Attack Of The “Known Wolf”

One of the jihadists who committed the latest terrorist attack in London — in which men slammed a van into a crowd of people, and then emerged to slash and stab random people who just happened to be present — was known to and under investigation by British police at the time of the attack.  ISIS has since claimed that the attackers were members of that terrorist group.

khuram-butt-afp_650x400_81496714030The “known wolf” was Khuram Shazad Butt, a British citizen of Pakistani descent.  Amazingly, his jihadist sympathies were so well known that he was featured in a 2016 British TV documentary called “The Jihadis Next Door” in which he is seen unfurling an ISIS flag at a British park.  He was part of a group that was identified as supportive of jihadist ideologies and that supported institution of Sharia law in Great Britain.  In addition, Butt’s neighbors have stated that they had reported Butt to the police on several occasions.  The police have stated, however, that while Butt and the group he belonged to were known to the authorities and under scrutiny, “there was no intelligence to suggest that this attack was being planned and the investigation had been prioritised accordingly.”

The London attack is one of several recent “known wolf” incidents, in which an individual with apparently radicalized jihadist views who was under some form of police investigation then proceeded to commit a terrorist act.  The scenario raises a number of difficult questions for police — and for western societies.

Great Britain reportedly has identified thousands of people who are considered to be potential threats.  What should be done with them?  What level of concern must be reached before someone with apparently extremist views receives more active attention, like significant surveillance efforts?  How should governments react to anonymous tips from neighbors?  And if police determine someone is a significant potential threat, should they be jailed?  Deported?  And what level of evidence should be shown before such penalties can be imposed?  If we wait until the threat level becomes critical, are we running too great a risk?

Everyone wants to promote security, but it’s also easy to see how a desire for security could overwhelm and undercut the personal freedoms and civil rights that we enjoy in open western societies.  That is no doubt small consolation, however, to the relatives of the people who were killed in the London attack by a man whose extremist views caused him to be featured in “The Jihadis Next Door.”  We’ve got to figure out how to deal with the radicalized people in a way that respects our civil institutions, religious rights, and presumptions of innocence while also more effectively preventing more mass attacks.

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The Car As Terrorist Weapon

Yesterday’s brutal terrorist attack in London, England — in which a terrorist drove a car into innocent people walking on the Westminster Bridge near the Houses of Parliament, then jumped out of the car armed with knives and stabbed and killed a police officer before being shot by police — is just the latest terrorist attack in which the principal deadly weapon has been an automobile.

terror-attack-london-876957Not a car filled with explosives and fitted out to be a bomb — just an everyday car that becomes weaponized because it is driven by a fanatic who thinks that plowing into random people, leaving some dead and others grievously injured, somehow advances their twisted agenda.  Yesterday the everyday car that was turned into an instrument of evil was a grey Hyundai sedan.  How many grey Hyundai sedans do you see every day in your town?

Security experts call it “low-tech terror,” in which terrorists use common devices like cars and turn them into weapons capable of mass murder.  Terrorist attacks involving vehicles have happened elsewhere in Europe, but don’t think you can protect yourself simply by avoiding places like London, Berlin, Milan, or Nice, where those attacks have occurred — the terrorist attack on the Ohio State University campus, here in our heartland town of Columbus, Ohio, involved a car intentionally driven into a crowd that was created by the driver pulling a fire alarm that caused people to leave a building and congregate outside, where they became an inviting target.

So how do you protect yourself from an attack when any car that you see during your day conceivably could have become weaponized by a nut behind the wheel?  Security experts say you should exercise extra caution when you do anything that brings you into close proximity to lots of other people, like going to a baseball game or a concert or a busy shopping area.  Of course, the Ohio State attack did not involve any of those things — so perhaps we all need to keep our eyes open during the next fire drill, or when noon rolls around and workers leave their buildings to go somewhere for lunch, or family members gather for a high school graduation ceremony, or any of the other countless occasions that cause Americans to gather together.

It’s a new frontier in terror, and we’re just going to have to pay more attention when we’re out and about.  But I’m not going to avoid football games or musical performances or other events where people congregate just because some disturbed lunatic might drive a car into the people who are there, any more than I avoided such events because there was a chance that a nut in an explosive vest might be there, too.  The terrorists aren’t going to beat us or cow us into submission that easily.

Testing For Jack The Ripper

“Jack The Ripper” is arguably the most famous criminal — and certainly the most famous uncaught criminal — in world history.  The Ripper was a bloody serial killer who slit the throats and then horribly mutilated the bodies of prostitutes in the foggy Whitechapel district of London in the late 1800s.  His brutal murders were prominently reported in lurid detail in the London press of the day and terrified people throughout the world.

Now an amateur sleuth has published a book that contends that DNA evidence reveals that Jack the Ripper was a Polish immigrant barber named Aaron Kosminski, and a number of news organizations are reporting those findings as fact.  Should they?

Not so fast.  How do you use DNA evidence to conclusively prove who committed terrible murders more than 100 years ago — decades before DNA was even identified by Watson and Crick, much less before DNA tests were developed and DNA samples collected?  In this case, the conclusions are based on a single scarf that purportedly is linked to one of the Ripper’s victims named Catherine Eddowes.  The DNA test showed that bloodstains on the scarf were linked to distant relatives of Eddowes, while another DNA signature from another substance on the scarf is linked to the distant relatives of Kosminski.

