Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guilt, Innocence, and the Death Penalty

Gin and Tacos has more details on the Troy Davis case that point to the perils of judging too hastily. My conclusion earlier in the post on "closure" and Ed's conclusion are basically the same, although we arrive there from different angles. Here's his take:
...Troy Davis isn't the best cause celebre. His legal team chose to risk everything on actual innocence and they appear to have lost. More evidence tends to suggest his guilt than his innocence. But that is the problem with capital punishment, the idea that Good Enough is good enough. Well, we convinced a jury of his guilt, so now let's apply a punishment that can't be reversed if we later realize that a mistake was made.

This case is not the best example of the kind of Innocent Man on Death Row scenario that capital punishment opponents like to publicize. It is a great example, however, of how the process of determining guilt simply does not allow us to be as certain as we would need to be to apply an irreversible sentence. The limited ballistic evidence is disputed by opposing experts. Some witnesses have recanted. Other witnesses failed to definitively identify Davis as the shooter with certainty. I don't expect that the legal system will release people back into society at the slightest doubt of their guilt. But with the death penalty, the slightest doubt should be enough. Irrespective of the choice of legal tactics on the part of his defense, the simple fact remains: If there is any doubt, you can't pull that switch.
Precisely. There are basically two general moral frameworks for arguing in support of the death penalty: a deterrence theory approach and a retributive justice approach.

The former, deterrence, rests on the premise that the existence of the death penalty deters would-be murderers from committing murder because it is possible they could be caught later, convicted, and eventually put to death. It's notoriously difficult to say with any certainty that the existence or non-existence of a given policy has prevented acts that have not occurred given that any basis for proof comes in the form of those acts not occurring. I suppose someone could say in all honesty, "I was going to kill the dude, but then I thought that, hey, I'm in Texas, I could be put to death for killing this dude. Better not do it." But we can say that pretty much anything at all prevented something that didn't happen from happening: e.g. "It's a good thing I had milk in my coffee this morning or the Russians would have invaded Kazakhstan."

Empirical studies on the question of deterrence seem to be a wash, with a new study coming on the scene every few years purporting to demonstrate one or the other, that capital punishment deters crime or that it does not.

Regardless, two points are especially troublesome. First, if the death penalty were found conclusively to deter capital crimes, then why not chop off hands for stealing to prevent that crime too, or guillotine people who don't pick up their dogs' crap from the sidewalk?

Second, if executing someone every so often did indeed deter violent crime among the public, and the moral justification and practical objective of capital punishment were deterrence, then the people executed from time to time would not need be actually guilty of any crime at all. The goal and justification here would be a kind of aggregate social utility - maintaining a society relatively free of violent crime for the rest of us. Just pluck someone randomly off the street (best if he looks like a "bad guy"), conjure up a supposedly airtight case that he's a horrible murderer, and put him to death in an execution covered minute-to-minute by the national media. Bonus social effects might be included by selecting the person to be executed on the basis of characteristics exemplifying various social fears and prejudices and/or political goals of the state.

A deterrence argument is a very shaky argument.

Justification of the death penalty on the grounds of retribution is sometimes referred to as a matter of "restoring moral balance" in society. Frankly, I'm not sure how to parse that claim philosophically. But it seems basically to mean that a society that wishes to uphold basic principles of justice must live according to those principles and moral-legal rules. Those who violate them must be separated from society as an act of restoring society to that state of upholding its principles of justice and, as a consequentialist add-on, securing the safety of the society. Punishment as a means of acting on and upholding a society's conception of justice and moral values implies that the those who live their lives justly (in whatever sense that's meant by a given society) deserve to be members of that society and those who violate the values no longer deserve by their very actions to live in the society. Indeed, the criminal deserves his punishment where that punishment, whatever form it takes, serves to withdraw him from society.

Nothing here says necessarily that the death penalty should be the form of punishment for a retributionist. A criminal can be taken out of society through imprisonment, exile, or launching them into space, whatever.

The philosopher Jeffrey Reiman once made a sharp little Kantian argument for the death penalty (though his own position is anti-death penalty, primarily for practical reasons). Without going into a tedious recounting of the categorical imperative and such, let's say roughly (and borrowing only partly from Reiman, and not ascribing these views/interpretations to him) that the idea on this account is that if we are acting morally, then we are acting as we would presumably expect everyone else to act. Each action a person makes suggests that the act is morally justified for that agent if the rule or "maxim" it implies can be applied universally. If I steal a pack of gum, that act in itself suggests the maxim that stealing is morally permissible (for everyone).

Kant thought that "reason dictates morality," in that hypothetically applying such maxims universally would show us their logic and thus morality or fundamental contradictions and thus immorality (or incoherence, really). One of Kant's own examples was the act of not repaying a loan. The maxim implicit in that act is something like, "it is not necessary to repay our loans." The maxim is incoherent, contradictory, because if we imagine it to apply universally, it says for everyone that it's not necessary to repay loans. But if this were universally the case, there would be no loans in the first place because no one would loan anything to anyone and no one would be borrowing anything, which entails repaying what's borrowed. Such contradictions show us which maxims can be taken to be moral laws and which are not. In this example, it is therefore not moral to not repay our loans.

If someone commits murder, the act itself suggests that the murderer subscribes to the maxim that killing another person is morally permissible. Continuing the Kantian line of thinking, because the would-be maxim applies universally, the murderer morally justifies his own death. Putting the murderer to death is thereby permissible for a society that presumes equal treatment for all its members such that people get what they deserve based on their actions. Society, in "restoring the moral balance," would be justified in executing the murderer.

Now, there are all sorts of problems with this line of argument in favor of capital punishment (e.g., why not rape the rapist, etc?), even beyond my simple portrayal here. But, although I oppose the death penalty, I think this is strongest kind of moral argument that can be made in favor the death penalty.

Assuming for argument's sake that this retributive approach justifies the death penalty, the point I want to return to that started this wordy post is that the guilt of the person to be executed must be absolutely certain for the retributive justification for the death penalty to stand morally at all. Again, the argument is made by combining two basic points:
1) The very basic ethical principle of desert - that we (should) get what we deserve based on what we actually do.
2) The rough Kantian argument that we ought to act such that we could imagine the "maxim" behind the act to apply to everyone. Thus, universalizing the murderer's act of killing someone else justifies someone or society killing him.

The approach concludes that the murderer thereby gets what he deserves with his execution.

What if it is not certain that the person to be executed is truly the murderer? In the retributive argument above, there can be no uncertainties about guilt since it's only the action itself that justifies the punishment. If the person didn't commit the act, there's no moral justification for the punishment. Uncertainty about guilt or innocence runs a morally dangerous game. This seems like an obvious point, but let's play it out one step further.

