Tag Archives: terrorism

Book Review: The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter, by David L. Robbins

Another free Kindle find, and another solid piece of fiction. Set in the present day, The Empty Quarter explores realities of modern warfare – specifically, American involvement in the Middle East and the war on terror. Told from three points of view, the story covers a handful of intense days. On one side are the American pararescue jumpers – soldiers whose job is to jump into battles to rescue the wounded. Following mostly a medic called LB, we see the group’s near-superhuman performance in multiple theaters of war, and they’re perhaps the least well-rounded characters in the book. The second point of view belongs to Josh, an American diplomat in Yemen who is bored with his assignment as a cultural attache. He jumps at the chance to participate in something a little more interesting than attending parties. The third narrator is Arif, a former Saudi mujahideen who fought on behalf of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and later turned against the repressive Saudi government. He married a princess from the Royal Family before escaping with her to Yemen and turning to computers to continue his attack on the Saudi government. The setting, apart from a handful of early war zones, is Yemen, and it’s rendered beautifully. The country features harsh and severe geography and similar people, bound by tribal loyalties and codes of honor. All of these come into play when the story reaches a crescendo.

You’ll notice I haven’t described the plot very much. That’s not intended to be criticism, but trying to avoid spoilers. I’ll go as far to say that Arif plans a cyberattack on his father-in-law, and that several locals are interested in his experience as a Jihadi. Much more happens, but I’d give away many early twists if I elaborated.

Solid read that doesn’t avoid the harsh choices of the war on terror and isn’t afraid to paint an ugly picture of what it requires. If I had to criticize it, I’d say the second half is somewhat too linear, but I kept turning the pages until the end.

3.5 out of 5 drones.

Book Review: The Attack

(Yesterday’s review of Chasing The Sun reminded me of this book, whose review I never published here. It shares similarities of viewpoint and of pacing problems. Given that and also current events, I’m posting this review.)

The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra

The story of an Arab doctor in Tel Aviv whose wife commits a suicide attack is vividly written, and the relevance to modern times is obvious.

Dr. Jaafari’s life is turned upside down following a suicide bombing, when it emerges that his wife died in the blast – not as a victim but as the perpetrator. Jaafari goes through denial, which then turns to curiousity: how could this happen without his knowledge? He investigates his wife’s secret life while still in shock, and his investigation puts him in danger.

The setting is fleshed out in great detail, which is nice for context, and Jaafari’s inner life goes on in great detail, which is useful at first. However, the plot often has to wait while extensive description of minutiae are provided in both setting and feeling. The story is also glosses over much of the politics, giving it to us in exposition instead of story. Worth reading for an on-the-ground look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but ultimately more a story of a man’s inner life, and not a great one at that.

Intriguing, but ultimately underwhelming.

Follow-Up On The Costs Of The NSA

Following my post this morning on the cost the NSA imposes on America and the deaths caused by such costs, Charles Hooper’s article on the costs and benefits of NSA surveillance was posted at the Library of Economics & Liberty. The piece is worth reading, but here’s a quick summary:

For every true terrorist uncovered, the NSA would incorrectly flag 475,500 innocent American residents. With the NSA budget of $5 million per terrorist ($5 billion divided by 1,000) and a follow-up cost of $30,000 per accused, the marginal cost per real terrorist is over $14 billion, which is far above the marginal value per terrorist of $100 million. Notice that even if one assumes a zero budget for the NSA, the marginal cost per real terrorist is still over $14 billion. The big driver of costs is not the NSA budget, but the cost of incorrectly flagging 475,500 innocent American residents for every true terrorist.

Hooper doesn’t go into the fact that these extra costs could have been used to save other lives instead, but he doesn’t have to. The huge and pointless costs of NSA surveillance are apparent either way.

Has The NSA Killed Thousands Of Americans?

See update below for a different approach.

This isn’t about the assassination of American citizens without due process, which we do already. This also isn’t about Americans killed in the secretive drone campaign, although I’m sure that happens, too. I’m talking about economics. I’ve previously addressed in this space how many people were killed to make everyone feel good about Bat Boy. Here, I’ll apply the same principle to the NSA, whose insanely intrusive tactics have basically abolished privacy.

