What kind of person do you want to be?
Variations on that question are something I hear a lot of, usually from well meaning defenders of our civil liberties whenever the subject turns to the counter-terrorism effort.
Here’s a quick party trick to amaze your friends and family, convincing them you have the ability to read peoples' minds. Simply stop any Well Meaning Defender (WMD) on the street and ask any of the following questions:
a) Torture is wrong, but what do you think of maintaining the ability to use aggressive interrogation techniques in specific situations?
b) What’s your opinion on the use of electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects whose communications originate overseas but pass through a U.S. based network?
c) Do you think our screening efforts at airports and other transit points could be improved through the use of focused profiling?
Nine out of 10 WMD’s will look at you with that mixture of smugness, self righteousness and disdain that is reserved for the truly enlightened. After dismissing you as a fear mongering, civil liberties-shredding lackey of the current administration, they’ll advise you that engaging in any of the above activities, or variations thereof, makes us "no better than the terrorists."
The argument is… engaging in any counterterrorism effort essentially risks our civil liberties and threatens our very souls. The WMDs excel at grabbing the moral high ground. Unfortunately, counterterrorism is fought down in the trenches.
The trenches tend to be mucky, difficult places where you have to deal with the real world on a regular basis. Up there on the moral high ground you can shout your black and white views, dismiss threats as nothing more than political spin and, as an extra benefit, piss down on the people actually trying to accomplish things to maintain national security.
After they inevitably jab with the "no better than terrorists" line, they usually throw out the rhetorical question, "What kind of person do you want to be?" Sometimes this is followed by a smirk, knowing they’ve yet again won the day by claiming the title of defender of the Constitution, the flag, our souls and all that it means to be special. Huzzah for them.
"What kind of person do I want to be?" How 'bout this… I want to be the kind of person that doesn’t get blown up. Simple enough. Count me in with the group that wants to be efficient, logical and proactive enough in our counterterrorism efforts so that I, nor my family and friends ever join the category of "Blown Up by Terrorists (BUTs)."
Anybody with me on that bandwagon?
Just to be clear, I did use the words "efficient," "logical" and "proactive"… let me also toss in "common sense," "appropriate," "oversight" and "safeguards." There. Using that combination of words for guidance, is it possible we could define what can and can’t be done in reaction to our current threats without launching into hysterics (on either side)?
Six years on from 9/11, and after numerous terrorist atrocities in the following years in other parts of the world, we’re still debating what we should and shouldn’t be doing in the fight against Al Qaeda and their like-minded minions.
What means of interrogation are appropriate? What constitutes torture and what falls into the “harsh interrogation techniques” category? How do we process the high value detainees and should they be put through the justice system? What constitutes legal electronic surveillance and what is overreaching? Is it right for the telecoms companies that provided information to the government to have immunity since they did so as part of the counterterrorism effort?
And let’s not dare talk about profiling. Good God (or substitute any deity that makes you comfortable), talk about an emotive word. I’m not saying good or bad, I’m just saying you can’t utter the word without being smacked over the head with some WMDs Birkenstock.
Shock...the current threat comes from zealous, fundamentalist Islamic jihadists. Often times (uh oh, I’m stepping in it now), these individuals are young or middle-aged males. That’s the nature of the current threat. Maybe it will be a different set of parameters in the future. But for now, that’s the profile.
Damn it, I used the word. Sorry. I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time. I seem to recall that back during the troubles of the IRA era, the British police were often concerned that the threat might, perhaps, come from Irish males. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, but back then, extra scrutiny was paid by British intelligence and law enforcement to Irish males traveling in and out of England. Hopefully I haven’t revealed a secret there.
Again, not saying right or wrong. That would be for the ethicists and bigger brains of our society to work out. I’m just pointing out that we’ve thrust our heads so far up our politically correct backsides that we can’t reach the roll of common sense in order to tidy up.
Speaking of ethicists, I found a perfect example of how bizarre we've become while reading through the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They've got a regular weekly column, The Ethicist, in which people who have a hard time discerning right or wrong send in their dilemma and ask for guidance. Fair enough.
In a recent column, one good fella' from Gotham faced a particularly difficult situation. I don’t want to make too much of this, but it did strike me as emblematic somehow of our current times. The reader sent in the following:
"Is it ethical to order food for delivery during a thunderstorm? If I’m doing it to avoid going outside and getting wet or struck by lighting, isn’t it wrong to have somebody else (with little agency to refuse) do it in my place?"
I kid you not. I read this right after I had been pondering why we can’t manage to muster up the common sense to once and for all establish the parameters for fighting the war on terror. (I’m sure that many people will take exception to my use of the phrase "war on terror"… there are those who believe the threat is minimal and that the notion of being at war with Al Qaeda is simply political propaganda to either justify the situation in Iraq or scare people into voting Republican, or both.)
Somehow, I read about this person’s tortured thought process...to order takeout or not when it’s raining… and realized that we are doomed. Eventually, due to an inability to make decisions in the face of danger, whether it be terrorism or the dual threat of rain and hunger, we will simply experience a catastrophic, civilization-ending loss of fortitude.
Our uniquely American civilization will collapse, not from global warming, the subprime crisis or some other worthy horrible event… and certainly not as a result of Al Qaeda. No, the sucking sound you’ll hear at the very end will be when the last drop of common sense spirals down the drain and we completely lose our ability to do anything other than whinge about life, argue the ethics of defending ourselves against existing threats and wonder if Britney will get to see her kids this weekend.
And finally, a dip into the Peoples Weekly Brief Reader Mailbag. The PWB Mailbag Team, housed in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, take great delight in reading every comment sent in by the devoted, somewhat disturbed, readers of the column. The team doesn’t get a chance to answer every email, obviously their work-release program requires them to be back at the facility by 3 p.m. each day. But every email is read.
This week’s favorite comes from Dan, residing in the great state of Washington. Washington is above Oregon and just last week was voted the state most likely to be closest to Alaska. In response to my column about the latest Bin Laden tape, Dan writes:
"Bin Laden is dead. These tapes are CIA plants designed to keep the lie alive. You’re an idiot."
So there you have it. Remember, you read it here first and, frankly, I’ve never known Washington Dan to be wrong when it comes to counterterrorism. And he correctly figured out that I’m an idiot, so he’s clearly two for two. Well done.
I was going to dismiss his comments as typical of the sort of person who has little experience traveling overseas, much less out of his parent’s basement, has never had to deal with responsibility, gloms on to wacky yet popular conspiracy theories and generally doesn’t have the good sense to blow his snotty nose. But then, I don’t know Washington Dan so that would be rushing to judgment and decidedly unfair.
I won’t resort to that sort of harsh tactic. It would make me no better than the terrorists.
Don’t forget to send in your thoughts and comments to email@example.com
Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.