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For an UPDATE on this issue, scroll down to the section heading that reads UPDATE: September 9, 2010.

After an extended summer break, I’ve returned to the blogosphere with a story that has been burning up the airwaves … or whatever passes for them anymore. Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, has fallen into the media spotlight with his ultra-controversial plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11 (and for the uninitiated, the Koran is Islam’s holy text, equivalent to Christianity’s Bible). This bonfire is set to take place on the grounds of his church, the Dove World Outreach Center, and he has encouraged the participation not only of his congregation but of any and all Christian persons. Now, this has raised two main issues: 1) does he have the right to burn a holy scripture, and 2) should it receive media coverage.

I say “yes” on both counts. First, the Amendments to the United States Constitution (the Bill of Rights) clearly allows the freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That includes religions you don’t agree with, like radical factions that preach intolerance and sow the seeds of hate. Likewise, the freedom to express oneself should be recognized. If protestors can burn the flag and I can rally a group to burn, say, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology doctrine, then Jones should be allowed to burn Koran.
Second, I think this is a good topic for media coverage, when done properly, as it shows the ugly face of intolerance within our borders. Every nation and every religion has its extremists, its radicals, its zealots. I think it’s good to expose them for what they are, to publicize their inexcusable acts so that we can try to move forward, to progress away from narrow-minded bigotry and toward goals of common decency and respect.

Islam gets a lot of bad publicity but let’s not forget that Christianity has a long and sordid history of violence, prejudice, and intolerance despite the peaceful teachings of its prophet Jesus. Does that make every Christian violent, intolerant, prejudiced? Of course not. And not every Muslim is a terrorist. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise. And I think Jones’s plan is completely reprehensible. What would he say to a group of Muslims burning Bibles and denouncing the Christian faith as evil? I dare say he wouldn’t care for it. I think he is, at best, a misguided fool and, more likely, a religious zealot with more mouth than brains. That this pageant of prejudice is set to occur on the nine-year anniversary of the September 11 tragedy further illustrates his poor judgement. Instead of focusing on the people injured and killed, he wants to focus on those who perpetrated the attacks, a radical faction that preaches intolerance and sows the seeds of hate. Hmm, sounds familiar.

It’s obvious to me that Jones isn’t familiar with Islam. Nor am I, actually, but I’ve spoken with several Muslims and read part of the Koran (or Quran, as it’s often known) and not once was there mention of bombing people. It advocates spreading the word to others, of course, as religions generally do, but Islam is as peaceful a faith as Christianity. Perhaps moreso. At any rate, I think the best advice for Jones comes from the New Testament when Jesus says all the teachings of all the prophets boil down to two commandments: 1) love God. 2) love your fellow man. In taking those two things to heart, you cannot fail.

UPDATE: September 9, 2010
My local evening news reported that Pastor Jones has cancelled the Koran bonfire. I find that good news indeed. An ABC news article relates that the change in plans came after Jones spoke with Imam Abdel Rauf, the Muslim leader proposing a mosque and multi-faith religious center near Ground Zero in New York. They are due to meet Saturday, September 11th, in New York but Jones said the Imam has agreed to move the planned center elsewhere. The proposed mosque and cultural center has become a point of contention, with some saying a Muslim-based center should not be allowed so near the site of the Twin Tower tragedy. (Which I think is bollocks, but freedom of speech clearly allows them to say so.) Other sources do not agree that the Islamic center is being moved, and the ABC Evening News reported that the Imam had not yet even spoken with Jones. So we’ll have to wait for more information and clarification on that. But as long as there aren’t any organized book burnings this Saturday, I think it will be a step in the right direction.

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The blog is now back up and running, with it’s usual unpredictable schedule.

And to start off a new year, a new infringement on our rights. Unless you were buried in an avalanche for the last two weeks, you’ve heard about the purported “underwear bomber” (who, luckily, managed only to injured himself) on Christmas Day. This sent airlines and government agencies into a frenzy of bad judgement and over-reaction. So what’s new, you ask? Well, it’s not so much what’s new as what is on-going … namely the hacking away of our constitutionally amended rights. Including our right to privacy (specifically, the fourth amendment; the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures). In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m talking about the full-body scanners. (Yes, it’s a much-discussed topic at the moment, and I’m just going to have to throw my two cents in as well.) And in case you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m not a supporter.

Let me preface the heart of this by saying that I do not wholly oppose the full-body scanners. I support them as an option to the current metal detector screening process. I do not support them as a mandate and the only alternative to full-body pat-downs.

First of all, even the most effective scanner is only effective against those it actually scans. Full-body scanners were in use and available in the Amsterdam airport where the (alleged) bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded his flight for the United States. They certainly didn’t ward him off from a distance or go red alert as he walked into the terminal. He wasn’t suspected of criminal intent, and so he wasn’t scanned. It seems a person-by-person scanning process is as time-consuming as the metal detector queue (or moreso) so airports that do use the scanners do so with passengers who volunteer, or with passengers at random, or when someone rouses suspicion. Which Mr. Abdulmutallab did not.

