Gaps in defences

This is getting silly – most of my posts these days start out “A year ago, I said…”

Anyway, getting on for a year ago, I said:

The police have moved quite quickly – it emerged in September 2001 that some of the US hijackers were already under investigation, but nothing concrete had come up, so they were being left alone. As soon as they struck, the authorities were able to quickly track down their backgrounds. The same may well be the true here, and no blame would neccessarily attach to the police or security services – it could be very difficult to make the jump from vague suspicion to grounds for arrest.

On one hand, it seems that rather more information was available to the FBI in 2001 than we knew of.

On the other, my speculations about the July bombers have turned out to be accurate.

I find the news encouraging; it is somewhat reassuring to think that successful attackers slipped through our defenses rather than that we are wide open.

How do we prevent others slipping through? That’s not obvious, but one thing we can say with confidence is that wider information-gathering is not what we need. Terrorist plots are not being carried out without the security services getting any sniff of them. What they need might be better management, it might be more resources, or it might be easier access to specific kinds of information on suspected individuals – what might be termed “deeper” intelligence-gathering. (Or, of course, some combination).

Even illiberal measures such as ID cards have to be considered in this context. If it were easier or cheaper to “drill down” from having suspicions of one individual to getting enough information to act, then that might have happened in July 2005.

However, it’s hard to see what could have triggered action. What arouses suspicion seems to be contacts with known terrorist sympathisers. What would trigger action? Probably only getting hold of actual plans or materials for an attack – and those are hard to get. You can’t follow every suspect around with armed police, (which is a good thing) – if the amount of preparation for the attack is kept to the minimum, it’s very difficult to prevent it.

That’s not a reason for despair. The sort of attacks that can be carried out with little preparation of the sort that risks exposure are the ones we’ve already seen – kitchen-made explosives or poisons, small arms, sabotage. These are not a threat to our society, and not a significant threat to us as individuals when compared to the non-terrorist risks we run every day.

The IRA was able to to mount much more serious operations – mortar attacks on Downing Street, truck-size bombs, sustained campaigns. I feel in less danger from terrorism now than at any time since I moved to London in 1989.

If counterterrorism is basically working well, what are the lessons? More of the same, I think. Gradual increases in resources for intelligence and policing, and for analysis of intelligence – nothing that will disrupt an organisational structure that is functioning adequately; nothing that will carry too much cost or cause too much disturbance. No overreaction to the fact that small-scale attacks will continue to slip through the net.

On Badges

Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek asks:

I don’t understand this at all. Why would anyone care who has [Bjorn Borg’s] trophies? Its not like anyone is going to think that the highest bidder actually won them rather than bought them.

Isn’t it? Perhaps not in this specific case, but people in resenting the idea that the trophies might come to be owned by a private buyer are applying a general wish that badges of achievement be held by those that have earned them.

I think that’s a reasonable preference. There are lots of ways of displaying wealth, but fewer ways of displaying past exellence at tennis. Turning badges of achievement into symbols of wealth destroys information.

A better example of the same phenomenon is here. I might already know who won the Wimbeldon Mens’ Singles in 1980, but anyone on seeing a Blue Peter Badge on someone’s lapel might easily assume they’d earned it. If they can be had for a fiver on eBay, that information is lost to us.

There is a complicating factor when such badges become historical artifacts – at that point it is useful for them to end up in the hands of a collector or a museum, where they are linked to their historical context, rather than a descendant of the original winner of the honour. But while the winner is alive, people prefer that the badges stay in their possesion.

To summarise, there is money, and there is honour of achievement. Money can be, to some extent, a sign of honour of achievement, but in general they are different things. People like to be able to honour achievers, and so prefer that those symbols of achievement be usable to determine who is to be honoured.

(Of course, one can still ask why it is that people want to honour achievers, but that’s a much wider question).

What to do about this? We can attempt to restrict – by law or contract – the resale of badges of honour by those that earn them, but the enforcement costs are large, as the BBC is no doubt finding.

What does work is to keep the enforcement within the “system of honour” itself, which indeed is what people do. To buy a badge of honour is itself seen as shameful and dishonourable, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, to sell one likewise.

(The same principles underlie in part the loans-for-peerages controversy, but that sort of thing is historically so common that it’s difficult to be sincerely upset).

Lord Bingham's Judgement

A year ago I wrote:

I’m less interested in whether religious traditions should override school uniform policies, than in the bizarreness of the legal argument that the Appeal Court used.

