Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Name's Al, Like in Qaeda

A story on the CBS News Health blog suggests that the idea of marijuana as a so-called "gateway drug" hails from the era of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say NO" campaign.  I'm old enough to remember being told that many years before (though I don't know that the term "gateway drug" was in use way back then).
The idea, of course, is that the joys of marijuana would just naturally make you want to experience the greater joys of cocaine and heroin and methamphetamine and maybe even tobacco.  Who knows what insidious danger there might be in that first puff.
Of course, it's nonsense.  Marijuana use doesn't cause people to use other drugs.  And the college student who blows a little dope isn't likely to become a drug addict.   Still, if there's no particular evidence that using marijuana leads to use of other drugs, there's some marginal evidence that a more-than-random-chance percentage of people who use other drugs (the ones that scare us more) previously used marijuana.
Of course, the people who use those other drugs more than likely have, at some previous time (perhaps even simultaneously), worn clothes.  They've almost certainly had a drink of water at least once or twice.  And an absolute 100% of them breathe on a regular basis.
So let's see.  If we round up all the people who've done any of those things and lock them all away in places far more secure than our prisons, we can probably prevent them from ever taking up cocaine.
We call that "preventive detention," and generally frown on it since our system of criminal justice is designed on an after-the-fact model.  (We prosecute and punish for what you did, not what you might do.)  And there's good reason.
See, basically we suck at prediction.  Our skill at figuring out which prisoners will be fully rehabilitated and which will recidivate falls somewhere south of our ability to predict the details of the weather on a day 4 months hence.  Broad guesses about general likelihood, maybe.  (It'll be winter then, so probably cold.)  But pretty much worthless on details.  (Major blizzard that day?  High 28?  Don't tell the Old Farmer with his almanac, but we haven't got a clue.)
Except we pretend otherwise. 
Those folks we're holding at Gitmo forever?  That's because they're so horribly dangerous.  We just know they'll do whatever it is again, just as we knew all those others we had there and then sent home because they were picked up by mistake would, even the ones who didn't do it before.
That guy down the street who was once convicted of a sex offense?  You bet your booties.  Every sex offender is a predator and no predator can be rehabilitated.  Evidence to the contrary (of which there's a ton) doesn't count.
In Texas, where in order to sentence someone to die the jury has to conclude that the person will, if not killed, pose a continuing threat of criminal violence, the predictions of future dangerousness are eased by whores psychologists hired by the state.  Take, for instance, Randall Dale Adams.  (You've maybe seen the documentary about his case, The Thin Blue Line.)  
Based in part on the testimony of now-disgraced psychologist James Grigson who assured the jury that Adams would kill again, he was sentenced to die.  Except, you know, he didn't do it, wholly innocent.  The killing in that case was done by a young man  named David Harris.  Still, Grigson maintained that even though Adams hadn't killed before, his prediction that Adams would kill again was accurate.  (Grigson claims his predictions are never wrong.)  It's been 33 years since the killing in that case, just over 21 since Adams was released from prison.  He's 61 years old.  He hasn't killed anyone yet.
Which brings us to Tim McVeigh, Zacarias Moussaui, and maybe your next-door neighbor.  At least, if you live in one of the targeted places.
A YOUNG man walks into a Home Depot and buys a large quantity of acetone. Later, a young man walks into a beauty supply store and buys hydrogen peroxide. Still later, a young man is observed parked outside a nondescript federal building in a rented van, taking photographs.
No crime has been committed. But should any of these activities (acetone and hydrogen peroxide can be components for explosives) be reported to and evaluated by law enforcement officials? If they are reported, the government may infringe on privacy and civil liberties. If they are not, we might not know until it’s too late whether it was the same young man in each instance. We might miss the next Timothy McVeigh.
The quote is from an Op Ed in yesterday's Times by John Farmer, Jr., Dean of the Rutgers School of Law- Newark.  Sure.  Could be.  We might also, of course, simply be harassing a young man or three for no good reason.  Which is more likely?
Farmer was advocating the clunkily named Nationwide Suspicious Reporting Activity Initiative, an expansion of the famed See Something, Say Something which encourages people to call the cops (or homeland security) when they notice something that strikes them as suspicious.
So now it's acetate and peroxide and photography.  Scott Greenfield explained.
How ever will the government connect the dots unless somebody gives them all the dots to connect?  So what if a guy buys acetone because, well, he needs acetone.  Or maybe his wife wants to bleach her hair blond?  The wealth of perfectly lawful, not to mention normal, activity that could conceivably be a precursor to terrorism is incredibly huge, and we can't expect the government to do this job all by itself.  If only each of us was to have the government on speed dial...
Suspicious Activity Reporting begins at the troubling intersection where law enforcement meets intelligence. Its premise is that if potential attacks are to be prevented, and not merely responded to, law enforcement must focus on precursor conduct — surveillance or “casing” of bridges or train stations, for instance — that may not itself be criminal, but may signal a coming attack.
