April 24, 2013

Like Fifth-Rate Marx Brothers, Without the Laughs

In the wake of the deliberate and purposeful exhibition of martial power in Massachusetts, it seems that most of those living in the Boston area, as well as many millions of Americans throughout the Land of the Free, rejoiced in this display of American strength and courage. It appears that Americans have never been braver; never before have they vanquished evil in so inspiring a manner. It is as if Americans' unmatched willingness to boldly confront the most terrifying dangers resulted in the simultaneous defeat of every monster who has ever existed throughout all of humankind's existence. Truly, we are a marvelous people. When the film is made of this glorious episode in our history (and surely there will be at least one; such wonderfully instructive events must be commemorated, and their educational value preserved), how will they title it? Perhaps, and I offer the suggestion with all suitable humility: Triumph of the American Will.

Now, now. Don't frown or react with sneering disapproval. When so many have worked so diligently to call up certain associations, we would be derelict in our duties as good citizens not to recognize the effort. And based on the evidence of the last week, many Americans will be thrilled by the cinematic spectacle and crowd the theaters to overflowing. Besides, most Americans will doubtless be unaware of the title's significance, just as they are unaware of the meaning of the events themselves. And while we might wish that Americans would take at least one or two lessons from history (I myself have been known to look to history for understanding, as for example here and here, in essays which are horrifyingly relevant to the instant matter), the attitude of most Americans is: "History? Whut?" As Americans, we are unique. We are so special and powerful that we recreate ourselves in every moment. History has no significance for us. We redefine what it means to be human. Why, you might even refer to us as the master---

Oh, dear. Those associations again. I'm sorry. I was carried away for a moment. Contemplation of our own blinding greatness is dangerously destabilizing.

Yet I have a confession. I realize this will only serve to confirm the depraved corruption of my soul, but I fear I lost that personal battle some time ago. When I think about these events, titles of a somewhat different kind occur to me. For example: Killer Klowns on Parade. Yes, I think that might do very nicely.

Many accounts note that it was only when the occupation of Watertown was momentarily relaxed, and residents were given permission to go outside once more -- breathe the freedom! -- that some ordinary schlemiel noticed something amiss on his boat, which in turn led to the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But, speaking of breathing, how can it be that this schlemiel, who must be regarded as one of the many great American heroes in this great American pageant, went outside to smoke a cigarette? That simply cannot be. Rewrite! We're creating a legend! Details matter. Think of the future generations of children who will study this episode so as to learn how to be good citizens. I think Mr. Henneberry went outside to enjoy a few moments of solitude during which he could give thanks for the miraculous fact that he lives in America, where SWAT teams will descend on any (and every!) neighborhood at a moment's notice, to ensure the safety and security of all Americans. And to protect their freedom! Yes, that's a notable improvement.

And although it is also mentioned, much less emphasis is given to the fact that Mr. Henneberry's house, and his boat, were outside the perimeter within which the house-to-house searches were conducted. See here:
[Police commissioner] Davis is asked if it was a mistake to issue an all-clear – the final operation to ens[n]are Tsarnaev came minutes later.
We certainly did not give an all clear. We had no information that the suspect was holed up ... He managed to elude us by being slightly outside the area.
And here:
One of the law enforcement officials talks about Tsarnaev's course after the showdown with officers overnight. "We know he didn't go straight to the boat" from the shootout last night, the official said.

He says they found blood inside a house inside the perimeter.

"We thought we had the perimeter solid … but he was about one block away," the official says.
That one block might as well have been 100 miles. For all that time, as the paramilitary forces were directly terrorizing the residents of one house after another -- and indirectly terrorizing everyone who watched the unfolding spectacle -- they were looking in the wrong place. They had no idea whatsoever what the right place was. It took Mr. Henneberry, and his desire to smoke a filthy cigarette to privately contemplate American glory, to identify the right place.

Even if the depravity and corruption of your soul are but a pale reflection of the vile matter that makes up my inner being, some observations and questions will occur to you at this point. It is entirely unsatisfactory to argue that the perimeter -- the perimeter that these great brains with multiple lethal weapons thought was "solid" -- was close to being right. After all, Tsarnaev was only "about one block away." According to the account offered by the occupying authorities themselves, at that time they had no reason at all to search Henneberry's house and yard. It doesn't matter how far outside the perimeter Tsarnaev was: he was outside it. Tsarnaev might have been eventually discovered five blocks away, or five miles.

What if Tsarnaev had killed Henneberry? It certainly seems that he could have. (In that case, we would perhaps have a dead hero -- in which case, the cigarette stays in. The wages of sin, etc. There are lessons to be taught!) What if Henneberry hadn't gone to the backyard and/or hadn't noticed what he did. Would the perimeter have been enlarged? Changed altogether? Would house-to-house searches have been conducted in additional neighborhoods?

