Why Aren’t We Honestly Confronting Terrorism?

I grew up in a post-9/11 New York City. While I was too young to remember much of that tragic day myself, I do remember distinctly the pervasive sense of fear that existed that day, and in the days, weeks, and months following it. There is something which stays with you forever about seeing your family― the grownups you look towards as beacons of courage and fearlessness― being terrified of not knowing what would come next. Growing up in Staten Island, home to over 270 innocent souls killed in a senseless act of evil, it was nearly impossible not to know someone whose life was changed by loss that day. New Yorkers, and truly all Americans, lost an innocence in those attacks which I don’t believe can ever be regained. The way we looked at ourselves, our families, our communities, and our country, was indelibly altered.

This is why it disturbs and angers me profoundly to read about the ongoing conflict between Apple and the federal government over whether or not the company needs to create a backdoor into the phone of one of the San Bernardino terrorists to aid in an ongoing FBI investigation. As someone who has seen the effects of terror attacks like those carried out on 9/11, it would seem that there is one obvious choice available when we have a situation in which we could potentially learn information that could prevent another attack.

Even more disturbing to me, however, is the lack of concern, to a point of near dismissal, of radical Islamic terrorism as a threat to national security. Whether it is in this case involving Apple or in our President and other leaders’ frequent refusals to acknowledge by name the force that threatens to destroy America, our country is growing less and less able to defend herself from terror. This is simply because people refuse to identify and recognize the severity of the threat posed. This is not only endangering to the lives of all Americans, but also inherently disrespectful to all who have been impacted by acts of terror.

On Thursday, Apple released a legal response to the FBI’s demands that it facilitate their access to the phone. The response criticizes the government for requiring actions which, according to Apple, would compromise all future cell phone privacy. They claim that after complying with these demands to decrypt a dead terrorist’s cell phone, there would be nothing stopping the government from forcing Apple to open up the microphone and locational services on cell phones to aid in future surveillance. This is a slippery slope fallacy at best, but I won’t argue that privacy concerns are unimportant in the ever-changing technological world we live in. However, what is most disturbing is that Apple doesn’t seem to see this as an issue of national security from terroristic threats.

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Apple CEO Tim Cook has strongly defended Apple’s resistance to the FBI over the past few weeks. 

In their legal filing, Apple claims that the FBI’s use of the court system and “invoking ‘terrorism’” is an attempt by the government to “cut off debate and circumvent thoughtful analysis.” The fact that they put terrorism in quotation marks, suggesting it is more akin to an idea that one can invoke on a whim, is telling. It is also telling that Apple portrays something as serious as terrorism as a bargaining tool meant for no other purpose than to handcuff them into following an order.

Contrary to what Apple has written, this issue is genuinely rooted in terrorism itself, with no sardonic quotation marks to suggest otherwise. The government is not using terrorism as “a catchphrase designed to play on the public’s emotions,” as Apple is described in a recent BGR article. Terrorism is not merely a political word with no real meaning. Rather, it is a genuine issue of national security.

It is understandable why people would be distrustful of the government, particularly after the revelations of Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. However, it would make little sense to compare such issues to the issue at hand here, considering the fact that the phone in question belonged to a bona fide terrorist who is now deceased.

To suggest that terrorism is some kind of a government propagandist construct, rather than a real issue threatening the lives of Americans, is simply wrong. While there is no guarantee that there is valuable information on the phone, the fact that there is any probability at all that unlocking the phone could provide access to the terrorists’ contacts, resources, and plans makes it a vital tool for investigators. There is the potential to uncover information or missing links that could prevent another San Bernardino or even another 9/11 from ever occurring. This is a matter of national security, plain and simple, and to deny that is to deny reality.

Unfortunately, denying the reality of the threat that terror poses is nothing new. We’ve seen this in recent years on both federal and local levels of our government, and like Apple’s remarks, it speaks to a weakened stance in the ongoing fight against terrorism.

