A Philosopher's Blog

Dropping the Ball

Posted in Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on April 23, 2013
FBI Badge & gun.

FBI Badge & gun. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When it was learned that the FBI had checked up on  Tamerlan Tsarnaev and failed to predict that he would become radicalized, some politicians implied that the agency might have “dropped the ball.”

Given that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did apparently turn out to a threat, it is tempting to infer that the FBI did drop the ball. Now that it is known that he was a threat, people are going back and reconstructing the evidence that he had become radicalized, such as his YouTube links and his outburst at a Mosque.  However, this temptation should be resisted (unless evidence emerges to the contrary).

In regards to tracking people and predicting whether they will become a threat, the FBI faces two main philosophical challenges. The first is epistemic: that is, how do they know that a person will become a threat? This, as might be imagined, can be rather problematic. After all, as some commentators have noted, the FBI checks on many people every year and the vast majority of them do not turn out to be threats.

To use the obvious analogy, some people have mental health issues that might lead to serious violence, but the vast majority of such people never actually engage in such violence. When someone with such issues does engage in violence, people endeavor to backtrack and look for what was missed-and it always seems that the definitive evidence is never found. This might be because people have free will, because behavior is ultimately random, or because we lack the epistemic abilities to find the key evidence. Or something else entirely.

In the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, it might be found that there is no decisive evidence that would have revealed him to be on the (alleged) path to the bombing. That is, given the reasonably available evidence, perhaps the FBI lacked an adequate reason to expend its limited resources in tracking Tamerlan Tsarnaev in detail.

This possibility seems likely. As is often the case, the only definitive evidence that a person will engage in violence is when the person actually does so. Naturally, it would be rather useful to be able to definitively sort out the pre-criminals/terrorists before they act-but this is a rather difficult challenge given our capacity to know.

The second challenge is ethical and deals with such matters as the right to privacy and concerns about having a police state. While the state could keep closer checks on people who are even suspected of being potential wrong doers, there are obviously moral concerns with such an invasive state. The recent battle over expanding background checks for gun purchases showed the extent to which some people are concerned about matters of privacy and rights even in the context of public safety. After all, if there are significant concerns with expanding background checks for buying guns, then one can only imagine to concerns with having the FBI keeping close tabs on people on the basis of a foreign state making an inquiry about them and other such reasons.

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14 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on April 23, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Is it OK to point out that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was possibly (if not likely) responsible for a triple homicide of 3 Jews on 9/11/2011?

    Let’s see…killing Jews, 9/11…could there possibly be any dots to connect here?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 23, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      If the evidence warrants the claim, then of course.

    • T. J. Babson said, on April 23, 2013 at 5:33 pm

      Let’s see. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was

      1) known to be violent

      2) known to be a fundamentalist Muslim

      3) known to have associated with radical Islamic groups in Russia

      4) known to be closely connected to the murder of 3 Jews on 9/11/2011

      Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot.

      I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that political correctness caused the FBI to fail to connect the dots.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on April 23, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    The FBI was told he was a threat. Do you seriously doubt the FBI didn’t put him on their list? It would be a gross failure on their part if they didn’t. Would it not? How many people are falling into this category of threat? And since when is the FBI short on money? That would be people on Social Security, not the military-industrial-congreesional-intelligence-acadamy complex 😦

    More likely is the FBI’s JTTF chose him to further radicalize, mobilize, arm, and use…. no doubt he was also threatened to co-operate or be deported/imprisoned, and was probably told it was only a sting operation.

    The bombers were probably as surprised as anyone that (real) bombs went off.

    You need to stop giving the FBI the benefit of the doubt, since they have been proven, via mainstream sources, to have replaced inert materials with a live bomb in the 1993 WTC bombing, killing six people and injuring over 1,000.

    NY Times – Terrorist Plots, Hatched by the F.B.I.

    “THE United States has been narrowly saved from lethal terrorist plots in recent years — or so it has seemed. A would-be suicide bomber was intercepted on his way to the Capitol; a scheme to bomb synagogues and shoot Stinger missiles at military aircraft was developed by men in Newburgh, N.Y.; and a fanciful idea to fly explosive-laden model planes into the Pentagon and the Capitol was hatched in Massachusetts.

