Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ann Coulter

What's your opinion of Ann Coulter's writing? Is it useful, useless, critical, destructive? That question was posed on the RedBlueChristian blog today, and I've been active in the conversation there. Take a look, and join in either there or here if you have thoughts on the matter.

The short version of my opinion:

[Ann Coulter] is a polemical rhetoricist of the worst kind, and it is a sad thing that she has any sort of audience at all.



Russ said...

Hi Mark, I like the tone of your blog, and if you don't mind. I think I'll drop by now and then. Couldn't agree with you more on the Coulter view.

Mark Congdon said...


Not only do I "not mind", I'm thrilled to have you along for the ride. Drop in as often as you like. Also, feel free to revive any old conversations you find interesting... your comment will show up in the "Active Conversations" link on the right side of the page, and we can pick up the discussion where it left off.



Kevin said...

Welcome, Russ! What a kind announcement of your participation.

Kevin said...


I posted my thoughts on the RedBlueChristian thread.

In summary, Coulter is a polemical rhetoricist. The worst kind? I'm not sure of that, though I'd grant that she's not the best kind. Behind her vitriolic tone, she has made some good points, though it can be difficult to determine when she is trying to be hyperbolic or humorous. It sometimes seems like she's trying to drive a counterculture by overcompensating for the flaws she sees.

Regarding the Imams, I'm wondering about Rusty's notion that it was for publicity.


Mark Congdon said...


I'll respond to your comments on the other blog here, because I think that other thread is dead.

Behind her vitriolic tone, she has made some good points

I guess that's where we disagree, at least with regard to the article that was linked in the other blog. What were the good points that she made?

Now, in the discussion of her article, many good points have been made, both by you and by others. Rational discussion of the danger of being overly afraid of offending people; balanced perspectives on racial/religious profiling; thoughts on the degree to which suspicious circumstances should be vetted, or what other reasonable actions might be taken in response to such actions.

But none of those perspectives were present in Ann Coulter's writing. They were added by us during the discussion. Her article, as far as I can tell, served almost no purpose except to start the discussion... and it did that in such an incendiary way that I think it was probably counter-productive toward that end.

You, for example, provided a great deal more detail about the actions of these individuals. You pointed out one key fact that I did not know: They were moving to seats that they had not paid for, apparently against crewmember instructions. It is inexcusable for any flight participant to disregard crewmember instructions, and that alone is plenty of reason for them to be removed from the flight... no terrorist suspicions needed.

Coulter didn't mention those facts, and filled her article with over-the-top hyperbolic statements focused on race and religion. If you remove her hyperbole, I'm not sure there's anything left that the reader doesn't have to add himself.


You went beyond Coulter, and made some interesting suggestions about racial profiling in general, and also asked my thoughts about it.

I believe that it is possible for us to achieve a high degree of confidence that a particular individual is not a terrorist threat. We can examine all their luggage thoroughly, search them, etc. That process must be undertaken before boarding, well before takeoff, however.

If I were in charge of airport security, I would define a set of criteria for "degree of confidence that this individual is not a terrorist". Various levels of searches of person and baggage would be assigned to each level. Then I would set up a system of evaluations of each traveler; race would certainly be an important factor there, along with the more obvious "connections to known terrorists". I'd also include other statistical features that have been indicative of past terrorist attacks. Certain flight paths would have a higher risk, based on their proximity to likely targets; I can imagine many other factors that might come into play. When passing through the security checkpoint, specific notes could be made about a person's dress, apparent mood or nervousness, and general demeanor, which could then be fed back into the evaluation system. Later in the process, airline personnel could report what they perceive to be suspicious behavior to the security authorities, who would add that in to the evaluations and determine whether a more detailed examination of that passenger needed to be undertaken.

However, I don't think that the airline personnel should be responsible for determining whether or not someone is a terrorist, or initiating any action in response to suspicions along those lines. Such determinations need to be made by trained personnel with extensive resources at hand. Airline personnel need to be able to report their suspicions to a central security office, then trust that office to handle their concerns from there.

And I don't think any passenger should be removed from a flight because of security concerns, unless late concerns arise that require a higher level of examination than has yet been done, and time does not allow that examination before the flight leaves. Otherwise, the security concerns should cause the person and their luggage to be examined more carefully, until we reached a level of confidence that they were not terrorists. That determination would have to be made by a central authority.

