Dropping the Ball?

FBI Badge & gun.

FBI Badge & gun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it was learned that the FBI had checked up on  Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to predict that he would become radicalized, some politicians implied that the agency might have “dropped the ball.”

Given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did apparently turn out to a threat, it is tempting to infer that the FBI did drop the ball. Now that it is known that he was a threat, people are going back and reconstructing the evidence that he had become radicalized, such as his YouTube links and his outburst at a Mosque.  However, this temptation should be resisted (unless evidence emerges to the contrary).

In regards to tracking people and predicting whether they will become a threat, the FBI faces two main philosophical challenges. The first is epistemic: that is, how do they know that a person will become a threat? This, as might be imagined, can be rather problematic. After all, as some commentators have noted, the FBI checks on many people every year and the vast majority of them do not turn out to be threats.

To use the obvious analogy, some people have mental health issues that might lead to serious violence, but the vast majority of such people never actually engage in such violence. When someone with such issues does engage in violence, people endeavor to backtrack and look for what was missed-and it always seems that the definitive evidence is never found. This might be because people have free will, because behavior is ultimately random, or because we lack the epistemic abilities to find the key evidence. Or something else entirely.

In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it might be found that there is no decisive evidence that would have revealed him to be on the (alleged) path to the bombing. That is, given the reasonably available evidence, perhaps the FBI lacked an adequate reason to expend its limited resources in tracking Tamerlan Tsarnaev in detail.

This possibility seems likely. As is often the case, the only definitive evidence that a person will engage in violence is when the person actually does so. Naturally, it would be rather useful to be able to definitively sort out the pre-criminals/terrorists before they act-but this is a rather difficult challenge given our capacity to know.

The second challenge is ethical and deals with such matters as the right to privacy and concerns about having a police state. While the state could keep closer checks on people who are even suspected of being potential wrong doers, there are obviously moral concerns with such an invasive state. The recent battle over expanding background checks for gun purchases showed the extent to which some people are concerned about matters of privacy and rights even in the context of public safety. After all, if there are significant concerns with expanding background checks for buying guns, then one can only imagine to concerns with having the FBI keeping close tabs on people on the basis of a foreign state making an inquiry about them and other such reasons.

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  1. I once came across a very interesting cartoon. A scientist who makes a time machine declares his intention to go back in time, and kill Hitler. The next panel was of a news article with a picture of him being put in handcuffs. The caption read “The World’s Most Evil Man”, and the article described him as the first time travelling murderer, who killed a baby named Adolf.

    Tragedies such as the attack in Boston (rightfully) stir strong emotions among everyone, but one needs to mantain some semblence of rationality. I fear that what’s going on is mimicking the Red Scare, and policies similar to that of McCarthyism are being implemented.

  2. Hyder,

    Certain politicians are certainly trying to use the situation to infringe even more on constitutional rights and liberties. It is interesting to compare the gun debate in the US with the terror debate: many of the same folks who hold the second amendment as sacrosanct seem eager to trample over other parts of the Constitution.

    Mill seems to have nailed it in his discussion of liberty: most folks base their views on how they feel about stuff rather than on the basis of a consistent principle about what the state should or should not do.

  3. Mike LaBossiere,

    “Certain politicians are certainly trying to use the situation to infringe even more on constitutional rights and liberties. It is interesting to compare the gun debate in the US with the terror debate: many of the same folks who hold the second amendment as sacrosanct seem eager to trample over other parts of the Constitution.”

    The event of totalitarianism is often misunderstood as single person or cadre of dictators enforcing their will on a population. In reality it’s a powerful and significantly large social group, though not necessarily a majority, enforcing their will on everyone else.

    Strangely, how the majority of people think of totalitarianism, they imagine themselves in the position of the oppressed. That they would be the persecuted ethnic minority, and not the persecutors. The reality of NAZIS Germany, if you were a very average kind of white middle-class protestant German, you didn’t experience the regime as oppressive. And mostly, the oppression was done out of sight. If you caught a glimpse of forced labour gangs doing road works, obviously these people had committed some terrible crime, and besides they were not people like you – these people needed to be in chains for your security and the good of society.

    The reality is many people do want to live in an oppressive totalitarian state. Just as long as their social class is the one benefiting from the oppression and not experiencing it.

    “Mill seems to have nailed it in his discussion of liberty: most folks base their views on how they feel about stuff rather than on the basis of a consistent principle about what the state should or should not do.”

