Saturday, February 17, 2018

Systemic Failure; America's Continuing Inability to Deal with Unwanted Young Men

Systemic failure is defined as a deeply fatal flaw in a social or mechanical system that ensures catastrophic collapse as a consistent outcome.

It was June of 2015.  Dylann Roof had just killed nine people at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina when I penned the article "America's Unwanted Young Men"(1). In it, I made the following accusation that, sadly, holds true to this day.

"I mean when you think about it, whenever something goes wrong, we’ve argued ourselves to a frenzy blaming each other’s values, composure, backgrounds, upbringing, religion, race, whatever. None of that really matters. It’s just us making ourselves selfishly feel better. We’ve never actually been brave enough to put our narcissism aside and admit we have done a disservice to these young men. In the end, we like them being invisible, faceless and inhuman. It makes it easier to tighten the screws when one of them slips up and justify our march towards making all of America an open prison for those who inconvenience our utopian bubbles.

So let’s admit one thing. At this point in time, we don’t have any intention to do anything about making the life paths of America’s young men better. There’s nothing in the collective national consciousness I’m hearing that says this is even remotely important. It should be."

This week I watch events unfold once again with all too predictable repetition. We've heard it all before. Nikolas Cruz was a deeply disturbed young man.  He had a history of explosive anger and an interest in politically incorrect subjects.  He was known to practice cruelty to animals, a classic sign of a future serial killer in the making.  He was rejected by conventional society and welcomed by radicalizing influences.  And he experience a catalyzing catastrophic trauma in the loss of his lifeline to ground in the loss of his mother to influenza in November 2017. You couldn't create a better set of profiling templates saying this person needed to be taken in, evaluated and appropriately adjudicated in court to place him onto a less dangerous path.  Everyone around him knew it.  People attempted to inform authorities of it.  And nothing happens to divert this young man from adding his name to America's list of young men who failed the test of real manhood since Columbine.

See Something, Say Something, Means Nothing

What really stands out about this incident is that it was technically preventable and practically infeasible to act upon. Members of society in both "Internet America" and "Real America" did attempt to do all of the things we said we wanted to do to detect and intercept Nikolas Cruz on his way to being the next American mass murderer.   The FBI was alerted ... twice.  Local law enforcement visited Cruz thirty-nine (39) times over a period of seven (7) years. The problem wasn't a lack of case history; it's that there was no clear course of action to do anything constructive with that case history.  The time critical catalyst event of the mother's death, significant as it is in the psychology of these cases, had no place to augment the system's forty-one (41) entries in the NCIC other than as an anecdote in officialdom; and an imposition on ill prepared family members.

Really?  WTF America?  We've been watching this happen for how long now and we're still handling cases like this with case management systems with holes like Swiss cheese?   Who are we kidding here?  Nobody wants this to happen.  Something's clearly broken and finger pointing with our emotional responses has clearly done nothing.

The First Step to Solutions is Perspective

Do you know what your personal chances are of falling victim to one of these mass shooting?  You hear all sorts of statistics making it sound dire, as if you should fear even stepping out into the street.  The noise has a predictable effect on the human fight or flight response.  It will either make you want to disarm everyone on the planet or pack a piece of your own. Neither approach actually increases or decreases your chances of encountering a situation where you will have to fight or flee in real time.

Let's break down the odds by removing some of the layers of statistical manipulation out there shall we?  Let's start with an often quoted number.  The National Safety Council says that "The lifetime risk of dying in a mass shooting is around 1 in 110,154 — about the same chance of dying from a dog attack or legal execution."  For argument sake, I'll take that as an earnestly researched estimate.  But what we all want really to know as we decide whether to stick a Glock into a holster and pack it around is what are the odds of getting into a mass shooting in the next 24 hours. So let's say the average lifetime is 80 years and there are 365.25 days per year of a lifetime on planet earth, yes I am accounting for those leap years.  That works out to a 1 in 3,218,699,880 chance you're gonna need to shoot back or run away before the next sunrise.  You're 11 1/2 times more likely to win the PowerBall by buying one single number ticket on the same day.(3)

