Every time you get groped, the terrorists win

“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s been a decade since religious fanatics murdered 3,000 Americans by attacking the world trade center towers and the pentagon with hijacked airplanes. Since that time, we’ve witnessed a rapid erosion of our freedoms, ostensibly in the name of fighting “terror”. While it’s obvious to most that you can neither declare war on — nor fight — a tactic, our government does not see it that way. And why should they? The government has infringed on our rights with new “anti-terror” policies at every opportunity by playing on public fears of another terrorist attack. They’ve presented the public with a false dichotomy of choosing between the tyrannical policy de jure or facing death at the hands of terrorists. In short: the government has used the public’s fear to further control our lives. I hear you asking “but isn’t that, like, Terrorism?” To quote SouthPark, that’s “not like terrorism — it is terrorism!”[1]

Patriot acts contrast
The irony of government policies that capitalize on public fear to expand power is compounded by the notion that the terrorists supposedly hate us (and attack us) because we are “free”. Most thinking people recognize that this is nonsense, of course, but the government is hardly revered for its intellectual prowess. I suppose the government strategy is to simply remove those freedoms that the terrorists supposedly hate us for, thereby reducing the chance for an attack; to launch a pre-emptive strike on liberty! As anyone who has read or heard anything published or stated by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups knows, however, the terrorists “hate” us because we are occupying their lands with our military bases, meddling in their affairs, and supporting their religious enemies.[2] Ten years later, we can add drone strikes, the killing of civilians during war operations (i.e. collateral damage), and new sanctions imposed on countries like Iran to their list of arguably legitimate grievances.

So what freedoms have we given up in the name of fighting these enemies that want to destroy our… freedoms? The most visible loss of freedoms is apparent at the airport, where travelers are herded like cattle through security checkpoints and are then subjected to a humiliating, sexually suggestive search process. Travelers are treated like criminals merely because they wish to travel for business or see their families. At the airport, they must choose between being seen naked or sexually assaulted before boarding a plane. And, of course, the screening process is ineffective anyway. Stories of people getting on board with fake boarding passes, bags full of sharp knives, and even firearms appear on an almost monthly basis. Of the prohibited items, many of these were accidentally left in luggage by everyday travelers — imagine what a determined group of criminals could accomplish. Compounding the stupidity of this process, the security checkpoint creates a bottleneck in human traffic, forcing hundreds of people to congregate in one small area waiting to enter the security checkpoint. A terrorist doesn’t even have to go through the trouble of trying to bypass security to kill hundreds of people. He could just walk in the middle of this crowd with a couple of bombs in his luggage and kill at least as many as he could on a plane.

Osama was no doubt amused by the TSA

It's hard to conceive of a terrorist plot more sinister than ensuring that every American man, woman, and child is sexually assaulted, humiliated, and treated like a criminal before getting on an airplane

In addition to the absurdities we deal with at an airport, we’ve also lost far more important freedoms in far more sinister ways. Certainly, the PATRIOT Act is the most well known of these abuses. The PATRIOT Act gives the government permission to violate the 4th amendment rights of American citizens in a number of ways: sneak-and-peak warrants, roving wiretaps, and access to business and banking records without a warrant. Even more alarming then the PATRIOT act was the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and accompanying legislation, court battles, and executive orders. The premise behind this power grab is that the government can designate someone an enemy combatant and then hold him indefinitely without a trial, without access to a lawyer, or without even informing him of the charges he faces. While this suspect is held at Guantanamo Bay or some secret overseas prison, he will likely be deprived of the most basic human rights, let alone his ability to petition for a writ of habeas corpus or have any recourse against a potentially illegal detainment. Given the US government’s track record of heavy-handed ineptitude[3] , it’s hard to believe that terrorists present a greater threat to your life or liberty than governments and law enforcement agents.

Government vs. Terrorism

Yeah, pretty much.

All these manifestations of eroded freedoms, of course, stem from sacrificing the very principles that define the United States. Key components of a free society are protection of private property rights and personal liberties, rule of law, and due process, among others. If our country is defined by a set of principles, and we abandon those principles in the name of defending our country, have we not abandoned our country? The United States is not the “greatest, freest country in the world” just because we say it is; it is great and free only so long as we value and live by the principles of a free society. The extent that we depart from those principles is the extent to which we have surrendered our country. What is the point of fighting to save a country if our methods of fighting destroy its philosophical foundation? By abandoning our ideals, we are doing far more damage to our country than violent criminals ever could.