Now, in the current case, it appears that US Airways was quite justified in removing these miscreants from the plane for their simple unwillingness to cooperate with instructions from flight personnel about where to sit, so none of this terrorist concern need have come into play.


Speaking to a third aspect of this issue... I think that most of the disagreement on this issue is because of what has been focused on. Let me rephrase the initial news reports in such a way that I think this would have never been a controversy:

"6 Arab men today were removed from a US Airways flight after ignoring instructions from airline personnel in order to sit in seats that they were not assigned to, strategically located near the various exits from the plane. US Airways considered their behavior suspicious, and stated that their unwillingness to comply with instructions from flight personnel was unacceptable."

Those, to me, are the key facts. But, those have generally been lost in the noise. The focus? They were "imams"; they were praying loudly in the terminal; they said anti-American things, and/or were critical of the current administration's foreign policy in the Middle East.

None of those facts even blip the radar for me. Most terrorist attacks are not carried out by imams, but by the people influenced by imams. I don't care who prays, or how loudly... I don't believe there was any pattern of terrorists praying loudly before flights in the past. And there are more than half the citizens of this country who have a low view of the current administration's foreign policy, and many fully non-Arabs who have spoken well of Al Qaeda on national news programs... what does that even matter?

If these individuals had sat in their seats and followed crewmember instructions, then their prayer habits and political leanings would concern me not at all (assuming, of course, that they were thoroughly vetted at the security checkpoint).

It frustrates me when we as a society focus on the unimportant aspects of a situation and lose sight of what is central.

Has US Airways released any sort of press release on this situation? I haven't been able to find one. They should have had that on the wires almost immediately, to preempt the whining and misdirected focus of the imams and their complaints, and focus instead on the obviously inappropriate actions that made their removal from the plane amply justified.

And with that, I've gone on quite long enough. :)


bcongdon said...

Ann Coulter is a genius. I'm glad she's on my side, politically. Every student of American history should read her book Treason. The research is awesome and she destroys many of liberalisms favorite shibboleths.

Mark Congdon said...


Care to engage in the discussion about this particular Coulter article? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.


Kevin said...

Good of you to join in, Brad. I second Mark. Given your enthusiasm for Ann, perhaps you could cull some of her good and justifiable points to raise Mark's opinion of her above "the worst". :) Also, thanks for the word "shibboleth".

Kevin said...


It seems that the key facts in your rephrased "initial report" are primarily contingent upon the degree to which the Imams ignored instructions or were unwilling to comply. They did apparently lie about being upgraded to first class seats. I think they objected to being removed from the flight, though I don't know to what extent they were asked or refused to take the seats on their tickets. From what little I've heard, they claim to have been reasonably cooperative.

But I agree that the most significant datum was their unapproved seating arrangement that effected a known "terrorist probe" (to test the security?), though I think they claim it was incidental (they thought it would be less suspicious if they were spread out).

Perhaps the seatbelt extensions were also part of the test to see what is available for use on the plane, given that they did not appear to need them and did not actually use them. Could it be used as a weapon or a tool? Despite these wonderings, it's still hard for me to believe this scenario, but should such unusual behavior be ignored?

To the extent that it is feasible, I would hope that your ideal airport security measures are a fairly accurate description of the current system. I'm not sure if the pilot checked with a central authority, but I think he is trained to make judgements on passengers. Sometimes subtle indicators in people's body language and behavior or events might not be effectively communicated to others or fit into established criteria. Unless pilots clearly abuse this power, it seems like a reasonable policy that they should have authority over the plane.

I'm still a bit confused by your conversion from approving the use of indicators in assessing higher risk individuals to later considering the indicators to be unimportant aspects of the situation. Shouldn't all indicators be taken into account at all times? Or should we be confident that a security check catches everything, even though many of the indicators were observed after the security checkpoint?

AFAIK, praying loudly in the terminal does not directly match the handful of incidents of plane terrorism (and, as I mentioned earlier, it is rather counterintuitive), but it does establish their religion, dedication, and perhaps even their disdain or ignorance of the heightened sensitivity to Islam at airports. Anti-Americanism also seems like a (albeit broad) risk factor, and so I cannot fault the passengers for revealing their comments to personnel. I doubt if either of these factors were known before the security check.

