Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘terrorism’

With escorts like these…

It’s been reported that a passenger tried to force his way into the cockpit on a passenger flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Two US Air Force fighter jets then “escorted” the plane to its destination. It’s an interesting choice of words, because one ordinarily thinks of an escort as being on your side — your escort protects you, or raises your status. A fighter escort is usually protecting a group of bombers. In this case, though, the presumably unstated purpose of the escort was to shoot down the passenger plane if it seemed to become dangerous. Awkward.

Xtreme hedging

When a series of roadside bombs hit a bus carrying members of the Borussia Dortmund football club last week, it was easy to assume that this was somehow related to islamist causes, which have been responsible for — or, at least, eager to claim credit for — much of the most prominent random violence in Europe in recent years. But this attack turns out to be linked instead to the age-old prime mover in random violence against civilians: Finance.

The accused is believed to have acted for profit, attempting to kill or injure as many members of the Borussia Dortmund team as possible with the bomb. According to the investigators, he hoped to profit from a fall in the value of the team’s stock… The suspect had opened a [€40,000] consumer credit line and purchased 15000 put options.

Is this really illegal? I’m sure he just needs the right academic economist to explain to the investigators how important it is to increase liquidation in the market. It’s reminiscent of the scene in Catch 22 where Milo Minderbinder explains the logic of private enterprise:

One day Milo contracted with the American military authorities to bomb the German-held highway bridge at Orvieto and with the German military authorities to defend the highway bridge at Orvieto with antiaircraft fire against his own attack. His fee for attacking the bridge for America was the total cost of the operation plus six per cent and his fee from Germany for defending the bridge was the same cost-plus-six agreement augmented by a merit bonus of a thousand dollars for every American plane he shot down. The consummation of these deals represented an important victory for private enterprise, he pointed out, since the armies of both countries were socialized institutions. Once the contracts were signed, there seemed to be no point in using the resources of the syndicate to bomb and defend the bridge, inasmuch as both governments had ample men and material right there to do so and were perfectly happy to contribute them, and in the end Milo realized a fantastic profit from both halves of his project for doing nothing more than signing his name twice… It was an ideal arrangement for everyone but the dead man in Yossarian’s tent, who was killed over the target the day he arrived.

I’m skeptical of the claim that “This seems to be a crime without precedent in German history, and may represent a completely new phenomenon.”

Londoners pat themselves on the stiff upper lip

The story to date: A petty criminal from Kent committed a murder suicide in the centre of London, killing 4 and injuring 40. The attacker was Muslim, which seems to be enough for this to be classified as a terror attack*, and so the English praise themselves for their fortitude in continuing to carry on with their lives, rather than, I don’t know, hunkering down in air-raid shelters until the sirens announce all-clear. #WeAreNotAfraid, they tweet. Amazing that a city of nearly 9 million people is uncowed by the threat of a scary Muslim (acting on his own, apparently) now deceased, who killed as many pedestrians as non-terroristic London drivers killed with their cars in the whole second half of February. It’s a terrible thing that people were killed and injured, but people in cities all over the world live their lives surrounded by the suffering of others, without hiding in their cellars. The specialness of Londoners in this regard is as delusional as the British deal-making acumen.

Besides which, it’s not even true. While the PM was announcing in Parliament

An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message – we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,

the London police were trying to pressure pro-EU protestors to cancel their planned march on Saturday, because the unafraid Metropolitan Police with its approximately 30,000 officers couldn’t be expected to simultaneously manage both a criminal investigation AND 20,000 peaceful demonstrators.

Because nothing says WE ARE NOT AFRAID like using a minor terror attack as an excuse to prevent the exercise of core democratic rights.

* Whereas a genuinely politically inspired random murder in New York, intended to “send a message”, is not called “terrorism” and doesn’t inspire any praise for New Yorkers continuing for to live, because the perpetrator was not Muslim.

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

The sins of the fathers

I was just reading Kevin Drum’s article on the fallout from the hapless US military raid in Yemen last week. He lists the costs:

Our adventure in Yemen last week failed to kill its target; caused the death of numerous Yemeni civilians; resulted in one dead American sailor; and ended with the loss of a $70 million helicopter.

This is not unusual of the commentary, and I find it weird that it fails to mention that a US civilian was among those killed: the eight-year-old daughter of American renegade Anwar Al-Awlaki, given that the sanctity of American life is the bedrock of American antiterror policies. I suspect this reflects the atavistic sense that the child of an evildoer is tainted, and somehow deserves to be punished for his crimes. Of course, the new president famously vowed to “take out their families”.

Burning the Trumpstag

Pretty high up on the list of things I’ve been worried about for the next four years (ordered by importance, not alphabetically) is a Reichstag scenario. Trump gets himself elected by promising a solution to the world in chaos that doesn’t actually exist, and then once in power creates exactly that chaos as a means of justifying and extending his power. This is what the Nazis did with the Reichstag fire one month after they came into power. (Despite the claims of conspiracy theorists, the consensus of historians is that the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe acted alone. The Nazis simply stoked the outrage and took advantage of it after the fact.)

