Monday, April 22, 2013

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid---Or Better Yet, Don't

I want to share some random thoughts on recent convergences between events and my reading. The events have to do with injury and death, and the reading primarily, concerns and NNT’s Antifragile, as well as some blog sites.
The attack on the Boston Marathon and the subsequent pursuit and capture of the bombers has taken a total of four lives, with a number of other people critically or seriously wounded some suffering horrible injuries that will alter the remainder of their lives. At Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December, 27 persons, including teachers and children, lost their lives. In Aurora Colorado last summer, 13 people lost their lives at the hands of the lone gunman. Finally, around the time of the events in Boston, a plant exploded in Texas taking 14 lives. One never wants to fall into the logic of Stalin’s cruel adage that “a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”, but we do need to look carefully at what mortally threatens us.

Although it’s too early to know yet the full extent of whatever arsenal the Boston bombers held, it was surely significant given the firefight that they entered into with the authorities. Yet, immediately before those events, the U.S. Senate, despite polls showing overwhelming support, refused to take any action to limit or control access to firearms. The huge disconnect between the threat of firearms in our society and the willingness of the federal government to address this issue is truly frightening.

What we learned from the firearms debate, as well from other debates over a number of other issues, that our political system is broken. It is broken because the Senate refuses to alter the antiquated and anti-democratic practice of the filibuster; it is broken because a minority of the population and often a minority of the minority of the population) can effectively veto any legislation; and finally, our system is thoroughly corrupted by our campaign financing system. I personally decided to get involved with as a way to try to get the issue of political corruption addressed (I’ll be more writing more about this soon).

We also have to consider the stories that we will attribute to Boston. Was it an act of “terrorism”? Was it at an act of jihad, or was it a Columbine-like act? I think it is too early to say, but what I fear we are seeing is a fusion of the two lines of terror. If we limit the definition of terrorism to overtly political acts planned and perpetrated with some ultimate political goal in mind, then we still can’t be sure if the Boston bombers qualify. However, if we broaden the definition to include acts like those at Sandy Hook, Aurora, and Columbine High School, then surely we have encompassed possible motives for the Boston bombers. What do the actions of those who perpetrated Columbine, Aurora, and Sandy Hook have in common with those of the Boston bombers? All were the actions of young males. It may be that the Boston bombers intended to give some patina of jihadism them to their attacks, but we may be missing a much more fundamental phenomena. If history has taught us anything (and I warily use that tired cliché), it is the volatility and danger of young men. In India, we see it in some bombings, but most commonly in acts of horrific violence against women and children. The way the acts of disaffected young men play out varies, but the inclination—even preference—for violence is marked. Cliodynamics expert Peter Turchin suggests that we will see an upswing of violence sometime within the next 10 years. I hope he’s wrong, but events of the last year suggest he may have some insight.

Boston may show, and it’s my theory in general, that Islam, and jihadism in particular, are often simply vehicles for disaffected young men acting out their violent resentments. Religion (and this can include Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, among others) can give form and meaning to the violent proclivities we observe, but none of these belief systems intrinsically promotes this attitude. Indeed, the vast majority practitioners and doctrines in each religion prefer peace and compassion.

The photo above (taken from Stephen Walt’s blog) is perhaps the scariest image of the week. All of us owe thanks to law enforcement officials who quickly identified and apprehended these violent criminals. (These young men committed criminal acts—whatever motives we attribute to them—and they should be prosecuted as such). More importantly, however, it’s the lock down and manhunt in Boston should give us pause. During that one day, Boston approached a police state. The radical gun proponents seem to think that their rights are going to be taken away by a liberal-dominated government seeking to take away their weapons (a fantasy if there was one), but it’s our desire as a nation  to assure absolute safety that makes it much more likely that we’d fall prey to authoritarian government. I’ve said many times before that war is the greatest enemy of democracy; a war on crime or terrorism is perhaps an even greater threat than wars undertaken abroad. I say this not as a criticism of any elected officials or law enforcement officials who acted this week in Boston, but as a general warning. We have to keep the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our historic and long-standing system of criminal procedure intact. Shame on Senators Lindsey Graham (R. South Carolina) and John McCain (R. Arizona) for seeking to undermine and denigrate our criminal justice system.

The other very troubling aspect of the Boston shut down was the message that it sent to other would-be criminals, whether whatever their motivations. We have sent the message that a major American city can be shut down by a single violent criminal at large. Granted, he was dangerous and should have been treated by both the law enforcement and civilians with the greatest of caution, but were we wise to send this message? Although there a lot of precedents that I would not look to Israel for guidance about, its attitude towards terrorist actions (or criminal actions) is to go about life as normally as possible. These are the words that Obama uttered, but they are not the actions that officials in Massachusetts took.

Largely missing from the news because of how it fit into the events in Boston, was the explosion of a plant in Texas. This is Texas that prides itself on its lack of regulation of businesses (“intrusive or burdensome regulations”) and so-called tort reform (price controls on tort recoveries). I can’t help but think of India when I think of Texas, as India has this unregulated Wild West aspect to it. In assessing risks and where to live, two things I would consider are a state (or nation’s) gun laws (the more restrictive the safer the locale) and the strength of their regulatory and legal system. If potentially dangerous entities are regulated and subject to legal sanctions when they endanger people, then a locale is safer. To paraphrase Lincoln Steffens (who really got it wrong about the Soviet Union), “I have seen the future, and it doesn’t work”.

We need to sort out the risks in our lives. We cannot be absolutely safe, and as NNT argues in Antifragile, attempts to do so can actually prove counterproductive. This dictum applies to terrorism, it applies to crime, it applies to gun regulation, and it applies to other types of regulations. Finding the optimal mix of regulation and control is the challenge. It’s going to take some hard, clearheaded thinking. It’s going to involve taking some risks and realizing that the more we attempt to make ourselves absolutely safe, the more we endanger ourselves.

Here are some discussions of the situations that I’ve found worthwhile: 

E.J. Dionne: “They Way Forward on Guns”

Robert Wright: “Drone Strikes and the Boston Marathon Bombings”

NYT: “Legal Questions Riddle the Boston Marathon Case” 

John Cassidy: “Terrorist Hunt Sends America Over the Edge”

Rick Perlstein “Our Politics of Fear”

Jack Goldstone, “Tragedy in Boston”

Bill Minutaglio, NYT 
"Texas on Fire, Again and Again"

1 comment:

Stephen N. Greenleaf said...

This article by anthropologist & terrorism expert Scott Atran the best one yet: Put it on your must read list.