FBI Makes Us Less Safe With Fake Terror Plots

Glenn GreenwaldThe other day, my father asked me about these three “ding-dongs” who tried to take a flight to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. I referred him to Gary Brecher’s amazing article, Islamic State and American Narcissism. I gave him the highlights: (1) it’s mostly boredom and the desire to “join the fight”; and (2) the number of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State is tiny. And that was that. I hadn’t heard anything, because I haven’t been paying that much attention to the news this last week, because it all seems so depressing. But I should have known better than to accept the story at face value.

There is a rather big question: how was it that the authorities knew that these guys intended to go and fight the Islamic State? The answer is the same as usual: it was the government itself that put them up to it. The whole thing started when Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev of Brooklyn went on an Islamic State website and offered to kill President Obama. The threat reads like something written by a ten year old or dialog from a bad John Milius’ film. But rather than arrest the man for that, the FBI followed him online. When it was clear he wasn’t actually going to do anything, they set up another of their “stings.”

They sent in an undercover agent to get everything that Juraboev and his friends needed to get on a plane. These seem to be very immature young men, and very likely mentally unstable. One of them had his passport taken away from him by his mother. Unfortunately, we can’t call these guys the Jihadis Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, because they were too incompetent to even get a gun. So basically, we have another case of an FBI terrorism plot foiled by the FBI! I feel so much safer knowing that millions of dollars are going into creating terror plots so the viewing audience can feel better about what a great job the government is doing protecting all of us.

Glenn Greenwald asked a great question, Why Does the FBI Have to Manufacture its Own Plots if Terrorism and ISIS Are Such Grave Threats? Right. If there is all this home grown terrorism, why is the FBI wasting resources creating these fake plots? As it was, Juraboev’s initial threat to kill the president was a Class D Felony. That means he would get between 5 and 10 years in prison. As it is, he could get up to 15 years. Great use of resources!

Of course, it is a great use of resources as far as the FBI is concerned. That’s because the people who run the FBI are concerned about their budget. The former FBI assistant director Thomas Fuentes was quoted as saying:

If you’re submitting budget proposals for a law enforcement agency, for an intelligence agency, you’re not going to submit the proposal that “We won the war on terror and everything’s great,” ’cause the first thing that’s gonna happen is your budget’s gonna be cut in half. You know, it’s my opposite of Jesse Jackson’s “Keep Hope Alive” — it’s “Keep Fear Alive.”

Now, this is a highly cynical view that I don’t think is true of bureaucrats in general. But it is certainly the case that top level bureaucrats have to worry about their budgets. They don’t want to have to fire people — just to put a nice gloss on it. But this is not — as libertarians might argue — a reason for destroying all bureaucracy. Rather, we could better incentivize the bureaucracies to do what we want them to do. (Note: a guaranteed minimum income would go a long way in dealing with these problems.)

But the way things are, we have to all be made more afraid than we ought to be. And the cost of making us more afraid than we ought to be is making us less safe than we ought to be.

The Real Jihadi-Imperialist Connection

Gary BrecherKey fact about foreign-fighter stats: More jihadis in IS are from Belgium than from Indonesia.

Now that is a weird stat. How is it even possible? I’ll tell you in one quick quote:

“It’s boring in Belgium.”

Remember that line. It was spoken by a typical jihadi who left his boring Belgian life, sheltered by the pious, bland welfare state, to kill and die in Syria. Boredom and easy travel sent these guys on their way, not oppression. A hard look at where the foreign fighters come from will show that.

Take Indonesia, by far the biggest Muslim-majority country on the planet. There are about 238 million people in Indonesia, and 88% (209 million) are Muslim. The Indonesian population skews very young, and when you break it down by age and gender, you end up with at least 40 million males of military age from Muslim backgrounds. That’s the available pool of jihadi recruits.

So, how many jihadis has Indonesia contributed to Islamic State?

About 60, maybe 70. Not 70 thousand, you understand; 70 guys. A miserable two-digit total, about a platoon and a half. Hell, let’s be generous and double that figure, make it 140 men. Triple it! Fine with me! It’s still going to amount to something very close to zero-point-zero Indonesian volunteers in Iraq/Syria…

Everything about Belgium says it shouldn’t be making any significant contribution to the jihad in Iraq/Syria. First, the total population is tiny, less than 11 million people, and unlike the Indonesian population it skews very old. The total number of males of military age in Belgium is less than one million, or about two percent of the equivalent in Indonesia. And unlike Indonesia, Belgium is not a Muslim-majority nation. In fact, only six percent of Belgium is Muslim — call it 600,000 people. Let’s say that the Muslim minority in Belgium skews younger than the general population, as recent immigrant minorities usually do. That still means a total pool of something like 70,000. But from that tiny pool, Belgium has sent at least 350 volunteers to Islamic State.