But there are obvious problems.  Some people question whether the scarf really has any connection to Eddowes, and in any case it hasn’t been held in scientific isolation all these years; instead, it’s been subject to potential contamination.  And an even bigger problem is that the kind of DNA recovered from the scarf is not nuclear DNA, which scientists believe is unique to one human being, but rather mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers to children and can be shared by large groups of people.  The mitochondrial DNA linked to Kosminski is a common subtype — which means that the finger doesn’t point just at Kosminski.

For all of these reasons, Ripperologists are skeptical of this latest claim to have solved some of history’s greatest unsolved crimes.  Was Aaron Kosminski in fact the brutal Jack the Ripper?  I think we’ll never know.

The Black Death And The Modern World

In the older cities of the world, any modern excavation could quickly turn into an architectural dig. This happened recently in London, where some railway project unearthed a number of skeletons — leading researchers to believe they have found one of the major burial pits for the victims of the Black Death.

The Black Death had an unimaginable impact on medieval Europe. It first arrived in England in 1348, but resurfaced periodically for many decades. There was no medical science, and no one understood how the plague spread — but they did know that it was incredibly deadly. In England, the plague is estimated to have wiped out 60 percent of the population. People died by the thousands, and in places like London were buried in common mass graves. The railway project workers apparently found one of them.

It’s hard to conceive what the world was like during the plague years. One of my favorite books, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, brilliantly captures the impact of the Black Death. Many people concluded that the plague was some form of heavenly retribution for earthly wickedness, and different religious cults adopted different approaches — such as self-scourging — to try to erase the sin that they believed was producing such horrible punishment. Others concluded that they were doomed anyway and adopted lives of carefree hedonism. As the death toll mounted, social order broke down. Priests refused to give absolution to dying plague victims. Families abandoned stricken relatives. Long-cultivated fields returned to wilderness because there weren’t enough serfs to tend to them. Gangs of robbers and mercenaries patrolled the countryside. And explicit representations of death and dying, complete with worm-eaten corpses, became commonplace in art and literature.

The 14th century was long ago, but the discovery of the mass grave in London makes me wonder — if a terrible pandemic struck the modern world, decimating the population and making death a constant, everyday reality, would our reaction be so different?

5/5 24

One of the few notable things about the lopsided Super Bowl was the debut of the trailer for the new season of 24, which explodes onto the airwaves on May 5, 2014.

The new season of 24 will be set in London, where a fugitive Jack Bauer hooks up with Chloe O’Brian to try to foil another dastardly terrorist plot. From the all-too-brief brief trailer, we know two things we knew already: no mere explosion can have an impact on Jack Bauer, even if it knocks Chloe O’Brian senseless, and Jack will somehow be armed and ready to scream and fire off shots at any time and anywhere, even in England where private ownership of handguns is forbidden.

I’ve already sent around the email seeking to reinstitute the 24 Death Pool and have received enthusiastic responses. True fans of the show understand that, if CTU still exists, its agents will die by the score, harbor a mole, and be unable to establish a “hard perimeter,” that hapless Brits will be shot, poisoned, gassed, disemboweled, blown up, and tortured simply by virtue of being in the proximity of a whispering Jack Bauer, and that Jack is unlikely to stop for a pint of bitter or a trip to the loo during his frantic 24-hour quest to stop the terrorists. Bring it on!

Fake Tube Signs

London’s Underground, like other subways systems in the world, is a sign lover’s paradise. Some enterprising individual has developed a bunch of fake signs that are both hilarious and sufficiently plausible to make you wonder whether they just might be legitimate.

My favorite: “We apologise that all apologies for the chronic overcrowding on this train are shallow and meaningless.”

A Cold Day’s Return

Today I go back to work after a wonderful two-week vacation with Kish and the boys. Apparently Old Man Winter wanted to make sure that I knew that the holiday’s over.

IMG_5778When we were in Paris and London, we got a lot of rain, but for the most part the temperature stayed in the 40s and 50s. One day we had dinner with a twenty-something British friend and, during a conversation about the weather over our meal, she mentioned that she hasn’t seen any appreciable snow on the ground in her home town since she was 4 years old. She lives in the southern part of England, and apparently snow is a rarity there — even though England is at a more northern latitude than Columbus, where snow is a commonplace occurrence during the winter.

When I woke up in New Albany today snow was falling and the temperature was 25 degrees according to my phone. When I went for the morning walk it was already down to 19 degrees and you could feel the temperature dropping faster than the early season hopes of a Cleveland Browns fan. And, with a sharp wind blowing, Jack Frost wasn’t just nipping at my nose — it felt like he wanted to rip my face off. As I walked gingerly on ice-covered walkways to avoid a slip, a salt truck rumbled by, with the salt crystals whirling out behind. The current forecast is for temperatures to fall all day and reach the point of 7 below zero tonight, with a wind chill factor of 32 below.

Yes, I’m home, and it’s time to get back to work.