The NSA’s budget is believed to be around $10.8 billion, though I imagine no one would be surprised if they had much more than that in undisclosed funds. The federal government, in its various regulations, uses a statistical value of life of between $6-8 million. We’ll use the upper bound here, to give the NSA the benefit of the doubt. Thus, to justify a budget of $10.8 billion, the NSA would have to save ~1350 lives* every single year. If it doesn’t, we should be using those moneys for programs that do save lives.

*If one wanted to, one could calculate the maximum number of lives $10.8 billion could save by using the most cost-effective interventions. However, since those numbers are often unreliable, and most programs cannot be scaled indefinitely (there’s only so many people you can save from malaria, for example), I will use the average American value here. This benefits the NSA in this calculation. More importantly, American politics rarely cares about the lives of non-Americans, even when Americans clearly do.

Here are the numbers of American terrorism deaths since 1985, cobbled together from State Department data, the Johnston Archive, and Wikipedia (all numbers through 2012, limited to private citizens).

Year Deaths Injuries
1985 2 4
1986 2 110
1987 0 1
1988 0 0
1989 2 16
1990 2 3
1991 1 0
1992 1 0
1993 15 1,063
1994 7 9
1995 171 677
1996 25 510
1997 6 21
1998 12 11
1999 5 6
2000 23 47
2001 2,978 8,000
2002 27 37
2003 35 29
2004 33 33
2005 30 36
2006 28 39
2007 19 17
2008 15 18
2009 9 19
2010 15 19
2011 17 17
2012 10 5

If you’re not familiar with this area, you might be surprised to see how incredibly low death rates from terrorism are. Obviously any violent death is one too many, but even with the 9/11 attacks, terrorism averages just 125 deaths a year – roughly the same as deaths caused by peanut allergies. Since 2002, the average is merely 22, and under Obama it’s ~13. These are within range of the pre-9/11 average of 17-18. Let’s say that the NSA’s current abominations were installed in 2009: this means they should have saved approximately 5,400 lives by now. This means preventing a new 9/11 approximately every 2 years and 2 months. Considering that 9/11-type attacks weren’t occurring that frequently long before the NSA existed, it strains credulity that such attacks would be occurring regularly the past five years.

Perhaps you think the NSA crimes have in fact been preventing such huge attacks the past five years. To quote my role model Dave Barry, “perhaps you are an idiot.” Assuming you’re not, please explain how there were no such attacks between 9/11 and the institution of the invasive NSA programs. You’d also have to explain what the NSA is doing on top of the CIA, FBI, and military intelligence to save these lives, since we’re not taking the activities or budgets of these other entities into account. What is the NSA doing that they could not have?

Reading the data in the way most generous to the NSA, they’ve saved approximately 14 lives per year, at a cost of approximately $771 million per life saved. Considering that we’ve stipulated that lives can be saved for $8 million, the NSA has actually caused the deaths of 1336 Americans each of the last 5 years. Ironically, this would make it the most effective anti-American terrorist organization in the world.

Yes, you could argue that the NSA saves these additional lives with just a tiny portion of their budget, so that the actual financial cost per life saved I’d much smaller. I’d like to see some evidence of that, but it’s at least possible. You’re still left explaining why civil liberties are worth nothing, and how we can exercise oversight without knowing any of this.

UPDATE: In researching this article, I ran across a paper by John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart, published this week, called “Secret without Reason and Costly without Accomplishment: Questioning the National Security Agency’s Metadata Program.” It doesn’t do the cost/benefit analysis the way I do, but it arrives at the conclusion that the NSA’s metadata programs is not cost-effective even without taking into account the loss of civil liberties. Worth a read as it goes over the ways the NSA has admitted the low benefits of the metadata program.

