Entries Tagged "weapons"

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Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

The U.S. is developing a weapon capable of striking anywhere on the planet within an hour. The article talks about the possibility of modifying Trident missiles — problematic because they would be indistinguishable from nuclear weapons — and using the Mach 5–capable X-51 hypersonic cruise missile.

Interesting technology, but we really need to think through the political ramifications of this sort of thing better.

EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Report on the policy implications.

Posted on April 29, 2010 at 1:28 PMView Comments

Stabbing People with Stuff You Can Get Through Airport Security

Use of a pig model to demonstrate vulnerability of major neck vessels to inflicted trauma from common household items,” from the American Journal of Forensic Medical Pathology.

Abstract. Commonly available items including a ball point pen, a plastic knife, a broken wine bottle, and a broken wine glass were used to inflict stab and incised wounds to the necks of 3 previously euthanized Large White pigs. With relative ease, these items could be inserted into the necks of the pigs next to the jugular veins and carotid arteries. Despite precautions against the carrying of metal objects such as knives and nail files on board domestic and international flights, objects are still available within aircraft cabins that could be used to inflict serious and potentially life-threatening injuries. If airport and aircraft security measures are to be consistently applied, then consideration should be given to removing items such as glass bottles and glass drinking vessels. However, given the results of a relatively uncomplicated modification of a plastic knife, it may not be possible to remove all dangerous objects from aircraft. Security systems may therefore need to focus on measures such as increased surveillance of passenger behavior, rather than on attempting to eliminate every object that may serve as a potential weapon.

Posted on November 19, 2009 at 7:10 AMView Comments

Zero-Tolerance Policies

Recent stories have documented the ridiculous effects of zero-tolerance weapons policies in a Delaware school district: a first-grader expelled for taking a camping utensil to school, a 13-year-old expelled after another student dropped a pocketknife in his lap, and a seventh-grader expelled for cutting paper with a utility knife for a class project. Where’s the common sense? the editorials cry.

These so-called zero-tolerance policies are actually zero-discretion policies. They’re policies that must be followed, no situational discretion allowed. We encounter them whenever we go through airport security: no liquids, gels or aerosols. Some workplaces have them for sexual harassment incidents; in some sports a banned substance found in a urine sample means suspension, even if it’s for a real medical condition. Judges have zero discretion when faced with mandatory sentencing laws: three strikes for drug offences and you go to jail, mandatory sentencing for statutory rape (underage sex), etc. A national restaurant chain won’t serve hamburgers rare, even if you offer to sign a waiver. Whenever you hear "that’s the rule, and I can’t do anything about it" — and they’re not lying to get rid of you — you’re butting against a zero discretion policy.

These policies enrage us because they are blind to circumstance. Editorial after editorial denounced the suspensions of elementary school children for offenses that anyone with any common sense would agree were accidental and harmless. The Internet is filled with essays demonstrating how the TSA’s rules are nonsensical and sometimes don’t even improve security. I’ve written some of them. What we want is for those involved in the situations to have discretion.

However, problems with discretion were the reason behind these mandatory policies in the first place. Discretion is often applied inconsistently. One school principal might deal with knives in the classroom one way, and another principal another way. Your drug sentence could depend considerably on how sympathetic your judge is, or on whether she’s having a bad day.

Even worse, discretion can lead to discrimination. Schools had weapons bans before zero-tolerance policies, but teachers and administrators enforced the rules disproportionally against African-American students. Criminal sentences varied by race, too. The benefit of zero-discretion rules and laws is that they ensure that everyone is treated equally.

Zero-discretion rules also protect against lawsuits. If the rules are applied consistently, no parent, air traveler or defendant can claim he was unfairly discriminated against.

So that’s the choice. Either we want the rules enforced fairly across the board, which means limiting the discretion of the enforcers at the scene at the time, or we want a more nuanced response to whatever the situation is, which means we give those involved in the situation more discretion.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. The problem with the zero-tolerance weapons rules isn’t that they’re rigid, it’s that they’re poorly written.

What constitutes a weapon? Is it any knife, no matter how small? Should the penalties be the same for a first grader and a high school student? Does intent matter? When an aspirin carried for menstrual cramps becomes “drug possession,” you know there’s a badly written rule in effect.

It’s the same with airport security and criminal sentencing. Broad and simple rules may be simpler to follow — and require less thinking on the part of those enforcing them — but they’re almost always far less nuanced than our complex society requires. Unfortunately, the more complex the rules are, the more they’re open to interpretation and the more discretion the interpreters have.

The solution is to combine the two, rules and discretion, with procedures to make sure they’re not abused. Provide rules, but don’t make them so rigid that there’s no room for interpretation. Give the people in the situation — the teachers, the airport security agents, the policemen, the judges — discretion to apply the rules to the situation. But — and this is the important part — allow people to appeal the results if they feel they were treated unfairly. And regularly audit the results to ensure there is no discrimination or favoritism. It’s the combination of the four that work: rules plus discretion plus appeal plus audit.

All systems need some form of redress, whether it be open and public like a courtroom or closed and secret like the TSA. Giving discretion to those at the scene just makes for a more efficient appeals process, since the first level of appeal can be handled on the spot.

Zachary, the Delaware first grader suspended for bringing a combination fork, spoon and knife camping utensil to eat his lunch with, had his punishment unanimously overturned by the school board. This was the right decision; but what about all the other students whose parents weren’t as forceful or media-savvy enough to turn their child’s plight into a national story? Common sense in applying rules is important, but so is equal access to that common sense.

This essay originally appeared on the Minnesota Public Radio website.