There is a hypersensitivity in airline security. First any sharp objects, then containers of liquids. It may be silly, but that's the current state: erring on the side of caution over inconvenience, even to the point of missing a flight.

Nevertheless, it might have been reasonable to just have them move to particular seats or monitor them during flight rather than removing them from the plane altogether. i.e. perhaps finer grained responses to suspicions are warranted.

The only relevant US Airways press release I found was 11/21/06 US Airways Statement Regarding Flight 300, which is the boilerplate: "we are investigating" and "we are not bigots". It looks like the news information was released rather piecemeal, probably leaked from the internal or press investigation. I share your concern for how information is released and obtaining relevant information.

Regarding Ann Coulter, ugh. I really don't want to be in the position of defending her statements, so I'll concede the article. I thought she had made some good points elsewhere, but I don't think I can effectively defend the general points in this article due to the specific statements which form the context and are easily open to criticism. Perhaps this is characteristic of her style.


Mark Congdon said...


You wrote: I'm still a bit confused by your conversion from approving the use of indicators in assessing higher risk individuals to later considering the indicators to be unimportant aspects of the situation. Shouldn't all indicators be taken into account at all times? Or should we be confident that a security check catches everything, even though many of the indicators were observed after the security checkpoint?

Yes, all indicators should be taken into account at all times. My point was that those specific observations, though taken into account, would not appear at all significant to me.

Let me put it this way. If six Arab men, who I could identify as Muslims from their dress or some other identifier, got on a plane, changed to seats that they were not assigned to in a suspicious pattern, and asked for seatbelt extenders that they didn't need or use, I would consider that a high-priority situation... even without the public prayer, the political sentiments, or the identification as imams. If, on the other hand, six imams came into the airport, prayed loudly, said anti-American political things, but got on the plane, took their assigned seats, and otherwise acted normally, I would not consider them to be serious threats.

I was trying to explain which factors, and maybe which type of factors, seem important to me.

Generally, I think the less-visible cues are the ones that carry more significance. However, casual untrained observers (such as, say, the pilot or other airline personnel) are more attuned to external, obvious cues.

That's why I think that they are not particularly well-suited for the task of determining who should be removed from a flight as a potential terrorist threat. They will have a very high likelihood of false positives... and with each false positive, our collective trust in the system diminishes, and the possibility of a future attack improves.


Kevin said...


Just to clarify, you are stating that being Muslim or anti-American should be given a very low weight as indicators for higher risk individuals?

If so, I agree; they are very broad categories. A loud anti-American Muslim would not qualify as a "serious threat" to me either, though, depending upon the particulars, they might qualify as "suspicious".

"""Generally, I think the less-visible cues are the ones that carry more significance. However, casual untrained observers (such as, say, the pilot or other airline personnel) are more attuned to external, obvious cues."""

What kind of less-visible cues are you thinking of? I agree that conspicuousness can strangely reduce the risk indicated by otherwise relevant factors (though it may nevertheless raise suspicions).

Also, I was actually under the impression that airplane personnel (and the pilot in particular) were trained to notice and handle suspicious individuals and threats. Is that incorrect?

"""They will have a very high likelihood of false positives... and with each false positive, our collective trust in the system diminishes, and the possibility of a future attack improves."""

Has there been many false positives where people get removed from planes? AFAIK, incidents such as this one have been uncommon.

Do false positives diminish trust in security? I think false positives signify that security is overly strict. It's when true threats are not caught that my trust is really shaken, and makes over strictness look silly and useless, even though such security is somewhat statistical.

Just to round out the thread, here's the most recent article I've read on the imam incident, including some new particulars. It's an op-ed. I wonder if most of my info has come from op-eds, and, if so, where are the actual news articles with just the facts?


Mark Congdon said...


you are stating that being Muslim or anti-American should be given a very low weight as indicators for higher risk individuals?

Being opposed to American foreign policy... yes, I would consider that to be extremely low weight. Being Muslim... that would be a minor factor on its own, because the category is so broad, but in a statistical analysis would probably serve as a strong correlary factor increasing the importance of other observed factors.

What kind of less-visible cues are you thinking of?