Of course, that’s still a tiny number. It’s worth repeating that all these numbers are ridiculously small, considering the pool of Muslim young men who could be taking up jihad. But Belgium is still an anomaly, producing way too many IS volunteers. Never mind what’s wrong with Kansas, what’s up with Belgium?

Two things: first, that comment “it’s boring in Belgium.” Why is it boring? Consider the huge change in Europe after the great de-fanging of 1945. For certain countries, going o’er the waves to kill and die had been part of the national tradition for generations. Look at which countries relied most heavily on those foreign imperial ambitions in the early 20th century, and you get a surprising match-up with the non-Muslim majority countries with the highest rate of Islamic State volunteers. The states with the highest per capita rates are the ones that formed part of the most aggressive overseas empires of the last century: Turkey, England, France, and Belgium. All these countries have suffered a sudden shrinkage, from ruling distant outposts to maybe, if you’re lucky, getting an office job in the boring ol’ home country, such as it is, what’s left of it…

It’s easy to miss this persistent cultural trend, because it’s taboo in contemporary Western Europe, at least in polite society. But researchers are starting to realize that the myth that countries like Belgium were “reluctant imperialists” is, uh, crap — that in fact, most people, and especially the young males who would get to go abroad and shoot people, loved the idea.

Compare that dream with the less aggressive European states of the 20th century, like Spain and Italy. Their contributions to Islamic State has been tiny, especially in view of the huge Muslim community in those countries. How many IS fighters have come from Italy? Fifty. Five-zero.

Italy has a population of 1.5 million Muslims, poor humble people who are glad to get across the Mediterranean without drowing. Poor humble people are not jihadis; that’s an arrogant, middle-class phenomenon. Those 50 IS volunteers means that only one out of every 30,000 Italian Muslims has made jihad to Syria. You see the same low rates in the European countries without the tradition of recent, aggressive overseas Imperial careers.

—Gary Brecher
Islamic State and American Narcissism

Companies Using Treaties to Subvert Democracy

Australian Cigarette PackagesWith Leonard Nimoy’s dying from COPD, it seems like a good time to finally write an article about cigarette marketing and their more general danger to democracy. But I should be clear: what Nimoy did was good. He quit smoking in his early 50s. It would have been better if he had quit in his early 30s. But it is doubtless that the last three decades of his life were far better because he had quit smoking — and I’m not just talking about health and longevity. Smoking is terrible. Heavy smokers wake up each morning in withdrawal. They don’t feel as good. They are ostracized. They don’t enjoy the tastes of food and spirits as much as they could.

I was reading about a study recently that found that tobacco and heroin were opposites. Heroin had a very high mortality rate in the short term, but basically no direct long term harm once you quit. Smoking cigarettes basically can’t kill you in the short term — even over a few years. But its use can harm you long after you stop. I’m only comparing them because heroin is considered “the hardest drug” and cigarettes are completely legal. Now certainly, heroin is more mythology than anything at this point. But why is it that we won’t let people drink until they are 21 years old, but these cancer time bombs are available at only 18?

Back in 1992, I had a mind blowing experience. I was in Hong Kong riding on one of the ferries that took me from where I was staying in the rich area, where white people went to conferences, to the poorer area where things were interesting. And I saw a poster on the ferry for “the world’s best selling cigarette.” And I had never heard of it.[1] What I took away from that was that while the United States was in the process of quitting this deadly habit, the cigarette companies were busy exporting it everywhere else.

In 1994, Roger Rosenblatt at The New York Times wrote, How Do Tobacco Executives Live With Themselves? Apparently, they live with themselves exactly the same way they do today, because if anything, their behavior is worse now. To answer the question, I suspect they have no trouble living with themselves. Their excessive pay packages and a little “libertarian” theory about “freedom” is all that is required.

