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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

All for the birds? Why Solove is Only Mostly Right about Terrorism Threats

I agree with Dan Solove's comments below that we are likely misallocating specific resources in the war on Islamist terrorism, and that avian flu is a likely killer that is not sufficiently on the radar of media and policymakers alike.  I do think that there are myriad ways in which homeland security can be improved, and there are no doubt expenditures that have been misguided.  But a partial dissent is in order because I don't think the reason we fear Islamist terrorism is simply to reduce the risk of death that is terrorism's ambition.

The harms resulting from 9/11 type attacks, including the lives that are lost to it -- and the continuing threats such attacks pose to the information, economic and political infrastructure of this nation -- are simply not commensurable with the lives lost (or that would be lost) to nephritis and benign neoplasms, and various other causes of death in America.  For one thing, when scores of thousands of persons die each year because of heart disease, Alzheimer's, and other illnesses, they are often not plucked from the prime of their life.  We should all agree that there is something more tragic about 34 year olds or seven year olds dying in attacks than 80 year olds or even 65 year olds dying under relatively controlled circumstances.   To be sure, we miss our grandparents and parents who die of illness,  but there is something about illness during aging that we are more comfortable with -- it doesn't tear a gash in the moral fabric of our lives the way terrorist attacks do.  I think there's something similar at work with deaths that occur in car accidents or workplace injuries that prove fatal.  That set of reactions is not irrational, and thus, it's not irrational to spend more dollars to reduce one kind of death than another one.  (On this point, I recommend Sunstein and Pildes's piece on reinventing the regulatory state and Sunstein's work on risk assessment generally.)  There are limits to this point also, of course.  It could be that if we only had 100 dollars, we would rather save 50 people from heart disease than just two from terrorism.  And so, we would look into reducing not death, but years with quality of life figured in...

But even if  lives lost to illness and injury were morally equivalent to lives lost to terrorism, we must bear in mind that the enemies of America and her allies are intent on using terrorist attacks not simply to maximize the number of murdered people, but to destroy institutions central to the operation of the government and economy; their mission is the destruction of our regulatory state itself.  9/11 attacks were focused, you will recall, on the World Trade towers, and the Pentagon, and the Capitol.  The bioterrorism associated with anthrax occurred at the offices of government and media figures to slow down or stop the economy, maximize fear, and inhibit the capacity for republican government to continue.  And in Iraq, the daily blasts are often targeted at the recruiting stations for the police and army, the very forces necessary for ensuring the foundation for a free and democratic Iraq. 

What's more, although terrorism has thus far resulted in relatively few deaths from a macroscopic level, the scenarios portrayed by Richard Clarke in the Atlantic, among others, indicate just how easy it is for terrorists to cause massive social disruptions and enormous loss of life.

In other words, the threat we face is one that would rip apart the stability that is both a precondition for liberal democracy, and its blessing.  Cancer, suicide, and heart disease, for all the heartache and sadness -- and death -- they cause, are not the same threat.  In our zeal to be rationalists, we shouldn't forget that.


Posted by Administrators on August 3, 2005 at 02:30 PM in Dan Markel, Law and Politics | Permalink


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"I think America could do far more to decrease the risk of terror if it was more evenhanded on the Israeli/Palestinian issue (which will never happen) "

More even-handed how, exactly?

Posted by: Steve in Houston | Aug 4, 2005 10:46:52 AM

Terrorism might, might, produce an attack that kills millions of Americans. It won't be nuclear, unless by some miracle they manage to detonate a working thermonuclear device. Obtaining and detonating such a device is far more difficult than most think. Chemical attacks will also not kill millions. That leave biological attacks.

For all we know, we've already been attacked. Perhaps more than once. The United States currently has several ongoing epidemics and some seasonal ones. Influenza, West Nile, HIV, dengue fever, TB, and so on. Our medical systems deals with these every single day. The flu kills about 30,000 Americans in an average year, nearly as many as die in car crashes and far, far less than die from heart disease or cancer. We could have been attacked and just not noticed.

Any biological attack as is feared by the media and those who seek funding for their pet projects will have a far more serious effect elsewhere in the world. The United States might stumble, but the Third World would turn in to a disaster of biblical proportions.