To really make things worse, does anyone really believe we are safer now than we were prior to the attacks? We’ve not only continued, but furthered, many of the same policies given as reasons for the violence. We’ve put tens of thousands of our troops in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, losing 6,000 in the process — more than double the number of civilian lives lost in the attacks themselves. No doubt our enhanced presence in Arab states and the high civilian death toll as a result of our operations is raising a new generation of people that will seek to avenge what they perceive as injustice. Law enforcement abuses of powers granted in the name of fighting terrorism are commonplace, as are complaints against the TSA. By all accounts, you’re more likely to suffer abuse at the hands of terror-fighting law enforcement than you are to be a victim of terrorism. If the choice was between getting groped by the TSA or getting attacked by terrorists — and I assure you that it isn’t — I’ll take my chances with the terrorists.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Episode: Carton Wars Part II, from http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/South_Park/Season_10
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motives_for_the_September_11_attacks
  3. The Waco seige, The Ruby Ridge incident, and every botched paramilitary drug raid

America’s War on Peace — the costs of our foreign policy

My last post covered a paper I wrote on the economics of the American Revolution during my last semester at Tech. Continuing in the same vein this week, I also wanted to post my Senior Economics Thesis. My paper addresses the astronomical costs and long-term implications of our aggressive foreign policy.

Friends and readers will note that I argued my point from the Keynesian point of view despite the fact that I reject Keynesian economics entirely. I did this because I wanted to argue the point on their terms — and there is nothing more Keynesian than the myth that war is good for the economy. A third-grader can see the flaw in this myth, via the parable of the broken window, but most Keynesians are so deluded that they refuse to accept any argument that isn’t framed in the context of a “government multiplier”. So I argued on those terms and still believe I made my point.

Here’s a link to the paper, called The Costs of America’s War on Peace and I have embedded it below. Enjoy:

The Economic American Revolution

During my last semester in college, when I had to take 3 unexpected classes to graduate, I wrote a paper on the economic background of the American Revolutionary War and the Constitution. Most people consider the American Revolution to be a purely philosophical or political revolution, but economic considerations were significant. Perhaps even lesser known is the role post-war economics played in the drafting of the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation were not scrapped and replaced by the Constitution because the federal government didn’t have “enough power” in the sense of authoritarian control, but because of state-level economic issues that threatened the economic stability of the country.

Here’s a link to the paper, called The Economic American Revolution: Economic motivators and conditions in Revolutionary America and I have embedded it below. Enjoy:

A serf by any other name

Schoolchildren typically learn about the feudal system in history class, when covering the medieval period in Europe. It is typically presented as an ancient, obsolete form of government, practiced by ignorant people of the past who didn’t know any better. People familiar with democracy, upon learning about the feudal system, tend to view it as an abhorrent system of government. Feudalism inherently concentrates power in the hands of an elite class, whose membership was largely determined by birth and marriage . Personal choice, economic freedom, and the democratic process were not components of the feudal system, and someone born a serf would more than likely stay that way. All of these things are typically thought of as morally offensive at some level or another by anyone who has lived in a democratic society. Despite this, many democracies have incorporated elements of socialism — particularly taxation on income — to the point that once-democratic governments bear resemblance to feudal governments.

While the “feudal system” is a term broadly given to many forms of governments in the medieval era, different areas and time periods had their own flavors of feudalism. One thing in common, however, was Manorialism, wherein land (a manor) was owned by a lord and worked by a variety of peasantry roughly termed “serfs”. Serfdom is an unusual condition, because serfs were not slaves in the sense we typically think of slaves. While slavery certainly existed under feudal systems of government, the serfs themselves were generally free in the sense that they were not the property of the lord and, in many cases, were free to live their lives away from direct oversight of the lord. But the lord of the manor had a far more insidious claim to their lives: he had claim to their income. He had claim to the product of their labor.

A serf's obligation to his lord

The serf was obligated to provide to the lord the product of his labor, before he could consume or trade any potential excess. That is, the lord had “first dibs” on whatever was produced by the serf. Only once the serf had satisfied his lord’s demands could he enjoy the remaining product of his labor, which hopefully was enough to live off of. Unfortunately, this was little consolation, as the lord typically demanded the largest portion and usually the best-quality product of the serf’s labor. If a serf was a shepherd, for instance, the lord would have claim to some pre-defined amount of the serf’s best wool, meat, and milk, before the serf could consume any for himself, provide any to his family, or sell in the market for a profit.