Their finding seems to be that the School erred by not considering whether their uniform policy breached the pupils’ human rights. If they had considered it, they could have decided, as the lower court did, that the uniform policy was fine, and they would have been OK. They lost because they didn’t have a piece of paper on file saying that they had taken human rights into account.

[…] This trend of legal and regulatory requirement is intensely stupid and irritating. It replaces restrictions on actions and policies with thought crimes. I mean that precisely; the fault of Denbigh School was not in its actions but in the way it decided its actions.

Yesterday Lord Bingham of Cornill ruled:

31. Thirdly, and as argued by Poole in his article cited above, pages 691-695, I consider that the Court of Appeal’s approach would introduce “a new formalism” and be “a recipe for judicialisation on an unprecedented scale”. The Court of Appeal’s decision-making prescription would be admirable guidance to a lower court or legal tribunal, but cannot be required of a head teacher and governors, even with a solicitor to help them. If, in such a case, it appears that such a body has conscientiously paid attention to all human rights considerations, no doubt a challenger’s task will be the harder. But what matters in any case is the practical outcome, not the quality of the decision-making process that led to it.

Lord Hoffman concurred:

68. […] In domestic judicial review, the court is usually concerned with whether the decision-maker reached his decision in the right way rather than whether he got what the court might think to be the right answer. But article 9 is concerned with substance, not procedure. It confers no right to have a decision made in any particular way. What matters is the result: was the right to manifest a religious belief restricted in a way which is not justified under article 9.2? The fact that the decision-maker is allowed an area of judgment in imposing requirements which may have the effect of restricting the right does not entitle a court to say that a justifiable and proportionate restriction should be struck down because the decision-maker did not approach the question in the structured way in which a judge might have done. Head teachers and governors cannot be expected to make such decisions with textbooks on human rights law at their elbows. The most that can be said is that the way in which the school approached the problem may help to persuade a judge that its answer fell within the area of judgment accorded to it by the law.

What more need I say?


High Court case
Court of Appeal case
Law Lords case
2005 statement by Luton council
Previous posts: 1 2 3 4

Court Details

I’m stil reading through the documents in the Denbigh case, but I’m very impressed by the available resources.

The judgements in the original case, last year’s appeal, and the new appeal are easily findable on BAILII, which apparently is a charity devoted to presenting publicly available legal information. The Lords’ judgement from yesterday is on the House of Lords website.

Also notable is how clear and readable, without any special legal knowledge, the judgements are. The legal profession has a reputation for obscurantism, but in the case of judges giving judgements, at least, that seems to be entirely undeserved.

All this is as it should be, of course, but worth noting.

High Court case
Court of Appeal case
Law Lords case


That Time Again

When I went to an ATM this morning it informed me that my bank’s entire ATM network will be down for four hours on Sunday because of the time change.
I don’t know why they need this outage – possibly for testing – but I can’t blame them.
Why do I get so worked up about this when there are so many bigger issues? It’s just such a clear-cut question. BST isn’t about when we go to work, or when we go to school, or when we go out; those are separate questions that we are capable of working out for ourselves. BST is about how we measure time – and it’s an extraordinarily bad way of measuring time. If I were to list requirements for a time measurement system, the very first one would be that any valid time would occur only once, and the second would be monotonicity – and what we have fails to satisfy even those most obvious conditions.
Traditionally it has been believed that any kind of weird shit can go on, but it doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of the night. That doesn’t work any more – business doesn’t sleep, and for that matter neither does leisure: night clubs and TV schedules all experience the confusion of time going haywire twice a year.

Denbigh wins in Lords

The Guardian:

The law lords today overturned a court ruling that teenager Shabina Begum’s human rights were violated when she was banned from wearing full Islamic dress at school.

Shabina, 17, won a landmark victory last March that Denbigh high school in Luton, Bedfordshire, had infringed her human rights after teachers would not let her wear a traditional jilbab covering her body completely.

I covered this before – this looks like a good verdict, though it is not outside the realm of possibility that the July bombings changed the climate somewhat (which it shouldn’t have, really; the previous ruling was bad because it was based on the idea of thought crimes not because it was “pro-muslim”).

I’ll look at the ruling in detail as soon as I can.

Police Direct

I have the eGov Monitor on my Bloglines subscriptions because I like to keep an eye on what nefarious plots the police are up to. But I have to say, this innovation looks like a very promising development.

Police Direct is a system for providing subscribers (members of the public) with live information on crime.

The whole issue of moving policing work on to lower-level “Community Support Officers” and the like is a tricky one, which I’d like to get round to looking at in detail, but involving the general public is, as I’ve claimed previously, an unqualified good thing. Well done Suffolk Constabulary.