The record of terrorism with WMD is fairly pathetic. Multiple attempts with little or no result. The use of WMD by terrorist groups is counterintuitive to their operating model, in any event. WMD's are expensive to obtain or produce, difficult to handle safely and hard to distribute effectively. The entire chain of events necessary for the successful delivery of a WMD is full of potential points of failure. The OKC bombing had one, the timer. Bombs and suicide events are the cheapest and easiest acts to carry out and have the greatest probability of success. You may find this post of some interest.

Posted by: Chuck Simmins | Aug 3, 2005 10:22:09 PM

I think a rational analysis of the threats America faces must--and has not to this point--include a recalibration of some of our more aggressive foreign policies. Terrorism is a mindstate, and cannot be stopped. The "war on terror" is simply unwinnable, because you cannot control what others think and believe. (At least not yet.)

I think America could do far more to decrease the risk of terror if it was more evenhanded on the Israeli/Palestinian issue (which will never happen) and reduced military and financial support to Arab dictators like Mubarak.

Chasing disease in petri dishes will never stop a dedicatedd group of people from getting it.

Posted by: bombsoverbaghdad | Aug 3, 2005 6:47:11 PM

XIV of course! Jeez. Louis the seventeenth?!!?

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 4:42:57 PM

Just as a historical note about the mother country, by the way: I think the English history with terrorism actually started in 1605 with the gunpowder plot. Guy Fawkes (who now has a holiday named after him!) and a bunch of conspirators decided to kill James I, as well as members of Parliament, by, well, blowing up the house of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder.

The plot was foiled by a mysterious letter, but my point is that this is nothing new. We don't have some kind of wholly different world here. Nutcases try to topple the government all the time, and they have done so through all history. This isn't something that we should be reeling with horror and fear from. It's something that we should appropriately suppress in a measured fashion.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 4:37:39 PM

I really think we're giving the terrorists too much credit here. Nuclear weapons have been in existence for 60 years. Chemical weapons have been in existence for longer. Terrorist groups have been afoot in the world in their modern form at least since the Easter Rising in 1916. Guerilla groups attempt to topple governments left and right. They've had some successes, sure -- Cuba comes to mind -- but I know of no circumstance where an outside terrorist group (as opposed to an internal revolutionary movement) has ever overthrown a stable democratic government or even caused a serious glitch in its operations. Stable governments are overthrown by internal revolutionaries or external forces either giving support to internal revolutionaries (like the CIA) or outright conquering them.

What reason is there to believe that the current "terrorist menace" is any different? I suspect a lot of our fear is sociological. The U.S. has been immune from terrorism to an incredible extent, considering the fact that our allies have suffered the slings and arrows of such groups for decades. We seem to be in some kind of panic because -- well, because we've gotten soft, honestly.

England has lived with terrorists longer than anyone, and the Crown hasn't been in danger from the IRA. (I think Louis XVII tried to support some Irish revolutionaries...) I know of no evidence suggesting that Israel, for all its problems, has ever had its government in danger from Hamas and the like, not like it was when all the various countries of the region invaded. Western Europe, as far as I know, was never in serious danger from the Red Brigades and the like...

What reason is there to believe that these terrorists, today, in these groups, are going to have any more success against our government than all those other terrorists -- some supported by major powers like the Soviet Union -- ever had against their enemies?

Technological progress, after all, cuts both ways. It might be easier to make some kind of suitcase bomb now, but it's also easier to track terrorist groups, dollars, etc., and our government is surely a lot more complex and resilient than that of Israel in the 80s or Britain in the 50s...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 4:31:03 PM


You make some good points. A few responses.

1. You write that terrorist attacks affect us differently than accidental deaths and deaths from other causes. I agree. You also say: "That set of reactions is not irrational, and thus, it's not irrational to spend more dollars to reduce one kind of death than another one." I also agree with this, but I do think we owe it to ourselves to consider the costs of devoting so many resources to terrorism, especially when it means investing in security measures with a highly dubious security payoff and some very troublig civil liberties costs.

