The New American Security State

First, let us consider the call for more CCTV (Closed Circuit TV) security cameras. Everyone seems mighty impressed with all the CCTV images coming out of London, showing us the faces of people who have already done the public harm. While it is true CCTV surveillance has helped with post crime investigations where the victims are, unfortunately, already dead, maimed, or otherwise harmed, they do nothing at all to deter crime or dissuade attackers. Only the conspicuous presence of uniformed police has been shown to deter crime.

Which brings us to the Chicken Little approach of randomly searching the bags of New York and Washington subway passengers because they might happen to have bombs. Let us forget for the moment that a would-be suicide bomber, perhaps confronted by the possibility of police inspection in a crowded choke point of queuing commuters, rather than offer his bomb up for polite inspection, instead might find such a location ideal for detonation. In fact there is nothing police used in this way can do to deter a determined attacker, although there is plenty they can accomplish in embarrassing hapless commuters.

Nor does that even begin to consider the folly of the London police’s “shoot to protect” policy so recently and horribly exercised recently against an innocent Brazilian man. The problem with that, or any method statistically used to select and target the very tiny minority of passengers who would happen to be bombers is that the better one becomes at successfully identifying such individuals, the far greater the chance of mis-identified suspects or “false positives” that will also occur as a result. Of course, we could just take Armaury approach, just shoot everyone in the subway and “let god sort them out.” Indeed a “shoot to protect” policy essentially amounts to this.

Consider “domestic intelligence,” a newspeak euphemism for the dirty work that J. Edgar Hoover used to do. The problem with domestic intelligence in finding the rare would-be bomber in a vast population is not all that different from swinging a boxcar to hammer a nail. To successfully identify and arrest the last would-be bomber involves also falsely identifying, arresting, or otherwise investigating an ever larger number of false positives, to the point where a significant percentage of the total population must be considered suspects to be investigated. Are we truly ready to spy on and investigate in detail 20 million innocent Americans just to find the last 9 out of 10 would-be bombers and accept mass police files on every single citizen in this country?

What “domestic intelligence” is good for, in fact the only thing it is really useful for, is protecting those in power from those they govern. While finding the proverbial bomber needle in the haystack may require burning the haystack down in whole, domestic intelligence is very good for identifying and controlling dissenting groups and trends in the population as a whole. It’s also an excellent tool for a fascist state.

Nor does the perpetual PATRIOT Act do anything necessary to increase real security for anyone. In fact the lawful and pre-PATRIOT act tools already present were quite sufficient to assure speedy and proper procedures for investigating and preventing bombings. The PATRIOT Act does nothing to improve this, other than removing the safeguards of oversight and very basic due process, which, given the problem of false positives, is a very legitimate concern in America‘s newest witch hunt.

This brings us to the question of what methods are actually effective to protect against bombers. The first and most effective tool begins by understanding their strategy. One goal of the bomber is to drive a wedge between the population as a whole and the authority that governs them. The second is to provoke a response, even one that is deadly to their own supporters, so long as it is on a massive scale. So far, the American government has done an excellent job doing its part fulfilling the terrorists’ objectives.

The only means I see to defeating bombers and terrorists is by separating them from the population that supports their activities. This is not done by profiling the innocent or retaliating indiscriminately until the general population as a whole see us as their greater enemy, as the extremists that kill indiscriminately.  It also isn’t done by invading a nation and subduing it with harsh measures.

The only way extremism can truly be defeated is by the principled execution of justice, both criminal and social, due process, and confidence building measures where the population can support those that govern them.  Once the population has real reasons to trust and support those that govern them, the extremists will lose support and the freedom to operate in the communities in which they live. Only then will they be defeated.

There is a very real “clash of civilizations,” but it is not between Islam and the West. This is a clash between violent extremists who find it necessary to resort to the most terrible means possible on one side, and the forces of justice, tolerance, peace, and social progress on the other. So far, only these violent extremists, both in the Middle East and in the American government, have been seen on the field of battle.

David Sugar is a founder and former Chief Technology Officer of Open Source Telecom Corporation (  He is also the primary author for a number of packages that are part of the GNU project.