The whole concept of fighting terrorism has a serious, fatal flaw. It's not just that it enables all kinds of invasive policies. The problem with fighting terrorism is that terrorism is extremely cheap politically motivated violence. This means that any organized political entity is capable of becoming a terrorist entity. That means that the only way to track potential sources of terrorism is to find people who disagree with the government about something and then measure how angry and/or desperate they are. You really can't accomplish this without destroying a free society. However, since this category of people - people who disagree with the government about any given thing - can easily become equal to the number of people in a given country, even if you've destroyed all freedom in your society, the task remains impossible, because the sheer overhead in tracking every member of your society requires that nothing happen in your society other than people tracking each other. And even if you were able to pull off all that surveillance, measuring how angry and/or desperate people are is extraordinarily difficult.
The problem really comes from modelling political dissent as a threat. We should regard terrorist acts as acts of war, and focus on resolving the economic and cultural conflicts which motivate such acts. Extending diplomacy, rather than dropping bombs, is a commonplace strategy for every country in the world other than the United States. The United States needs to learn this strategy, but even then it isn't enough. Since any organized group can now perform acts of war, we now need to extend diplomacy not only to other countries but also to any organized group capable of becoming violent, which is to say, any organized group.
Extending diplomacy to any organized group is essentially impossible, especially in a Web 2.0 world where groups can form overnight and then dissolve just as quickly. It's as difficult as spying on every member of a society, for pretty much the same reason: there's just too many people, and only one state. There's no way in hell the gigantic beauraucratic apparatus which you need to have in order to run an entire country will ever be flexible enough to extend diplomacy to any and all organized groups. The logistics are utterly ludicrous.
What's really going on with all this is that terrorism is essentially a disruptive technology, and there's really no way that any country can respond to it effectively. The only way to effectively deal with terrorism is to construct some new approach to organizing civilization. This is a huge problem, partly in the sense that it's horrible and awful, but also in the sense that proving Fermat's theorem was a huge problem: you can measure the amount of time between realizing that a solution was needed and finding that solution in centuries rather than years.
Here's one idea for a solution. It might be a really good idea for people to form counter-terrorism groups. By counter-terrorism groups I don't mean groups which answer terrorism with terrorism; I mean groups which take the fundamental dynamic of terrorism and counteract it. If a terrorist group is a group which performs acts of war without necessarily representing a nation, a counter-terrorism group would be a group which performed acts of peace without necessarily representing a nation.
It could be that our governments are in fact too stupid and corrupt to ever keep us safe, and volunteer citizen groups of this nature are the only way to counteract terrorism. Since it's a very safe bet that resolving a few economic and cultural conflicts would take away the motivation behind terrorist acts, it's very much in the interest of ordinary citizens to resolve those conflicts. But this is what makes it such a hard problem: if what the world needs is citizen groups which perform acts of peace to prevent terrorism, without necessarily representing any particular nation, what on earth would that look like? Probably some strange hybrid of Dr. Martin Luther King and the micro-investment movement, combining pacifism with economic improvement.
It's scary writing about these things in the modern political climate. I got an e-mail from somebody named Mustafa asking me to help him use Gumstix to build a video surveillance system. It's entirely possible that somewhere out there, some dude in the CIA read my recent blog post about robotics and war and decided I was some kind of wannabe terrorist. If I was a CIA guy looking to bait a potential terrorist software engineer, I might write this e-mail too:
Just in case: I'm not a fucking terrorist, you brain-dead monkeys. (And Mustafa, if you are in fact a real human being with a genuine legitimate interest in Gumstix and video surveillance, well, sorry man, my bad. It seems kind of unlikely, though, given that there's no reasonable connection between the two subjects at all.)
Anyway - I bring this up not just because it makes for an interesting post, and not just because it kind of freaks me out - I could be looking at a very big dog barking up a very wrong tree - but also because it highlights a big problem. Say you decide the government is stupid and corrupt and making the world a more dangerous place. Say you decide to form a citizen group to resolve the economic and cultural conflicts which are driving terrorism in the world today. So, that's awesome, you're doing your part for world peace. There's just one little problem. How do you do that without getting thrown in Guantanamo Bay?
Update: Upon reflection I think it wasn't the CIA. It's not that I don't think the CIA's capable of that kind of profoundly inaccurate misinterpretation. It's just that if the CIA was investigating a blogger, I don't think they'd use such blatantly obvious e-mails, and I'm damn near certain that if they were writing such transparent attempts at entrapment, they wouldn't be sending them from freakin Hotmail. If anything, I shouldn't be terrified the CIA are after me, I should be glad I banned comments on my blog, because if this is the kind of stupidity it provokes from people who care enough to e-mail me at 3am, I can only imagine what a zero-effort format like blog comments would have brought me.