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: Continue reading “Blurring the lines”

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.

A bomb in mathematics

I’ve just been reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. It’s more than a century old, and I was surprised to find it such an acute analysis of the psychology of terrorism. It follows the planning and aftermath of a ridiculous and botched scheme to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. The ringleader Mr Verloc, the “secret agent” of the title, who spends his time infiltrating anarchist organisations, is put up to it by his employer, the embassy of an unnamed Central Asian nation. The crime seems almost entirely unmotivated. The new First Secretary of the embassy is irked by Verloc’s indolence and apparent uselessness, and seeks to prod him into making some exertions for his salary. The inane goal of the attack is to show up the ineptitude of the English police, and so stimulate an autocratic turn in its inconveniently soft and democratic government. Plus ça change… The target must be such as to seem senseless (hence not a tiresomely conventional target, like a crown prince or a government building), important (hence not the National Gallery — “There would be some screaming, of course, but from whom? Artists — art critics and such like — people of no account. No one minds what they say.”) and sufficiently menacing. He announces

The demonstration must be against learning—science.  But not every science will do.  The attack must have all the shocking senselessness of gratuitous blasphemy.  Since bombs are your means of expression, it would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics.  But that is impossible…  What do you think of having a go at astronomy?

I was also amused by the comment of the bomb engineer:

The system’s worked perfectly.  And yet you would think that a common fool in a hurry would be much more likely to forget to make the contact altogether.  I was worrying myself about that sort of failure mostly.  But there are more kinds of fools than one can guard against.  You can’t expect a detonator to be absolutely fool-proof.

Always the Jews…

I can’t help wondering: Can it be a coincidence that when an Islamist extremist decides to shift from attacking Jewish institutions to planning mass slaughter at churches — a plot which seems to have been foiled only because the shooter accidentally shot himself first, and called an ambulance — he chooses as his target a town called Villejuif?

An impressive display of openness and freedom

… in a secret trial. What’s that about?

The Guardian reports on the conclusion of the terrorism trial of Erol Incedal, who was convicted last year of possessing a bomb-making manual, but now acquitted at a second trial on the more serious charge of plotting a terrorist attack.

On each occasion, the evidence was carefully presented in one of three sessions. Parts of the case were in open court, with the press and the public free to come and go; other parts were held behind locked doors, before a jury whose members were warned that they could go to jail if they ever divulged what they had heard; and parts were held in intermediate sessions, in the presence of the jury and a small group of journalists who are prohibited – at least for the time being – from reporting what they learned.

This is definitely not an ideal situation — nobody claims that it is — but I am hugely impressed by the fact that so much care was put into finding a solution to difficult problems of secrecy and criminal justice, making an effort to provide information to the public wherever possible. Including a jury. Not to mention the fact that the state was willing to accept an acquittal, something that is unthinkable these days for a terrorism trial in the US. The trial judge “had originally acceded to a demand from the prosecution that the entire trial be heard in secret, and that Incedal, and the man arrested with him, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, be identified only as AB and CD.” This was overturned by an appeals court, after criticism by MPs and civil-rights groups.

It’s ironic, but news like this revives my belief that the spirit of liberty survives in the UK. It’s not that I necessarily think that the courts made the right decisions, but the fact that they are treating civil rights as important counterweights to the demands of the security services, worthy of substantial effort and special procedures.

Are you “cultural”?

A while back I remarked on a tic shared by politicians and political journalists, of designating certain people and their voting choices as “demographic”. Now the RCMP have disrupted a planned mass shooting at a Halifax mall.

wouldn’t characterize it as a terrorist event. I would classify it as a group of individuals that had some beliefs and were willing to carry out violent acts against citizens,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commanding Officer Brian Brennan said.

Now, you may be wondering, how do “violent acts against citizens” carried out by “individuals that had some beliefs” — I’m guessing he means to imply that the acts were supposed to be promoting those beliefs somehow — differ from what you or I would call “terrorism”?

He would not specify what those beliefs were, saying simply that “they were not culturally based.”

Got that? “Terrorists” carry out their violent acts in furtherance of beliefs that are “culturally based”. Wanton violence to promote non-culturally-based beliefs are lamentable, but not terrorism.

I wonder if he has any particular cultures in mind?

On not getting the joke

Last week, in Paris, along with sundry other victims, 8 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo were killed for pushing the envelope of free speech and political humour. The French authorities have been expressing their own rollicking sense of political irony by jailing dozens of people for the offense of commenting favourably on that crime against freedom of epression. (There is a spanking new law prohibiting apologie publique d’actes de terrorisme (publicly defending acts of terrorism).)
For example, a man was sentenced to 10 months in prison for saying (to officials who were arresting him for riding a tram without a ticket) “Les frères Kouachi, c’est que le début, j’aurais dû être avec eux pour tuer plus de monde.” (“The Kouachi brothers, that’s just the beginning. I should have been with them to kill even more people.”)
Sounds like the sort of thing Charlie Hebdo would attack mercilessly.