If an innocent person is put to death, no matter whether legal procedures found him guilty (mistakenly), that act by society/state in turn suggests the universal maxim that the state takes the killing of innocent people to be morally permissible. If so, then, in the Kantian hypothetical, the executed person is guilty of nothing since the state/society establishes with the very act of the execution the moral permission of killing innocent people. We're led to a contradiction that can be phrased in several ways, but I think it's probably clear.

Let's back out of this scenario, back to the world as it actually is, where it's pretty well-established that we believe murder - i.e. killing innocent people - is morally evil. If the strongest moral case for the death penalty is something like the retributive argument above, then only absolutely certain guilt justifies the execution of a person by state/society. Without that certainty, the death penalty is not morally justifiable (at least if one accepts the retributivist argument). If the person is truly innocent of the crime, then the state, by its very act, has not simply made a tragic mistake but has itself committed murder.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Three Debates, Three Hates

So Republican/Tea Party audiences will cheer for killing people via the death penalty and allowing people to die if they don't have health insurance. They will boo active-duty service members if they are homosexual. (Support our troops!)

And apparently, their leaders, standing before them, have nothing to say about this. Not that it might, just might, be inappropriate. Not that their party is a party of, well, something positive. So that kind of hate is all right with them.

Shouldn't this disqualify them from holding office? Are these the people we want running the country?

Update: Ta-Nehisi Coates says something similar.

Further Update: It is claimed that the contestants, um, candidates couldn't hear the boos on stage. Some have noted the inappropriateness.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sweet Limes


The idea that the death penalty could in fact bring closure to victim's families (who are known in the literature as "co-victims") would seem debatable, and indeed there are a few people who have subjected it to academic rigor. The first and perhaps most significant finding is that "closure" as a justification for capital punishment is a relatively new concept. UC Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring found that the media never used the word "closure" in a death penalty context before 1989 (the year, coincidentally, that McPhail was gunned down in a Savannah parking lot). In a University of Louisville study published this year, sociology graduate student Thomas Mowen and his professor Ryan Schroeder tracked the emergence of the argument that the death penalty — preferably with minimal appeals — would bring closure to the families of the victims.

"The term 'closure' wasn't used in any meaningful document until '91 or '92," says Schroeder. "That's when we really saw the move away from arguments about deterrence and cost-savings." As those rationales for the death penalty became discredited, victims and their need for "closure" were pushed to center stage.

There are two problems with that, says University of Miami professor of law Susan Bandes. "First," she says, "there's no psychological concept or syndrome that everyone agreed on called 'closure'", she says. For some people, closure means just finding out who committed the crime. For others, it's knowing why it happened, or answering the "dark questions" of what their loved one's last moments were like (when I asked McPhail about this, she said that the fact that Davis allegedly shot her son once, and then went back a second time to "execute" him, upset her more than any other revelation). For still others, closure might just refer to getting the criminal justice system to react, to show that they are taking the murder seriously.

But even if you could find a common definition of closure as a sort of healing in the grief process, Bandes says that it's unclear that the courts are even the right venue through which to pursue that healing. "It can be very dangerous for the families," she says. "Once you have legislators and judges telling you that there's such thing as closure, then you might believe in it, and then begin to expect that it will happen."
The biggest problem with "closure" as - in the language used here - an "argument" for the death penalty is that closure doesn't necessarily depend on the actual truth of a case or clear proof that the person executed is guilty of the crime. It is only that the mourning families are more or less convinced the killer is being put to death. With all respect to victims' families, they're probably the poorest judges of guilt and innocence in such cases.

To the extent that "closure" becomes part of the death penalty justification is the extent to which the system moves towards something more akin to national sacrificial offerings. In other words, the person executed need not be guilty at all for "closure" to take place (or fail). It's simply that the victim's family must be more or less convinced that it is the actual murderer attached to the gurney.

Besides being in a mental state from which objective evaluations are even more difficult (a state supported by prosecutors), it's also a mental state in which doubt about the guilt of the person put to death by state would be unbearable, a complete lack of closure and an opening of new wounds.

Furthermore, it's a move away from basic principles of justice in liberal democratic states.

Finally, "closure" undermines the justification of the existence of capital punishment. Because capital punishment cannot be clearly shown to have deterrence effects on a population, the main argument becomes one of restoring moral balance to society by executing a person whose own murderous acts legitimized his own execution. But this is only if the inmate is indeed guilty of the crime. This absolutely must be the case for this argument to have any moral basis. If it is not the case, or if it is not yet clear, then the execution is not an act of retribution on the part of society, but rather an act of state murder.

In the Troy Davis case, from everything we know, Georgia just committed murder.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Foxes Are Back

If your day has been like mine, it's time for a little fun.

When I got up this morning and looked out the front door, the birdfeeder was on the ground. I had left the feeders out two nights; the first, no raccoons. I was going to go out right away and put it back up and decided that wasn't really necessary - the birds are willing to get on the ground.

Into the kitchen, and then I saw them. I've been worried about the foxes. I hadn't seen them since before I left for Estonia. There they were, carefully making their way among the flowerbeds to the downed feeders. It was far from dawn, and I wasn't quite awake enough to realize right away that the two clicks were the shutter (1) opening and (2) closing. I did remove the African violet that was partly in the way and got out a stool to stand on to improve my line of sight.

They moved and I moved. That's my choice in the photos. Both foxes did some marking; I'm thinking that the one that did more was the male, a little smaller and scruffier than the other.

A couple of birds came by to check them out. The hummingbirds were particularly interested; still four in the yard. I thought we were down to two - they should be migrating! The house finches drew the female's attention to the suet feeder.

But she decided it wasn't worth her time.

A drink of water from the birdbath is good, though. Look at that fur! So beautiful!

They headed off after they seemed satisfied they had gotten all they could of the spilled birdseed. When I went out, the shelled sunflower seeds were gone, and the millet left. How do they do that?

Headline of the Day

Nice central bank you got here. Shame if something should happen to it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bits and Pieces - September 20, 2011

Today those who serve in the American military can be honest about who they are. We can celebrate one more step toward respect for all.

I'm always interested in hearing from Temple Grandin, although I found this interview borderline silly.

People outside the United States may not make the same accomodations for Republican crazy talk that American media do.

Scotland Yard goes after The Guardian instead of Murdoch. Could we eliminate vindictiveness from law enforcement?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dragging History into R2P

The people rise up against the autocrat and don’t quite succeed in throwing him out, but he finds he must accede to a quasi-parliamentary, somewhat representative government being formed. But he doesn’t like it and, after a first attempt at cooperation or cooptation, goes for all-out undermining.

