We Asked for This

The NSA snooping story is fishy. Here’s Ed Bott at ZDNet:

. . . a funny thing happened the next morning. If you followed the link to [The Washington Post‘s] story, you found a completely different story, nearly twice as long, with a slightly different headline. The new story wasn’t  just expanded; it had been stripped of key details, with no acknowledgment of the changes. That updated version, time-stamped at 8:51 AM on June 7, backed off from key details in the original story.

Crucially, the Post removed the “knowingly participated” language and also scrubbed a reference to the program as being “highly classified.” In addition, a detail in the opening graf that claimed the NSA could “track a person’s movements and contacts over time” was changed to read simply “track foreign targets.”

David Simon, meanwhile, gauges the reaction:

You would think that the government was listening in to the secrets of 200 million Americans from the reaction and the hyperbole being tossed about. And you would think that rather than a legal court order which is an inevitable consequence of legislation that we drafted and passed, something illegal had been discovered to the government’s shame.

Nope. Nothing of the kind.

And how is that then? It appears that an already-existing, already-controversial program has been given a Hollywood style treatment. Bott again:

The real story appears to be much less controversial than the original alarming accusations. All of the companies involved have established legal procedures to respond to warrants from a law enforcement agency or a court. None of them appear to be participating with widespread surveillance.

So what went wrong with the Post?

The biggest problem was that the Post took a leaked PowerPoint presentation from a single anonymous source and leaped to conclusions without supporting evidence.

And now back to Simon, who tries to put things into sane perspective, reminding us that the collection of call records and the scraping of emails is not the same as surveillance and recording, if for no other reason than that there’s not enough human and computer power to take on such a massive task.

There is a lot of authoritarian overreach in American society, both from the drug war and the war on terror.

But those planes really did hit those buildings. And that bomb did indeed blow up at the finish line of the Boston marathon. And we really are in a continuing, low-intensity, high-risk conflict with a diffuse, committed and ideologically-motivated enemy. And for a moment, just imagine how much bloviating would be wafting across our political spectrum if, in the wake of an incident of domestic terrorism, an American president and his administration had failed to take full advantage of the existing telephonic data to do what is possible to find those needles in the haystacks. After all, we as a people, through our elected representatives, drafted and passed FISA and the Patriot Act and what has been done here, with Verizon and assuredly with other carriers, is possible under that legislation.  . . We asked for this. We did so because we measured the reach and possible overreach of law enforcement against the risks of terrorism and made a conscious choice.

Simon does acknowledge in a later post that there is a substantive difference between the Verizon phone records being given to the government, and the kind of monitoring that PRISM does to Internet activity, which requires more oversight than it currently has. But this is still not really news.  

I’m trying to keep my own apathy about this in check, as I imagine what my reaction would be if there were a Republican administration running the executive. I assume I’d be presuming guilt and nefarious intent. I hope the fact that I am far less freaked out by the current administration running such an operation (which, again, turns out to be nothing new anyway) will inform and mitigate any future knee-jerks.

We simply can’t each have ubiquitous presence and expression on the Internet and also expect airtight privacy for all of our activity. We just can’t. As Simon says:

We want cake, we want to eat it, and we want to stay skinny and never puke up a thing. Of course we do.

Of course we do. So let’s pick which one is more important to us, or more accurately, let’s adjust the dials to the mix of privacy and security that better suits us — based on what this thing actually is, not simply as it’s portrayed. We asked for this, and maybe we don’t like what we got. So let’s ask for something else. 

In Which I Read the Sam Harris-Bruce Schneier Debate So You Don’t Have To

Long story short: Sam Harris said that we should specifically profile Muslims at airports, not grandmas in wheelchairs and 4-year-old girls, because if someone’s going to try to crash a plane in 2012, it’s almost certainly going to be a radicalized Muslim. 

Liberals went insane, calling Harris a racist and other terrible things, atheists disowned him, and I think somewhere Gandhi cried. Harris said, okay, then let me debate it with a security expert. He nabbed security bigwig Bruce Schneier, and they had at it on Harris’s blog.

I begin this as a huge fan of Sam Harris. He has helped me find so much clarity on a enormous range of issues, that he’s something of an intellectual role model for me. Even if I disagree with him, the path he takes to his positions I find extremely admirable. 

On this question in particular, I had a lot of cognitive dissonance. My cold, atheist brain said, “Oh right, that makes total sense.” My bleeding, liberal heart went, “But profiling is evil, it casts everyone in the same criminal net!” So I felt quite torn, but unlike many in the atheosphere, I was not willing to toss Harris out with the bathwater, as it were, even if he was wrong. I at no point believed that he came from a place of bigotry or racism or what have you. Others of my atheological ilk did not give him that benefit of the doubt, which I think was a mistake.

