Monday, December 15, 2008

Why We Should Kill The Terrorists Anyway

Hi Nick! Years from now when we have legions of irritated readers, we'll look back in the grateful realization that it all began with you. And Jack, of course.

But on to terror. It may be true that the odds of being physically killed or injured by a terrorist attack are pretty small. The odds of being affected by a terrorist attack are huge. Especially the kind that AQ is good at.

--For one thing, there's the terror. Having been in NYC for the 9/11 attacks, I can speak to this one myself. To this day, I think about terrorist attacks every time I hear a siren. Every single time. One of the reasons I moved out of NYC was because I didn't want my wife and kids anywhere near another attack -- if it happens. And there were plenty of people who had actual PTSD -- probably more than those who were injured or killed in the attacks.

--And then there's the economic consequences. One estimate says the attacks cost our economy $693 billion. I dunno if that's accurate, but even if its half or a quarter of that, its a significant figure. That effects everyone in the country.

Finally, even if the sole effect of the 9/11 attacks was to make me take my shoes off every time I get on an airplane, that would be enough for me to declare my own blood-soaked jihad against Al Quaeda.


cnick said...

I'm irritated because I just typed a long comment and somehow blogger lost it! Grr.

Anyway, here's the gist of it:
Terrorism should be viewed as one of many possible threats to US national security. Since we have a finite number of 'security' dollars to spend, each dollar should be spent as efficiently as possible using basic cost-benefit analysis.

To make an analogy with personal security: If I stay living in my current city for the next 50 years, and the crime level stays roughly the same, my odds of being robbed are about 1.5%. (Actually they are likely much lower, but let's be generous). According to the FBI, the average loss due to a robbery in the US is $1308. Thus, my expected loss over the next 50 years due to robbery is $19.62. So, if I purchase a gun with the idea of reducing my loss due to robbery, I cannot spend more than $19.62 in today's dollars over the next 50 years or the security investment is not worth it.

The same analysis holds true on the national scale, though admittedly the probabilities are harder to estimate. Take airport security, for example. It's very expensive, but what does it actually accomplish? Most of the measures in place are either trivial to circumvent (no-fly list, for example) or demonstrably absurd (liquids ban). There haven't been any 9/11-style hijackings since 9/11 not because of extra security but because nobody has tried to do it; they haven't tried because they know it wouldn't work, the passengers wouldn't cooperate the way they did before and the whole scheme would fail.

Make no mistake, I do think terrorism is a real threat and the effort to combat it deserves to have resources allocated to it. But let's be smart about which resources we allocate and how we balance that threat against the myriad other threats we face. If we don't, we'll be blind-sided by some other 9/11-scale event from a different threat source that we didn't see coming because we focused too hard on the guys with the prayer rugs.

cnick said...

P.S. My brother had an interesting suggestion for a US terror strategy. Why not put our nuclear arsenal to use? The official policy should be that any country that is found to harbor and/or assist terrorists who attack us will face an ICBM strike.

This approach appeals to me because it leverages our massive prior investment in nuclear weapons during the cold war. And I'm pretty sure it would stop terrorism.

MeatAxe said...

My blog partner 'Atom Smasher' has been heard to opine that a good response to the 9/11 attacks would have been a nuclear strike on known AQ installations in Afghanistan, if only to provoke the "holy fucknuts!" response from those who sympathize with or harbor terrorists.

MeatAxe said...

I do have a feeling, though, that using a nuclear weapon on say, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, would provoke more attacks on us than fewer.

And what if we differ with the German or English governments on their treatment of people we believe are terrorists, and they dont, would be then be obligated to nuke them? It's a difficult line to straddle.

Finally, I see the point you are trying to make about gun ownership and security, but I would like to point out its impossible to predict if the robbery will escalate into an assault or a murder -- many of them do -- and therefore the cost in those cases is much higher.

Additionally, an injury or the loss of money, a car or other items might easily trigger a cascade of unfortunate events resulting in job loss or other opportunities forefeited. This is even more likely if the victim is poor, has crappy or no health insurance.

I understand the parallel you are trying to draw, but in this case I think you are not considering the full implications of violent crime by considering the financial loss suffered during the crime alone. The ripples go much further than that.

As faulty as your analogy is, however, it seems much more reasonable when applied to national security. We spend a lot of money on airline security and it is routinely revealed to be almost worthless.