That’s not quite like what is happening in the Arab world today. The autocrats are getting thrown out, although we might consider Iran’s response to its riots of a few years back and a possible outcome in Syria.

In rising up, the people learned how to form political parties, but the oppression of the autocrat kept them from learning how to work across parties, to form coalitions that could manage a government. The government after the revolution was susceptible to the autocrat’s manipulation because of that inexperience. But they managed to unite against the autocrat and throw him out the second time around. That took more than a decade.

Tracking more with the Arab revolutions.

But the inexperience kept the government ineffective. Plus the newbies were dealing with a bunch of difficult problems. One particularly ideological and ruthless faction managed to gain ascendency in the capital but far from full control. It was disliked by the nations that had considered themselves allies under the old order and it had to make difficult decisions that further alienated them.

We haven’t gotten to this point yet. All new governments emerging from autocracy are likely to have these problems. And it’s not surprising that ideological and ruthless factions are more likely to win out.

I’m talking, of course, about the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. I’m continuing to read histories of that time, and the parallels to today’s Arab world are many. There are also significant differences; for only one, the new Arab governments aren’t facing a devastating war with commitments to several other nations. Current read is Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, by W. Bruce Lincoln.

There is an argument going on across the blogosphere started by Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and recently the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department. She has been arguing for a doctrine called responsibility to protect (R2P), which says that if a country is treating its people badly enough, other countries should intervene.

The problem with that doctrine is that there’s an earlier one, the doctrine of sovereignty, that comes out of the Peace of Westphalia, agreed in 1648, that says that nations should keep their noses out of other nations’ business. That was a great step forward in ending some of Europe’s wars, which had been based on what might have been called responsibililty to protect co-religionists in other countries.

As usual, I like to take a historical look at these things. History is the data of international relations.

And I’m fascinated by Russia’s history over the last century and a half. How could they have gotten so many things (not everything, but a lot) so badly wrong? The revolutions of the early twentieth century were a critical turning point.

Because those allies, Britain and France particularly, were concerned about both the nature and direction of the changes in Russia, they wanted to throw their support to those (the Whites) fighting against those who had seized power (the Bolsheviks, the Reds). They persuaded the United States and Japan to intervene with them by sending troops to the two ends of the country. This effort was half-hearted, however, and poorly thought out. The internal factions of the Whites were as eager to fight each other as the Reds, and their organizations were riddled with corruption.

So now we get to the intervention part. It didn’t work out well. It firmed up the Bolsheviks’ sense that they were fighting those who had been Russia’s allies in the Great War, and they never forgave them. One difference with the Arab revolts is that Russia is an enormous country, and the logistics were horrible, so the interventions were doomed from the start. The Arab countries are much smaller, and NATO and the United States could pulverize them from the air if that were consistent with objectives. But the objective of R2P is ostensibly humanitarian, so that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for less praiseworthy objectives either. For one, it would be nice to keep the oil-production infrastructure operating.

The issue of factions is more to the point. We really don’t know how many of them there are in the Arab states, what they want, or how they plan to get it. We don’t know which ones are more democratic and which are more ruthless. Some of that can’t be known until one or more come to power. So, for those advocating intervention, it’s hard to choose which factions we should be backing. Deniken in southern Russia? Iudenich in the Baltics? One of the would-be emperors of Siberia? Size, again, suggests that there will be fewer factions, although Estonia, with a population of a million and a half, boasted forty political parties in 1991, and its politics were much more developed than in the Arab countries.

This post so far is pretty much at cross-purposes to Slaughter’s arguments, the latest of which are here. I’m not going to take apart that post in great detail; just a few cautions on the nature of her arguments.

She’s got a few false dichotomies.
Given this reality [that new Arab governments are likely to be anti-American], why aren't scholars and commentators like my friendly foil Dan Drezner not actively recommending that we simply tell the Syrian government that it can do whatever it likes to its people, as Joshua Foust, Dan Trombley and their fellow defenders of absolute sovereignty insist is the right of all sovereign governments? Why didn't we encourage the Egyptian military to fire on the protesters in Tahrir Square, keep Mubarak in power, and enforce a transition to his son?
Plus some internal contradictions; she says that her post is about the networked nature of societies and then uses an analogy to tennis (in contrast to the Cold War’s chess) to illustrate that. But “networked” implies multiple players, and both chess and tennis are two-player, not networked.

Her post is also loaded with abstractions, something she recognizes toward its end. Why not look at societies where some of these things have happened? That’s history, the data of international relations.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

More On Molycorp and Sillamäe

In Estonia this summer, I learned that Molycorp had acquired the Silmet rare-earth metals plant. This should be big news because the rare earths are important in many high-tech applications (your cell phone, for one), and China has recently taken a big lead in rare earth production. So big that it's been raising prices and generally acting like a monopolist.

But it's been hard to learn much about that acquisition from public sources, so it's not surprising that Brad Plumer and Bryan Walsh both have missed it.

They both point out that China's lead has come because it has been willing to degrade the environment in ways that are no longer acceptable in western countries. They talk about Molycorp's acquisition of California's Mountain Pass mine and its quest to find less environmentally-damaging ways of mining and processing the rare earths. But they don't say anything about Silmet.

Silmet has gone from being an environmental disaster to fully meeting European emission standards. I'd like to say it has no waste streams at all, but I'm not sure of that. I do know that the pipe to the tailings pond that I saw spewing water and sludge on my first visit there in 1998 is cut. And that part of the purpose of our NATO Advanced Research Workshop that October was to look at ways to end those emissions. From that, a plan was developed, funded, and executed to produce today's result.

So I'm hoping that Molycorp intends to learn from Silmet for improvements to its Mountain Pass operation.

I was wondering in an earlier post why Molycorp hadn't posted a news release on its acquisition of Silmet. Dan Yurman helped me out, and here it is.

Sillamäe's Soviet History

The Town

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

I think liberals are much more comfortable attacking whoever seems to hold the most power, and much less comfortable examining the power of the "weak," as well as the power that they, themselves, wield. Power confers responsibility. In evading the notion that citizenship in a democracy confers power, you also evade the notion that it confers responsibility.
Ta-Nehisi Coates

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Another Thought on Deterrence

It's often the most Cold-War-conventional thinkers who claim that Iran, if it had nuclear weapons, would not be deterred from attacking Israel. But Tony Judt put the counterargument very nicely:
If Iran attacked Israel with a nuclear weapon, the U.S. and Israel would wipe out large sections of that country. Tehran is a sophisticated place that knows this perfectly well. Most Iranians I know think that their president's obscene rhetoric is diversionary -- a way to sell himself as the spokesman for the Muslim "street". They don't like it and they don't back it. But they are proud and don't like being told that they alone in the neighborhood can't have nuclear autonomy: they are surrounded by nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, Russia and Israel, not to mention the American fleet). Why should they not feel paranoid? The nuclear threat to Tehran is far greater than the nuclear threat to Tel Aviv.
This is, indeed, nuclear deterrence.