Anyway, Harris and Schneier debated at length, and it was a fascinating discussion — often prickly, but always substantive. I chose two pull-quotes that I felt encapsulated the two arguments.

From Harris:

Ordinary bank robbers and murderers are not united by an ideology that they are aggressively seeking to spread—and are spreading, in a hundred countries. They don’t have large networks of support and a larger population of people who sympathize with their basic motives, if not their methods. We do not have charitable foundations and academic departments devoted to promulgating a sympathetic understanding of bank robbery and murder.

In other words, these aren’t lone crazies who could be anybody. There is a specific population that is at the center of this crisis. And there are some people who are so obviously not of this population, that to waste time and energy and money scooping them up is absurd and probably counterproductive.

Here’s Schneier:

It doesn’t matter how effective al Qaeda leaders are at recruiting Muslims who don’t fit the profile. It doesn’t matter what the intelligence says, or who’s right and who’s wrong. By employing a simpler security system, the whole potential avenue of attack—not meeting the profile—disappears.

The wide net is necessary on a utilitarian level, not necessarily on an ideological level in service of the cause of liberal, pluralistic tolerance. Schneier also seems squeamish about profiling in that vein, but his case is technical: The simpler the system, the more bad guys we’ll catch. Sorry, grandma.

And I find that, if nothing else, very compelling. A lot of folks were trumpeting the idea that Harris had been “pwned” by Schneier, and I think that’s stupid. What Schneier did was point out that even if Harris is correct in his rationale, it didn’t make sense when applied practically to the task of weeding out malefactors. 

And this is what I loved about the exchange. It wasn’t a zero-sum, one-guy-is-right-and-the-other-guy-is-an-asshole game. Harris is right: The people trying to bring down planes are radicalized Muslims. It sucks that this is true, and it may not always be true, but it is true now, and all the more pernicious because of the instructions issued to these radicals from their holy book. And Schneier is (I presume) right: A too-nuanced system of profiling turns out to be far more burdensome, expensive, and time-consuming — and therefore less effective — than the simpler system he espouses. 

Hemant gets why this was such a good project:

There’s something to be said for a debate that’s not done in front of a crowd, where emotions and sentiment can get the best of the audience and the debaters end up playing to the audience instead of to each other. Here, both sides are laid out — very fairly, I believe, to Harris’ credit — and we can decide for ourselves which side makes a better case.

Exactly. I challenge my atheist and liberal friends who are hopping mad about Harris to adopt this attitude and tone, resist the knee-jerk reflex to oust him from our intellectual lives, and evaluate the claims calmly and rationally. Like he and Schneier just did. They didn’t wind up agreeing, but they also did right by the issue at hand.

Listening to 9/11: My Experience of the Attacks from Brooklyn

In September of 2001, I had just decided not to go back to school. I had been agonizing over whether to return to the Actors Studio Drama School (then at the New School University) for my second year of training toward a master’s degree in acting. I had just moved from Edgewater, NJ to Brighton Beach in Brooklyn (about 45 minutes by subway from Midtown), and for a couple of weeks since this fateful decision, I had been hitting the pavement, searching for jobs — both relevant to my career and not — and learning what it meant to be a working (read: starving) actor in New York City, really for the first time. Looking back on it, I am sometimes surprised at the initiative I showed and the effort I put forth. I don’t know that I’ve matched it since.

I had interviews and auditions every day, sometimes several in one day. I would traverse the island of Manhattan, dressed for interviews, clutching a binder and notebook with my resumes (both theatrical and “professional”), making use of my new device, this cellular phone thing that all the kids were talking about, setting up new appointments. I was determined not to be a disappointment after having made this huge decision not to continue at the Actors Studio.

In the middle of the next month, on a Tuesday, I for once had nothing yet lined up. I had fully intended to make my way back into the city to resume my hunt for employment, but as of Monday night, I didn’t have any appointments. And as They Might Be Giants have said, “If I didn’t have disappointments, I wouldn’t have any appointments.” I could afford to sleep in on Tuesday, September 11.

I was 23 years old. In some ways, I was older than my years, but in so many more I was so much younger.

The next morning, no one woke me up. I’d straggled out of bed at about 9 AM and crept into the living room to find one of my four roommates (all female then) looking somewhat agog with the radio playing.

“An airplane just flew into the World Trade Center!”