These, I imagine, would be gleaned from a detailed analysis of past terrorist attacks and terrorist training manuals. I can only guess at what the subtle cues might be, but I'm sure they are there (it was mentioned in some places that the seating arrangement selected by the imams was similar to that used in past terrorist attempts... detecting a group of Arab travelers who select such a seating arrangement would greatly heighten their collective risk factor, I think). General nervousness/seriousness of demeanor would probably be a psychological factor that could be observed. I can imagine many other possible factors, but specifics would come from people with much more knowledge than I have.

In my concept, such concerns would probably lead to those individuals being approached in the waiting area and asked to submit to a careful search of their carry-on luggage, and possibly a search of their clothes and person as well. A thorough search of that type should be able to give us confidence that the person was not a threat.

I was actually under the impression that airplane personnel (and the pilot in particular) were trained to notice and handle suspicious individuals and threats. Is that incorrect?

I have no idea. However, I would really prefer for the pilots to be focusing on the aircraft, not trying to perform complicated analyses of subtle cues in passenger behavior. I also expect that filtering the subtle cues I'm imagining would include some statistical analysis that is not possible in person in real time, and therefore would require technological backup.

Has there been many false positives where people get removed from planes? AFAIK, incidents such as this one have been uncommon.

You're right that they have been uncommon. I'm suggesting that they need to stay that way, generally in response to a possible reading of Coulter's article, which could suggest that removing praying imams from planes should become common practice.

Do false positives diminish trust in security? I think false positives signify that security is overly strict. It's when true threats are not caught that my trust is really shaken

It is definitely true that a missed positive is much more damaging to public confidence than a false negative. However, false negatives do accumulate over time, and it is important to avoid them when possible.

Thanks for the link the NY Post article. That's great information. I'd love to see that police report... aren't such documents open to the public? I don't understand why a newspaper like the NY Post, which presumably has the document, doesn't make it available as a PDF next to an editorial like that that references it. Someday the media in this country will catch up with the technological times. :)


steviepinhead said...

Coulter generally: highly incendiary but almost completely unilluminating.

With regard to this topic, it's the discussion of "false positives" that caught my eye. I'm increasingly concerned that we have gone way past the point of cost-benefit for the security intrusions that we are being "trained" over time to accept as normal.

With particular regard to airport security, I'm old enough to remember the day when flying was actually fun. I'm not talking about the vacation destination or the relatives or tourism on the far end of the experience. The experience, the process itself, of flying used to be fun, almost magical. While the security hassles are only part of the downward trend--traffic, poor all-round management and performance by the airlines, from ticketing, baggage handling, cancellations, etc., and loss of in-flight comfort and services, have all played their part--the entire security atmosphere, with its attendant line-shuffling, intrusions, wasted time, is certainly one key factor.

One could rant on and on about other areas of life where we are becoming accustomed to intrusions of this sort, from cameras for capturing traffic "violations," to wiretapping, to financial and personal info-mining, to internet search tracking, to...

But one will attempt to restrain oneself.

The argument can be made that this massive imposition upon our collective privacy and enjoyment has reduced our "risk," though it's harder to make this connection for any particular form of intrusion: for whatever reason, there have been no further attacks within our country on the order of 9/11.

At the same time--and to be almost Coulter-ishly callous about it--9/11 represented more of an attack on the national psyche than it represented any realistic increased "threat" to any given "average American," whose calculated risk of dying or being seriously injured in a traffic accident, dying in an in-home mishap, being struck by lightning, etc., etc., all remain greater (and some far greater) than the risk of harm from a 9/11 style terrorist strike. The same likely remains true even if one "adds in" all arguably terrorist-related aviation disasters (Lockerby, Olympics), or even all arguably terrorist-related transportation disasters (London, Madrid, cruise ship).

None of this suggests that some meaningful response to 9/11 was not warranted. And none of this suggests that effective, appropriately-targeted security measures should not be undertaken in reasonable proportion to the actual risks and with reasonable regard to the resulting privacy/freedom intrusions.

With the above as prelude, in my view, much of the massive airport-terminal "security" apparatus is so much window-dresssing, designed to reassure without being intelligently-targeted on any identifiable increase in threat. Going through the motions of having elderly blue-haired tourist ladies remove their shoes, etc., is just that--going through the motions...