President Obama has danced around the phrase “radical Islamic terror,” and its variants for his entire presidency, using instead phrases that ignore the religious factor completely, such as “thugs,” or “killers.” Take for instance, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings, which were carried out by an Army major with loyalties to Islamic extremists. It was not until this past December that President Obama associated this massacre with other acts of terror on American soil; previously, it was deemed an act of workplace violence.

As many of his opponents criticize him for, Obama does not even use the phrase “war on terror.” This was noted in a 2009 interview with Anderson Cooper in which the President responded to a question about his disuse of the term by answering that “… it is very important for us to recognize that we have a battle or a war against some terrorist organizations. But that those organizations aren’t representative of a broader Arab community, Muslim community.” That doesn’t quite explain why he won’t openly refer to war on terrorism, but it does show that he wants to make it clear that an opposition to Islamic extremists does not equate with opposition to the larger Muslim community. This is true― we recognize that adherents to the Islamic faith in general are peaceful people who wish to distance themselves from radicals who have interpreted their faith in a perverse and evil way. That being said, to deny that we are in the midst of a war against radical Islamic terrorism ignores the values that we must fight against. We are not at war with Islam, but we are at war with those who interpret that faith in a way that justifies the murder and torture of innocent people.

President Obama, and many other American leaders, are so afraid of offending people in the Muslim community that they won’t verbalize the truth about our enemy, even when the words don’t mean that there needs to be a propagation of anti-Muslim sentiment. There’s a difference between ignoring the religious aspect altogether, as our leaders currently do, and differentiating between peaceful Islamic adherents and those who have corrupted the faith for evil.

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President Obama has been criticized for his willingness to ignore Islamic motivations in several terrorist acts.

Recently, when a cop was shot by a man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and claimed to act “in the name of Islam” the mayor of Philadelphia stated that the incident had “nothing to do with any faith.” The perpetrator was clearly acting on behalf of his sick interpretation of Islam, so in completely denying the connection to religion, the mayor, like President Obama and many other leaders, is fooling himself and fooling his constituents.

We do not need to broadly denounce the beliefs and faith of the peaceful Muslim majority, but we need to understand and face those who have corrupted the religion and now use those corrupted beliefs to inflict terror. If we cannot bring ourselves to name the problem we are dealing with, we are never truly going to be able to fight it effectively. Instead, we will continue skirting around the truth, afraid of offending people, while the safety of American citizens is compromised. We can go to war with radical Islamic terror without going to war with Islam itself, once we are willing to accept what it is we are dealing with, which is a wrongful interpretation of Islam ruling that the liberties Americans hold dear are fundamentally incompatible with the faith.

When I hear those in power make statements that avoid the truth for purposes of expediency, be it political or otherwise, I question how these halfhearted, unwilling statements can be made in the context of the wounds that radical Islamic terrorism has already inflicted upon our country. Can Apple tell the widow of an American soldier lost in the War on Terror, or a child whose mother never returned from the World Trade Center, that they believe terrorism is just a talking point? Can they degrade and patronize the battle we are in the midst of by shrugging it off as if it were merely a misnomer or immoral propaganda tactic?

Perhaps Apple can conscionably do just that, and argue for its right not to aid in an investigation that could potentially help save American lives that would otherwise be lost to terroristic violence in the next 9/11, the next Boston Marathon, or the next Chattanooga. Perhaps our President and leaders can do this when they fail to admit and rhetorically skirt around what is unequivocally true, or when they shift the blame from the real issue of radical Islamic terror to issues they prefer like gun control. Perhaps our society can do this, when it convinces people to ignore potential threats simply because they fear being perceived as prejudiced.

Perhaps all of this can continue to go on, but frankly, if we don’t wake up, face reality, and start seeing terrorism for the evil it is, our country is going to continue to be threatened and attacked. It should not take another massive loss of innocent life to remind us what is at stake and to force us to recognize what we are dealing with, and we certainly should not dismiss the existing threat to our security by deluding ourselves that it is some sort of political construct. Let’s be honest and upfront when dealing with terror so that we can recognize it and eradicate it. We all owe that to ourselves, to those lost to terror both at home and abroad, in the workplace or on the frontlines, to victims’ families coping with the unhealable wounds of loss, and to our country and all the liberties she stands for.