What an awful accident. How could something like that have happened? It must have been some kind of terrible mechanical problem for something so destructive and tragic. The collision had disrupted the broadcasts coming through the towers, and we had no cable, so we could get no television coverage of the event. Phone lines were tied up, including our dial-up connection to the Internet. All of our information was coming over the radio. We were closer than almost anyone to the event, but we could see none of it. So we listened.

Then another plane hit, and it obviously wasn’t an accident anymore. Then one tower came down. Then the other. We never saw any of it. We could only listen as the terrible news was spoken over the radio. Like Pearl Harbor or the Hindenburg disaster. The madness, the death, the devastation had to be conjured in our imaginations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I would eventually see the images and footage, it was worse than I had imagined. Reality had outdone me.

I remember sitting on our couch, listening to the news as it unfolded, my brain went to the more abstract, and I found myself trying to think of what could possibly be a more important human event after this. A handful of Bronze Age religious zealots had forcibly knocked down the Twin Towers, and killed hundreds others almost slamming a plane into either the White House or U.S. Capitol; the fortress of mainland America had not only been invaded, but brought to its knees. What could ever occur to overshadow this event? Aliens was the only thing I could come up with. It would have to be humanity’s first encounter with aliens from another planet. That’d be it.

Later that day, another of my roommates and her boyfriend had made their way back to our apartment. It had taken her hours, as the entirety of the city was in the throes of panic and gridlock. All of us mired in a kind of morose shock, the boyfriend and I decided to make our way to the local hospital and give some blood. It would almost certainly be needed. This was a bigger deal than most for me, as even when I am simply having blood drawn in a doctor’s office, I always have a severe reaction in which I seize up, go into a kind of unstoppable panic, and then usually lose consciousness. I know, I’m a mess. But anyway, it seemed like something I could deal with given the circumstances. But much to our surprise, the hospital was full. Not with victims, but with people with the same idea, to give their blood. We waited for quite some time, and were eventually sent away. They had more donors than they could handle.

I never turned the radio off. That night, when everyone else was in bed, I was still sitting and listening to the news station, taking in every drop of information, every press statement, every ounce of the tragedy. Eventually, the news subsided, and stations changed from talk to emotion. One station out of nowhere played a gorgeously sung rendition of “America the Beautiful,” and of course it brought tears.

I was not in Manhattan at the time of the attack, so I was in no immediate danger, and I didn’t know anyone who was killed for injured, not that any of this was clear at the time. My mother, who lives in South Jersey, was in Ohio on business at the time. When the news came down, and she was unable to reach me, she simply rented a car and drove back toward New Jersey. Over the course of the next couple of days, as lines of communication were restored, a flurry of “are you alright” messages would be sent to and fro — after all, how could anyone be sure?

Days later, President Bush would address Congress. We would eventually get broadcast television reception on at least one network, and we gathered to listen to our new untested president. I don’t recall being impressed, but feeling like we had to trust him as something of a father figure for the time being, whether he was up to it or not. He wasn’t, of course, but he was all we had at the time. And it was something of a pity, looking back on it, that at such a momentous and heart-rending period, we did not have a leader who seemed to match the times.

I knew life had to proceed. I still had not seen any pictures, witnessed no footage. I didn’t know whether one could go into the city at all, or if so, where one could go. I had interviews still lined up for jobs, and even a major audition coming up for what would become my home for five years, Shenandoah Shakespeare. On Wednesday morning, September 12, I was scheduled to interview for an office job in Midtown, so I called the company’s number to see if the interview was still on, or whether it might be best to postpone.

“Thank you for calling,” the prerecorded message said. “Our offices are located at One World Trade Center…”

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Shows What I Know

I was on tour with the American Shakespeare Center in 2004, and we were performing in a suburb of Chicago. During our stay in the area, we were hosted at a party by someone associated with the college at which we were performing. In their foyer was a local alternative weekly that trumpeted on its cover the would-be political star that was then-State Senator Barack Obama. I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect it was when he was merely a contender for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. In the picture, he was smiling his trademark toothy ear-to-ear grin, being chummy with some other local pol. The headline, which I also forget, implied there was some momentum behind this up-and-comer who sought to become the next Senator from Illinois.

I had no idea, really, who Obama was, though I think I had heard his name once or twice before. At that moment, however, I remember very clearly thinking, There’s no way this guy goes anywhere beyond local politics. Why? Because his last name was one letter away from “Osama.” Dealbreaker. Maybe in another decade, Barack.

Now that guy, Obama, is president and is responsible for killing that other guy, Osama. Shows what I know.