Although I should point out that Iran does not have nuclear weapons.

That Tony Judt interview contains much more of Judt's views on Israel. Definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

No New Information on Al Kibar

Jeffrey Lewis has posted again about that Syrian site sometimes known as al Kibar that the Israelis bombed in September 2007. He seems to think that the recent Bush and Cheney books, along with an article by Bob Woodward, provide some new insights. I disagree.

I agree with his opening statement:
Something about the whole Syria nuclear reactor story has never seemed quite right to me.
Jeffrey has generously provided quotes from Woodward and Bush on the matter. Let me boil them down into the tiny amount of new information that they provide, less qualifications as to sources and the issue of Israel’s desire for action. I’m mostly using their words, with some modifications to make full sentences.

Then-CIA Director Michael V. Hayden had a team working for months to examine the intelligence on the Syrian reactor.

Hayden presented his findings to Bush, Cheney and the others before Cheney made his arguments for a military strike.

Hayden made four points, saying: “That’s a reactor. I have high confidence. That Syria and North Korea have been cooperating for 10 years on a nuclear reactor program, I have high confidence. North Korea built that reactor? I have medium confidence. On it is part of a nuclear weapons program, I have low confidence.”

Hayden emphasized the last sentence to underscore his uncertainty. He later told others that he stuck to the intelligence facts and intentionally shaped his presentation that way to discourage a preemptive strike because the intelligence was weak.

According to the CIA, there was no evidence of plutonium reprocessing capability at the site or nearby in that region of Syria, though a reactor of that type would be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons. In addition, there was no identifiable means to manufacture uranium fuel.

After Cheney, the “lone voice,” made his arguments, Bush rolled his eyes.

In the spring of 2007, I received a highly classified report from a foreign intelligence partner, [which included] photographs of a suspicious, well-hidden building in the eastern desert of Syria.

The structure [resembled] the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, North Korea. We concluded that the structure contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Since North Korea was the only country that had built a reactor of that model in the past thirty-five years, our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help.

He [CIA Director Mike Hayden] explained that the analysts had high confidence that the plant housed a nuclear reactor. But because they could not confirm the location of the facilities necessary to turn the plutonium into a weapon, they had only low confidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program.

The experience [apparently Israel’s bombing of the site and Syria’s response, but the reference is unclear] was revealing on multiple fronts. It confirmed Syria’s intention to develop nuclear weapons. It also provided another reminder that intelligence is not an exact science. While I was told that our analysts had only low confidence that the facility was part of a nuclear weapons program, surveillance after the bombing showed Syrian officials meticulously covering up the remains of the building. If the facility was really just an innocent research lab, Syrian President Assad would have been screaming at the Israelis on the floor of the United Nations. That was one judgment I could make with high confidence.


The two accounts agree, more or less, on the intelligence analysis. The logic in Bush’s account follows what has been the logic of most of those claiming that the Syrian site held a nuclear reactor under construction.
The structure [resembled] the nuclear facility at Yongbyon, North Korea. We concluded that the structure contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Since North Korea was the only country that had built a reactor of that model in the past thirty-five years, our strong suspicion was that we had just caught Syria red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help.
Bush doesn’t provide any more basis for the conclusion that the structure contained a reactor of North Korean design than its shape. But other accounts of the shape indicated that a shell building masked the detailed shape. Perhaps there was other evidence, but Bush doesn’t give it. The shape of a building, which in this case is simply its dimensions, is thin evidence.

The “confirmation” that the site held a reactor, namely Syria’s lack of heated response, has also frequently been stated. Overhead photos showing a circular structure within the building after the bombing are slightly more persuasive. Syria’s lack of response could have been due to a number of possibilities: that the site held missiles and other munitions that President Assad didn’t want to reveal or a desire not to provoke further Israeli raids that could lead to war.

Jeffrey accepts some of these assumptions, I think, too readily.
Syria was building a clandestine nuclear reactor in a manner that was inconsistent with any explanation other than a nuclear weapons program, something all the principals appear to agree on. For some reason, the inability of the intelligence community to find a reprocessing or a fuel fabrication facility was dispositive for all the other parties other than the Vice-President.

But what if the intelligence community simply didn’t know the location of either site? Bush is extraordinarily clear that he believes Syria intended to use the reactor to produce nuclear weapons. The little video the IC released, which ought to have cleared text, stated that “start of operations could have begun at any time although additional weeks to months of testing were likely.” If there was a time to strike the reactor, it was before it went hot. In other words, the decision to wait could have resulted in the operation of the reactor had Israel not destroyed it.
Indeed, the principals seem to have agreed that the site held a nuclear reactor. But it’s not clear, to me anyway from the available evidence, that it was indeed a reactor. The “little video the IC released” (I think Jeffrey is referring to the video released in April 2008) had a number of problems, including modifying overhead photos to look like side shots, that limit its credibility.

Jeffrey wonders why Bush is reported to have rolled his eyes at Cheney’s case for bombing. Hard to say. George Bush is a man who uses his facial features a lot, and this could have been just one more time. Far too much has been made of far too little in this story. Granted, it all adds up to the possibility that that building at al Kibar housed a reactor and the somewhat less likely possibility that the North Koreans were involved. But we’re far from any public proof of that.

Bush and Cheney have reason to use the parts of this story they find most favorable to their reputations. Woodward has his anonymous sources. I don’t see anything new in this. What I’d like to see is more of the technical data that was, for example, available to the intelligence analysts, not slickly doctored as in that little video. And maybe an explanation from the IAEA of why that uranium sample was “anthropogenic.”

[I’ve written a lot on this subject and probably should have linked back. But today is very busy. You can find a lot of what I’ve written by googling Phronesisaical+Al Kibar and WhirledView + Al Kibar.]

Update (9/17/11): Here are the links I should have provided. The most recent is first, the earliest last. There may still be more, but this is what Google gave me.

Mystery in Syria - Continued
How Israel Destroyed Syria’s Al Kibar Nuclear Reactor
The ISIS Report on Al Kibar
Al Kibar: Orienting the Destruction Sequence
Al Kibar: The Reactor Photos
Al Kibar: The Overhead Photos

At Long Last, Have You No Sense of Decency?

