The premise driving the people writing encryption software is not exactly that we’re giving people new rights or taking some away: it’s the hope that we can enforce existing rights using algorithms that guarantee your ability to free speech, to a reasonable expectation of privacy in your daily life. When you make a credit card payment or log into Facebook, you’re using the same fundamental encryption that, in another continent, an activist could be using to organize a protest against a failed regime.
In a way, we’re implementing a fundamental technological advancement not dissimilar from the invention of cars or airplanes. Ford and Toyota build automobiles so that the entire world can have access to faster transportation and a better quality of life. If a terrorist is suspected of using a Toyota as a car bomb, it’s not reasonable to expect Toyota to start screening who it sells cars to, or to stop selling cars altogether.
To know, within an hour or two of an event, that someone is safe: It’s so valuable, so emotionally practical, as to be almost priceless. It is anti-terror, in a way: It says, be not afraid. And in the three places where it was first deployed—Afghanistan, Chile, and Nepal, all three after major earthquakes—its activation made a lot of sense, because earthquakes are events which by their nature can affect millions over huge swaths of territory.
But earthquakes and cyclones are not themselves public-facing events. Terrorist attacks are. As Brian Jenkins, a terrorism scholar at the RAND Corporation, writes, “terrorism is aimed at the people watching.” Terrorism is a public-relations campaign with guns and bombs. It weaponizes culture, and it exploits journalistic concern for heinous violence to grab media attention and get pathology taken instead as politics.
Takeshi Miyakawa’s street art is (understandably) pushing a sensitive terrorism button.
But this story isn’t about the public getting menaced, it’s more about posturing by the criminal justice system.
According to the person who made the complaint on Friday, the issue wasn’t that Miyakawa’s art appeared to be a bomb, but how they were going to get it off the tree. “I called 311 asking how to get that thing off my tree, if it was my responsibility or the city’s…the 311 woman put me through to 911 then the cops came. I left for work,” they wrote via email.
Miyakawa is charged with “two counts of placing a false bomb or a hazardous substance, reckless endangerment, placing a false bomb or a false substance in the 2nd degree, and criminal nuisance in the 2nd degree,” and is being held at a mental health facility for 30 days.
Lakhdar Boumediene was held without charge at Guantánamo Bay for seven years.
I do not like to think of Guantánamo. The memories are filled with pain. But I share my story because 171 men remain there. Among them is Belkacem Bensayah, who was seized in Bosnia and sent to Guantánamo with me.
About 90 prisoners have been cleared for transfer out of Guantánamo. Some of them are from countries like Syria or China — where they would face torture if sent home — or Yemen, which the United States considers unstable. And so they sit as captives, with no end in sight — not because they are dangerous, not because they attacked America, but because the stigma of Guantánamo means they have no place to go, and America will not give a home to even one of them.
Al Franken has been a vocal critic of the bill, calling it inconsistent with American liberties and freedoms:
As we reflect on what this bill will do, I think it is important to pause and remember some of the mistakes this country has made when we have been fearful of enemy attack.
Most notably, we made a grave, indefensible mistake during World War II, when President Roosevelt ordered the incarceration of more than 110,000 people of Japanese origin, as well as approximately 11,000 German-Americans and 3,000 Italian-Americans.
Franken delivered a similar speech to the Senate, prior to the bill’s passing.
Debate about the controversial sections of the NDAA has focused on whether or not American citizens would be subject to indefinite detention. The bill is vague and self-contradictory, left open to the interpretation of President Obama and all future sitting presidents.
It’s not hard to see the inherent problem of indefinitely detaining citizens protected by the Bill of Rights. Being held without charge defies due process and habeas corpus. But those legal traditions are not American in origin, from a moral standpoint I don’t see why non-citizens ought to be treated any differently.
Holding 171 men at Guantánamo Bay without charge is just as inconsistent with those same American liberties and freedoms Al Franken speaks of. I was frustrated with how little the NDAA was discussed in the weeks before it became law. But perhaps it’s for the best. That debate should be framed more broadly; it’s about human rights, not just the rights of Americans.
This morning, after turning off the interminable NPR coverage of the Republican primaries, I saw that The Morning News recently linked to this ABC News story about the case of Tariq Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani killed in a US drone attack.
In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington’s claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.
I was struck by the wide range of civilian deaths in various reports compared to the CIA’s claim of zero civilian deaths. From Wikipedia:
Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that experts disputed and have called absurd. Based on extensive research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 – 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths.
Zero civilians is a pretty bold claim that I can only come up with two explanations of. Either each attack is backed up by thoroughly documented research or the CIA simply designates anyone they kill as a de facto terrorist. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but without any public accountability we’ll probably never see evidence that it’s the former case.
If accurate, this description of drone tactics contradicts the “heavy research” explanation, and is eerily reminiscent of the follow-up bombing tactic used by Iraqi insurgents:
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, [the attorney for Tariq’s family] did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.
It’s maybe no surprise then that two thirds of Pakistani journalists regard US drones attacks as acts of terrorism.
At least for now these attacks have been suspended.
Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident.
Update: this NY Times article offers a more nuanced discussion of the “zero civilian deaths” claim. It sounds like John Brennan simply overstated drone effectiveness and offered a more evasive explanation that “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths.”
Update #2: I’m coming back to this post after several months, and thinking I might have underplayed this a little. Just to spell it out more clearly: an anti-drone activist, who was trying to draw attention to Pakistani civilian deaths, was himself killed by a drone. This would be kind of funny and ironic, if it wasn’t so not funny.
Strangely, the coverage of this incident on Democracy Now has his name as Tariq Aziz.
A while ago I made a big deal out of the Guantanamo detainees accused of owning Casio F91w wristwatches. In my letter to then-candidate Barack Obama I wrote that “Some have done far worse than wear a cheap digital watch. Some have done little else. In all cases the watches that they were wearing appear to have had nothing to do with anything. The tenuous link between this watch and terrorism is being used as an excuse to detain the innocent alongside the guilty; an excuse for the inexcusable.”
Of the 28 prisoners accused of owning Casio F91w wristwatches, 21 have been released, mostly under the Bush Administration. Prisoner #33, Mohammed Ahmad Said Al Edah, won his habeas petition but it doesn’t say whether he’s actually either been cleared to be released or actually been released. No info on the remaining six.