    This is true people can react emotively – and the irrationality can seem inconsistent. At other times the inconsistencies are consistently inconsistent. After a school shooting, the NRA call for teachers to be armed. After the death of Travyon Martin, they were not calling for all black male teenagers to carry guns. This inconsistency wasn’t due to a slip of the mind. It wasn’t due to emotion. There is a hidden consistency. The NRA are not really universal in the concepts of freedom and rights. They believe in the freedom and the right of a white person to shoot a black teenager. Of course they could never get away with publicly stating this – but they state it through their silence.

  4. Dennis Sceviour

    Could you expand on the meaning of the “hidden consistency”? Do you have a formulae for identifying the motivations behind moral masquerades?

  5. Dennis Sceviour,

    “Could you expand on the meaning of the “hidden consistency”?”

    The genuinely stupid and irrational are inconsistent. They either lack the faculties or they’re too lazy to sort out the logical flaws in their system of beliefs. The devious, on the other hand, are always consistent in their contradictions and omissions.

    “Do you have a formulae for identifying the motivations behind moral masquerades?”

    And that’s where it gets tricky. You may be able to determine there is a masquerade in progress. But the substance of what is being defended can be so well hidden it’s not even behind the masque. The core motivation could be so indefensible, and often is, that it must be completely removed from any possibility of interrogation. Often, if you approach their arguments directly you are walking into a trap.

    I know Mike likes to dismiss slippery slope arguments as fallacy, but they’re not always that fallacious. With Rosa Parks it wasn’t simply about a bus seat. And it wasn’t a spontaneous act of civil disobedience. Rosa Parks was part of a group of activists who had spent months trying to get arrested. The authorities were not completely stupid but in the end they walked into the trap like rubes. There is a nebulous link between the bus seat and economic privileges. But it was very definitely there.

    And absurd as it seems, there can be a link between contraception and economic privileges. When you hear “conservative” Catholics bleating on about contraception, it’s not about contraception, it’s not about sexual morality or anything like that. If you want to argue the point with them, ask them why they don’t have 12 children, and why their families look suspiciously well planned. (It’s all a little “don’t ask, don’t tell” with Catholics these days).

    And this is where there is a connection between Rosa Parks, Catholicism and contraception. In Ireland in the 1970s contraception was illegal – it was actually a criminal offense to be in possession of a condom. And full legal availability only came piece meal over the next few decades (in the 80s a doctor was prosecuted for having in his possession a jumbo box of condoms. At the time you were only legally allowed a maximum of three – and you were rationed to three in a month. A concession to the Catholic Church.).

    In the 70s Irish pro-contraception campaigners took a leaf out of the American Civil Rights play book, and rode condom trains to the Protestant North of Ireland, where contraception was legal. They would then return to Republic, with suitcases full of contraceptives. Loudly announcing their possession of contraband – trying like Rosa Parks to get arrested. The Irish police thought they were cleverer than the police of Montgomery Alabama, but not clever enough to notice they were being filmed by an international television crew while they roughly confiscating the haul of condoms, creams, and caps, from screaming women, bashing them with their handbags. It was a viral hit, in the days before Youtube. The embarrassment of the protest had the desired effect, and led eventually to legalisation.

    As well as the Catholic Church, there were anti-contraception campaigners -staunch conservative Catholics. And this is where it gets even more interesting. Contraception even though not legally available was widely used in Ireland, there was an underground railroad. The largest railroad being the pro-contraception campaign. And this is who one of the leaders of the anti-contraception campaign would contact to get his supplies of family planning materials, for himself and his crew; the other anti-contraception campaigners. Of course the man was a firm believer in contraception. But why was he campaigning against it? And the answer is very banal. The Catholic Church had such incredible control, appointments in education for example, to get anywhere you had to display your credentials as a dependable conservative Catholic. He was just like one of those ambitious people on the make, who joined the communist or Nazis party, without being wholeheartedly wedded to the ideology.

    Why were the Irish Catholic Church so obsessed by sexual morality and contraception. Because the far right controlled the Church. And since the Church was the ultimate moral authority – they knew the moment they stopped talking about sexual morality, after a heavy silence, they would need to get onto the subject of economic morality, which is something they never wanted to discuss.

    If you were watching the news this week, you would have seen the riots in France, and a Catholic priest or two getting tear gassed. The protests were not really against same sex marriage – the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests are gay, and many in long term relationships, you could say they’re married men. No….it’s about something else.

  6. Dennis Sceviour

    I see. The purpose of the masquerade is to trap the approaching victim, without the person even knowing he has been trapped. And the motivation is to get a message across that otherwise no one would pay any attention. There are numerous examples of masquerades used for public media exploitation. Perhaps the purpose of a moral masquerade is simply theatrics.

    I am not sure that absurdity or consistency would make any difference. According to your theory, I am left on the horns of the dilemma trying to decide whether it is better to be absurd and candid, or devious and consistent.

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