All that being said, based on the information currently available, the particular behavior of this particular group of fellows appears to justifiably have excited the suspicions of the airline crew. Asking them to step off the plane for a more intensive search and investigation was probably warranted. Promptly processing them, and then releasing them, apologizing to them for the aggravation and delay, and expediting their further travel would also have been appropriate when nothing confirming those suspicions was turned up.

Coulter's having her predictable cow was as unwarranted as is the bulk of this massive, largely ineffective, and potentially-dangerous complex of security intrusions.

Mark Congdon said...


I agree with you pretty much down the line. I don't even have anything to add. :)


Kevin said...

Your use of "missed positive" and "false negative" were a bit of a brain teaser for me, Mark. Isn't "missed positive" equivalent to "false negative"? In any case, I think I know what you meant.

I lament and fear our loss of privacy and freedoms too, Stevie. And I agree: what is even more disturbing is that it is becoming culturally acceptable and expected. And what is more frustrating is that I don't see any realistic solutions until such monitoring and intrusions are greatly abused (is this what you meant by "potentially-dangerous complex of security intrusions"?); if even then.

I'm willing to take some risk to maintain my freedoms, or if our freedoms need be suspended, make it a well-defined and temporary measure. Alas, this WoT is far too broad and ill-defined. So is our role in Iraq for that matter, which is part of why "winning" appears so elusive to the public.

But it seems untenable for our elected leaders to allow us to take such risks, and say, "this is the price of freedom" or "attacks are not yet frequent enough to warrant stricter measures", since they have no clearer job than to protect us from foreign attacks.

Sure, there are more risky ways to die, but how many of those involve accidents versus malicious intent? How many involve a cohesive international enemy? How many are as spectacular and singularly harmful as those 3 airplanes on 9/11?

I'm curious about cost-benefit analyses and their confidence, considering how few incidents and statistics there are concerning practical effectiveness, deterrence, etc. Does searching that blue haired old lady deter actual terrorists? At what point is a theoretically miniscule change in risk not worth the further inconvenience? It all seems rather vague and subjective to me.

I think that most people just don't feel like they are in a war. At least not inside the US. By now, it feels unlikely that we will continue to be attacked here to a significant extent. Thus, our sacrifices feel imposed and unwarranted, and what's worse is that there is no end in sight.

All this to say that, while I tend to agree with you Stevie, my practical knowledge of this is limited and I'm at more of a loss as to how to better address the situation.


steviepinhead said...

Uh-oh, Mark! We're in danger of becoming an "echo chamber"...

I don't claim any superior degree of experience or knowledge either, Kevin. Nor am I suggesting that we simply ignore the threat and go about our way of life without any effort to respond or adjust. But, like you, I think, I would hope for responses that are more selective, more effective, and more focused (limited in time to the duration of the threat, limited in type to the nature of the threat).

Let me make an admittedly-imperfect analogy to traffic enforcement. At least some traffic offenses resulting in harm are intentional (or so reckless as to be the moral and functional equivalent)--suicide by vehicle, road rage, driving while obviously impaired. (Other traffic offenses are less so--various degrees of unintentional errors, negligence, and miscalculations.)

Yet enforcement efforts (road security efforts) tend to be very broad brush. Preventitive measures (warnings, tickets, fines) are, however, very rarely meted out before accidents occur for most of the driving misbehaviors that lead to accidents--tailgating, speed too fast for conditions (as opposed to "absolute" speed), failures to yield, failures to signal, etc. Instead, virtually all of the enforcement effort is devoted to "absolute" speed violations, with a very occasional reckless driving, "aggressive" driving, or non-accident related drunk driving ticket.

In addition to the obvious revenue-raising reasons, it's simply administratively easier to enforce absolute speed limits. It's trickier, and much more of a judgment call--in advance of an accident--to crack down on the actual accident-causing behaviors. And, I suppose, arguably, for the majority of drivers, it's easier to conform to the expected standard in one "bright line" sense (keep it withing five miles or so of the speed limit) than it is to figure out how to safely change lanes, take turns at an intersection, yield or not yield, follow at safe "relative" distances and speeds, and so on.

But the result is lots of tickets for behavior that doesn't threaten accidents at all ("speeding" on rural freeways where the vehicles are all well-spaced, for example) and few tickets--and many resulting accidents--for behavior that does.

