Thursday, March 11, 2010

When is terrorism not terrorism?

When is terrorism not terrorism? When it would be politically bad to speak of it as such. Janet Napolitano recently declared that when Joe Stack flew his airplane into the IRS building, it was not an act of terrorism.

I can see that the definitions of terrorism are controversial and subjective enough that one can come to different points of view. But her logic is twisted. Specifically, she says this:

"To our belief, he was a lone wolf. He used a terrorist tactic, but an individual who uses a terrorist tactic doesn't necessarily mean they are part of an organized group attempting an attack on the United States"
Fair enough - there is indeed no reason to think Stack was part of an organized group. But look at what she says here: "he used a terrorist tactic." The definition of terrorism may be a bit squishy, but I would think that the one thing we'd all agree on is that the use of a "terrorist tactic" (however squishy that is to define) would make one a terrorist. After all, for whatever definition you have of "terrorist tactic," if you don't use a tactic that meets that definition, you're not a terrorist, and if you do, then you are.

A big learning of the past decade, I thought, was that we are not at war with "terrorism," that we are at war with "terrorists." And this distinction is driven entirely by the fact that "terrorism" is a set of tactics, and terrorists are those who employ those tactics.

Joe Stack was not part of an organized group. Good. He also thankfully did not cause nearly the harm that he could have, also good! He's not foreign, you can decide whether that's good or bad. But since when have we ever included organization, competency, or nationality as a criteria for whether or not one is guilty of terrorism?

Napolitano went on to justify this characterization, saying that "lone wolf" actors like stack is not where DHS should be focusing its resources. This is a perfectly fair argument to make. But she shouldn't take the cowardly approach of defining it away from being terrorism to support this position.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Am I a liberal? Or a conservative?

While I have a great disdain for ideology, that doesn’t mean I don’t have principles that guide my points of view on various issues. I think the key word here is "guide."

One can usually do a pros and cons analysis for any given approach, and rarely are both of these columns completely empty. The rational thing to do, it seems to me, is to look at the pros and the cons and make a judgment (and it is inevitably a judgment, with all of the human subjectivity that implies!) as to which side outweighs the other.

The problem with ideology is that it turns gray issues into black-and-white: it says that the presence of something in one of the two columns (pros or cons) completely negates everything on the other side. The trouble is, the world is gray, and being gray does not preclude making smart policy decision.

Anyhow, here are some of the principles that guide my political thinking. I'll leave it to you to decide whether I'm a conservative or a liberal.

Why I’m a liberal:
  • I believe that freedoms are not absolute, that it is OK under certain circumstances to give up some freedom for the sake of a better society. For example, I hope even conservatives can agree with: I give up my right to drive anywhere I want in the road because the convention of everyone driving on the right side (here in America) keeps everyone safer. This is admittedly a trivial example; the disputes obviously come as the degree of freedom encroachment increases as to where to draw the line. (I think, for example, that the burden imposed on flying by the TSA is too much).
  • I believe people should be allowed to unionize, although I think it’s almost always a bad idea to do so.
  • I believe that markets are often imperfect, and that reasonable and smart regulations enhance them. They key word here is "smart." Regulations are not inherently bad; unfortunately, it's very easy to create bad regulations or regulations with unintended consequences. In any case, markets need a level playing field, consumers and investors need transparency, and externalities (such as environmental issues) need to be accounted for.
  • I am an environmentalist and a conservationist. See above about externalities, but the bigger issue is that market forces usually do not account for harm to the environment, nor do they typically provide sufficient reward to conserve species or enhance the environment; this requires the public sector.
  • I believe there are some things that government is best at. I suppose this isn't controversial - even conservatives admit that things like national defense are properly the realm of the government.
  • I think it's OK for the government to try to ensure that it's people get educated and that there is a sufficient safety net that job market liquidity is maintained.
  • I dislike guns, and I suspect that on balance gun owners are no safer than the rest of the population. I support sensible regulations on them.
  • I believe that taxes and other revenue should support the level of spending that we choose (via democracy) to have.
  • I supported the bailout because I believe (although I cannot prove) that the economic recession would have been far worse otherwise; increasing the deficit, I fear, was the lesser of two evils.
  • I believe that the 1st amendment unambiguously requires a separation between church and state.
  • I support the ACLU.
Why I’m a conservative:
  • With freedom comes responsibility. The government shouldn't come to save you, shouldn't be the one to create a job for you.
  • I believe in a strong national defense.
  • I have an instinctive bias against unions; while there may be a few exceptions, most have long since outlasted the purpose for which they were created and now are an impediment to innovation, improved productivity, and economic growth. I think they're almost always counterproductive for their members. That said, I support the right to form/join one; I just think it's almost always a bad idea.
  • I am not impressed with our public school system. A few examples: I have little sympathy for teacher complaints about low pay. If you don’t like it, quit. When schools can’t hire enough teachers, pay will go up. I think teachers unions are a huge impediment to improving education. I think charter schools and other innovations should be tried more broadly.
  • I believe that government should only do those things that are worth doing and that only government can do.
  • Bad regulations are a huge problem and should be modified or eliminated.
  • I believe markets as the best way to solve most things and market-based solutions should be preferred before government-based solutions unless there is strong evidence that they will not work. Even for environmental problems. For example, this is one reason why I favor a carbon market rather than a carbon tax (a government-based solution); I think the market would inherently adjust more quickly and accurately than a tax would.
  • I support the right of people to arm themselves to defend themselves (even if I don't think that's a particularly wise approach in general).
  • I believe that taxes should be as low as possible.
  • I believe government spending should be as low as possible.
  • I do not believe it is appropriate to deliberately attempt income redistribution.
  • Our deficit and national debt are out of control and are a huge problem. I believe that budgets should be balanced except under extraordinary circumstances, or at least the national debt should be no more than about 10% of GDP.
  • I believe in the first amendment, allowing people unfettered ability to speak their minds and to practice any religion they choose.
  • I support the ACLU because I believe in the personal freedoms that they defend. Yes, I list this as a conservative point of view because I think the ACLU actually supports conservative values and limits on government intrusion.
I could probably list more, but these are the ones that come to mind right now.