning point. There have been numerous cases of police excesses in the last year. Far worse than the death of Eric Garner in New York City earlier this month are the egregious practices of the Albuquerque PD. Yet anonymous, and white people in general, have not involved themselves. The conflict was couched predominantly in ethnic terms. Police have problems dealing with minorities. Whites aren't in the minority. Therefore it's not a white people problem. And people of all colors tend to avoid being part of the solution if the problem doesn't affect them. Watch YouTube or social media long enough, and you see the difference in how people regard their local law enforcement. White people's biggest concern is that a cop will shoot their dog. Black people's biggest fear is that a cop will shoot their son.

That is now changing. Ferguson could become to American policing what the Alamo was to Santa Anna. Anonymous is, if nothing else, a group of idealists (I'm not sure you can call it an idealistic group) and they are acting on the basis of conscience, not interest. There are other groups like that in America. But instead of keyboards they tend to use assault weapons. The pro-gun, anti-government militias of the United States are, like Anonymous, predominantly white. But their membership has a wider age range and from an economic and educational background more similar to the people of Ferguson. The biggest thing the Montana prairie militias have in common with the inner city demonstrators is that they believe the government and the police are the enemy. Their biggest difference is that they are much better prepared to kill people. You are welcome to have whatever views you like about the April standoff between Cliven Bundy's militia supporters and the federal government, but the tactical assessment is not up for debate. Barring a peaceful resolution, lots of people were going to get shot and killed. You don't have to look at the Hutaree plot of 2010 in great detail to realize that it would have been highly successful if they hadn't been caught beforehand. The group was tactically proficient. If their marksmanship had been as good as their fieldcraft, they would have chewed a SWAT team to pieces.

There are two conclusions from this that we must acknowledge. First, that American police are brutally efficient at suppressing and terrorizing our minorities. Second, that American police are woefully unprepared to deal with substantial backlash from organized anti-government groups. If American cops think angry black people are a threat to their sense of territorial dominance, then they should be utterly terrified of crazy white people. Let's allow ourselves the worst stereotypes possible for a moment. Young black men deal cocaine, rape women, rob convenience stores and steal cars. Young white men blow up federal buildings, go on shooting rampages, steal billions of online identities and spew terabytes of top secret intelligence data out into the world. If anything, cops are shooting the wrong people.

And at the rate cops are becoming more indiscriminate, it's not going to be long before a cop somewhere shoots the wrong white kid instead of the wrong black kid. Somewhere where there are a lot of unemployed people who don't know how to hack a government website, but spent a year or two learning how to fight in an urban environment. Somewhere where everyone stays in town after they graduate high school, where everyone knows each other, and where your fondest childhood memories are going out into the woods every weekend during deer season. Somewhere where they still take rifles into the woods on weekends, but they're not practicing shooting at deer anymore.

It's a horrible truth that passive racism has kept the greater American population from confronting the issue of police brutality. The hubris of American police is chiseling through that barrier, abuse by abuse. Right now the backlash from white America is coming in the form of newspaper editors and computer hackers. But those who discount the possibility that it will come in more violent forms ignore the fact that white America's legacy of using deadly force against authority extends just as far as its racism. Commentators have opined that cops in military gear give some people the impression that they're an occupying force rather than public servants. What kind of message does it send to the people who already thought the police were occupiers?