John Oliver did an excellent segment on it early this month, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Tobacco. In the past, we had all those tobacco executives lying about the health effects of cigarettes. Now, they are bullying smaller countries to keep people smoking as long as they are breathing. It has a special relevance to me, because I know that I could take on a libertarian persona and write about politics from a conservative but interesting perspective. And in doing so, I’m sure that I could get people to pay me. Yet I don’t do that because I think it is wrong — because it would make the political discourse slightly worse. These are people who think it is just peachy to kill in the name of their quarterly bonuses.

I’ll admit, I’m really behind the curve on this and I shouldn’t be. I had thought that since tobacco had become so much less profitable here in the United States, that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies would just diversify. You know: start making toilet paper and garden supplies. But no. They’ve just grown their markets in other countries where the people are less able to protect them. Also, even in Australia, Philip Morris International is using an obscure part of an old trade agreement to fight an anti-smoking law. This, of course, is a big part of the concern about TPP and TTIP.

This is an outrage regarding cigarettes, but there is just as deadly a larger issue here. Corporations are trying to set up legal frameworks that tie the hands of democratic governance. You think cigarettes shouldn’t be allowed to be marketed to teens? Too bad! We’ve got this treaty that says it doesn’t matter what your democracy wants. This is, interestingly, akin to a very old conservative complaint about the United Nations. But this is an actual threat. My hope is that conservatives and liberals will actually come together on this one. But give Fox News a week of blanket coverage, and I’m not sure many conservatives will care. It will be like “right to work” laws. These will be “right to hire” treaties. But I haven’t given up hope.


[1] This is probably a false memory. As far as I can tell, Marlboro was and still is the best selling. It was very likely Asia’s best selling cigarette. But it doesn’t change the point.

How the Libertarian Dream Dies

Ross William Ulbricht - Dread Pirate RobertsWhen I hear “Silk Road,” I think “Marco Polo.” When I hear “Dread Pirate Roberts,” I think The Princess Bride. So I was all confused when this guy who went by the name Dread Pirate Roberts was arrested for having some anonymous website called Silk Road where people bought and sold things like stolen credit cards and drugs. Call me naïve, but I hadn’t even heard of the “deep web” until I saw, If Google Was A Guy. I thought it was a joke. But apparently not. Basically, it is just a “layer” of the net that doesn’t show up on search engines — website owners can “opt out,” but few want to.

So when I heard the description of Henry Farrell’s aeon article Dark Leviathan, I was confused, “The Silk Road might have started as a libertarian experiment, but it was doomed to end as a fiefdom run by pirate kings.” I thought I was headed for a history lesson about 13th century European exploration. But no. It was a story about Bitcoin and anonymous trade in illegal products. And it blew my mind. But it shouldn’t have, because Farrell shows how these “libertarian” experiments worked out exactly the way I’ve always argued: they lead not to “free markets and free minds” but to “might makes right.”

The fundamental problem with these markets is that they are anonymous. It is a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma. The question is how buyers and sellers can trust each other. Enter Ross William Ulbricht — also known as “Dread Pirate Roberts.” He was originally selling psychedelic mushrooms on the “deep web.” He got a reputation for honesty, so he branched out into being a kind of middleman for transactions. This eventually led — over the course of just two years — to Ulbricht being blackmailed for a half million dollars and his hiring a hit man to kill the blackmailer for $150,000. At least, that is the aligation.

The point that Farrell makes in his article is an obvious one to any outside the cult of libertarianism: there is a reason that governments exist. They didn’t start up because one group of people wanted to oppress another group of people. It is actually rather the opposite. The multitudes wanted protection from the few who oppressed them. In the absence of that, there will be people like Ulbricht who rise up to fulfill that role. As Farrell discussed in his article, Ulbricht didn’t start out as a thug; he was highly idealistic. And even to the end, he was trying to protect his customers. But he was totally unaccountable.

Libertarians live in a fantasy land. They want to get rid of government. But that leaves two options. First, you could allow critical government elements like the courts. But there you are depending upon the courts to be perfect and requiring the government have the power to enforce the decisions of the courts. In the end, this just leads back to a total non-libertarian discussion of what it is we want the government doing. The second option — the one preferred by the Silk Road types — is that government functions should all be done in the free market. This, of course, leads to madness.