(I'm not defending speeding, here, which does lead to more serious accidents when they do occur, and which certainly can combine as a factor with the other accident-causing ones. Likewise, there are environmental, economic, philosophical, and other good reasons not to speed!)

Likewise, it seems to me, many of the "security" measures that have been emplaced are the easy, obvious, administratively-simple ones--which are also "revenue-enhancers" in the sense of bureacracy-building and tax-ingesting. Superficially search every person, rather than intensively and judiciously search selective persons. Generate a list of questionable objects, rather than think through the kinds of materials and substances that might pose a realistic threat.

I wouldn't advocate "profiling" as a means of rousting out and hassling persons for domestic crimes, but just as there are activities (owning and operating autos on the public highways, owning and discharging weapons, accessing public fora and accessing long-distance mass transit) that are viewed as privileges as much as rights, than are situations where (for limited times and purposes) some degree of "profiling" (focusing on likely threats, particularly where supported by additional suspicious factors, as I think was the case here) may be justified.

Of course, that can backfire too. Enforcement strategies should never be predictable: when law enforcement focuses too obviously on young rough-looking males from certain cocaine-producing locales, then "mules" who don't fit the profile are recruited.

But the current hassle-everybody-lightly approach is nothing if not predictable. The kind of objects (pointy, edged, inflammable) that will subject the bearer to adverse scrutiny are all listed. The kind of behaviors that will lead to further hassles are posted (belligerence, threats, failure to comply).

This was illustrated in the recent "liquid ingredients" scare. Even though the potential for disaster from combinations of these ingredients had been known since 1995, the security bureaucracy ignored the threat in favor of banning easier-to-administer targets. Airlines get far more scrutiny than containers. The TAC continues to fight the last war, and sometimes not even that, defraying its efforts across too many targets, while failing to concentrate effectively and intelligently on the next generation of threats.

A suave, polite, well-dressed type, carrying ingenious articles that are not yet on the banned list, would have little difficulty seizing or threatening a plane. Meanwhile, we are all hassled all the time for presenting no discernible threat at all. If the current security regime isn't going to effectively and selectively target the real threats, I'd rather take my chances and not get hassled.

It's a challenge admittedly and, as I started out by admitting, I'm almost certainly am not in possession of all the relevant data. But I wonder whether the security agencies are either!

(And I think we should recall that innocents were lost as result of the seizure of all four planes, even if the fourth didn't reach its target.)

Kevin said...


Does your speeding analogy actually support the poor solutions for airline security? Or are you suggesting that there are better ways to manage reckless driving just as there are better ways to manage airline security?

I'd be surprised if terrorists could seize a US plane nowadays, though they could certainly do some damage and killing. AFAIK, there's been a lot of debate over the actual risk of mixing liquid bombs on a plane, and I would not be surprised if the current rules are far on the safe side (as I suspect is the nature of all their rules).

But I agree that we are far too vulnerable to protect everything, so we primarily only protect along the lines of past terrorist attempts to the extent feasible.

In my search for info on cost-benefit analysis, I found this article from 2004 which points at some of the broad wastes you note. This article was also interesting: Targets for Terrorists: Post-9/11 Aviation Security.

I guess, in my own lazy, uninformed sort of way, I'm just trying to get down to the particulars of what should be changed in airport security and how risk and hassle/inconvenience should be balanced.

I do think it is important that there be some objective mechanism to determine the statistical efficacy of security measures (e.g. regular blind testing), and to remove those measures when they are no longer needed or shown to be ineffective.

(And I think we should recall that innocents were lost as result of the seizure of all four planes, even if the fourth didn't reach its target.)

I don't know about "we", but I should have recalled that there were four planes. D'oh! Thanks for the nudge. echo on


Mark Congdon said...


If only Brad would follow up his previous comment, the "echo chamber" danger would be thoroughly eradicated. :)


Kevin said...

Via HotAir, I noticed mention of the redacted official police report on the recent US Airways-Imam incident, including handwritten statements from witnesses, linked from Pajamas Media.

Mark was curious about this earlier, so I thought I'd post it. I have not read it myself, but it's nice to know that it is out there, even if the MSM isn't interested in providing their source material.

In addition, HotAir linked to an article presenting a Muslim viewpoint on the incident that I find refreshing.