You can debate your fears all you want but the reality is that the fear is mostly in your head and solutions based on the fantasy of cleansing the planet of non-believers is equally in your head.  Bear in mind that if the National Safety Council did its analysis properly, and I have no reason to think they didn't try to, all the factors for exposure to dangerous situations, activation levels of high risk personalities, and efficacy of mitigation (or lack therof) is technically embedded into their lifetime risk factor number.  As for me, I don't really feel an urge to hate everyone that disagrees with my politics nor do I plan on getting into a massacre scenario active shooter gunfight on any given day. On balance, I know it's more important to live my life in the everyday world focusing on run of the mill things. Judge tolerantly. Don't hate. Don't get sucked into other people's irrational fears.

Acting on the Situational Risk

So where is the actual situational risk here?  It's in the risk posed by "activated individuals"; meaning, those persons for whom at risk character traits have come together with catalyst factors pushing them over the edge to commit mass murder.  As stated earlier in the article, everyone from cop to shrink to neighbor to internet troll knows how to "see something".  People, as we've seen in this case, do "say something".  Enough of these episodes have transpired that we know the real factors that indicate when action is necessary.

The thing here is that we've also known what the solution to these situational risk scenarios has been for a long time.  Back in the 1990's when I was helping Los Angeles area law enforcement invent this concept called community policing, I ran into an early pilot programs at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office (LASO) for a dual-agency P.C. 5150 response car containing both a Deputy Sergeant and a Department of Mental Health employee.  5150 is police code for a report of a mentally unstable individual.  Police officers keep public order.  They do not have authorization to commit someone to psychiatric evaluation.  It takes a mental health professional to do that.  Back in the 1990's, there was one car on duty equipped with both sides of the coin to handle 400 square miles with millions of people.  For all that we have learned about the situational risks we face, nationally, our case handing infrastructure remains woefully sparse.  HIPPA constrains records comparisons with NCIC.  Procedures to act, and more importantly, follow up to make sure that the most at risk persons are improving, are practically nonexistent.  Forty-one contacts with law enforcement should have been more than enough to spring the system to help before 17 people had to die.  It wasn't.  That is a fundamental systemic failure.

Overcoming Antiquated Flaws

I have no doubt that the Federal Bureau of Investigation feels awful that Nikolas Cruz slipped thought the crack on their watch.  It should cause a period of deep introspection for the agency asking if anything they've done has even changed the lifetime risk rate to Americans one iota.   I suspect the answer is presently an inconvenient truth. But it's not a hopeless truth. There are ways to reach out before it's too late.  I've see this personally in other life and death situations.

In 2009, as a volunteer working with the Manhattan Beach Police Department, I spent long nights watching the beach. Departments along the coast had received a request from the L.A. County Lifeguards to please do something because they were finding too many dead bodies in the morning; people who had committed suicide because of the ruin ravaged by the 2008 financial crisis and sub-prime mortgage debacle. The job was a macabre lifesaving mission. I had the keys to the lifeguard headquarters tower and would bring the latest night vision gear, a spotting scope and a radio up to the platform and watch the beach; a 4x4 beach patrol truck was on call at the other end of the radio.  I would watch looking for individuals walking down to the water late at night lingering.  Most were just living life doing people things that, were it not for the mission, would make for funny stories similar to scientists watching penguins.  But every once in awhile, you'd see the pattern of someone moving in a way in the greenish light of the imager that just told you they might be contemplating that maybe this would be their last sunrise. "2 Ocean 1 to 2 X-Ray 1, can you run out there and check the welfare?"  Sometimes, that's all it takes to save a life.  Someone watching.  Someone who cares.

In a world with machine learning, artificial intelligence, and big data mining, we now have tools that can leverage the finding that one person lingering on the edge out of millions of disparate data elements spread all over the internet.  There are ways to integrate data from official sources and social media in both machine and natural language that can watch the beach as America surfs the web.  These systems can be integrated into law enforcement and mental health systems to not only watch but incorporate algorithms that tolerantly analyze and caringly raise concerns to agencies to "check the welfare". We can make bots that find the weak, save innocent lives, and prevent America's unwanted young men from falling through the cracks.