Nelson Mandela And The Tyranny Of The Dichotomous Mind

I hadn’t planned on writing about Nelson Mandela’s death because I’m not particularly well-informed about him and his life. I’ve read his Wikipedia entry before, probably more than once, and a few years ago I reviewed the movie “Goodbye Bafana” for a magazine (I remember finding it pedestrian), but my knowledge of the politics and economics of late 20th-century South Africa doesn’t lend itself to a proper piece on Mandela.

I should note that from what I do know, Mandela was certainly one of the greater statesmen of our times. The perhaps most impressive feature of his politics was his relatively forgiving approach to his former oppressors. It’s in line with Steven Pinker’s argument from The Better Angels of Our Nature: reconciliation requires incomplete justice and thus forgiveness. The relative success (considering the preceding regime) of modern South Africa is partially due to Mandela’s dearth of desire for revenge – a desire I give in far more easily than he seemed to. Mandela was an important figure of our time, and I hope South Africa survives his passing without difficulty. (Post-Tito Yugoslavia was not a fun place.) The true legacy of the man will be a stable and free state.

Media Coverage And The Double Backlash

More interesting to me has been the coverage of Mandela’s death and the discussion about him on Twitter and Facebook. The mainstream media, of course, have praised Mandela exclusively, which has led to a small online backlash at the omission of less savory aspects of Mandela’s history, and this backlash has generated another backlash at the gall of people to question the greatness of Nelson Mandela. It’s usually a pretty sad spectacle, lacking any inkling of intellectual curiosity.

It reminded me of great pieces, one by Richard Dawkins called The Tyranny Of The Discontinuous Mind and one by Megan McArdle called Egotistical Bias. Dawkins discusses the difficulties of explaining evolution to the human mind which is used of dealing with things in clearly distinct categories: child OR adult, wolf OR dog, etc. In reality, of course, a child doesn’t become an adult at age 18 in any way except legally, and wolves evolved into dogs by way of many wolf-dog intermediaries. McArdle, meanwhile, reminds us that people don’t necessarily think about issues using the same criteria that we do. If you believe that the minimum wage helps the poor, someone who opposes it doesn’t necessarily want to hurt the poor; they could just disagree on the effectiveness or morality of the policy.

What I’m seeing in the Mandela coverage is a related problem of seeing only two sides to an issue, a thesis and its exact opposite. “Mandela was a great fighter against racism and oppression,” says one side, so if you point out that he headed an armed resistance that also killed women and children, you must be in favor of racism and oppression and calling Mandela a monster. “Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe killed women and children; he was a terrorist,” says the other side, so if you point out what he was fighting against or that he eventually renounced violence just when he was in a position to use it most, you must be in favor of terrorism. You can point out that poor Afrikaaner whites installed the apartheid regime to exploit the black population AND the white English elites, and you’ll be accused of defending racism, like oppressing more people is somehow less bad.

This toxic “discourse” is part discontinuous mind, part egotistical bias. It’s hardly the first or only topic to be so “discussed,” but it seems that the words that trigger this sort of mind-killing – terrorist, communist, racist – are particularly densely grouped together in Mandela’s life. It even played a huge role in South Africa’s history, as America was okay with apartheid in the mistaken belief that anti-Communist is good by default. It’s sad to see this play out after the death of a great, if not perfect, man who came to understand the destructive power of the dichotomous mind.

Netflix Review: Red Dawn (2012)

I’ve written before about the effect that our relatively safe, peaceful, and ultimately boring modern times. I should have noted that only a few decades ago, a nuclear confrontation between two world powers was considered not just possible but even probable. I think the likelihoods were much lower than the average citizen perceived them, but the mere possibility opened up storytelling possibilities about the scenario. The year 1984 gave us one such story in Red Dawn, a World War III story focused on a Soviet/Cuban invasion of the United States mainland. Perhaps it’s telling that the story was told when the Cold Was nearing its end – maybe it was only okay to consider the endgame when it was becoming unlikely.

