crypto and public policy

Leaving Policy Decisions to Chance

Filed under: General December 22, 2003 @ 7:28 pm

In December 1994, Islamic extremists hijacked Air France flight 8969 in Algiers, killed 3 hostages and threatened to kill more if their demands were not met. The French government pressured the Algerian government to let the plane leave Algiers and land in Marseille. Once there, the hijackers requested a heavy refuel and permission to leave for Paris. Permission was never granted, and special operations teams intervened at twilight, killing all hijackers and rescuing all hostages without innocent loss of life.

I was personally fascinated by this story given my occasional fetish for special operations forces. Interestingly enough, most people have forgotten it altogether. It’s even more interesting when you read the whole story (forgive the special ops bravado), specifically:

Intelligence officers at the French Embassy in Algiers had received an urgent call from a paid informant in the Islamic underground, saying that the AIG planned to blow up the airbus over Paris, crashing it into the middle of the city. The information appeared to have some corroboration from some of the sixty-three passengers who had been released in Algiers. Several said that they had heard the four gunmen, who seemed highly fanatical, talk repeatedly about flying to the eternal paradise and make many references to “Allah’s perpetual white light”–the Islamic vision of holy death. The possibility of a Lockerbie-type terrorist air disaster over the French capital was being taken very seriously.

Sounds awfully familiar. To this day, I’m still not quite sure how 9/11 wasn’t envisioned more clearly in intelligence doomsday scenarios.

The interesting idea here is that nothing much changed in France after the 1994 hijacking. Most people barely remember it today, even though everyone was glued to their TV while it happened. The question is thus clear: should a successful terrorist attack cause us to react more strongly than a failed one? Consider that both had the same intentions, similar tools and, in the end, somewhat similar chances of success. The difference lies probably in the specific details of the attack and a large dose of chance.

Yes, we are a society that punishes successful crimes far more harshly than attempted-but-failed crimes, but we must admit that on a larger, more strategic scale, they are equivalent.

When I’m told we live in particularly dangerous times and we must thus take particularly strong measures, forgoing certain rights we have in “normal times,” I can’t help but think we’re having delusions of historical grandeur. A singular failure of our intelligence apparatus does not indicate a grave danger to our nation. Things have always been dangerous, for one reason or another.

Our long-standing principles and our rights as citizens of a free nation should not be diminished because of our historical amnesia. “May you live in interesting times,” says the supposed Chinese proverb. Sure, but let’s stop coming up with “interesting” policies because we’re fascinated by how “interesting” our era has supposedly become. Policy should be decided calmly, based on principle, not chance.

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