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Ben McCandless
To engineer is human
To engineer is human
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One Citizen's reflections on September 11th.

10 years ago today, a shadowy organization concluded one of the most devastatingly successful terror attacks in history. They used hijacked aircraft to destroy two of the tallest buildings in the world, and also attacked the Pentagon. A fourth plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers realized the intent of the hijackers and took action on their own.

It is estimated that the attackers, a group known as Al Qaeda, spent approximately half a million dollars (US) in the course of planning and carrying out these attacks.

The cost of the attacks to the US is hard to calculate. Setting aside the value of the 2,819 lives lost, the direct damage (value of destroyed property, costs of cleaning up or repairing the damage) is estimated to be on the order of 100 billion dollars - two hundred thousand times more than Al Qaeda's attack expenses.

However stunning those number are, the US policy reactions dwarfed them. Rather than treating these attacks as a crime, like previous attacks with similar motives or goals, the attack was treated as an act of war. Twenty-six days after the 9-11 attacks, it invaded Afghanistan, and a year and a half later, Iraq. The human cost of these wars to date has been truly staggering; in Afghanistan 1,664 US soldiers have died, and nearly 11,000 have been wounded, in Iraq, over 6000 US soldiers and contractors have been killed and over 32,000 wounded. The financial cost is also immense: the costs of these two wars will likely exceed 5 trillion dollars - ten million times more than Al Queda's expenses. These costs appear to be ongoing: During the last decade, the pentagon budget has ballooned, approximately doubling to 700 billion dollars. The US has suffered a tremendous intangible loss of reputation: human rights abuses of prisoners, use of interrogation methods that are widely considered to be torture, and widespread warrantless wiretapping of US citizens have taken their toll on the US brand of freedom, liberty, and rule of law.

In addition to all this, the US has created a new department of government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that is charged with domestic protection. While it oversees many worthwhile programs, its most visible face is the Transportation Security Administration, who has been much ridiculed for it's reactive nature and invasive personal searches (Court challenges for civil rights violations are ongoing). It's most useful contributions have been the least publicized: Cockpit doors are now reinforced and locked during flight, and checked luggage is screened more rigorously. Regardless, the most effective form of airline security has been the passengers - several credible bombing or attempted hijacking attempts have been thwarted by alert passengers after getting through airport security. The proposed DHS budget for 2012 is $43.2 billion dollars (nearly 90 times more than Al Qaeda's attack expenses) and show no sign of decreasing, even as the nation struggles with the burden of the debt it has acquired in the last ten years.

You may draw your own conclusions.

My take is this: Al Qaeda understood our weakness perfectly. It was not just that our hijacking protocols assumed that the hijackers would be open to negotiation, it was that once blood was drawn, we would be so horrified that we would sacrifice everything to be safe - our treasure, the blood of our people, even the ideals that we held dear - we would pour them into the sand.

And we have. We were utterly predictable.


And so this has been a decade of victory, however phyrric, for Al Qaeda. To anyone who tries to tell me otherwise, I point out that we have done far worse to ourselves than anything someone else ever did to us. In all honesty, it makes me ill. I'm old enough to remember the waning years of the Cold War. During that time, we faced a threat immensely greater than that of the terrorist attack of 9-11.

We knew that if there was an attack, it was likely that our nation would not survive it. It would not be one that could be blocked by border guards in blue uniforms. It would come on intercontinental missiles. It would not be one city that was attacked, it would be hundreds of cities. Individual survival, if possible, would be based on how far you were from anything considered to be worth bombing. And yet we were strong and brave, even in the face of this utter destruction. Despite the fear of some unknown person sneaking WMDs into a city via airline, the thought of having to show your identification papers to travel was utterly foreign to our thoughts, and we openly derided our enemy for requiring such things.

And yet people still try to convince me that things are different now. They refer to a "post 9-11 world" as if somehow we face a threat that cannot fully be comprehended, and that we should expect to make some sacrifices, even of the liberties that we held dear, to defend ourselves against it. Not only should we make those sacrifices, we should be happy, since we do it for the greater good.

When I hear this, I sit and imagine two stockpiles of nuclear weapons, springing to life and wiping this planet clean with a vengeance, with enough left over to set the rubble bouncing. Everything you or any other human has ever accomplished could be erased in an instant.

My grandparents lived with this fear (and others - but the world wars were before my time). My parents grew up with this fear, lived with it, and brought more children into the world anyway. I remember the fear - but none of us lived in terror. Every one of us carried on knowing that living in terror would not buy us one more moment of life should those missiles appear. Through all that, we knew that certain things were worth preserving at the cost of our lives. Today, you can see terror anywhere - watch two political candidates discuss security, or better still, ask someone on the street whether they are more concerned about airline security or China's nuclear stockpile. Somehow a man on an airplane with a box cutter is seen as infinitely more fearsome than the end of the world.
So I sigh at each mention of 9-11, and wonder what the endgame is going to be. Al Qaeda has certainly brought it faster than I expected.