I respectfully suggest that we should endeavor to do so.

(1) "America's Unwanted Young Men", Dennis Santiago, June 19, 2015, Huffington Post, (original), (reprint)

(2) "Deputies called to suspected shooter’s home 39 times over seven years"Yaron Steinbuch, February 16, 2018, NYPost

(3) The published odds of winning the Powerball lottery are 1 in 279 million.

America’s Unwanted Young Men

Reprint: Originally published on June 19, 2015 as a contributor blog on the Huffington Post. The article was in response to the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in South Carolina by Dylann Roof.

(June 2015) I’ve been watching a sad tale of prejudice and hate. It started years ago in a place called Columbine. Two misfits named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold started the United States down a path that would destroy this country’s tolerance for what used to be called “boys will be boys.” In their aftermath, the police would radically change emergency response philosophy from negotiation to assault. The schools would expel anyone for even hinting they had a stray thought outside the boundaries of unforgivingly rigid political correctness. To want to “be your own man” would become a dirty thing, to aspire to it would make you an enemy of the state.
But “boys will be boys” and disenfranchised young men are real. The names that have followed since Columbine are too many. But they come in many forms. The poor ones with little hope for economic opportunity getting in trouble with the law so that for the rest of their lives every traffic ticket becomes a felony stop. They are the immigrant ones hated because they struggle through the confusion of being men without a country trying to make sense of the conflicting expectations of the cultures they came from and the one they are so unable to fit into. Their anguish is dismissed and labeled to be the evidence of suspected radicalized candidates for the TSA no-fly list. They are the mentally anguished ones whose brains are gifted by their creator to exist in a part of the spectrum the majority feels uncomfortable interacting with. We shunt them aside. We fill them with drugs and hope we’ve dulled them to the point that what drives them within never comes out. For every egregious case that makes it to the headlines, many others deal with the same societal rejection. What’s amazing with so much stacked against them is that somehow they cope; they make it to the other side. But why do we make them suffer so?
Whenever I think of it, I cannot help but ask how much of America’s future have we destroyed in this mean thing we do to our young men? If there’s one common character flaw in the United States, it’s that we seem to have no problem about torturing each other’s minds. It saddens me to witness in the Internet how many actually take pleasure in it. I’ve asked myself many times over the years if the price of condemning so many young men to being unwanted and unseen has been worth it. Has what we have been doing all these years just made the problem worse? We talk about being a tolerant and plural society and do things like this to our own.
I mean when you think about it, whenever something goes wrong, we’ve argued ourselves to a frenzy blaming each other’s values, composure, backgrounds, upbringing, religion, race, whatever. None of that really matters. It’s just us making ourselves selfishly feel better. We’ve never actually been brave enough to put our narcissism aside and admit we have done a disservice to these young men. In the end, we like them being invisible, faceless and inhuman. It makes it easier to tighten the screws when one of them slips up and justify our march towards making all of America an open prison for those who inconvenience our utopian bubbles.
So let’s admit one thing. At this point in time, we don’t have any intention to do anything about making the life paths of America’s young men better. There’s nothing in the collective national consciousness I’m hearing that says this is even remotely important. It should be.
More likely we are about to engage in another round of narcissistic self-indulgence. We’ll use this an excuse to beat each other up again pretending that gun control will make a difference to the core problem that we are still condemning all of our young men to a societal purgatory during the very point in their lives they can do the most good for our country. We’ll use it as an excuse to turn public schools into “safe spaces” so disconnected from reality that all of tomorrow’s youth will be unprepared to tackle the mess we are now making of things. We’ll pay lip service to mental health but won’t really change anything.
Can we do better? Yes of course. But it’s been a long time since Columbine and our track record of mediocrity speaks against us. Would it have changed anything on Wednesday? Possibly. If America were a climate where our politics was not about making animus laden statements to feel good at the expense of others would that have been enough to prevent the mental trigger from going off? Maybe. We’re never going to find out unless the rest of us change our behavior.
Parting Shot: If it bothers you that I’ve lumped the problems of all 50 shades of urban youth, immigrants of every faith and origin, and the problems of the troubled privilege class into the same dog pile of “young men” so be it. I see them all suffering equally from our collective neglect and reject the notion that treating one segment of them while ignoring the others is an equitable strategy for the United States.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Dangerous Skies; Aerial Warfare Over Syria