I keep wondering when an adult Republican is going to suggest to the rest of his (yeah, his, the guys are still in charge) party that it is one of two major political parties in the country, and both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution suggest that one of the country's values is that we can hold differences of opinion on governance and still respect each other.

Or, perhaps, in a more pithy style: Wishing for your fellow citizens' deaths is ugly, not to mention undemocratic.

Others may call the Republicans on their horrific rhetoric and policies, but they, of course, are shameless partisans. And the MSM is desperately trying to make the Republicans sound sane.

But, please. Just the idea of two "debates" within a week indicates the disrespect Republicans have for their fellow citizens, even when those citizens are Republicans. Each little splinter group has to have its own debate, with the candidates trying to outdo each other in teh crazy.

So I guess there'll be no adult leadership from Republicans. Hey, publicity is good as long as they spell your name right.

The title quote is from Joseph Welch to Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin, in 1954. Welch was chief counsel for the Army, which McCarthy was attacking as a den of Communists. It was a striking enough thing for him to say that McCarthy's divisiveness was made clear to the country. There seems to be no equivalent possible in today's world.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Reconsidering Nuclear Deterrence

I’ve been wanting to write on nuclear deterrence for a long time. Part of why I haven’t is that too many of the arguments make my head spin. But another one showed up last week, and my head isn’t spinning yet.

The article is mostly an argument against some of the things that the estimable Ward Wilson has written, and I’ll leave it to him to respond to that. What I’d like to do is to look at the deterrence argument from another perspective.

We have to start with elephants. Why have elephants not invaded my house? It could be because I have been snapping my fingers regularly and conscientiously, a well-known preventive against elephant attack.

Or it could be that there are no elephants loose in Santa Fe. It could be that, if there were, my house would be unattractive to them.

The point of that well-known joke is that one must consider all possible reasons for an observation, not take the first one that comes along or is the most congenial.

Likewise, there may be many reasons why nuclear weapons have not been used in war since Nagasaki. Wilson argues that the nuclear strikes against Japan in World War II were not the reason for Japan’s surrender, and that the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons is less than has been believed.

Deterrence (without adjective) has been around for a long time. Build up a big, capable military force, and your opponents are less likely to start military action against you. They are deterred because they believe they are likely to lose, just as burglars are deterred by a big dog in the yard.

There are other reasons beyond deterrence that nations do not go to war. War is expensive and destructive; the common people may cheer it on at first, but deaths among their friends and relatives will eventually lose their support. Other issues like internal problems of unity or economics can make war undesirable.

Nuclear weapons loomed large after WWII. A single nuclear weapon could inflict the same damage as the thousands of bombs dropped in a WWII firebombing raid. Shortly after the war, one of the allies developed its own nuclear weapons and made it clear that its foreign policy included removal of governments of different ideologies by force.

Because of that focus by the Soviet Union, and because the United States had escaped Europe’s enormous damage, the rivalry between those two countries dominated the postwar world until Mikhail Gorbachev changed the focus.

During that time, deterrence came to mean nuclear deterrence, the rest of its meaning sheared away. Now that the Soviet Union is twenty years defunct, we should be considering the broader meaning of deterrence and the other reasons that nations do not go to war. Here is an example of some thinkers doing just that, on deterring terrorists.

But let’s stay with nuclear deterrence for this post. In the form it has come to us, that of two superpowers deterring each other from nuclear use, it’s mostly of historical interest. A few in both America and Russia may think this is still an option, but Russia has turned to economic pursuits to a degree that the prospect of world destruction no longer looks attractive to most of its leaders, and America should be getting tired of wars by now. More generally, it seems that the idea that a few hundred nuclear weapons would cause destruction far beyond their targets is generally accepted.

Why have nuclear weapons not been used in war for the past sixty-six years? The argument for deterrence, as in that first link, all too often is that they have not been used because of deterrence and therefore deterrence works. But that is a circular argument. There are other factors that have restrained nations from nuclear war.

After World War II, the United States had, for a short time, a monopoly on nuclear weapons, and most nations were tired of war, so there was little reason to use them. The Soviet Union had the explicitly aggressive doctrine of spreading its form of government by removing other governments, so, once it acquired nuclear weapons it might have been expected to use nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. Conversely, the United States might have used nuclear weapons pre-emptively against the Soviet Union to end that threat. Governmental officials and advisors on both sides argued for such actions.

This situation was far too unstable, and both sides arrived at an understanding that destroying the world in the service of their respective ideologies was probably not worth it. That simple statement is often dressed up in the language of game theory and other academic pastimes, partly to convince the other side and partly because those were the kind of people involved. That kind of analysis makes my head spin. The many books written from that point of view offer explanations, but not insight.

When China developed nuclear weapons, there was great concern that the deterrence applecart might be upset. China had only recently had a bloody revolution to Communism, and its rhetoric was inflammatory. This was part of the motivation for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Another part of the motivation was that too many nuclear weapons in too many hands would have made an even more unstable situation. By the 1960s, as the NPT developed, people were genuinely beginning to realize that nuclear weapons had all sorts of potential bad effects, including destroying civilization as we know it.

Additionally, after the first half of the twentieth century, the incessant wars of Europe ended. This had little to do with nuclear threats and more to do with Europe’s exhaustion and recognition that those wars could not continue. I’ve been reading a lot of history of the early twentieth century recently, and it seems to me that the end of the monarchies in Europe and their replacement with more democratic forms of government damped down the often personal character of the causes of war, that governmental decisions on war are now fundamentally different than those of the first half of the twentieth century.

Civil wars flared up in former colonies of the European nations, but the United States and the Soviet Union took charge of those both to make ideological points and to keep them from spreading.

Those actions by the two superpowers may have been a part of nuclear deterrence or a part of a prudent strategy for maintaining influence in the developing world. If it was part of nuclear deterrence, proxy wars kept the two from having to face each other directly, confining the conflict so that it would not escalate to nuclear. But supporting the winners of civil wars helped to spread the ideology and demonstrate its success. Neither motive can be excluded.

The fact that so few countries decided to build nuclear weapons is due to many factors. The superpowers extended their nuclear umbrellas to their allies and satellites, as much to discourage their independent nuclear development as to consolidate their power and deter their opponent. Other kinds of military force lent persuasion. Both sides had advocates of nuclear forces alone, but that argument never won out. The nuclear part of deterrence can’t really be separated from conventional military might. The smaller countries recognized that they would never be peer competitors.

The NPT helped as well, guaranteeing civilian nuclear power to those countries if they would forego nuclear weapons. This was important because, up until the NPT, civilian nuclear power had followed the development of nuclear weapons.

