Saturday, November 21, 2015

Tracking Muslims: bad but maybe better than alternatives

Those whose privacy is reduced could be compensated

Donald Trump has proposed a database for the citizens who are Muslims, some kind of a tracking system, and perhaps suppression of the mosques. Other candidates have criticized the proposal and Hillary called it shocking.

The "atoms" in Brussels' "Atomium" fail to behave as atoms according to the laws of quantum mechanics. Is this well-known structure among the potential targets?

But you know, in the current situation, Trump's proposal is one of the common-sense ideas that are ready to be at least considered. The actual support for this kind of ideas may be very strong even if people pretend otherwise – in order to look politically correct. Topics like that may very well become the driver that will move Trump to the White House.

Today, Brussels – the capital of Belgium as well as the EU – switched to the "highest terror alert" thanks to the "precise information" about imminent Paris-style attacks. (The information cannot be "too precise" if the whole city had to be partially shut down.) People are told to avoid places with a high density of humans. The most spectacular effect of the high alert is that they had to shut down the Brussels subway altogether.

(Well, some people may find the postponing of the Anderlecht-Lokeren soccer match more annoying.)

I predict that in the afternoon, they will close a part of London near the Southwark subway stop, too. And an hour later, a pyrotechnic will have to investigate a French car with dark windows near the Prague Castle. Another French Peugeot was investigated in Prague on Thursday. Yes, if you're French and we can't see you, you are suspicious.

This is pretty tough. By size, Brussels is almost exactly as large as Prague, with some 1.2 million people in the "city proper" and some 1.8 million in the "metropolitan area". Czechia was said to have been a transit country for the terrorists – and a country recommended by the now late mastermind of the Friday 13th attacks as a transit country because we seem to be "outside the main events" so this transit is potentially less visible.

But it seems hard to imagine such events in Prague. The Muslim population is below 20,000 i.e. 0.2% and seems OK enough. It is largely monitored, we're being assured. (Slovakia's prime minister claims that his intelligence monitors every single Muslim on the territory of Slovakia.) Our intelligence knew about the transit of the mastermind through our territory even though we didn't know what he was planning. And so on. But what it would look like if the Prague Subway were closed?

It must surely feel like they are switching to a "war system". You know, even during the Protectorate (war) years, Prague and other Czech cities were living a relatively peaceful life. I must overlook the resistance movement, of course, which was at risk all the time and tens of thousands of people had been executed (on top of the 300,000 Czechoslovak Jews who were systematically murdered). Sometimes, the average citizens would be asked to hide in the basement but that's it. What's already taking place in Brussels is comparable to the war years in Prague.

The 1927 Solvay conference. In the 1920s, terrorists in Brussels could have easily destroyed 1/2 of the cutting-edge physics.

The risk in Brussels may be genuine. Brussels is the #1 European capital both by the total number of the EU parasites as well as the number of jihadists per capita. Police have found a package of weapons. (They could have found it at almost any point in the past, I think, but let's believe that this is an argument in favor of an imminent attack.) If similar "high alerts" become frequent and/or persistent, people's freedoms and comfort will be seriously affected. A discussion about better solutions that would allow to restore the freedom and comfort will have to take place.

Some tracking of all the Muslims – or a subgroup defined in some sensible way – could be useful. If you don't like it, be sure that I share the bad feelings about such policies with you. Most importantly, the reduction of freedoms and privacy rights is always a bad thing when all positive effects are ignored. And it is not clear whether the restriction of this tracking to a subgroup of population makes it better or worse. It's better because most people remain free – and the expectation value of the freedom of an average person drops by less. It's worse because one has to define somewhat arbitrary cuts that separate the people who have been disadvantaged from those who haven't so such a reduction of privacy or freedom is "less fair" than a blanket reduction that would hold for everyone.

Muslims could be ordered to wear a mobile phone signal that would track their position. If we look completely outside the box, it could even be inserted into their bodies or something like that. And perhaps, it could allow the police to remotely kill the person if the carrier of the gadget is demonstrably doing something terrible – like killing people in a theater. I find it as creepy as many others (especially if I appreciate that innocent people – and in the future "we", whatever "we" means – could be affected by this gadget). But such a policy could potentially save or restore millions of people's freedom to walk on the street and use the subway. So the creepy policies could ultimately be a net positive.

You know, if you quantify the value of the human life as $1 million and if the one-day (?) closure of the Brussels subway has created a loss comparable to $1 million (1 million passengers a day, $1 reduction in convenience per passenger), then the closure of the subway was a good idea if the expectation value of the number of saved lives was higher than one. One should do such calculations – at least approximately – to check whether some policies of this sort aren't completely disproportionate. I think that to close the subway for a year or more would already be disproportionate if "only" Paris-like attacks were avoided.

But I want to propose a particular paradigm. Such tracking reduces the freedom or privacy or dignity of some people who are pretty much "arbitrarily chosen" by their belonging to a bureaucratically defined group. This is bad. Someone who happens to be inside this "risky" group is losing a lot relatively to someone who manages to stay outside the group.

My point is that this difference may be compensated. I think that the citizens who lose the privacy should be compensated for that. For example, their tax rate could be 1 percentage point lower than the other people's tax rate. If a fair compensation for such reductions of freedom became a common habit, many of the people affected by policies could actually enjoy it – because of the other advantages. Moreover, the government would be forced to carefully think about the reduction of the freedom or privacy or dignity of particular citizens or groups of citizens because such reduction wouldn't be cost-free. It would be great if the government were obliged or expected to fairly compensate every reduction of the freedom of an citizen.

Nevertheless, such a reduction may ultimately be a very good idea in many cases – a way to save lives, safety, wealth, freedom, or comfort of many other people – which is why the discussion about ways to do it right should be taking place.

When these warnings are voiced, many people defiantly say "I will travel to Brussels now to show that I am not afraid and I won't allow the Muslims to steal my freedoms." This defiance is great – it's a gesture that displays courage and strengthens patriotism. On the other hand, the authorities have very good reasons to recommend people to be careful. The risk is real and it may be damn rational to be careful!

If the Western folks thwart an attack by avoiding an unnecessary concert on a random Saturday, it's arguably a greater victory over the terrorists than if you allow them to kill you. So the defiance, while it sounds sexy, may make you sound like a winner unless you will be killed as a loser. The risks and problems that Western Europe is facing are real and defiance may be nothing else than the denial of this threat that doesn't help to solve anything about the underlying problems.

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