    “But all these dramas were facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training. Suspects naïvely played their parts until they were arrested.”

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/terrorist-plots-helped-along-by-the-fbi.html?pagewanted=all

    See: Mother Jones – Terrorists for the FBI – http://www.motherjones.com/special-reports/2011/08/fbi-terrorist-informants

    See: FBI Foreknowledge of Boston Bombings – http://wp.me/pPnn7-2dk

    VIDEO – Did FBI Have Foreknowledge of Marathon Bombing? – http://youtu.be/4_dRcjjMvfQ 

    See: Hard Questions Posed on Boston Bombing – http://memoryholeblog.com/2013/04/18/hard-questions-posed-on-boston-bombing/

    VIDEO – Rare TV NEWS Dan Rather reports on WTC bombing FBI Foreknowledge – http://youtu.be/hcldy9GT8p4

    • biomass2 said, on April 23, 2013 at 4:37 pm

      Djhokhar ‘s (may I refer to him as The Joker?) reaction when the first bomb went off just doesn’t look like the reaction of someone who was “probably as surprised as anyone that (real) bombs went off.” But, then again, the Feds, as part of the “rudimentary training” they supplied probably trained him not to expect the sound of a real explosion. . . Nah That would be counter to their purpose. .
      The other cases cited in the NYT article refer ” to these dramas . . . facilitated by the F.B.I., whose undercover agents and informers posed as terrorists offering a dummy missile, fake C-4 explosives, a disarmed suicide vest and rudimentary training.” Dummy. Fake. Disarmed. Rudimentary (likely less sophisticated than the bombers may have found in Inspire). Now, if the FBI took the same approach in Boston, the bombers would have been expecting explosions and would have remained calm. Camera footage from the scene shows The Joker doing just that. Standing calmly in the middle of chaos and calmly walking the other direction

    • WTP said, on April 23, 2013 at 9:55 pm

      Since when is the FBI short on money? It’s happened. I’ve had my work impacted by it.

    • WTP said, on April 23, 2013 at 9:59 pm

      Ok, read past the first paragraph. Didn’t think you we’re paranoid enough to fall for the latest and probably most absurd conspiracy theory yet. Why am I surprised?

  3. biomass2 said, on April 24, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Here’s an interesting place to begin the consideration of the dangers of speculation:

  4. T. J. Babson said, on April 24, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Facts are stubborn things.

    The Islamic Society of Boston was founded in part by Abdurahman Alamoudi in 1981, according to the New York Sun, and was the first president of the mosque. Alamoudi is currently serving a 23 year sentence in federal prison as he was convicted in 2004 of participating in a Libyan plot to assassinate Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.


    • biomass2 said, on April 24, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      Lots of facts in this article. . . Breitbart needs a whiteboard to present them (a la Beck). Do you think law enforcement agencies don’t have these facts, have intentionally ignored them, or are fully aware that facts, strung together, may amount to little more than circumstantial evidence and won’t hold up in a court of law (part of our constitutional structure).?

      • T. J. Babson said, on April 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

        You don’t like Breitbart…here’s USA Today.

        BOSTON — The mosque attended by the two brothers accused in the Boston Marathon double bombing has been associated with other terrorism suspects, has invited radical speakers to a sister mosque in Boston and is affiliated with a Muslim group that critics say nurses grievances that can lead to extremism.

        Several people who attended the Islamic Society of Boston mosque in Cambridge, Mass., have been investigated for Islamic terrorism, including a conviction of the mosque’s first president, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, in connection with an assassination plot against a Saudi prince.

        Its sister mosque in Boston, known as the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, has invited guests who have defended terrorism suspects. A former trustee appears in a series of videos in which he advocates treating gays as criminals, says husbands should sometimes beat their wives and calls on Allah (God) to kill Zionists and Jews, according to Americans for Peace and Tolerance, an interfaith group that has investigated the mosques.

        The head of the group is among critics who say the two mosques teach a brand of Islamic thought that encourages grievances against the West, distrust of law enforcement and opposition to Western forms of government, dress and social values.


        Facts are stubborn things.

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