A War on the Unexpected

In November 2007, security consultant Bruce Schneier wrote an article for Wired.com entitled The War on the Unexpected, which he opened with the following paragraph:

We’ve opened up a new front on the war on terror. It’s an attack on the unique, the unorthodox, the unexpected; it’s a war on different. If you act different, you might find yourself investigated, questioned, and even arrested — even if you did nothing wrong, and had no intention of doing anything wrong. The problem is a combination of citizen informants and a CYA attitude among police that results in a knee-jerk escalation of reported threats.

As the parent of a soon-to-be-adult son with autism, the words I’ve highlighted in Schneier’s quote above seemed to jump out at me.  All of them apply to my son, and I’m sure to many – if not all – autistic children and adults. This article came back to my mind as I read Kristina’s post Arrested: The Charge? Bad Behavior, in which she describes the arrest of a 13 year old autistic boy and a 19 year old man with fetal alcohol syndrome.  This is, of course, not the first such incident to have happened, only the most recent that I’ve become aware of.

There is a legitimate issue concerning what consideration, if any, should be given to a person’s autism diagnosis with respect to criminal activity.  (See, for example, the case of Gary McKinnon.)  But all too often people with autism are approached, and often apprehended, by law enforcement personnel simply because they are “acting weird” and making bystanders “uncomfortable”.

In his article, Schneier has two recommendations to stop this war on the unexpected.

We need to do two things. The first is to stop urging people to report their fears. People have always come forward to tell the police when they see something genuinely suspicious, and should continue to do so. But encouraging people to raise an alarm every time they’re spooked only squanders our security resources and makes no one safer.

Equally important, politicians need to stop praising and promoting the officers who get it wrong. And everyone needs to stop castigating, and prosecuting, the victims just because they embarrassed the police by their innocence.

More awareness by the public at large, and law enforcement specifically, about autism and autistics is key to at least remove autism and autistics from the category of “unexpected”.

3 thoughts on “A War on the Unexpected

  1. During 9/11 I was living in Falls Church, Va, less than 5 miles from the Pentagon. I saw the smoke from the Pentagon from my apartment balcony, endured countless nights of low flying helicopters with 30 million candle watt spotlights searching the neighborhood where I lived every night for weeks (2 of the hijackers had lived across the street and my neighborhood had a lot of muslims living there.

    After 9/11 came the DC Sniper, a far more terrifying menace than 9/11. People were getting killed just pumping gas or mowing a lawn. And wouldn’t you know it, the snipers shot someone at a Home Depot across the street from my apartment.

    What was interesting about living so close to those events wasn’t the events themselves, but how people who lived there reacted to them. I don’t remember people being frightened of 9/11 or terrorism, but everyone was frightened by the snipers. I think the difference was that everyone understood who the hijackers were, that their violence was directed not at the American people but at symbols of American hegemony. I don’t remember anyone commenting about being suspicious of Arabs or watching everyone. I think this was partly due to education, but mostly due to the fact that the DC area is a world capital with so many different nationalities intermingling. I had a coworker who wore a full burka, I had Iranian friends, Thai friends, Russian co-workers, asian co-workers, muslim and hindu co-workers. I lived next to a Mosque where every Friday, right before rush hour, the streets were closed and men in white robes (forgot the name of those things), would walk across the street after Mosque, get in their Honda’s and Toyota’s, some of them with infants in their arms and drive home.

    Living in that type of environment, you learn to judge people based on their individual traits. You learn that people are exactly alike in more ways than they are different. Everyone laughs at the same things, cries for the same things and want the same things for their family. I wish everyone could have lived where I did, the world would be a lot less frightful.

    Now, I moved back down south, my native land in 2005 to NC. A place far removed from any possible terrorist attack. But, the fear here is really palpable. It drives people’s politics, it makes them suspicious of each other. I can’t sit and drink a cup of coffee in my car anymore without people looking at me as if I’m up to something. They have taken the administrations advise to be fearful and report their fears. Why do people here think they are so vulnerable to a terrorist attack? I think one reason is that they view people that are different from them as foreign, exotic, and don’t share their values. I wish I could plop down everyone here in Falls Church Va, or Arlington Va or Bethesda Md or Washington DC. It would really open their eyes as well as their minds that all people are the same basically.

    By the way, the woman in the burka, her name was Fatima and she had a wicked sense of humor.


  2. I think another reason people are where I live now are so frightened of a terrorist attack is because they believe the violence is random, like the DC snipers were. But that isn’t the case and never was the case. But, because they don’t understand the geopolitical or fail to recognize that these networks are full of people fully committed to their political beliefs (its not about religion and never was), they will continue to believe that Al Quada are just random terrorists. They aren’t. They know by attacking the Pentagon or the WTC, they are striking at the heart of a political and economic system which is their goal.


  3. In addition to coming under suspicion simply because one is different, I also fear that some behavior typical of many children and youths who have Autism such as shouting “no,” screaming, pacing back and forth with sudden turns, throwing one’s arms into the air, and fleeing (not that all individuals with Autism do any one or all of these; just that some individuals do them) will make them vulnerable to being subdued forcibly. In my view, law enforcement agencies need to provide a lot of officer training for handling individuals with disabilities.


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