The 2012 Red Dawn remake has a tougher challenge to establish its legitimacy. The opening montage shows the fallout of the recent financial crisis, the European depression, the rise of the militant right in Russia, and North Korean aggression. It’s a valiant attempt to justify a Russo-Korean* invasion of the American coasts, but it remains a far-fetched scenario. That said, it’s as good a case as you can make for an invasion of America, with its military stretched thin abroad and the mainland vulnerable.

*The Chinese invaders were changed to North Korea in post-production so as to keep Chinese moviegoers happy, which tells you just how much the world has changed in three decades.

The background established, North Korean troops invade the West coast, and we turn to a group of Spokane teenagers, led by a a marine older brother of one of them. Chris Hemsworth, the older brother, is solidly Thor-esque, and his brother, played by one of the other actors (possibly Josh Peck), is appropriately annoying as the screw-up younger bothers. Josh Hutcherson, Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan form the rest of the guerrilla group that resists the Korean occupation. They attack military posts with car bombs, improvised explosive devices, and sniper rifles; in essence, they engage in terrorism. The movie isn’t thoughtful enough to make you wonder whether Iraqis or Palestinians or Libyans or Egyptians or Syrians view their guerrillas the same way we’re expected to view the Wolverines. In fact, the movie is unlikely to make you think at all. The action is relatively simple and sometimes entertaining but rarely memorable.

It’s a serviceable film for a weekend afternoon if you’ve got something else to do while you’re watching it, but it doesn’t, and can’t have, the cultural impact or meaning of the original. We should all be grateful for that.

More on Syria, and on World-Historical Contingency

I recently tweeted this:

I frequently use “I hope I don’t have to explain to a child” as a rhetorical device because it tends to crystallize moral issues in an intuitive way. It strips away much of the artifice that we’ve built up. International weapons conventions, national sovereignty, jurisdiction, and geopolitics suddenly seem quite silly when the issue is boiled down to “people are being killed.”

Of course, this simplification often does omit some important details. I don’t particularly care about international laws and national sovereignty, for example – if these “laws” permit for wanton murder of innocent civilians, we need new laws. More importantly, though, is that focusing on a single issue like that ignores the long-run effects of decisions. I’ve written previously in this very context that the goal of any action (proposed intervention vs not) should be to minimize long-run violence. Perhaps intervention would save X Syrian lives in the short run, but there are long-term consequences. For example, unilateral American intervention could make it more acceptable for Russia or China to intervene in other countries in the future, with likely less benevolent motives. Those potential future losses of life and freedom must be weighed against the lives saved today.

The biggest blowback of any intervention, of course, are terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists. Religious fundamentalists create a particular problem here, as they act as if they have nothing to lose – considering that many are willing to commit suicide or die in battle, they don’t consider their own lives worth protecting. This makes them very dangerous: with no country, property, reputation, wealth, of life to protect, they are not vulnerable in ways that rational actors are. This makes intervention in conflicts where they have an interest even less likely to be beneficial in the long run: provoking fundamentalist terror can wreak havoc for decades (see, generally, the last 20 years). Of course, permitting mass slaughter to happen today to avoid uncertain future consequences is a trade-off that is and feels unpleasant. The arrogant response would be to intervene today, and then fight the terror that ensues, but that’s neither free nor easy. This is not an easy moral calculus, at least today and in the Middle East.

I specify the place and time because in many places, and for much of history, the blowback consideration would be far less important. For example, I consider Rwanda a huge moral failure by the international community, in that it could have been prevented at relatively low cost with low risk of major blowback – I doubt, and no one has argued, that the Hutu side would have started bombing European trains and American planes. The same is largely true of Bosnia, Kosovo, and the world’s biggest ongoing moral failure, North Korea – all places where blowback risk is low and potential benefits high. Someday, someone will have to explain to a child why these were permitted to happen, and I don’t think there will be an easy answer. But given that the world can’t even handle the easy cases,* I’m not surprised that the Middle East poses a much bigger challenge. And that would be difficult to explain to a child, or in a tweet.

* I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the international community has prevented tons of mass violence, since violence is on the decline and prevented events don’t make the news. Since it’s hard to prove a counterfactual in these cases, though, I’ll ignore this complication for now.