It started with one golden BB.  On February 3, 2018, what is believe to be a Chinese made FN-6 man portable surface to air missile, suspected to be in the hands of Jihadists, shot down a Russian Air Force SU-25 Frogfoot believed to be piloted by Major Roman Filipov, per reports by the BBC, in the skies above the city of Maasran in Idlib in rebel contested nothwestern Syria, near Aleppo.  Major Filipov ejected from his aircraft over hostile territory controlled by the Jabhat al-Nusra and was killed before he could be rescued in what is believed to have been a final gun battle.  Filipov becomes one more name added to the over 400,000 killed in Syria since 2011, per the UN.

In the days following this incident, more airstrikes have begun to pummel the landscape.  The Syrian government, always the most indiscriminate attackers, conducted air operations around Eastern Ghouta near Damascus in southwestern Syria for four days killing an estimated 200 civilians according to CNN.  East Ghouta had been an agreed to "de-escalation zone" per an agreement by Russia, Turkey and Iran in May of 2017.  Apparently, someone forgot to tell Syria's Bashar al Assad. 

On February 7th it was the American's turn.  This time in the wild eastern part of Syria at Deir Ezzor by the Euphrates river where the forces of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) loyal to Assad's government face off with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the U.S. as part of the regional war against the Islamic State.  Following an unprovoked artillery barrage targeting the SDF's headquarters in Manbij  in northern Syria near the Turkish border, pro-regime militia forces attacked across the Euphrates River sending columns in the direction of a base at al-Tanf on the Syria-Iraq border prompting the U.S. Air Force to attack in defense of coalition forces.

It's a bad idea to provoke an airstrike by the USAF on things that look like concentrations of military units, 100 of the estimated 500 pro-regime troops were killed, the rest retreating back across the Euphrates, the river that has become somewhat of an informal border between Alawite vs. Rebel contested Western Syria and Kurdish controlled Eastern Syria. 

These incidents are really artifacts of the end of ISIS.  The tenuous coalition of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is beginning to fragment; it was always destined to do so.  Syria is a mess; a pile of shit holes.  Assad's Alawites control the western side of the country but only tenuously.  That Russian SU-25 was shot down in a rebel pocket of al Nusra, related to al Qaeda, right smack in the middle of Assad's sector of greatest influence.  Southern Syria might as well be an Iranian province.  The Iranians moved here taking good advantage of the turmoil with ISIS hoping to own and manage a swath of land from the Iraqi border to Lebanon; part of their dream to build a natural gas pipeline across the northern Middle East to supply the rich and energy hungry markets of the European Union. Northwestern Syria, most known for the city of Aleppo, is rebel country compounded at the very northern edge by a spat of pure animus involving the Turks and Kurds.  And finally, cutting the country diagonally, the Euphrates River separates eastern Syria controlled by the Kurds, backed by a United States led coalition to destroy the now almost completely destroyed ISIS.  Assad knows full well he is losing his country to several outside interests, allies and foes alike; few of whom he stands much of a chance to displace.  Syria isn't so much a country as it is a tapestry. 

As the tapestry unravels, air power is increasingly being used to leverage the situation on the ground in an effort to preserve the boots on the ground lines of what was an alliance of convenience against the Islamic State.  My net assessment, barring some extra regional imposition of constructive direction, it's a hopeless fight against entropy.