A major symbolically significant terror attack would be just the ticket. And what could be more symbolically powerful than a direct attack on the prestige of the new thin-skinned president? Several people have been pointing out, what I hadn’t thought about before, but now terrifies me: All over the world there are defenceless towers that have the Trump name in big letters, often in countries with active terror movements and significant popular hostility to Trump and/or the US, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and India. (I don’t particularly mean to include Chicago among these, though Trump Tower residents there have been worrying about this problem for the past year.) These are now de facto US embassies from the point of view of aggrieved  There’s no way to protect them all. Most of these are only renting the Trump name, so the owners could perhaps protect themselves by renaming the buildings.

Blurring the lines

Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms: (more…)

National Union of Students causes division… by criticising government anti-Muslim policies

From The Guardian:

In a pointed letter to the NUS president Megan Dunn, higher education minister Jo Johnson has said he is disturbed by a motion passed at the NUS conference to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the government’s main piece of counter-terrorism legislation.

Although he concedes the NUS is doing some good work, he also asserts contradictory statements made by NUS officials, including those that described the government’s approach as a “racialised, Islamophobic witch-hunt”. Earlier in the year, another officer claimed that strategies such as Prevent “ultimately exist to police Muslim expression”.

He said such views cause division, and points to motions passed by student unions in a series of institutions opposing Prevent, including King’s College London, Durham and Soas, University of London.

We can’t have people espousing “views” that “cause division”. Because uniformity of views is one of those British values that immigrants need to learn about.

You may think it’s all fun and games, passing motions at your conference in opposition to certain government policies. But you have to be aware that these “motions” lead to other people making “contradictory statements”, then you’re on a slippery slope to other student unions also opposing the government policies, and before you can stop it you’ve destroyed the House of Lords:

The Home Office is concerned peers could reject the regulations, which are due to come into force next week, on the grounds they inhibit free speech and thought on campuses.

Stupid kids! Not thinking about the consequences of their actions. Presumably that’s why David Cameron said

Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds.

The man with the Kalashnikov

Having been on a Thalys to Paris yesterday I took particular interest in the aborted attack the previous day. We hadn’t heard anything about it, but a conductor told us a bullshit story about how the news media got the story all wrong: the attacker was actually being followed by police, the capture was planned, and he didn’t have firearms.

But here’s what I’m wondering. According to the NY Times,

Less than an hour away from Paris, a French passenger got up from his seat to use the toilets at the back of the carriage. Suddenly, in front of him rose a slightly built man. Across the man’s chest, in a sling, was an automatic rifle of the kind favored by jihadists the world over: an AK-47.

The passenger threw himself on the man. The gun went off, once, twice, several times. Glass shattered. A bullet hit a passenger.

The man with the gun kept going down the carriage, holding his AK-47 and a Luger pistol. In a pocket was a sharp blade capable of inflicting grievous harm. He had at least nine cartridges of ammunition, enough for serious carnage.

So, they’re heroes. But if this had happened in the US, would they be the ones in prison? After all, up until the point where they attacked him, he was just another open-carry enthusiast celebrating his constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Once he was attacked, of course, by rowdy foreigners, it is perfectly understandable that he started firing. And even if he did fire a single shot first (the news reports disagree on this point), well, how could they have known that it wasn’t self defence. They should have waited until he’d shot at least two people before infringing on his civil rights.

Maybe that’s why they don’t have trains in Texas… (Actually, that’s not entirely true.)

The last unbreakable code?

I noticed a brief article in The Guardian with the captivating headline “Can Google be taught poetry?”.

By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to “teach the database the metaphors” that humans associate with pictures, “and see what happens,” explains Corey Pressman from Neologic Labs, who are behind the project, along with Webvisions and Arizona State University….

The hope is that, with a big enough dataset, “we’ll be delighted to see we can teach the robots metaphors, that computers can be more like us, rather than the other way around,” says Pressman. “I’d like them to meet us more halfway.”

That sounds utopian, magnificent, turning away from the harsh and narrow-minded informaticism to grand humane concerns. And yet, it reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker “Why Jihadists Write Poetry”:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

Whatever the motives of Neologic Labs — and I’m guessing they have a pitch to investors that doesn’t rely upon the self-actualisation of smartphones, nor on the profits to be turned from improving the quality of poetry — can we doubt that sooner or later this technology is going to be applied to improving the quality of government surveillance, escaping the literal to follow human prey down into the warrens of metaphor and allusion. It will start with terrorists, but that’s not where it will stop.

Imagine, just to begin with, China equipping its internet with a cybernetic real-time censor that can’t be fooled by symbolic language or references to obscure rock lyrics, which the software will be more familiar with than any fan. Protest movements will be extinguished before people are even aware that they were ever part of a movement.

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