We might make some educated guesses as to the answers, but we will never know for certain what would have happened. It's entirely possible the authorities themselves don't know the answers. ("We are not in the business of answering hypotheticals of that kind," is the usual response in bureaucratese.) The point is that the authorities, after sifting through all the information they had, with the aid of however many "experts" of various kinds, established a perimeter -- and it was wrong. It wasn't the authorities, with the vast funds at their disposal, along with huge numbers of personnel (and with all their wonderful weapons!), who discovered Tsarnaev's location.

Along the same lines, we've learned that the FBI investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011. They did so at the request of the Russian government. We are told:
The FBI has defended itself, saying in a statement on Friday that it had run checks on the suspect but found no evidence of terrorist activity.

It said a request to Russia for further information to justify more rigorous checks went unanswered, and an interview by agents with Tsarnaev and his family also revealed nothing suspicious.

In a separate hearing on Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the FBI had been aware of Tamerlan Tsarnaev's trip to Russia, contradicting Senator Graham's allegation that the trip had been overlooked because his name had been misspelled in travel documents.
It was when I read this story and many similar ones that the Marx Brothers came to mind. The detail about Tsarnaev's name (possibly) being misspelled made me laugh out loud. Who knows whether Napolitano's version or Graham's is true. That Tsarnaev's trip to Russia "had been overlooked" because of a misspelling is entirely believable.

Consider how haphazard this business was. The FBI only investigated Tamerlan Tsarnaev in the first instance because Russia asked them to. When Russia later failed to respond to a request "for further information to justify more rigorous checks," and after an interview (just one, apparently) "revealed nothing suspicious," they dropped it. Then, the U.S. government knew (or didn't know) about the trip to Russia. And then: Boston.

Feeling safer?

What I fervently wish at least a few more people understood and appreciated is that this is how "intelligence" is conducted generally. I've written numerous essays about the farcical charade that is "intelligence," and still almost everyone (including people who I know have read several of these articles at a minimum) talks endlessly about how crucial it is that "we get the intelligence right." The "intelligence" is almost never right.

Although I view it as hopeless to alter conventional wisdom on this issue, but because I am compelled to punish myself endlessly, I will repeat my brief summation of the argument:
I therefore repeat my major admonition, and give it special emphasis:
It is always irrelevant to major policy decisions, and such decisions are reached for different reasons altogether. This is true whether the intelligence is correct or not, and it is almost always wrong. On those very rare occasions when intelligence is accurate, it is likely to be disregarded in any case. It will certainly be disregarded if it runs counter to a course to which policymakers are already committed.

The intelligence does not matter. It is primarily used as propaganda, to provide alleged justification to a public that still remains disturbingly gullible and pliable -- and it is used after the fact, to justify decisions that have already been made.
This was true in the case of Iraq; it is true -- and will continue to be true -- with regard to Iran; it was obviously true in connection with the Tsarnaevs (assuming they did what everyone now believes they did).

If you wish to join my campaign for masochistic enlightenment, I direct you to three articles in particular for many, many further details: "Played for Fools Yet Again," "Fools for Empire" (the last section of which analyzes how two nominally "antiwar" writers make the same grievous error), and "You, Too, Can and Should Be an 'Intelligence Analyst.'"

A closely related but separate issue demands attention here. That is: the idealization of authority. I've written extensively about how we are all taught as young children about the crucial importance of obedience to authority. The idealization of authority is a critical element of such training, but it is a subject requiring discussion on its own. The mechanism of idealization of authority will help to explain two issues of special relevance to the Boston horror show: why so many people tend to analyze authorities' actions in fundamentally the wrong way (the subject I indicated at the very end of the previous post), a subject which also requires explanation of why most people believe that the authorities' goals are what they publicly proclaim them to be (they're not); and why the majority of people erroneously attribute superior levels of competence to authority figures (whether they be individuals or institutions, including the police and the military).

On the last point, and as quick preview: given the evidence amassed in recent years, one would hardly think that anyone would believe that individuals become unusually competent because they join the government, or the military, or the police. Yet most people believe precisely that. In fact, the various individuals and institutions involved in the Boston horror-farce are no more or less competent than the average person you meet in the course of an average day. Given the powers and weapons at their disposal, they are certainly far more dangerous, but that is a very different matter. The Killer Klowns of Death who patrolled Boston and environs last week are exactly as competent as that young, doubtless "well-intentioned" guy who took your order at lunch -- and got it wrong.

Now that should scare the shit out of you. Next time.