Thoughts on the Orlando nightclub tragedy and domestic terrorism

Sorry for the short delay on this, but I wanted to make sure I got it right. Wikipedia has most of the background for those of you who have been living under a rock, in a cave, or otherwise unplugged from the news for the past few days.

I first learned of the tragedy from ABC News shortly after sunrise (in Houston, TX) Sunday morning. I don’t know what I was doing up at that hour, but I just happened to turn on the TV and that’s what came on. At that time they were reporting “at least 20” dead and “at least 42” injured badly enough to be taken to the hospital, which would climb to 49 fatalities (not counting the gunman) and 53 serious but non-fatal injuries.

Like most sane, peace-loving people in this country and around the world, I condemn this act of egregious brutality and terror. I don’t know what kind of political or ideological message the gunman was trying to get across. It could be anything from a religious message, to an outright hate crime against those with different lifestyles. In the broader sense, at least for the moment it really does not matter.

What does matter is 49 lives were snuffed out that should not have been, and most if not all of the 53 injured will never be quite the same again, at least mentally if not physically as well.

What does matter is that here in the US, there still exists a rather high level of intolerance against LGBTQ+ people and their lifestyles (to say nothing of far more repressive regimes around the world). I have nothing against religion in general, but I have seen too many messages of hate taught in the name of religion (whether it be Christianity, Islam, or something else entirely). For the Christians, don’t forget Mark 12:31 (among others which say the same thing), “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The holy books or scriptures of every religion of substance I am aware of have substantially similar sayings somewhere.

What does matter is we have a huge issue with access to mental health care in this country. We as a society still stigmatize those who seek care for mental health issues. The hourly rate of psychiatrists and psychologists is out of reach for most people who really need to be helped, meaning many of the people who really need help can’t afford it. (And public mental health facilities in many counties aren’t anywhere near well funded enough.)

What does matter is we have a real problem with gun violence in this country. I’m not sure what the answer is, and I wish I did. According to Wikipedia, the gunman acquired the weapons he used legally, as far as I can tell. Contrary to what some may believe, he was not on a terrorist watch list at the time he bought them. (I agree that if the gunman had been on a current terrorist watch list, the gun purchase should have been declined. However, that was not the case here.) He didn’t have a criminal record (neither did the gunman in the Sandy Hook shooting, or the gunmen in the San Bernardino attack). The fact the gunman had no criminal record is, of course, little consolation when there are 49 dead, 53 injured, and an entire nation shaken up by senseless, brutal terror. But it does say that the criminal background check required to buy a gun didn’t stop this, and couldn’t have stopped this. Background checks for gun purchases may have stopped many other tragedies that we never get to hear about, but there’s no way it could have stopped this one.

As for what could have prevented this tragedy? I wish I had the answer. (Don’t we all?) I don’t think any of us will have the answer until we get more information about the gunman’s motive. The answer is going to be different if we find this was a hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community, versus if we find this was a lone wolf terrorist act, versus if we find this was a terrorist act as part of a larger organization such as ISIL, versus something else entirely. For now, the best we can do is sit and wait and let the investigation run its course.

Security vs. theater: the importance of understanding the difference

CNN recently published a commentary by Bruce Schneier that calls into question many of the “security” measures being put into place, in the name of stopping terrorism.

This quote sets the tone for the entire piece, and I think it is something that a lot of people tend to forget, quickly:

Terrorism is rare, far rarer than many people think. It’s rare because very few people want to commit acts of terrorism, and executing a terrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear.

I have to wonder if we just have too much of this kind of fantasy crime and terrorism on TV and if we’re at the point where it is distorting people’s perception of reality. To put another big wrinkle into things, there’s a whole genre called “reality television” which to be honest, is badly named, and I would even say deceptively misnamed given some of the things that are tagged with that label.

Anyway, Bruce goes on to discuss “movie-plot threats” and “security theater” at length. I won’t quote most of it (don’t want to step outside the boundaries of “fair use”). But he does decry the photo ID checks, the stationing of National Guard troops after the September 11th attacks, and yes, even harassment of photographers as “security theater.”

Particularly the last of these is the most egregious example of “security theater” as the last thing a potential terrorist would do is draw attention to oneself by sporting a DSLR, particularly with, say, a 70-300mm zoom lens. A point-and-shoot of the type commonly available in the US for under $150 is a more likely choice for a terrorist wanting to do clandestine reconnaissance, as a tourist is much more likely to carry this type of camera. Not that it should even matter, of course.

Bruce touches on a great point here:

If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

While understandable just to quash the fear of the masses, I have to wonder just what, in the end, the post-September 11th security measures really accomplished. The terrorists are unlikely to attack civilian air travel twice in such a fashion.

Bruce doesn’t go into detail on this, so I’ll say it here: the goal of terrorism is fear and the disruption of normal everyday life. The terrorists, strictly speaking, don’t even have to blow something up to accomplish that, sometimes an obviously planted hoax bomb will do the trick as well: throw some wires together with a cheap timer (or alarm clock) and something that looks like it might be some kind of explosive, and put it in an obvious location that’s still somewhat concealed.

Most damning is Bruce’s blistering attack on the military tribunals:

We should treat terrorists like common criminals and give them all the benefits of true and open justice — not merely because it demonstrates our indomitability, but because it makes us all safer.

Once a society starts circumventing its own laws, the risks to its future stability are much greater than terrorism.

And this is something we should do today. We, as a society, should stick to our own laws, and give those charged with a crime the same rights, whether accused of “terrorism” or petty theft: the right to an attorney, the right not to incriminate oneself, etc.

Finally, this last quote from Bruce echoes my thoughts on the matter almost word for word:

Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.

The anti-terrorism measures are more disruptive to our daily lives than any terrorist attack ever have been. It’s time we start lowering the curtain on “security theater” once and for all.