You seem to be arguing in favor of smarter, more effective methods, and I can't disagree with that.

Nor can I disagree with your suggestion that we use our imaginations a bit more. I once heard the 9/11 attacks described as a failure of our imaginations as much as a failure of our security measures -- I suppose nobody (except that one Tom Clancy book) thought about flying airplanes into buildings.

cnick said...

Let's talk about the extreme example of murder. The city where I live has a murder rate of less than 1 in 100,000. Assuming generously that the murders are randomly distributed among all citizens, I have about a 1 in 1250 chance of being murdered in the next 80 years. I am virtually certain that I am going to die at some point in the next 80 years; therefore I should spend more than 1000 times more money on other possible causes of death than I should on the possibility of being murdered.

The rate of assaults is more like 300 per 100,000, but I am willing to bet that the vast majority are either domestic situations or drunk guys getting in fights. Random strangers beating people up is extremely rare here.

Maybe if I lived somewhere with a much higher crime rate, it would be worthwhile, but the numbers just really don't seem to add up out here.

cnick said...

Regarding the ICBM anti-terror strategy, I wasn't serious about actually thinking we should do that. There are many obvious reasons it wouldn't work (nuclear fallout, the possibility of making a mistake about the origins of a terrorist attack, etc).

With enough ICBMs I think you could reduce the rate of terrorist attacks to zero, though :)

MeatAxe said...

Two things:

1) I wonder what your feeling on home insurance is, given that having a large house fire is pretty unlikely. Is it really worth it?

2) One thing we haven't discussed is the role that concealed carry laws play on crime rates.
It has been theorized that robberies and murders might be less common in states with CCW laws, as the criminal element is hesitant to get shot. This halo effect protects you whether you are packing or not. This could be one cause of the low crime rates you see in your state.

There's a guy named John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime who says that's exactly the case, and a couple others who disagree. IIRC, Gary Kleck says there is no effect one way or the other.

Atom Smasher said...

Some might think it makes you less of a man to be willing to submit to a robbery of your person without any sort of resistance at all.

cnick said...

By "some", I think you mean "Atom Smasher." There are others (like me) who don't give a flying fuck what other people think about me.

Home insurance premiums are larger than the expected loss in any given period (otherwise the insurance company wouldn't make a profit), but the difference isn't very large because home insurance is a competitive market. In other words, the cost of home insurance is about equal to the expectation of loss, so my feelings on it are neither here nor there. In any case, insurance is usually required by your lender so the point is moot.

Porcus Puero said...

@ Cnick:
"With enough ICBMs I think you could reduce the rate of terrorist attacks to zero, though :)"

While I love the idea of vaporizing terrorists with a buttload of tactical nukes, one thing your (semi-serious) argument doesn't take into account is the radical islamic populations living in american cities or the cities of allies: London, Paris, Hamburg, Amsterdam. We can't nuke them, and nuking the motherland will likely strengthen their resolve.

Radical Islam needs to decay from within, a possible the way to do that is to find creative ways to make being a person who lives in, or identifies with, a Sha'aria scoiety as miserable as possible, through an array of tactics, the non-clandestine of which could be non-violent so we don't fan the martyr fire.

I am inclined to agree with you on the overstatement of the terrorist threat (you mentioned this in a previous comment) in this sense: this overstatement has allowed the US Armed Forces, who deserve way better, to be committed to a war without end, with no clear objective on how to win. That's bad for our military organization, bad for our country, and obviously bad for the kids and families who are getting blown up on a weekly basis.

Aside from Atom Smasher, who I think, in the context of this blog, says a lot of silly, reactionary things, I think you, me and Meat agree that our resources in this area need to be applied more intelligently. That's pretty obvious, the operational plan is the cause of debate.

Ultimately it makes very little difference, as we have a myopic, meddling congress who don't know shit about military affairs, we have distrustful, relatively bad generals who have also been neutered by the executive branch systemically since Kennedy and a fundamentally profligate, disengaged, willfully ignorant American public without a shred of patriotism, who doesn't truly give a fuck about any of this stuff. They just want to make sure they get a full tank for less than $2.00/gallon and get no strings attached credit extended to them so they can buy a house they can't afford and play Guitar Hero III.

It's all quite fucked really.

Atom Smasher said...

--cnick said...
By "some", I think you mean "Atom Smasher." There are others (like me) who don't give a flying fuck what other people think about me. --

But perhaps you should?

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