This is the ugly mess everyone feared would happen to Syria in the power vacuum left by ISIS. The US and Russia are being dragged into a dangerous cat fight among rival regional interests dangerously including adventurism by Iran and Turkey.  Inside Syria, civilian are like lightning rods drawing the ire of every faction.  On the borders, the Israelis and the Iraqis have their hands full containing conflict leakage along their frontiers; Iraq potentially looking eastward at Iran as well depending on how stable the government in Tehran can hold it together.  Turkey's opportunism in northern Syria does not help the problem as Erdogan starts to act more like an Ottoman than a NATO member.

Compounding the mess in Syria, the United Nations is so neutered because of December's vote against the US over the embassy in Jerusalem that arranging peacekeeping via this path is almost infeasible.  Why the US and Russia are not cooperating to impose stability on everyone else forcing all of them to the negotiating table boggles me. There are Fulda Gap stakes in the offing here. Neither of these two nations have vital national interests here worthy of letting this flash point ignite.

And then there's this. 

By February 10th, it's the Israeli's turn.  Containing "spill over" from the turmoil in Syria has been one of those things every country that borders it has been dealing with for years; Israel especially so.  It doesn't always work and when the daily tit for tat pattern fails, the sequence of events is always entirely predictable, overwhelming Israeli response.  This time the catalyst was an Iranian made drone that apparently few deep enough into Israeli airspace that it was shot down by a helicopter.  The Israelis watch their airspace like hawks so it's not a really good argument to say they didn't know where it was or where it came from.  Usual tit for tat practice on the Syria-Israel frontier is that the IAF follows up and bops you over the head for having jabbed them with a thorn.  This time, Syrian air defense, went all PVO, that's a term for the old USSR's air defenses, on the strike force of IAF F-16's hitting one. Scratch one Falcon It's the second combat aircraft to be lost to a surface-to-air missile over Syria in a week.

I first started tracking this last year when the Syrians and Iranians got all bent out of shape accusing the Russians of sharing Information Friend or Foe (IFF) codes for their surface-to-air missiles with Israel. Big acrimony.  Here, have some new IFF codes that we promise you the Jews don't have. Mischief managed. Carry on. I figured it was only a matter of time until the Syrian/Iranian forces in southern Syria would again try to see if they could pull off a wall of air defense test hoping to repeat the bloody attrition of the 1973 War in the Sinai when Anwar Sadat's forces turned most of the F-4 Phantoms and Mirages into scrap during the opening phases of that conflict.  That coil spring's been tensioned for a while.  The drone incident just catalyzed it.

This is not the benign airspace counter insurgency (COIN) environment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  This is contested airspace.  This is the baseline technology of aerial warfare shifting in front of our eyes.  Old systems become obsolete and demand new innovation to carry on the business of warfare. The proliferation of modern surface-to-air missiles into the hands of the lowliest combatant is obvious. Less obvious, early unconfirmed reports have the Iranians/Syrians bragging about their air defense missiles shooting down "missiles"; that's implying intercepting standoff ordnance after it has been released from its carrier aircraft. If you please, note at bombs do not presently have jammers; something to think about.  If you're a "pro" at the Pentagon, you might want to draft one of those Mission Element Needs Assessments (MENA's) and start moving that through the system. Just saying.

As I send this article off to posterity, the Israelis are doing what they do best, hammering targets destroying Iranian and Assad equipment and stockpiles in southwestern Syria so the cycle can start anew.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about not escalating things too much. Uh huh, wake up and smell the coffee; read between those lines already people. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Brigadier General Hossein Salami prattles on about annihilating Zionists even as his own government teeters ever closer to not being able to afford this latest rendition in a long history of Persian overreach episodes. Everyone keep sending those Iranian protesters more free VPN's; there may be an "Iranian Spring" in the offing yet.  The United States and its latter day "Coalition of the Willing" make camp in eastern Syria gandering at Assyrians to the west, Ottomans to the north, Mesopotamians to the east, and a Persian outpost to the south.  Yup, the cycle begins anew in the former Garden of Eden.