The Mandatory 9/11 Post

While the best take on the “post 9/11 world” (including that phrase) is, as many things are, at Cracked, I’ve had a few thoughts of my own. September 11, 2001, is about halfway through my “conscious” period: I turned 8 in 1990, and through a series of unfortunate events I became aware of world geopolitics early and quickly. What surprised me most about 9/11 weren’t the terrorist attacks, it was the reaction. That’s when I realized how much differently I looked at the events compared to my college classmates (it was the first week of college), and, ultimately, the media and public at large. Specifically, for me, 9/11 changed nothing.

I’m not sure when I realized that terrorism is a thing, but by 2001 I remember largely accepting it as a feature of the world. I was aware of the initial World Trade Center bombing in the 1990s, and vaguely aware of other similar attacks. As a result, when I heard that airplanes had hit the WTC on 9/11, I was far less shocked than most. In fact, I was baffled when the school scrambled to make announcements, schedule group sessions and counseling, and otherwise pay way more attention to this event than I thought was warranted. Not that acknowledging the victims wasn’t warranted, of course – it’s the parts that treated the day like a huge paradigm shift in the world confused me. To me, this sort of attack had always been a possibility, and the fact that it actually happened didn’t affect my world view very much. On September 10, 2001, people existed who wanted to commit acts of terror against the United States, had tried so before, and who were not deterred by laws of war or compassion for human life. The fact that they hadn’t had a successful attack on US soil in some time didn’t really change, for me, the existence of the problem or how it should be approached. To analogize poorly: if you lived in a known crime-ridden neighborhood, the fact that your friend was shot shouldn’t change how you feel about it – you should have been trying to protect yourself and get the hell out already. I felt the same about the US/West vis-a-vis fundamentalist terrorism.

That reaction turned out to be very different from most people around me, and certainly the media. (I don’t mention politicians because they have different agendas from the truth.) The “this is a whole new world we’re in now, and everything has changed, and old rules no longer apply” attitude was so prevalent that I found myself listening to people to see just how different their thoughts were from mine. The ultimate reaction to the attacks, ably dissected at the Cracked link above, was clearly far from what I thought was warranted. Multiple invasions, ongoing occupations, the Patriot Act, the *spit* TSA, and now the new NSA revelations- this is more consistent with an overreaction to something surprising than with an adjustment to a new demonstrated weakness. (It saddens me to think that most of our in-flight safety improvements comes from better cockpit doors.)(I hate the TSA.) That this mindset persists to the present day is not a victory due civilization.

One last thought: the al-Qaidas of the world may have inadvertently set too high a bar with 9/11 that has helped, in a small way, keep smaller attacks at bay. Recreating an attack as visually imposing as 9/11 if difficult, but it was so effective that it presents a goal for wannabe terrorists such that they eschew smaller attacks. This could be a good thing, until we’re lulled to safety, an attack succeeds, and this whole cycle restarts.

On Syria

The evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels and civilians is pretty persuasive now, and Western governments, including America’s, are weighing their options, having long ago threatened that the use of such weapon would trigger military intervention. Now the debate in the US centers on whether the US should, in fact, intervene (presumably via long range missiles) in the civil war which at last count had claimed a victim count upwards of 100,000. The irony, pointed out by many, would be that the US would be helping the rebels, many of which are allied with al-Qaida. My self-selected media sources tend to be more libertarian than most people’s, and the views there are largely anti-intervention. best captured here.

I’m sympathetic to the arguments at the previous link (except the one where they say intervention would complicate our relationship with Assad’s ally Russia; if we can’t discuss military action in face of chemical weapons with the Russians, to hell with our relationship with Russia). The past decade has shown the difficulty of a limited intervention in the Middle East, and it’s unclear that there is a side in this conflict whose interests are aligned with the United States (and other Western governments). The benefits to the intervening parties are tenuous at best, and the costs are clear. Most importantly, there’s a constitutional and moral argument to sending missiles into other sovereign countries.