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4 thoughts on “Why Aren’t We Honestly Confronting Terrorism?

  1. I, too, grew up in a post 9/11 Manhattan, I had an uncle that worked near the tower, blah blah blah, but the utter stupidity of this article still stands. The war on terror is a joke—how does one have a war on an ideology? And I don’t believe you can even begin to understand the complexities behind creating a govtOS like apple is being asked.

    Do some research. Write less sensational articles. Come on.

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  2. This article rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of encryption technologies, and naively ignores or willfully neglects the political realities undergirding the FBI’s decision to press for the particular relief requested in the present case.

    The FBI’s inability to bypass consumer encryption technologies is not a new issue. Apple implemented this technology in Q4, 2014. There’s no way it took the FBI an entire year to encounter an encrypted phone with contents potentially relevant to a national security investigation. They intentionally waited for a tragedy to exploit– a sympathetic set of facts they could take to court to seek relief they would have no hope of gaining under ordinary circumstances.

    Apple’s arguments are not a slippery slope. To comply with the FBI’s request, Apple would have to engineer a new software designed to defeat the express purpose of the encryption technology they’ve created. While the FBI may have good intentions in trying to investigate a terrorist attack and keep America safe, the simple truth is that they cannot control access once they create a backdoor.

    The nature of backdoors is that once they exist, they can be used by anyone. Today we might give the FBI access for purposes of investigating San Bernardino. Tomorrow, however, that same access point will still exist, free to be exploited by hackers, authoritarian regimes, and other unsavory characters.

    The fundamental difference between the encryption scenario and a slippery slope argument is that the latter says “if you do x, then (bad thing) y might happen.” In the Apple encryption scenario, if you install any form of a backdoor, then y *has* happened- you’ve fundamentally compromised the security of the phone and broken the encryption.

    The remainder of the article is an insipid, polemical screed that, admittedly, is not entirely lacking in nuance, but still unduly fixates on the importance of attaching precise labels to America’s enemies. Call me a spineless pragmatist if you must, but I concern myself more with the substance of counterterrorism policies than the precise labels we attach to them.

    Truly yours,

    A Concerned Citizen

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    1. The FBI is not asking Apple to break its encryption per se, but rather to make it so that the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone does not engage in a memory wipe after ten failed password combinations are entered in a row. It is conceivable that Apple can dismantle this memory wipe application without providing a permanent “back door” for “authoritarian regimes” and other nebulous boogeymen. Look, I agree that privacy protections are ideal: in this case, though, let’s not sugar coat it. Apple is trying to protect its brand and doesn’t want to be viewed as a company with lax privacy settings. They’re not really worried about freedom, they’re concerned about their bottom line.

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      1. It’s so amusing when people think that dismantling the lockout/wipe anti-brute-force mechanisms wouldn’t amount to a backdoor.

        As recent as iOS 7, the default was a 4-digit passcode. This allows numbers from 0000 to 9999 — 10,000 permutations total. (iOS 9 bumps up the default to 6-digits, which is still only 1,000,000 possible permutations.)

        Once the anti-brute-force mechanisms are disabled, it takes a trivial amount of time to crack these PINs, because it can be done through the data port rather than manual entry. Assuming 1000 guesses/sec, it would take only <20 minutes to crack a 6-digit PIN — assuming the PINs are uniformly randomly distributed. (The reality is worse — some kinds of PINs are far more common, such as 1234 and 0000, which means actual cracking often will require fewer than 100 guesses.)

        THIS WEAKENS ENCRYPTION TO THE POINT OF USELESSNESS — in a way that is accessible not only to the government fighting legitimate terrorist targets, but also hackers conducting corporate espionage or stealing personal information.

        Most people who claim that “Apple can dismantle this memory wipe application without providing a permanent ‘back door'” don’t really understand what’s at stake.

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