While the serfs toiled in the fields, the lords, of course, spent much of their time throwing lavish parties, waging wars to gain status and territory, and generally wasting the product of the serf’s labor. The priorities of the serf and lord did not align at all when it came to allocating the resources produced by the serf. Certainly, the serf gained some benefits from this arrangement. He was typically protected to some degree — at least when the lord’s war-waging habits didn’t incite retalitory violence or when the lord himself didn’t post a threat. The serf had a place to live, land that he was responsible for, and he had “freedom” in some sense of the word. At least, it could be argued, he was not a slave.

Democratic societies have prided themselves on their eradication of true slavery but have, over the years, yielded to various tenets of serfdom. Indeed, serfdom remains alive and well in the modern world, in the form of income tax. Like the lord, the government demands the product of your labor, before you can use or trade any potential excess. Like the lord, the presumption is that you do not own the product of your labor but rather that you may keep what the government leaves you with. And of course, the government throws lavish parties, wages wars to gain status and territory, and generally wastes the product of the our labor. Much like the serfs, we are protected to some degree by the government — at least when its war-waging habits don’t incite retaliatory violence or the government itself poses a threat.
Jello wrestling in Antarctica

Jello wrestling in Antarctica -- Your tax dollars hard at work

An old joke involves George Bernard Shaw (or sometimes Winston Churchill) approaching a woman at a party, with the following dialogue:

Shaw: “Madam, would you sleep with me for a million pounds?”.
Woman: “Well, I suppose so.”
Shaw: “Would you sleep with me for ten shillings?”.
Woman: “Of course not! What kind of woman do you take me for? A prostitute?”
Shaw: “We’ve already established what you are, madam. Now we are just haggling over the price.”

Once you accept that a person or government may lay claim to your income — in any amount — you have conceded to them lordship over your hard work, your wealth, and, ultimately, your life. You have established yourself as a serf, to be used for ends that are not your own. Any discussion about how much of your wealth should be confiscated is simply discussing the terms of your bondage; haggling over the price of your prostitution. Despite support from so-called “progressives”, income taxes represent a huge step backward in economic and political freedom, which are two sides of the same coin. More than any other government policy, income taxation burdens supposedly free people with a yoke of servitude that their ancestors worked hard to remove. It is time to relegate all vestiges of serfdom to the historical wastebasket — including the income tax. After all, “is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?”

Rapture, Scripture, and the errors of the eyewitness

I’m currently reading “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel, which is quite timely considering the current media attention being given to yet another doomsday prophet predicting the end of the world based on supposed biblical evidence. In this case, Harold Camping believes he’s found evidence that the world is ending within the bible, particularly the book of revelation. While most mainstream Christians are tripping over themselves to distance their beliefs from Camping’s obvious insanity, this is a particularly good illustration of my biggest issue with Strobel’s book.

First, the book proclaims itself to be a journey from atheism to spirituality, and yet Strobel’s supposed atheism didn’t stem from any particular philosophical ideal or logical issue with faith; he was just sort of indifferent towards religion. He had a few qualms with the historical accuracy of the bible, but he clearly had no issues with accepting things on faith or believing in the supernatural. Strobel actually strikes me as someone who most certainly held theistic beliefs (i.e believed in a supernatural “god” of some kind) and just did not practice a religion. That is quite different from actually committing oneself to rationality and rejecting fanciful tales for which you’ve seen no evidence except the tales themselves.

Whatever his initial spiritual status, he is doing a terrible job of winning me over to his current viewpoint. He has so far spent about half the book trying to prove the existence of Jesus and the four gospel writers and present evidence that the gospels were not written hundreds of years after Jesus’ death. He also tries to corroborate the gospels with other historical evidence from secular (or at least, non-Christian) historians. In his interviews with experts in these areas, he asks weak questions and accepts their answers conceding the inherent unreliability of such evidence with absolutely no resistance, as though they revealed to him some shocking self-evident truth. Amusingly, he then goes on to cite the prevalence of churches soon after Jesus’ death as evidence for Christianity. Michael Scott would approve of that “logic”.
Michael Scott on Religion

"Is there a God? If not, what are all these churches for?"