Obviously, random screenings are hardly worth the effort; we would likely be as safe employing lie detectors. Because even at the absolute best, the penultimate of body scanning proficiency, it is no more effective than a metal detector and a full-body pat-down … because anyone can forego the scanner if they choose. So why the trouble and expense if the results are no different than the original conditions? Abdulmutallab’s “accessories” wouldn’t have been any easier to detect than when he went through screening at Amsterdam. And while I bet the TSA would gladly strike down that ability to choose between the scanners and the pat-down, I don’t believe it would pass legislature in the near future; it is not accepted widely enough for that. In fact, several European nations – including Belgium, Spain, Germany, and France – remain unimpressed with the scanners and unconvinced they are necessary.

According to the travel website Jaunted, the scanners are currently used in only 19 U.S. airports (listed at the bottom of this post), though the TSA intends to roughly quadruple the number of working scanners in 2010. Of course, that’s just in the States. Hundreds of international airports offer direct flights to U.S. soil … so getting everyone up to speed would be a multi-year, multi-billion dollar, multi-national project. That sounds quite easy. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, and did I forget to mention the fact that these scanners aren’t exactly accurate? How clumsy of me. Although the scan images are clear enough to violate child pornography laws, they show nothing under the skin, between sections of skin, or in orifices. Which means would-be terrorists still have plenty of options and the body scanners are, at best, mediocre in their results. Multi-billion dollar, multi-national mediocrities. Feel safer yet?

All that aside, there is still the fact that these scanners are designed to essentially strip-search thousands of innocent, law-abiding passengers (although that number will quickly rise to millions if the TSA has anything to say about it). Shouldn’t that fall somewhere under “unreasonable searches?” Especially considering you are more likely to be struck by lightning than injured in a terrorist attack in the United States. Quick, outlaw clouds! Jail anyone in possession of kites and keys! Strip-search the occupants of all vehicles and households for the presence of positive and or negative ions!

It’s ridiculous, and luckily not yet law. In fact, last summer the House of Representatives passed legislation limiting the use of the full-body scanners. But the Senate never took it up, and with Obama’s conference on airport security, I don’t expect those limits to stand long. However, what bothers me most is the American response. Countless authors of article comments and forum posts agree: “I’ll do anything the government wants if they say it’ll make me safer.”

Except we aren’t any safer. It doesn’t matter if there’s a full-body scanner on every street corner, it’s not improving the safety of passengers nor reducing the likelihood of a terrorist attack. Get over your sexually repressive phobias, supporters say, it’s just a quick naked peek and off you go, safe and secure, without even having to take your jacket off. But we aren’t any safer or more secure, and this isn’t about being digitally naked. This is about government officials wanting to mandate needless and ineffective infringements on personal freedoms protected by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. It is the continued ruination of the singlemost important document protecting citizens’ rights which the government is supposed to answer to. Terrorists win because we allow them to win. It has nothing to do with the number of people they kill, or how they kill, or where or when. Merriam-Webster defines terrorism as “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Which basically translates to scaring people to force their choices or circumstances. Which the U.S. government is doing bloody brilliantly to its own people. What more could terrorists hope for?

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
– Benjamin Franklin

The following airports currently use (or allow the option of) full body scanners:
(ABQ) Albuquerque International Airport
(ATL) Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport
(BWI) Baltimore-Washington International Airport
(DFW) Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport
(DEN) Denver International Airport
(DTW) Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport
(IND) Indianapolis International Airport
(JAX) Jacksonville International Airport
(LAS) Las Vegas-McCarran Airport
(LAX) Los Angeles International Airport
(MIA) Miami International Airport
(PHX) Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport
(RDU) Raleigh-Durham International Airport
(RIC) Richmond International Airport
(SLC) Salt Lake City International Airport
(SFO) San Francisco International Airport
(TPA) Tampa International Airport
(TUL) Tulsa International Airport
(DCA) Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport

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Okay, I know I’ve posted nothing since coming back but I have to re-visit a recent topic before I can in good conscience move on to post anything new.

In my travels I picked up a newspaper which had been discarded in a hotel lobby. You may ask why, when it would normally be more suitable for the bottom of a birdcage, but en route I had already devoured the voluminous novel I was hoping to ration out while away from home. And being a cheap word-oholic, I detest buying reading material on the road. So I snagged the paper free and clear. It turned out to be an issue of the Herald, based in Everett, Washington, with coverage centering on Snohomish County. If you’ve never heard of Everett, or Snohomish County, here’s a short geography lesson: Everett is a city of roughly 100,000 people about 25 miles north of Seattle; it is the only city of size within Snohomish County, which extends from the edge of Puget Sound into the mountains of Washington state’s impressive Mt. Baker/Snoqualmie National Forest. Now, back to the point I am slowly homing in on …