Once it became clear that there would be no winners in a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union, motivations toward the use of nuclear weapons seem to have decreased significantly. This might be considered nuclear deterrence, but it is a special case: an exchange of large numbers of nuclear explosions between two players. And that was the most likely scenario throughout the Cold War.

Today’s primary concerns are single nuclear weapons detonated by terrorists or outlier nations and a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. So far, nuclear deterrence seems to be working between Pakistan and India, or perhaps it is other factors like the more general undesirability of war between neighbors, a lesson from Europe. Certainly there have been times in that relationship where the deterrence factor seemed to be wearing thin.

I believe that it is extremely unlikely that terrorist groups will ever have a detonable nuclear weapon. It’s a scenario worth considering, but not spending large amounts of resources on. Terrorists, of course, are not deterrable in the nuclear deterrence sense, but there are other ways of discouraging them. This is one of the areas in which the idea of nuclear deterrence has so overwhelmed strategic thinking that thinking about deterrence suited to this threat has lagged. Or perhaps one can argue, in that circular way, that nuclear deterrence works on terrorists. After all, there haven’t been any terror attacks with nuclear weapons, just as no nuclear weapons have been detonated in war.

As the two sides in the Cold War developed their nuclear strategies, Soviet Premier Khrushchev was willing to approach a provocation to the use of nuclear weapons in 1962, by stationing some in Cuba in response to American weapons in Turkey. After this approach to the brink, leaders on both sides seem to have truly internalized the danger of playing games with nuclear weapons. This could be considered nuclear deterrence; we can hope that the leaders of India and Pakistan have taken note.

Leonid Brezhnev was much less volatile than Khrushchev and led the Soviet Union for almost twenty years – from 1964 to 1982. He was followed by short-termers Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, both of whom were in bad health, and then Mikhail Gorbachev, who changed the superpower game. American presidents during that time were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan. Both countries were dealing with serious internal problems, including civil rights in America and economic difficulties in both countries that made wars of any kind, except for the smallest, unattractive. America got entangled in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, neither of which called for nuclear weapons and both of which were accompanied by serious division at home. Along the way, America and the Soviet Union began to talk to each other about getting those nuclear numbers under control.

There are many reasons not to have used nuclear weapons over the past half-century: lack of wars between major powers, and dealing with internal difficulties in many countries, and, of course, the immense destructiveness of those weapons. The wars that did take place were much smaller than World War II.

So was it deterrence? Or a preference against war? In the wars that were fought, why would escalating to nuclear have been a good idea? There was that overarching standoff, which had a strong nuclear aspect, but even that standoff contained other elements that argued against war.

The Cold War was a very different time from today. “Nuclear deterrence” was part of its mental currency. But it’s been applied far too widely, and it’s probably led to the idea that all foreign policy problems can be solved by application of military force.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Sure, there's reason to be concerned that any president's reelection chances might be poor in an economy like ours. The empirical realities of a crappy economy and disgruntled citizens, including Obama supporters, are unavoidable. But the Democrats really don't help themselves.

After a Thursday address that recaptured momentum on the side of President Obama and even optimism in some corners, here are some of the Democrats vocally expressing their fears about the president's reelection in today's NYT. Idiots. Great job of killing political momentum.

The article may be to blame to some extent since it's unclear in many cases at what point in time the quotes they cite were actually said, while the article gives the impression that they are largely post-speech, coming from a DNC meeting in Chicago yesterday (see other post-speech punditry roundup here and here).

Nonetheless, many of the Democrats interviewed express their nervousness at the odds of Obama's reelection. That's fine - there's reason to be concerned - but it's also inane politics. If you want your president reelected, it's not great political strategy to perpetuate doubt. It is good strategy to help turn the momentum, and you don't even have to lie to do it. It was a damn good jobs speech, given the political and economic context. The Republicans to a person would be calling this a definitive conquest if he were a president from their party. The Bush presidency, on the other hand, was all about rhetorically maintaining a political climate favorable to themselves in the face of scarce resources for doing so.

Presidents can only do so much with an economy and Pres. Obama inherited a mess. Spending to spur job growth is a strategy superior to anything the Republicans have or will propose. That's policy. Since few citizens pay close enough attention to the economic details, however, the politics of economic doldrums is largely a function of national mood, which can be influenced by the White House and congressional leaders. Resetting the political climate in your favor makes actual economic policy-making easier to undertake.

C'mon, man. A little cheerleading is sometimes the right policy.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

Cheeky White House

Via BJ:
According to the LA Times more folks watched President Obama than tuned into opening game of the NFL season, which drew 27.5 million viewers. The President has given other speeches that pulled more viewers—like his first speech to a joint session of Congress in February 2009 and the night he announced the death of Bin Laden—but some recent major speeches did not have the pull to push through the clutter and get the Nation’s attention. This one did. A big reason why is because President Obama was able to count on Republicans being predictable assholes.

When he announce the speech to be at the same time as the first Rick Perry GOP debate one of two things would happen: either he would talk on Wednesday or the speech would be moved to Thursday. If it was Wednesday the debate would be pushed back an hour and that is what it looked like the outcome would be until Rushbo demanded that Boehner do something about it. In a rapid response to Limbaugh, the Orange Speaker became the first Speaker of the House to refuse the request of a President to speak to Congress. He suggested Thursday and President Obama accepted the change.

This, of course, generated a wave of howls and outrage from the predictable precincts of the left. The wingnuts celebrated and the media played up the controversy. The effect was to let even low information citizens know that the President was giving a major speech right before the start of football—and many of them decided to watch. This resulted in the GOP debate being a less than one day story and the President’s speech dominating the political news cycle—and framing the political agenda for the Fall—even as we head into the 10th anniversary of 9-11 and concerns of another possible attack.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Repost: The Ideologues and the Philosophical Pragmatist

After tonight's speech by President Obama, I'd like to repost something from November 3, 2008, the eve of his election as President of the United States:

Daniel Larison, one of the remaining thoughtful conservatives, along with Andrew Sullivan, still misses the point, I think.
Everyone who is voting Obama to punish the GOP thinks that there is some small chance that the GOP might change its ways. The diversity of views among Obamacons reflects how many different future directions are expected, guaranteeing that many will be disappointed, but it also reflects how badly the GOP has failed on multiple fronts that it is simultaneously losing so many prominent and obscure Catholic pro-lifers, libertarians, foreign policy realists, moderates and small-government conservatives, among others, to a Democratic nominee who genuinely is the most liberal of any they have had since 1972. Under normal circumstances, a vote for Obama ought to be unthinkable for almost all of the people on the right who have endorsed him, but the GOP has failed so badly that it has made the unthinkable mundane and ordinary. It’s reaching a point where the report of another Obamacon endorsement is no more remarkable than when the leaves start falling in autumn. Far more important in the aftermath than coming up with new and amusing ways to mock the Obama endorsers is an effort to understand and remedy the profound failures that made this phenomenon possible before a major realignment does occur.
Yes, it's true that the Republican party is a mess. It is rife with corruption, demagoguery, and anti-intellectualism. It has led disastrous foreign and domestic policies over the past eight years. It has been the main supporter of one of the great moral stains on the history of the US - the exceptionalist institutionalization of torture. A viable GOP clearly has serious reflection to undertake. The promotion of Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate for 2012 is one key apparent direction of this reflection, which further demonstrates how utterly clueless the party has become.