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FDR, 1932 - "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
To paraphrase: Be strong.

DHS, 2011 - "The current threat advisory level is orange"
To paraphrase: Be afraid.

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JDS 2819 - The source of my most recent dose of adrenaline.

Pulled out of the traffic lane, into the bike lane, just as I was going by.  Came within a few inches of hitting me.

Gotta watch out, people!

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I just stumbled upon a fascinating short story: Manna, by Marshall Brain.  It examines the fine line that divides a technological utopia from technological dystopia.  It's pretty short, only eight chapters, with roughly 30 paragraphs per chapter.

What really struck me was how much this echos back to one of my favorite books: For us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs.  This was written by Robert Heinlein in 1938, but was only published in 2003.  (It's an interesting story, that delay, but not one for this post)  The resemblance is clear, despite the 60+ years difference in age.

I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so take a break and spend 30 minutes reading it.  Once you've done that, I'd be interested to hear what everyone thinks.

Once you've read that, check your motivation level.  If things look good, go to the library and check out that Heinlein book.  Take a couple of days and read that.  I'm REALLY interested to see what people think of it, and how the two paint similar pictures of the future.

And what direction you think we are heading . . .

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Waiting for the NRA statement congratulating the child for taking his safety into his own hands, and that if only more kids had guns, the world would be a better place...

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The white house released it's response to a petition to build a death star.  I think they hit exactly the right note.

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/response/isnt-petition-response-youre-looking

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Too much fun.

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Testing out Windows 8 - It's mindbending.  Not bad, but strange.

Most recent WTF: Microsoft does not allow spaces in passwords.

http://www.osnews.com/images/comics/wtfm.jpg

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Well, we've had a day to recalibrate ourselves after the election.  (No adverts! Still too much election talk though.)  We've learned some interesting things though:

1) Nate Silver had the election just about pegged.  A lot of talking heads demonstrated their ignorance of statistics and polling.  The Cato institute, a libertarian think-tank, has a guy by the name of Julian Sanchez who has a great blog* that I'd recommend to anyone: http://www.juliansanchez.com/.  Today's post is called "A Method to their Mathlessness" and is a better summary of the situation than I intend to offer here.

2) Romney lost every swing state except North Carolina.  This ought to prompt some soul searching on the part of the GOP.  The margins weren't great, but imagine what would have happened if the economy had been slightly better, or if the tragedy in Benghazi had been avoided.

3) The popular vote was fairly close: 48/50 split for Obama (that's a difference of about 3 million votes).  I don't think that there'll be any charges that the election was stolen, and hopefully I won't be waking up with flashbacks to 2000.  However, the GOP is going to have to look into expanding it's base if it wants to take back the presidency and the senate.  Right now, it's the party of old white men, and demographics says that won't work much longer.  They need more youth, more women, more African Americans, more Hispanics.  To appeal to any of these groups, some of the old ideology is going to have to go.  (I know it hurts guys, but so does irrelevance.)

4) The Democrats fortunes sure changed over the course of the election season.  They went from possibly losing control of the senate to picking up three seats in both houses (This despite the fact that they had more seats at risk in the House than the Republicans did.)

5) I'm sure all of you guys out there knew this already, but you piss off women at your peril.  Akin, Mourdock, and Walsh all lost their bids for reelection.  Akin and Moudock's comments on rape and abortion appear to have doomed what were otherwise pretty safe seats.

6) Arizona looks to be experiencing a leftward shift.  Compare the 2008 and 2012 exit polls from that state, and tell me something interesting isn't happening.  (http://elections.nytimes.com/2012/results/president/exit-polls?gwh=1C3D503A017433EEB2E1E5AE3BA78080)

6) The gobs of money available for campaigning after the Citizen's United decision sure made for a nasty election season.  I was somewhat surprised to find out how little effect it seemed to have on the outcome.  Some people who received truly incredible backing still lost.  It's not very often that I find I was being too cynical.

7) Total number of voters in the 2008 election: 129.4 million.  In 2012: 118.3 million.  My read on this is that a lot of people sat this election out for whatever reason (FYI: there's no acceptable reason to not vote, in my mind).  If you break this down a bit further, you can see that Obama got about 8.9 million fewer votes this time when compared to '08 and Romney got 2.2 million fewer votes than McCain.  This suggests some interesting things about demographics that I'm going to have to dig into further.

Anyhow, there's a collection of things that I thought was interesting.  I think my essay will be "An Open Letter to Congress (Raise my taxes)"  We'll see if I work up the enthusiasm for that in the near future.    I'm curious what other interesting tidbits people picked up on, so feel free to leave comments.

-Ben
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* He's a philosophy major, if I recall correctly, and occasionally he'll get a bit too technical for my taste, but when he discusses issues or events, I find that he seems to have good insight.

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O weekend, where art thou?
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