Disclosures that Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood killings, may have had contact with a militant cleric in Yemen, and that he had posted inflammatory material on the Internet, have led many to wonder whether more could have been done to prevent such an incident. (see LA Times story) Once again, as with, for example, the Virginia Tech shooter, the problem seems to be that the appropriate authorities actually had information in their possession that could have been used to intervene, but did not feel they had enough information, or did not feel intervention was warranted. Think also of the huge amount of information the CIA had about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the Kennedy assassination, or the clues we had about the 9/11 hijackers who were enrolled in flight training classes here in the United States.
I do not want to jump to conclusions about this investigation, since we still have a lot to learn. I also do not like to engage in too much second-guessing in these situations, since for every Fort Hood shooter, there must be thousands of innocent people buying guns, or writing inflammatory posts on the web; and 99% of these people do not pose a threat to anyone. I do wonder sometimes, though, whether we do enough to engage with all the people with whom we are in contact, and to make them feel engaged, so that some of these kinds of incidents might not occur as often. I also wonder if we are wasting our time collecting so much information about every possible threat in the world, when we don't seem to have the sense or ability to use that information very well. There was an article in the New York Review this month about the yottabytes (that's 10 to the 24th power, the biggest number that has a name) of data that the NSA is collecting and storing in gigantic archives that cost billions of dollars and must be built in remote locations otherwise they would exceed the capacity of the power plants that more populated areas rely upon for their electricity. We keep collecting more and more information, but we have a poor track record in making intelligent decisions about how to use it. What we need to figure out is how to make smarter decisions about how to use the information that is already right in front of our faces.
(Photo of NSA headquarters from NSA website. Click on the photo and you'll be downloading a lot of bytes of useless photo information yourself.)