EDITED TO ADD (11/11): Another example:

A former soldier who handed a discarded shotgun in to police faces at least five years imprisonment for “doing his duty.”

Posted on November 3, 2009 at 11:17 AMView Comments

The Bizarre Consequences of "Zero Tolerance" Weapons Policies at Schools

Good article:

Zachary’s offense? [He’s six years old.] Taking a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.

[…]

“Something has to change,” said Dodi Herbert, whose 13-year old son, Kyle, was suspended in May and ordered to attend the Christina district’s reform school for 45 days after another student dropped a pocket knife in his lap.

[…]

The Christina school district attracted similar controversy in 2007 when it expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project.

The problem, of course, is that the global rule trumps any situational common sense, any discretion. But in granting discretion those in overall charge must trust people below them who have more detailed situational knowledge. It’s CYA security — the same thing you see at airports. Those involved in the situation can’t be blamed for making a bad decision as long as they follow the rules, no matter how stupid they are and how little they apply to the situation.

Posted on October 15, 2009 at 7:34 AMView Comments

Banning Beer Glasses in Pubs

Not beer, just the glasses:

The Home Office has commissioned a new design, in an attempt to stop glasses being used as weapons.

Official figures show 5,500 people are attacked with glasses and bottles every year in England and Wales.

The British Beer and Pub Association said it did not want the new plastic glasses to be made compulsory.

I don’t think this will go anywhere, but the sheer idiocy is impressive. Reminds me of the call to ban pointy knives. That recommendation also came out of the UK. What’s going on over there?

Posted on August 27, 2009 at 1:44 PMView Comments

Arming the Boston Police with Assault Rifles

Whose idea is this?

The Boston Police Department is preparing a plan to arm as many as 200 patrol officers with semiautomatic assault rifles, a significant boost in firepower that department leaders believe is necessary to counter terrorist threats, according to law enforcement officials briefed on the plan.

The initiative calls for equipping specialized units, such as the bomb squad and harbor patrol, with the high-powered long-range M16 rifles first, the officials said. The department would then distribute the weapons to patrol officers in neighborhood precincts over the next several months, according to the two law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have permission to speak publicly.

Remember, the “terrorist threats” that plague Boston include blinking signs, blinking name badges, and Linux. Would you trust the police there with automatic weapons?

And anyway, how exactly does an police force armed with automatic weapons protect against terrorism? Does it make it harder for the terrorists to plant bombs? To hijack aircraft? Sure, you can invent a movie-plot scenario involving a Mumbai-like attack and have a Bruce Willis-like armed policeman save the day, but — realistically — is this really the best way for us to be spending our counterterrorism dollar?

Luckily, people seem to be coming to their senses.

EDITED TO ADD: These are semi-automatic rifles, not fully automatic. I think the point is more about the militarization of the police than the exact specifications of the weapons in this case.

Posted on June 3, 2009 at 5:57 AMView Comments

This Week's Terrorism Arrests

Four points. One: There was little danger of an actual terrorist attack:

Authorities said the four men have long been under investigation and there was little danger they could actually have carried out their plan, NBC News’ Pete Williams reported.

[…]

In their efforts to acquire weapons, the defendants dealt with an informant acting under law enforcement supervision, authorities said. The FBI and other agencies monitored the men and provided an inactive missile and inert C-4 to the informant for the defendants, a federal complaint said.

The investigation had been under way for about a year.

“They never got anywhere close to being able to do anything,” one official told NBC News. “Still, it’s good to have guys like this off the street.”

Of course, politicians are using this incident to peddle more fear:

“This was a very serious threat that could have cost many, many lives if it had gone through,” Representative Peter T. King, Republican from Long Island, said in an interview with WPIX-TV. “It would have been a horrible, damaging tragedy. There’s a real threat from homegrown terrorists and also from jailhouse converts.”

Two, they were caught by traditional investigation and intelligence. Not airport security. Not warrantless eavesdropping. But old fashioned investigation and intelligence. This is what works. This is what keeps us safe. Here’s an essay I wrote in 2004 that says exactly that.

The only effective way to deal with terrorists is through old-fashioned police and intelligence work — discovering plans before they’re implemented and then going after the plotters themselves.

Three, they were idiots:

The ringleader of the four-man homegrown terror cell accused of plotting to blow up synagogues in the Bronx and military planes in Newburgh admitted to a judge today that he had smoked pot before his bust last night.

When U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa M. Smith asked James Cromitie if his judgment was impaired during his appearance in federal court in White Plains, the 55-year-old confessed: “No. I smoke it regularly. I understand everything you are saying.”

Four, an “informant” helped this group a lot:

In April, Mr. Cromitie and the three other men selected the synagogues as their targets, the statement said. The informant soon helped them get the weapons, which were incapable of being fired or detonated, according to the authorities.

The warning the warning I wrote in “Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot” is timely again:

Despite the initial press frenzies, the actual details of the cases frequently turn out to be far less damning. Too often it’s unclear whether the defendants are actually guilty, or if the police created a crime where none existed before.

The JFK Airport plotters seem to have been egged on by an informant, a twice-convicted drug dealer. An FBI informant almost certainly pushed the Fort Dix plotters to do things they wouldn’t have ordinarily done. The Miami gang’s Sears Tower plot was suggested by an FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the group. And in 2003, it took an elaborate sting operation involving three countries to arrest an arms dealer for selling a surface-to-air missile to an ostensible Muslim extremist. Entrapment is a very real possibility in all of these cases.

Actually, that whole 2007 essay is timely again. Some things never change.

Posted on May 22, 2009 at 6:11 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.