Terrorism and the Mind-Killer
I didn’t find out about 9/11 until many hours after it happened. The first plane struck just after midnight New Zealand Standard Time, so I didn’t find out until I woke up Wednesday morning. I am not given to a great deal of emotion, but 3000 dead people (and the initial estimates were almost double that) in one fell swoop was enough to crack even my natural cold-bloodedness. I was shocked, and outraged. Due to geographical (and the accompanying psychological) distance, this post is going to be a lot more clinical than some of the other accounts. But my emotional reaction to 9/11 (and my youthful naivete led to make many of the mistakes a lot of people made in the aftermath of 9/11, and 10 years later, and if we want to avoid similar mistakes in the future, it’s important to evaluate things rationally – even things that terrify or enrage us. What I write below may come off as self-absorbed, especially for a foreigner writing about an American event. I can olny hope I offer enough of interest to make up for my self-indulgence.
In the aftermath of 9/11, everyone was stunned down here. None of us knew what to think about it, though in retrospect the most insightful comment was a particularly poor-taste remark by a friend of mine, less than a month after the attack – “There are going to be some crispy Arabs before this is done.”
And indeed there were, many of whom were killed needlessly. I supported the Iraq war when it happened, I’m not proud of this but then I was only 19 at the time and most of us made errors in judgement when we were teenagers. My mistake came from many naive beliefs I held about how policy works that I got over, largely through working on actual policy projects with actual policy analysts. Here is a quick catalogue of how I feel I went wrong, and what I think people can learn from it (at least the people who didn’t know it already).
1) I believed politicians can be roughly broken up into “good” and “bad” (or at least with regard to specific domains), the good ones can be trusted with wide discretion, and the bad ones will screw everything up. My impression at the time, was the Democrats tend to get into hasty wars (WWI, Vietnam), while Republicans are more reluctant to get involved. This led me to trust a Republican with a foreign policy response (especially one that campaigned against international interventionism). In truth, politicians have far less control over their circumstances than many people would suppose. I have become a firm believer in the median voter theorem of politics – that fundamentally it is the preferences of the median voter that really drives political decisions, and leaders or lobbyists tend to push things more at the margin. Whatever their ideology, politicians are ultimately trying to surf the wave of public opinion without being drowned my it. This isn’t an all-encompassing belief, I don’t think the New Deal would have happened without FDR, nor do I think Iraq would have happened without Bush. But ultimately the public wanted the President to Do Something, which is exactly what he did. If you don’t react to a crisis, even if there’s nothing you can do, you end up like George H W Bush, voted out for doing nothing, even if there’s nothing you can do.
2) I’ve come to understand how badly wrong people can go when thinking about risk. Before 9/11 the notion of the modern US security theatre was inconceivable to me, I wasn’t exactly cheering for increased security, but I was fairly relaxed about it. Sure, people might exchange some liberty for security, but that might be optimal, right? Well, not so much. The problem is, that people tend to overestimate the probability of infrequent events (especially ones that have just happened) and underestimate the probability of highly frequent ones. 9/11 represents less than a month of road accident deaths in the US. In addition to doing little to combat terrorism, the TSA has most likely killed a significant number of people by leading more people to drive instead of fly, and driving is a lot more dangerous than travelling by plane. I think this is why Franklin said that trading liberty for security is a bad move because in practice, that’s not what you get. Fear is not conducive to careful weighing of costs and benefits. Fear really is the mind-killer and when we yield to it, we do anything to make us feel better, not actually work out what makes us safer. This error extends beyond security, consider the environment. A lot of people obsess about the (negligible) chance of nuclear meltdown, and pay too little attention to the deaths by inhaling carbon particulates emitted by coal plants.
3) I now realise that fear doesn’t just affect our judgement, it can damage us morally. Pre-9/11 it was commonly accepted that torture was wrong. It didn’t come up much, because everyone understood it. Evil people torture – end of story. It never occurred to me that a country like the US, not exactly saintly but certainly not evil would actually torture people. What I get now that I didn’t really get then is that no one acts in a way they perceive as evil. Those dictators who torture rebels and enemy soldiers are doing so with a genuine belief that they are the wronged party, and they are simply doing what they must in a harsh world, or at least that is true almost all of the time. And I’m sure the practitioners of “enhanced interrogation” feel exactly the same way. When you feel like you are on the verge of annihilation, you will do whatever you think you need to to survive, and if that means using methods that were explicitly designed to extract false confessions, then that’s what you do, because then at least you feel in control, and aren’t just waiting for the hammer to fall. Fear can lead people to do terrible things, without a pang of conscience.
4) War is the pursuit of policy by other means, and I didn’t understand that. A war, like any government policy, is an intervention by the State with the intent to accomplish some particular goal. The fact wars involve rather more assault rifles than the sort of policy I’m used to dealing with is merely detail (though a pretty important detail). When designing a policy, you need to identify your goal, and design your intervention to addresses the causes of the problem (at least that’s what you do if you are to avoid making a total hash of it). What was the goal of Afghanistan? To eliminate the Taliban? Then why not leave once that was done? To turn Afghanistan into a modern Western nation? Was that ever a feasible outcome, especially from a military-based approach? To find and kill Bin Laden? But it was possible to kill Bin Laden without a military presence in, or even the cooperation of, the country in which he resided. If you engage in an intervention without tailoring to a well-specified goal you get a bunch of agents wandering around looking for something to do because no one likes to feel useless. This is a really good way to spend a lot of time and money and accomplish very little.
Fundamentally I agree with Jason that the world has become a darker place in too many ways since 9/11. If we want stop this kind of foolishness we need to understand where it comes from. The fault is not in the stars, but in ourselves. If we don’t learn to master our fear we end up in thrall to it. Reason is how you solve a problem, and when things are dire it is more important to rely on it, not less.