But Larison misses the point. I would think that if you're a conservative, you would be less concerned about the GOP and more concerned about the state of conservatism as a fruitful political approach. The thoughtful conservatives still tie conservatism to the party, even while some of them seek to extract themselves from the party's grip. A party-less ideology has a tough road to follow for political saliency. But it's probably time to let that rotten GOP go, given the amount of damage it has done to itself, to the country, and to other countries. This is because conservative ideology has been captured by the GOP, turned dramatically to the right, and transformed into a religion of the GOP. Fidelity to the party has become the sole ideology. This ispartially why you see Obamacons so harshly lambasted by their fellow GOPers. But that party-ideology has been losing any intellectual heft it ever had. It is now almost totally reactionary and based on membership and loyalty to the club. This makes it difficult to recruit new members other than the Sarah Palins of the world.

I think this kind of discussion about bolstering one side or the other of the ideological divide nonetheless misses something very important about Barack Obama, which both parties ought to understand better. It's uncontroversial to say that US political life is dualistic and polarized. Demagogues constantly prey on this polarization by reinforcing it. Thus, most of the pundit class can't see past the possibility of either a conservative-Republican ideology in power or a liberal ideology in power. For these people and their dualistic framework, an Obama victory is necessarily an ideological shift to the left. What neither the right nor many on the left get, however, is that Obama is not an ideologue. He's a pragmatist.

I don't mean "pragmatist" in the crass political sense of going with the socio-political flow or drastically diluting one's policy programs in order to get something-anything done or leverage support for some other attractive policy. I mean "pragmatist" in the philosophical sense, the form of philosophical critique that had its first generation in Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey and has been renewed with vigor over the past thirty years. These three thinkers were probably the three greatest philosophers to come out of the US., with deep roots in the longer lineage of American thought through Thoreau and Emerson, Jefferson and Madison and Franklin, and back to Jonathan Edwards, though naturalized and Darwinized by Peirce and Dewey in particular.

To put it simply, Obama seems to me an experimentalist problem-solver of a pragmatic stripe.

A pragmatist thinks in terms of problems and tools and experiments for solving them. A problem arises, which is such precisely because we don't have the conceptual or normative tools at hand to solve it. The pragmatist looks around for explanations, interpretations, analyses, arguments, and new understandings to try help us resolve the problem. If it's political, or a matter of policy, or a matter of ethics or legal interpretation, the pragmatist understands that we start from an irreducible pluralism of values that are crucial to even understanding the problem, let alone resolving it. In a pluralistic country such as the US, policy and political disputes are often disputes involving complex, competing values and ideas. They are problems of intelligent cooperation.

Ideological commitment of the sort that drives the US political system is problematic here - it may provide us with some useful interpretive tools, but it more than likely frames and constricts our understanding of the nature of the problem and the range of possible solutions a priori, prior to investigating the problem. This suggests that the truth of the matter comes prior to testing ideas and policies. The ideologist ends up, by default, resolving problems from a partial and usually self-interested perspective. Pragmatists think this has it all backwards.

The pragmatist seeks to suspend prior ideological commitments and focus rather on generating ongoing dialogue, attempting to build a community of public discussion, in order to gain the fullest possible view of the problem as well as in order to eventually engage the most democratic means for resolving it.

Proposed solutions are tested over and over against real, multi-faceted experience rather than against their fidelity to ideological commitments. Sometimes, we will hit upon policy solutions that work well enough given the constellation of interests. But we'll eventually, more than likely, need to revisit them at some point as new circumstances generate new issues to resolve. There are two crucial components to this process: 1) an assumption of the fallibility of any one view or idea combined with a pluralism of values entails a fuller, epistemologically robust, understanding of the nature of a given policy problem; and 2) the experimental, adaptive process through which problem-solutions are sought just is the creation and sustaining of intelligent democratic community.

Read these five articles on Obama:
Each one of these pieces - as well as many of Obama's most eloquent speeches - shows Obama the philosophical pragmatist at work: as a thinker, a problem-solver, a man with a complex understanding of his own diverse experience and competing values, and a commitment to genuine democratic discussion.

What does this mean for Obama the president? I'd like to hope that the office doesn't convert Obama into yet another pragmatist of the crass, non-philosophical version I mentioned above. I'm not worried about him being an ideologue. Despite the right's best efforts to paint him as such, there's little evidence that he's that sort of person. He's going to make a lot of people unhappy on both the left and the right when he doesn't follow the rules of prior ideological commitments. That unhappiness will unwittingly reflect something profoundly wrong with the older and hopefully dying form of polarized ideological politics in the US. But, unlike how many pundits put it, the problem is less "polarization" than it is the epistemological backwardness of ideology-driven politics.

But can Obama function as a genuine philosophical pragmatist? I think so. Given the serious nature of the problems he'll be dealing with as president - from the wars to climate change to poverty and economic collapse to education and healthcare - we really do need someone who's not blinkered by prior ideological commitments and hackneyed policy ideas and tools. We need a philosophical pragmatist with a rich understanding of the complex diversity of the US and the world, a morally reflective person who's willing to listen, to experiment, to involve and engage, and to lead when it is time to lead. Everything in his background says this is precisely who Obama is.

Vote Obama.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Why Men Shouldn't Decide National Policy...Oh Wait!

Some of the men who helped form national opinion after 9/11 are now revealing some of their emotions at the time. That's subject to the usual distortions of memory, of course, but males admitting to fear and confusion might be believed.

I've mentioned Andrew Sullivan already, and now here's Bill Keller of the New York Times:
But my prudent punditry soon felt inadequate. I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something — to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism.
Inadequacy, and, um, something about the timing of his daughter's birth. The need to do something. Very male.

In Keller's next paragraph, fearful Jeffrey Goldberg (still not really admitting it) and Andrew Sullivan as part of the "I can't believe I'm a hawk" club. Mnh-hmnh. And all the rest are men, some famously macho.