Basically, it is as follows. You don’t think the private security force for your community is doing a good job protecting your house? You can hire another private security force. The magic of the marketplace! But all this does is create rival gangs. This would be 1920s Chicago but much, much worse. And that’s what has happened on the “deep web”: it’s turned into a collection of crime syndicates.[1]

This is the ultimate folly of libertarianism. The most fundamental mistake they make is to think that all coercion comes from the government because it has a monopoly on certain kinds of power. But as we know from economics, it doesn’t matter if a market is a monopoly or an oligopoly. What difference does it make if I have the “choice” of paying protection money to Capone or Moran? Despite the claims of libertarians, barring a sudden evolution in morality in humans, their “free markets and free minds” lead only to “might makes right.” We should be working to maximize freedom and happiness, and an efficient and transparent government is critical to that. Libertarians are looking in the wrong direction.


[1] I find it annoying to have to mention this, but libertarians come around here and complain all the time. Many libertarians will say, “But policing is one of the things the government should be doing unlike providing healthcare!” Okay, let’s leave aside the fact that I face a far greater danger of dying from an abscessed tooth than marauding gangs. How is it that libertarians think that the two things that the government should be involved in — police and military — are the two things that governments have always used to oppress their people?! In such a world, you don’t need marauding gangs; the police and the military are the marauding gangs!

H/T: Paul Krugman.

Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus

Je T'Aime... Moi Non PlusThus far, our morning music selections have been very, very America. So I thought I would get very, very French for a day. Perhaps it is too early in the day for it, but this is the Serge Gainsbourg song “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus,” which literally means, “I love you… me neither.” The lyrics are thinly disguised sexual references, such as, “Tu vas, tu vas, et tu viens,” which means, “You’re going, you’re going, and you come.” There are also lots of references to water and waves and islands and loins. But you don’t need to speak a word of French to know what the song is all about.

It was written for Brigitte Bardot, and she recorded it with Gainsbourg. But before it was released, he created another version with his English girlfriend, Jane Birkin. It is a far sexier version of the song. And it created a sensation throughout Europe. It was banned in many countries, but was nonetheless hugely successful. In America, it only made it to number 58 on the Hot 100. This is because Americans are boring, and the American ideal of masculinity is based on a deep fear that all American men are actual gay, and that this will become clear if they don’t constantly act like jerks.

This is an amazing song.

Birthday Post: Linus Pauling

Linus PaulingOn this day in 1901, the great scientist Linus Pauling was born. His work spanned a number of fields. He was, at base, a chemist. His first Nobel Prize was for his work on chemical bounds in complex chemical structures. According to Wikipedia, “His discovery of sickle cell anemia as a ‘molecular disease’ opened the way toward examining genetically acquired mutations at a molecular level.” This is why Francis Crick said he was the father of molecular biology. Later in his life, he became a peace activist. His work against nuclear weapons proliferation and testing won him a second Nobel Prize. He also had some controversial beliefs about the effectiveness of vitamins in combating cancer. But no one is right all the time. He was far greater than any man has a right to be.

But I want to talk about sickle-cell anaemia, which is what his important microbiological work was on. It was first discovered in 1910, and since that time, it has been used as a political tool. In the United States, it affected almost exclusively African Americans. Thus, for supporters of eugenics and other racists, they say the disease as a proof that there were “races” — something fundamental that distinguished the white “race” from the lesser “races.” But in truth, it wasn’t the case that sickle-cell anaemia only affected “blacks.”

I discussed this recently, Race as Social Construct. What being prone to sickle-cell anaemia means is that you had recent ancestors who lived in areas where malaria was common. As I wrote, “That includes Africa, but also southern Europe, Persian Gulf, and India.” The whole thing is a good indication of our species greatest challenge and hope for the future. People from a single area tend to have different facial characteristics. But when people mix geographically, minority peoples tend to get lumped all together. There are “negroes” or “orientals” or “indians.” They become “races” when what they really are are “those people” who don’t look like “us.”

I’ve noticed a lot of people don’t like Japanese film because they have a hard time distinguishing the characters. I had the same problem the first time I watched Seven Samurai. It isn’t racism that causes this. It is just lack of familiarity. The solution: more familiarity! (Period movies also make it more difficult because then the costumes are foreign as well.) Ultimately, if we are going to get past this, we need to become more thoroughly mixed geographically. And that will lead to more thorough genetic mixing, which ought to improve the species. And God knows we could use that!

Happy birthday Linus Pauling!