I don't think that it is entirely irrational to react the way we do to terrorism. In a different context, Judge Guido Calabresi observes: "We spend millions of dollars to save the lives of clearly identified individuals who are in immediate danger dollars, which, if applied to generalized safety, would protect and preserve many more." GUIDO CALABRESI, IDEALS, BELIEFS, ATTITUDES AND THE LAW 6 (1985). Just as it is human nature to react more to actual lives than to statistical ones, it is human nature to react more to dramatic and horrifying events such as terrorism than to the rather un-dramatic deaths caused by the flu and other things.

But that said, I believe we must step back and try our best to assess the threats we face as rationally as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean going by the cold hard numbers, but we should at least think about the relative risks we as a society are facing. My posts are a reaction to the fact that there's so much focus on national security as a terrorism issue and that we need to begin getting a bit more of a broader perspective on national security. Often, discussions begin by considering a security proposal and weighing it against its costs to privacy and civil liberties rather than really assessing its overall benefit for security.

2. It's true that terrorists might try to use more destructive means than those used on 9-11, such as nuclear or biological weapons. It is here where our security measures are at their most shortsighted. We expend a ton of resources on airline security, when we already have a lot of security for airlines and the potential damage from an airline attack is not nearly as large as that from a dirty bomb or biological attack. Future 9-11's get prevented by locking cockpit doors and by the fact that airline passengers will no longer be taken by surprise. Do we really need to spend millions to develop such programs as Secure Flight, which have taken on many incarnations (it used to be called CAPPS II, which was later scrapped and renamed "Secure Flight) and have yet to even be proven to actually work? We have enough airline security. Let's move on to other threats.

As for nuclear and biological weapons, I think we're doing not so good a job at guarding against these. I doubt that Secure Flight or data mining will be of much help here. I doubt that searching a few backpacks out of 4.5 million subway riders in NYC will help with this as well. Instead, addressing these threats involves enlisting the aid of other countries, tracking nuclear material, ensuring that "loose nukes" are no longer loose, ensuring that we are prepared in the event of such an attack, etc. As this article demonstrates we're not doing a good job at taking many of these steps.

In the end, I just think we need to get much smarter about security. I'm tired of hearing about how we must make sacrifices in privacy and civil liberties so we can be more secure. We're not being made more secure; in fact, many of these security measures are leading us astray, and we're neglecting to focus on more dangerous security threats and more effective security measures. That's what saddens me the most . . . we're losing privacy and security at the same time!


Posted by: Daniel Solove | Aug 3, 2005 3:51:24 PM

Paul, unfortunately government is less distributed than the end points of an internet network. Destruction of a joint session of Congress and the White House would be catastrophic. Or imagine a dirty bomb going off in the pentagon; chemical attack in DC, etc. I'm not saying we couldn't recover eventually, and perhaps quickly, but the harms that flow from that sit on top of the harms that would result "merely" from the loss of life as a result of tumors. That's the modest point I'm making. And the capability/desire point you raise is relevant perhaps today, but the scenarios discussed in the Clarke or SAFE hypos are plausible and likely to shrink the gap between capability and desire in which you now rest.

Posted by: Dan | Aug 3, 2005 3:18:40 PM

[W]e must bear in mind that the enemies of America and her allies are intent on using terrorist attacks not simply to maximize the number of murdered people, but to destroy institutions central to the operation of the government and economy; their mission is the destruction of our regulatory state itself.

We must also bear in mind that their goals are not necessarily coextensive with their capacities. The problem with the "the terrorists are out to destroy our liberty" argument (apart from the fact that it ignores the liberties destroyed to defend against them) is that it's insanely unrealistic to think that terrorist acts alone, absent overreaction in response, can actually destroy our liberties.

One of the virtues of democratic republics is that they, like the internet, are distributed. Even if they managed to do something utterly horrific, like blow up Congress in a joint session, our government would not stop. The states would run, the federal administrative state would run, and in due time we'd elect more members of Congress. Did the plane crashing into the Pentagon impair our military capacity one whit? Nope.

So I don't think we can justify overspending and liberty-curtailment on the theory that the terrorists have this wet dream of destroying our government.

(Now REALLY back to work.)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 3, 2005 2:48:39 PM

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