Keller whines
We now know that the consensus [on Saddam Hussein's WMD] was wrong, and that it was built in part on intelligence that our analysts had good reason to believe was cooked. Should we — those of us without security clearances — have known it in 2003?
Of course, it was his own reporter, Judith Miller, who supplied the probably Cheney-given "evidence" for those aluminum tubes. When I read that article, I wondered what the intelligence experts at DOE, WMD central, had to say. Evidently that didn't cross Keller's mind.

I'm not fond of psychologizing from afar, but some of these themes are so explicitly tied up with a male mentality that it's hard to avoid them. I would like to argue that women don't have the same sorts of needs to prove themselves sexually tied up with that extra testosterone that drives aggression.

But, yes, there is one woman mentioned in Keller's article: Samantha Power, who argues for "humanitarian intervention" and helped him to justify his desire for war with Iraq in that way. And, more recently, we have heard from Anne-Marie Slaughter on the same subject.

So I guess the question has to be whether people, male or female, who don't see war as the best solution for a multitude of problems would ever find a place in government.

1940s Nostalgia

For New York and Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles piece makes a point I often ponder: "the everyday landscape of the past can often be very difficult to imagine." There was a place I wanted to remember at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. I had it figured out as they remodeled, but it's totally gone now. I still have the picture in my head, but it's fuzzy, more geared to the event than the setting. Or I think about how I used to drive into Santa Fe on Old Taos Highway and end up at the Post Office. Old Taos Highway is now totally cut off, including a wall, from traffic from the north. I can pretty much envision that past, but the streets before the making of Paseo de Peralta into a ring road around downtown are lost to me. And I'm sure I drove on them at some time.

Desert Plants

We had an exceptionally dry winter this year, and spring wasn't much better. Our monsoon, which more or less arrived in July as it is supposed to do, has been weak. Desert plants are adapted to such irregular moisture. They tend to form enormous roots and appear when the situation is favorable. For someone like me, trying to use native plants both in the cultivated and more natural parts of my yard, this can be dismaying at times, followed by lovely surprises.

That's a desert four o'clock that I planted in a natural area. I have some in the flowerbeds, too, and they bloomed earlier under the influence of regular watering. I've seen a wild plant in Bandelier National Monument that must have been four feet across. None of mine are there yet. There's a prairie zinnia, too, down by the mailbox, that is about to bloom. I was quite concerned back in the spring that it was quite dead.

The four o'clock has been spreading its seeds, too. Here are a couple of what I think are seedlings ten feet or so from the flowering plant. I say "I think" because there is another plant in the yard, apparently here before I was, that looks like a four o'clock but never flowers. But it's tangled up with a juniper, which might affect its behavior.

And a closeup of a flower.


Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor Day Afternoon Barbecue Conversation Stopper

In this diffuse network of nodes and connections, stronger and weaker ties, interdependencies and feedback loops, bad decisions are punished almost as quickly as the stock market punishes bad business models.
I have no idea what the rest of the article says. I couldn't get past this sentence.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Photo of the Day

Pres. Obama touring Wayne, NJ destruction from Hurricane Irene (via, but on FB).

Friday, September 02, 2011

Jeffrey Goldberg's Heavy Breathing

Jeffrey Goldberg claims that comparing the numbers of deaths caused by terrorists to deaths by drowning in the bathtub misses the point that the societal impact of deaths caused by terrorists is quite different from the societal impact of deaths by drowning in the bathtub.

And he is, somewhat, correct. Newspapers do not howl about bathtub deaths. Politicians do not insist that we end them; some of them even advocate such things for the government. The TSA cannot use them to justify the indignities they inflict on us. But terrorists, real or imagined, provide fodder for those refrains.

So it could be argued that terrorists are good for the economy, stimulating so many areas of activity. Whoops, no, sorry, let me get back to Goldberg's contentions and try to be serious about such a serious subject.
Deaths caused by terrorism, on the other hand, can have a profound effect on society and the economy. The deaths of ten people in bathtub accidents won't cause people to fear leaving their homes; but imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater. And imagine if it happens more than once. The economic impact could be devastating; the impact on the emotional health of parents and children would be profound. Bathtub deaths are preventable through individual action and self-awareness. The average citizen, on the other hand, is relatively helpless in the face of a car-bombing, mass shooting, or hijacking (yes, the passengers rose up on one of the four airplanes hijacked on September 11th, and they prevented mass death below, but they still died themselves).

And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights. Bathtub deaths have no such ramifications. Terrorism places terrible stress on intergroup relations; bathtub deaths do no such thing. And an effective terrorist, in this age of easy access to chemical and biological agents, could cause death on a scale much larger than 9/11. We will never see a dramatic spike in the number of bathtub drownings, but we could very well see such a spike in terror-caused deaths. Most people intuitively understand the difference between a bathtub's ability to cause mass mayhem, and a terrorist's ability to destablize society.
But all the heavy breathing here is Goldberg's. He neglects to consider that we have a choice in how we react to acts of terror.

The incompetent SUV bomb placed near Times Square has not kept people from that destination. In fact, how many of us barely recall it? We recall the underwear bomber because of the lascivious or painful thoughts he evokes, but we continue to fly on airplanes. It's the TSA that feels it needs to peek into our panties. And maybe Goldberg.

It's that peeking that is damaging "our collective self-conception as an open and free society." So let us "imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater."

There are, in fact, several ways the response can go. The press and politicians can get hysterical and call for panty-screeners at every movie theater and shopping mall, and the TSA, like any growing bureaucracy, will be glad to oblige. The rest of us will avoid shopping malls and movie theaters.

Or we could respond as the Norwegians did to the terrorist deaths of several score of their citizens this summer: with calls to avoid fear and to continue to respect the country's support of human rights. If a politican cared to make himself look small in contrast, citizens could urge him to grow up.

Goldberg is in fact quite wrong about this, and his wrongness contributes to fear:
Bathtub deaths are preventable through individual action and self-awareness. The average citizen, on the other hand, is relatively helpless in the face of a car-bombing, mass shooting, or hijacking
It was average citizens who reported the smoking SUV near Times Square and average citizens who subdued the underpants bomber. Perhaps Goldberg feels powerless in such things, but I can assure him that others of us don't.

It's possible that Goldberg sees the response of uncontrolled fear as being likely from the great unwashed outside of the enlightened capital where he and his peers live (is that what he means by "average citizens"?). But I would suggest that he spend some time among us unwashed. We're looking forward to the day when we don't have to hear heavy breathing like that in his post any more.