You can never be too rich, too thin, too cautious.
But it's all good. You see, Homeland Security knows that this program could violate people's rights, so it protects against that.
The Suspicious Activity Reporting program recognizes both the necessity for a focus on precursor conduct and the potential for abuse. It strikes a balance by establishing a uniform process for gathering and sharing information. It seeks to avoid racial profiling and other law enforcement excesses by requiring that the reports be based on the evidence of suspicious conduct, not on what the person looks like or where he comes from.
OK, so when you call in about the brown-skinned guy with the turban, you won't be allowed to make the report?  Sure.  But I'm just being cynical.  After all, Farmer assures us that "civil liberties groups" are on board though he then acknowledges that the ACLU says that it
increases the probability that innocent people will be stopped by police and have their personal information collected.
Of course it does.  If you're going to go after people who do altogether innocent things because those same things (we're back to drinking water and breathing) are done by people who have nefarious intent, you're necessarily going to stop and investigate the innocent.   That's built in.  And it's not anything new.  
Consider 2006.  That year police stopped and frisked 508,540 people on the streets of New York City.  Every one of those people stopped had personal information logged into police computers.  And from those stops?  They arrested 21, 268 or just over 4%.*  96% of the time they were harassing and collecting data on innocent people.  (Story here.)
Ah, but they arrested 21, 268 people.  See how many bad guys they took off the street.  See how much safer we are.
Sort of.  But even if you think it's OK for the other 487,272 to have been stopped and frisked and had their personal information taken to fatten the NYPD database of potential trouble-makers, even if you think the balance is fine because innocent people never mind being harassed by the cops and treated like criminals as long as you aren't that innocent person, even if you're comfortable with that . . . .
Even then it's a wholly flawed system.
Here's the thing.  Carefully targeted investigation yields substantial results.  Checking on everyone about whom someone has a hunch -- that's a distraction.
 I wrote the other day about how in Sunbury, Pa. the working assumption seems to be that about half the adult males are sexual predators intent on preying upon young children on their way home from school.  That's not just grossly wrong.  It's not just that it makes us unnecessarily afraid.  That sort of foolish belief actually makes us less safe.  Because while we're worried about almost certainly innocent strangers, the far greater danger is right at home in the living room, and down the street, and in the churches and temples and (yes) mosques.
We get distracted by the false reports.  They have us worried about the wrong things hiding from the safe in the midst of what's dangerous.
Consider tracking terrorists.
There aren't many. We're looking for that metaphorical needle in the haystack.
We can't examine every piece of hay.  (Straw? I'm a city boy, what do I know?)  We need a way to narrow the search.
But what we're doing through initiatives like this is making the haystack bigger.  Which makes it harder, not easier, to find the needle.
Windypundit Mark Draughn offers this set of options about how SAR will work.
Ending A: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Minutes later, advanced datamining algorithms scan both incidents and discover a link. The items are flagged for human processing. An analyst determines this is actionable intelligence and forwards it to the FBI counterterrorism coordinator. Within hours, a warrant is issued by a special federal court and the FBI's SWAT team is kicking down doors. A major terror attack is averted, thanks to alert citizens.
Ending B: The tips are logged and encoded into the SAR database. Fourteen weeks later, a police detective temporarily assigned to his city's Joint Terrorist Task Force's Investigations unit spends eight minutes interviewing each person who provided a tip, carefully filling out the proper Homeland Security interview forms. Four weeks after that, a clerk types his answers into another database, and seven weeks later another analyst clicks the "Reviewed" box on his computer. Two months later, then again at the end of the year, a line in an SAR summary report has a number that is larger by one. Nothing else is ever done about either of these tips, and there is no resulting terrorism incident.
Windy knows which ending he thinks is more likely.  And he's right.
And that's when the social costs in terms of civil liberties/freedom from government intrusion ought to make even the folks who don't really care much about anyone's freedom as long as there's some danger to be prevented, that when the costs even for those folks seem to get out of hand.
It's a lousy deal.
But not for Dean Farmer.
At bottom, whether the civil liberties risks posed by the reporting program are justified turns on whether the administration’s claims about the evolving threat are true. The attacks of the last year suggest that they are. As for the idea that it will bring police departments into new territory, surely police officers have always been on the lookout for precursor conduct — burglars casing a home or bank, for instance. The difference here is one of degree.
Look carefully at that degree.  It's the one that says, since you already don't have total freedom, you might as well give up what freedom you have left to be maybe, possibly, theoretically, safer.
But you know, it really is possible to end up both less safe and less free. 
Your tax dollars at work.
*To be scrupulously fair about it, a somewhat larger percentage of the time, police issued summonses to those they stopped.  That is, they charged them with offenses too petty to warrant actually hauling them in.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo. Its the waste of limited resources argument that SOMETIMES wakes up the Fox Newsers.