Other proposed solutions to the "lone-wolf" problem are even more indiscriminate.
In a recent book, former RAND Corporation analyst Jeffrey Simon offers an inventory of possible technological strategies for identifying the wolf in sheep's clothing before he attacks. These are typical of our moment and include the widespread use of Internet-enabled smart surveillance cameras, as well as the active, suspicionless monitoring of Internet and social media usage. Another increasingly popular approach he suggests is the expansion of biometric collection, meaning the government would assemble biological traits unique to each individual, such as facial dimensions and DNA, without any evidence of wrongdoing.
It should be noted that such an approach -- and it's typical of the direction the national security state and law enforcement have taken in these years -- would represent a fundamental assault on a free society. Such "countermeasures" should send a shiver down your spine. Simon seems to recognize this, writing, "Privacy issues will have to be addressed, including the willingness of the public to have their facial expressions, eye movements, heart rates, breathing patterns, and other characteristics captured by sophisticated sensors wherever they go in order for a decision to be made by others concerning what they might be intending to do."
The dangers to Americans in allowing government agencies to collect such intimate information in order to discover whether any of them are possible lone wolves should be obvious in terms of the destruction of privacy, among other things. The result would be both an Orwellian world and a hopeless one in safety terms. It's already clear that none of these expensive and advanced technological "solutions" will work. Totally innocent conduct ("false positives") will overwhelm the truly menacing. Some of these approaches, like surveillance cameras, may help finger a perpetrator after the crime, while others, such as trying to identify who will engage in terrorism by his body language, will only further contribute to the security theater the government has staged since 9/11.
Nevertheless, the ineffectiveness of an intrusive security state won't stop its adherents from pushing for more power and methods of control that are ever more intrusive. "We have to put... aside... all the bleeding-heart, politically correct people who say we can't be emphasizing one community over the other," VICE quoted Congressman Peter King as saying in a radio appearance. The threat, he added, is "coming from the Muslim community and it shows that the [New York Police Department] and [former police commissioner] Ray Kelly were right for so many years when they were really saturating areas where they thought the threat was coming from."
The once-secret NYPD suspicionless surveillance program King is referring to -- it stretched from Connecticut to Pennsylvania -- never produced a single terrorism lead, much less a conviction. It was "successful" at only one thing: making American Muslim communities in the greater metropolitan area feel as if they were under siege and destroying trusting relations between them and the police.
As King demonstrates, the people who pledge to protect our lives and our liberties are often the same ones who cry wolf. With shepherds like these guarding the flock, wolves may be beside the point.
Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor of the ACLU and holds an M.Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His work has appeared at Al Jazeera America , the American Conservative , the Guardian , Guernica , Salon , War is Boring , and the Washington Monthly . He is also a TomDispatch regular.