Monday, August 15, 2005

Terror Threats and Signaling

Guest-blogging over at is Walter Kirn, who takes the occasion of his first post to question our nation's response to terrorism:

I'll start with something that's been bugging me but that I haven't had a forum to write about: this idea, almost universally agreed upon, that Americans mustn't let terrorism change our way of life. I disagree. Our way of life had its problems before Osama appeared, and we probably could have stood to change it then, but now that we have the added impetus of being collectively attacked in ways that we never dreamed about in past years, I think it's high time that we did a few thing differently that maybe we should have done already ... Like, say, spread out a little geographically.
Reading a bit between the lines of Walter's post, the lesson we are not learning is that we need to separate out two distinct phenomena. The first is that the quality of life in a world with terrorism is substantially worse than the quality of life in a world without it. At this point, that issue is settled, and pretending that we live in the other world doesn't make us better off and it doesn't help us win. The second is that, even in a world with terrorism, we can make ourselves better off by reacting optimally to our (new) environment. I discussed two ways in which society will evolve--in response to the newly inflated price of congestion and anonymity in an age of suicide [sic] bombers--in this earlier post.

There is a time and a place for making things harder on ourselves than we might otherwise have them, particularly in wartime when we need to signal to our enemies that we are a more determined foe and stronger adversary than they think. (Consider the now famous example of James Stockdale as a POW in Vietnam.)

Effective signals necessarily make life more difficult (in the near term) than it would have to be, but not everything that makes life more difficult is an effective signal. To be an effective signal, the action has to be associated with some characteristic that is hard to observe and that would change our enemies' assessment of us. We want to signal our resolve to protect our Constitutional republic and our society based on liberty. Like anything else, we want to economize on the signal--to pick the signals that give us the most protection from or intimidation of the enemy at the lowest cost.

Walter mentions an example of poor signaling near the end of his post:

There's a price for supersaturating small areas with people, wealth, and technology, and now we're paying it by trying to secure in thousands of ways targets that are inviting as they come. This folly of rebuilding the World Trade Center proves that we'd rather be proud and stubborn than safe. Here we go piling up the blocks again just to show how bloodied but unbowed we are instead of learning our lesson and reshaping things.
He is right. Our enemy doesn't care how proud and stubborn we are, or even how much sorrow we feel for what happened on 9/11. What we do at Ground Zero should, first and foremost, honor the victims of 9/11 (and only 9/11). If there are new office buildings to be built, they ought to reflect the needs of the post-9/11 world. The best idea I have read about the non-memorial part of Ground Zero is to insist that the United Nations relocate its headquarters to those new buildings. Putting the UN there doesn't make the re-building an effective signal per se--it just stops the building of a large office tower there from being a childish dare to hit us again without being much better protected than we were before.

What are some affirmative signals that we could be sending? I would start by taxing every product whose revenues flow back to terror sponsors, with the revenues redistributed progressively back to the taxpaying population through the income tax. Given our current enemies, that means a pretty large tax on oil. I'm sure we could come up with other suggestions.

Other blogs commenting on this post


Glenn Bridgman said...

You know, I wouldn't be surprised if the increase in automobile accident deaths from "spreading out" exceeds any theoretical anti-terror benefits.

AMcGuinn said...

The terrorists aren't the only targets for signals. By building a new tower on the site of the WTC, you can signal to yourselves and to each other that a bit of terrorism isn't that big a deal, which, objectively, it isn't. Glenn above is correct - indeed, in any rational assessments of the problems America and Americans face, terrorism is rounding error.

Adam said...

Terrorism is only effective if it provokes some sort of response. If terrorists know that their attack won't instill much fear in a population, they simply won't bother going through with it. We (as a society?) need to figure out how we can make people think of terrorism as the minor threat that it actually is, so that we can avoid the wildly irrational responses that the terrorists seek.

The benefits of keeping many people in a small area are massive. Proximity decreases transportation costs, allows for greater human interaction, and reduces damage to the environment. Even with terrorism added as a cost, I don't see a compelling reason to abandon these gains.