On the other hand, I have some personal experience with foreign intervention in civil wars. They CAN work out: Bosnia and Kosovo, among others, went about as well as such interventions can go. A few bombing raids, mostly by American forces, on military installations accelerated the end of both conflicts; in Bosnia, a cease fire was reached within a few weeks of the initial bombing runs. The damage was mostly inflicted on munition factories, bridges on supply lines, and and weapons caches, so collateral damage (the pleasant term for dead children) was also limited. As a result, I go back and forth on this issue.

Trying to look at it with the goal of a long-run minimization of violence, there’s a few effects here to consider. That is, which course will, in the long run, create the fewest casualties in Syria and elsewhere in the world, and the fewest violation of rights? In theory, if a permanent totalitarian dictatorship took over France and then immediately created peace in Syria, I’m not sure that would be worth the tradeoff. One thing I am certainly not considering is how the ideal policy would affect any election anywhere.

  • An intervention most likely saves lives in the short run. Taking out weapons caches, munition factories, explosive stashes, and the like makes killing more difficult. It’s not unreasonable to assume that destroying them will make large-scale warfare more difficult for the damaged party for a few days/weeks/months.
  • An intervention will certainly cause casualties. We’re talking about bombing populated areas. Someone will die from the attacks. It’s unclear whether the direct hits would offset the lives saved from the destruction of weaponry.
  • Ideally, the intervention could force a quicker end to the war. Since it seems that the Assad government feels like it has the upper hand, an international support for the rebels could convince them to agree to a cease fire to look for a diplomatic solution. This has worked particularly well in the Balkans.
  • However, an intervention that does not force such an end can make the war worse: both parties could rush to kill more enemies/conquer more territory to win or improve their bargaining position before a second intervention becomes politically viable in the West.
  • An end to the war may result in further violence as the winners, as is so often the case in civil wars, go after the losers. It’s hard to see, however, why this would be worse in an intervention-caused end to the war. If the rebels, supported by the West, won, they would ideally feel some debt of gratitude and agree to be less than genocidal in the aftermath.
  • There is also the possibility of a genuine ally to the West in the rebels, if they ascend to power with the West’s military help. History (hi, Afghanistan!) tells us this is unlikely.
  • There’s a possibility of a wider deterrent effect on other governments who would be more reluctant to use violence on their own people if they expected intervention. At the very least, chemical weapons might be used less liberally. Libya’s Gadhafi supposedly surrendered his nuclear program to the West after the US invaded Iraq to avoid the same fate (which did not work out all that great for him). The deterrent effect of a smaller intervention might even be larger than that of Iraq: other countries know that the US couldn’t support a second Iraq (a third Afghanistan?) but they also know that a few bombing raids aren’t a big deal.
  • At least some, and maybe most, rebels are sympathetic toward al-Qaida, and might retaliate against the West if it fails to act on their behalf. (The risk is smaller, but not non-existent with the Assad regime.) Not only does this create immediate casualties, it also creates a temporary atmosphere of fear and leads to illiberal policies in the West (hi, TSA!)
  • I’m not optimistic that either post-war government would be particularly free or fair. The Assad regime is obviously repressive, but an Islamist successor might be even more so (see generally, Egypt). A popular uprising (if that’s what the rebellion is) might make democracy somewhat more likely, but it’s not as if democracy is the only value in a government.
  • Finally, an intervention lowers the political and moral cost of future interventions, including many that would not be morally justifiable in any sense. That is, if we intervene in such a muddled situation as here, it makes it easier to intervene in the affairs of other countries in the future. In the age where the US is sending rockets into Yemen and drones over Pakistan like it’s no big deal, I don’t think this cost is particularly high any more. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to at least consider.

The Syrian war could have benefited for more diplomatic pressure on Russia to reign in their ally, and more humanitarian aid to the innocent civilians. Now it’s been many months and several lines have been crossed. At this point, going over my arguments above, I conclude that the best course of action, with the goal of minimizing violence, is for the president to have lunch with a couple of guys named Victor.