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Posts Tagged ‘terrorism’

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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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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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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Crackers Beware

Terrorist profiling isn’t just for Middle Easterners anymore.

A young whitebread American professional was recently held by TSA agents in the St. Louis airport. Did he mistakenly leave a screwdrivier in his carry-on? A pocketknife in his suit pants? He did verbally threaten someone or carry prohibited substances? No. Nothing of the sort. He was detained, his possessions searched, and threatened with arrest because he had roughly $4700. In cash.

Maybe you’ve already heard about this. But probably not. The news broke at least four days ago but I didn’t catch a whiff of it until today. There was no mention of it on Good Morning America, our local news broadcast, or even my Rueters and AP news feeds. And you may be asking yourself why you should care in the first place; what’s the big deal? My reasons for mentioning it here are two-fold.

First: I don’t find $4700 to be an exorbitant sum to be in the hands of a young professional. He was polite, compliant, well-dressed, a United States citizen, had proper identification … and yet they detained him. Why?

Second: Not long before this young man was detained, a state-and-federal joint organization had distributed a confidential report to law enforcement officials across the state, a report which “depicted Christians, anti-abortionists, advocates for protecting our borders and supporters of certain political candidates as potential ‘threats’ to public safety,” according to Missouri Lieutenant Governor Peter Kinder (the report, titled “The Modern Militia Movement,” can be read in full, as released, at the bottom of this post). Forgive me, but those delineations seem broad enough to condemn just about anyone.

The young man detained had the misfortune of falling into several of their “threatening” categories: being an aide to Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul, who was on the “certain political candidates” list; being the Director of Development in the politically-involved organization Campaign For Liberty; carrying “political paraphenalia” for both previous entities, in the form of fliers and bumper stickers; and possessing $4700 in cash. Trouble is, that report was supposed to be rescinded, its content disregarded. Though originally distributed as a sensitive “Law Enforcement Only” document, an unidentified officer leaked the report to the media on March 11 and the cat was out of the bag. The following public outcry led to apologies, public condemnations of the material, and supposed retractions of the report. And yet a young man who fell into several of the categories outlined in that report was detained, with no explanation except that the cash he carried somehow made him suspect.

I’m sure a lot of shady drug and/or terror-related deals go down between the St. Louis underworld (mafia, Al Qaeda, etc.) and a twenty-five year old Christian Republican who is well employed and politically active. Yes sir, I believe someone fitting that description proves a threat to our public safety. Sounds like a terrorist to me. Looks like one, too …

Yup, that’s the face of evil if I ever saw it.

His name is Steve Bierfeldt. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, in 2006 and then spent two years in Virginia working for a non-profit and an election campaign. Prior to the TSA intervention, he had been in St. Louis helping at a Campaign For Liberty convention where they had sold tickets and merchandise, with roughly $4700 in cash transactions. Yes, yes, I see a threatening pattern emerging … It is my belief, ladies and gentlemen, that his problems stemmed from being a conservative, working for another conservative, supporting a conservative organization touting the need for antiquities like Freedom and Liberty. Oh and he’s a Christian, too.

Tie him to the stake! Light the kindling!!

This sounds eerily like a witch-hunt. During questioning, he repeatedly asked the TSA agents if he were required by law to answer. It seems a legitimate question to me, especially if they are looking to peg me as a militant extremist of some sort, but none of them responded except with condescension, threats of arrest, “going downtown,” and confrontation with the DEA and/or FBI.

Witch! Witch!!

Bierfeldt recorded much of the interaction on his cell phone, part of which can be heard on the embedded video at the bottom of the post. And while he was eventually released, catching his plane without further hassle, I still find this story very compelling. The fact remains that he was singled out and held without good reason. It was, purportedly, because of the cash, but on no flight rules list or FAA regulation anywhere does it even hint that cash is an article to be carried in limited quantities, or that substantial quantities of it could make you suspect and a likely candidate for detention. (And what would be considered a “substantial” quantity? Where do they draw those lines?) Young Bierfeldt would have been arrested, or at least held for further questioning, if not for an apparent plain-clothes FBI agent who ordered his release. Without once checking his documents, asking him a single question, or even inspecting his possessions.

A government document advised that someone like Bierfeldt – a Christian, a Republican supporter, a political citizen – could be a threat to public safety and so he was pulled aside. I’ll be honest with you … this kind of stuff scares me. Our rights and liberties and freedoms have been so thoroughly stripped away that, truly, nothing remains but their memory. And this is only the beginning. Tighten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a long, hard ride.

A few parting thoughts and links…

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“I realize that there are people who will dismiss this kind of story as insignificant. They shouldn’t. This is very serious and should be treated as such. Anyone who knows anything at all about history knows that before a state or national government can persecute – and commit acts of violence against – a group of people, they must first marginalize the group from society’s mainstream and categorize it as dangerous. Rome did exactly that to Christians, as did Mao’s China; Hitler’s Germany did the same thing to Jews; Stalin’s Russia did the same thing to political dissenters, etc…
…This is very serious business! We are not talking about private opinions. We are talking about law enforcement agencies. And remember, most law enforcement agencies share these types of reports; therefore, how many other state police agencies have similar reports floating around?”

A quote from Chuck Baldwin’s article Missouri State Police Think You And I Are Terrorists.

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“The show-me state made the news recently when the Missouri Information Analysis Center, a state-federal law-enforcement partnership, released an inflammatory report alleging that libertarians, constitutionalists, supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and other people skeptical of powerful government should be considered as potential terrorists-in-the-making.”

A quote from the Examiner article Political activist detained by TSA for carrying cash.

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“We believe that freedom is an indivisible whole, and that it includes not only economic liberty but civil liberties and privacy rights as well…”

A quote from the Campaign For Liberty website.

You can also visit Steve Bierfeldt’s profile page and weblog on their site.

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