Saturday, December 26, 2009

An old post... On Fort Hood and the death of logic

I preface arguments a lot, and this case will be no different as I desperately try to not step on any toes. The Fort Hood incident last week was an absolute tragedy. If the generally reported facts turn out to be true, and this lone gunman murdered 13 innocent people, I trust that the justice system will find him at fault and punish accordingly. With all of these general facts, I have no qualms. But, and there is an enormous 'but', the simplistic reporting of this and other recent cases makes my rationality cringe. It appears that Maj. Hasan was under watch by authorities, at least at some point in time. This has been taken by some to be a good thing: authorities were able to intercept potentially dangerous motives and contacts with terrorist links. However, the fact of the matter is that investigators dropped the ball and concluded that Maj. Hasan was not a threat. Why they did so is certainly cause for investigation and I join the growing calls to find out the details. If it comes out that some conclusion about political correctness is the reason for dropping his case, then I will be up in arms with the rest of the county.

My suspicions, however, are that investigators are watching or have been tipped off to hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel alike under similar suspicions. Applying a post-hoc analysis that concludes that Maj. Hasan should have been arrested for his previous, perfectly legal might i add, actions simplifies the picture to an absurd degree. You're absolutely right if you think this incident could have been prevented if he had been arrested months ago for his dubious ties to radical clerics. But you're absolutely foolish and deluded if you think that applying this criteria wouldn't result in grievous constitutional and human rights violations to the thousands of innocent people who, unlike Maj. Hasan, have no intention to, and never will commit a heinous crime such as this but ended up on the same watch lists for various reasons.

I hope that most of the country is in agreement that suspicion of future acts isn't enough to arrest someone. Perhaps his previous actions weren't enough to get him arrested, then what reasonable step do authorities take in such a case? My ignorance in such matters will surely show here, but continued surveillance seems to be an obvious choice touted by the media, but would continued surveillance short of patting him down for weapons when he left the house every day have stopped this crime? To the best of our knowledge he didn't tell anyone what he was going to do before he actually did it, so just what would further surveillance have done in this case? As the public deems more and more people to be to innocent to arrest but to dangerous to not keep an eye on, we have to acknowledge the obvious limitations of funding, manpower and technology required to do so. Clearly, some people have to be absolved from suspicion so that more resources can be dedicated to those individuals who represent more probable threats. Plainly stated: we can't watch everyone all of the time even if we wanted to. Nor can we monitor minute by minute the actions of everyone who talks with radical clerics. It's just not possible unless politicians give a deluge of funding to security agencies and authority to do so under public approval.

Not a single news article that I have read on this topic has discussed the number of individuals currently under these types of FBI/NSA investigations. Ideally we can separate the good from the bad, but do we honestly think that we'll always find the bad guys and never wrongfully punish an innocent individual? Of course not, and that doesn't mean that we shouldn't strive to save as many innocent people as possible and prevent these actions in the future. Yet, as rational thinking individuals it is our responsibility to recognize that there are conflicting ideas and limitations that will always prevent authorities from predicting every case. I was thankful to read about people actually recognizing the existence of some sort of proverbial 'bar' that needs to be lowered. Somewhere along the line Maj. Hasan was investigated and subsequently passed a litmus test. Lowering the bar might have caught Maj. Hasan, and doing so now might prevent future incidents. Yet, can someone please at least give a passing mention to the unintended consequences of doing so? We have to recognize that as we lower that bar, more and more innocent people are going to become false positives and have their privacy and speech rights trampled upon. Many may lose their jobs or be incarcerated regardless of whether or not they intend to commit a crime.

Investigative standards exist for a reason and they are hopefully set at some optimal point whereby we catch most of the bad guys and don't wrongfully punish too many good guys. There was recently a tragic incident of child abuse in Philadelphia where 10 year old Charleeni Ferreira was beaten to death by her parents who had been abusing her for years. Teachers have since spoken out about their suspicions with some even taking proper steps to report to this case to authorities before the tragic climax. Again, you'll find no argument here against culpability of these parents or the fact that this crime could have been prevented. I'm not fully aware of the facts of this case, and perhaps it should have been obvious that this girl was in eminent danger, but let's say for now that it wasn't that obvious and investigations stopped for a reason. I propose to have a reasonable discussion about the limitations that would come from lowering the standards required to continue investigation to a point that would have ultimately saved this little girls life. Do we ever believe that a standard exists whereby we will catch every case of child neglect? Each lowering of the bar required to remove children from suspected neglect may save some children's lives but it will certainly come at the cost of removing others wrongfully which will destroy families and lives. I'm not proposing where we as a society should draw that line but merely that we discuss inevitable consequences of doing so without resorting to populist uproar about how obvious a case was in hindsight.

The media needs to be far more responsible and instead of selectively quoting 'prescient' individuals who knew these incidents were going to occur, should be asking how many other individuals know things about people that are outright lies at best and damning condemnation at worst. Perhaps I'm in the minority here, but I've met several people throughout my life that would make me say 'I'm not surprised' if I found out that they committed a violent crime in the future. Yet, I don't think that any of them should be jailed, and chances are none of them will never actually do anything wrong. Catching criminals is a tough business, and the aforementioned cases are tragedies that in hindsight seem preventable but only at a cost to individual freedoms that society absolutely must keep in mind.

While that's really the end of my thesis, my ramblings prevent me from stopping before lambasting the recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Daniel Henninger that attempts to use the Fort Hood incident for overarching arguments about torture, the patriot act, and the Afghanistan war. I can't even begin to say how vitriolic I find this to be, and the statement about terrorists killing us in Afghanistan or on our home soil is offensive in so many ways. I long to understand how a reputable news source could sink so low as to say that calling off investigations on CIA torture is in any way related to the delusional acts of a lone gunman in Texas. Not once did the article mention the other lone gunman in Miami, or the serial killer uncovered in Ohio. Yet, we're lead to believe that Maj. Hasan's actions are different from these and are somehow a call to action to increase surveillance, prevent prosecutions against torture, and continue the war? Please.

Maj. Hasan's alleged crime was heinous and he deserves any punishment that stems from it. It was, however, no more or less heinous then the other acts of multiple homicide that came to light in the previous week. They are far more similar to one another than they are different and branding them separately as manifestations of terrorism, workplace frustration, and psychoses is terribly misguided.

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