Buried on page B7 of the Local section, nestled somewhere between the obituaries and a piece on English ivy, lay an opinion column headlined with ‘Extremism’ report and Homeland insecurity. Written by Debra J. Saunders, a columnist for the San Fransisco Chronicle, it made some interesting notes about a report circulated by the Department of Homeland Security regarding extremism and terrorism. (It was also the first I’d heard of such a report.) The nine-page assessment (which can be read in full at the bottom of this post) is entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment and was purportedly released to help educate law enforcement officials in recognizing home-grown terrorism through the extremist influence of militias. Sounds reasonable. It’s no secret that some militias condone violence and that some militia members/supporters have been directly involved in violent attacks. The percentages are very small, of course, and I think you’d find as much (if not more) political dissent in the streets of Washington, D.C., but when has the government ever let facts stand in the way of federal actions? At any rate, is it just me or … does all this seem eerily familiar?

Hmmmm, seems to me I mentioned a very similar report in my recent (if ill-titled) post Crackers Beware. Remember that one, about a young guy in Missouri being detained at the airport for carrying some cash and political paraphenalia in support of two non-violent entities denounced by an 8-page law enforcement report handed down from a state and federal level organization? I do. So now we have another report, which is clearly federal and supports the idea that this was federal from the start, and nationwide. As I suspected, and just as Chuck Baldwin supposed in his article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

And just as in the Missouri report, this newer DHS assessment – distributed April 7, 2009, the same date of my little Crackers Beware post – points its militant-wary fingers at people who oppose abortion, free trade, gun control, and same-sex marriages. It also earmarks recent veterans, Christians, and those who dare “bemoan the decline of U.S. stature.”

Now, this report is better written and less blatently biased than the one from Missouri, and makes a political step forward in noting that “law-abiding Americans” can take the same actions, with no harm intended, as the possibly dangerous “lone wolves,” “small terrorist cells,” and militia members (i.e. “suspicious” actions do not necessarily equate to dire motives). But that’s where the good news ends (if you wish to be so bold as to call that less-dreary sludge “good news”). Aside from improved grammar and more palatable profiling, this is the same document that Missouri rescinded a couple weeks ago. It’s tantamount to slapping a nice suit on a sewer rat; at the end of the day, no matter how you dress it up, its still just a stinking rat.

Debra Saunders was equally unimpressed. “The assessment reads like a sophomore’s bad political science essay,” she shares bitingly in the Herald column. “That career officials would write such tripe should scare you.” On the subject of targeting veterans and right-leaning groups as possible dangers, she write, “Thanks for your service, vets, but Homeland Security is stuck on Oklahoma City bomber and Persian Gulf War vet Timothy McVeigh.” In the next paragraph: “Many Democrats have opposed illegal immigration and NAFTA, too. And what business is that of Homeland Security, unless the individuals broke federal law?”

And to add confusion to the mix, a sub-section at the bottom of page 7 notes that white supremacists acting as “lone wolves” are the greatest threats … but are nearly impossible to identify “because of their low profile and autonomy – separate from any formalized group.” And if they are the greatest threats, but do not belong to any formalized groups, why is the government releasing all these reports and assessments on militias?

Does anyone have any idea what’s going on here? Because I’m lost.

Let me state for the record I am not a militia member. I do not agree with many of the basic ideals militias are founded on and believe most of them to be more fear-mongers than anything else. And while they have on very rare occasions spawned (or at least been associated with) real acts of violence and destruction, such acts are much the exception. Due to their nature, I would expect a government to keep an eye toward such groups, in case one indeed turned criminally ugly, but I do not understand the current push for law enforcement across the country to identify, monitor, or otherwise track possible militia members or recruits without provocation. They aren’t pinpointing criminals on the lam, they are lumping terrorists in with a Sunday school teacher (who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage) and a soldier back from war (who was held over four months beyond the original length of his or her tour) and a trucker (who thinks free trade has too many Canadian rigs on the road). Perhaps it’s just me, but this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And for a report regarding militias, there seems to be very little militia activity to report. Of the various violent acts, or conspiracies to commit them, that are listed in the assessment, not one involved more than six suspects. That seems quite the paltry militia if you ask me, which only seems to deepen the rift between the report and what it purportedly seeks to accomplish. The DHS report seems to focus on recruitment of new members into extremist groups as the mark of evil, but if the reportedly growing ranks of these “formalized” groups are breaking no laws and are not among the leading parties for terrorist activities, what is the motive?

“The DHS/Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) has no specific information that domestic rightwing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence…”

“Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts.”

Call me what you may, but I think these reports have a great deal more to do with keeping an eye on average Americans who happen to be conservative and lean a bit to the right.

I don’t know what else to say. I don’t like that concept, at all, but that’s the picture I see being drawn out. And if someone in a uniform starts asking questions, I’m going to do my best to be vague, short-winded, and moderate.

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