I should add here that I have no desire (or philosophical obligation) to “disprove” the existence of a man named Jesus or any of his followers. By most accounts, they probably did exist and written accounts were probably “based on a true story” in terms of historical occurrences and such. But that’s not relevant. Someone is not a Christian because they believed Jesus merely existed. A Christian believes that Jesus, born of a virgin, died for their sins and then was resurrected by his all-powerful father, who created the universe. What does this have to do with Harold Camping and his apocalyptic predictions? I’m getting there. Let’s give Strobel (and every Christian) the benefit of the doubt and say that there absolutely was a man named Jesus, with a bunch of followers, whose life was chronicled by four guys who impeccably wrote down their eyewitness accounts of his life,which were then flawlessly translated through 3 languages and transcribed without error. Let’s say all of that is true. So what? That proves nothing related to “God”, Christianity, or anything supernatural. Strobel spends so much time fussing about whether or not the eyewitness accounts of the gospel writers were accurately transcribed that he never stops to consider that they may have been wrong. That they didn’t see what they think they did. That they were members of a primitive, superstitious society that saw the influence of the supernatural lurking behind every shadow. That they — like Harold Camping — were either mistaken or deliberately misleading their audience.

Every few months, someone like Harold Camping shows up in the news, claiming evidence of something “from beyond”. Maybe they are claiming to have seen Jesus, a dead relative, or Aliens. Remember the Virgin Mary that appeared at my beloved Coogee Beach in Australia? For the record: I’ve been there many times and it’s just a fence post — though the view of Coogee Bay from that area is spectacular. How about every person claiming to have a religious vision? How about every person who’s ever done LSD, peyote, or DMT and seen the same things? The fact is that if you believe in the supernatural and have a subconscious desire — or “chemical assistance” — you can see whatever you want to see. Incidentally, this is actually an evolutionary adaptation for quick pattern-recognition known as Pareidolia, where we perceive insignificant stimuli as significant when they fit within pre-existing cognition, giving an obvious evolutionary advantage to those who could discern predators or food quickly in the wild.

There’s a great reason why people in Hindu cultures are likely to have visions of Hindu deities and not those of the Christian faith, or why the Romans, Egyptians, and Greeks, “saw” their gods of choice from time to time. Since the dawn of time, people have seen gods, ghosts, spirits, and the like. Why would the claims of gospel writers to see a ghost (zombie?) Jesus be any more credible than the claim of anyone else claiming to see a ghost, an alien, or some supernatural apparition? The historical veracity of those claiming such visions is irrelevant if they are wrong in the first place. We have perfectly good “historical” coverage of Harold Camping, the lady who saw the Virgin Mary in her grilled cheese sandwich, and, of course, there is the show “GhostHunters” with video footage of people supposedly witnessing the supernatural. Does any of that mean that those people are right? Of course it doesn’t. A perfect copy of a mistake is still a mistake.

Do, or Do not.

In a memorable scene from The Empire Strikes Back, Jedi master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker to lift his X-wing fighter out of a swamp using the force. In response, Luke tells Yoda that he will try. Yoda then tells a discouraged Luke “No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” While a 3-foot tall fictional green alien seems like a strange source of philosophical advice, Yoda’s statement is merely a repackaged expression of Buddhist and Taoist thought.

When I was younger, I thought Yoda’s quote sounded cool but never really understood it. I figured that things weren’t that simple and that some attempts at an activity must be “tried” rather than “done”. Eventually, I came to understand the statement as it is meant: a commitment to an effort, or process, rather than a commitment to outcome. Buddhist and Taoist philosophy frequently discusses the importance of focusing on inputs rather than outputs, in all facets of life. “Doing” does not necessarily mean reaching the exact end you had in mind on the exact path you intended. Rather, it means walking the path you think is correct and accepting (and facing) all the elations and tribulations that come along with it. Contrast this to the notion of “trying”, where failure lurks around every corner and you view every failure as a reflection of yourself.

Doing — in the Buddhist sense — implies effort and focus to a process while maintaining a detachment to an outcome. Looking at things this way, notions of failure or success become secondary, if not entirely irrelevant. As Art DeVany says — in his own statement of Evolutionary Zen — “there is no failure, only feedback.” By using success or failures as data points or guides rather than objects of attachment, you won’t find yourself emotionally beholden to a particular outcome. You will be better able to enjoy the process of learning or doing something and will likely be more happy with the outcome, even if it isn’t the one you originally intended.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”