The distinctive malice of al-Qaeda and its allies doesn’t change the fact that we need to make rational choices in a world of limited resources.
In “The Irrationality of Giving Up This Much Liberty to Fight Terror,” I challenged readers to assess the actual threat that terrorism poses to America. Yes, it’s very scary, psychologically, and every terrorist attack is awful. But going back to 1999, an interval that happens to include the most successful terrorist attack in U.S. history, radical Islamists have killed around 3,000 people in America — whereas guns killed roughly 364,000 people, drunk driving killed roughly 150,000 people, and food poisoning reliably kills roughly 3,000 people every year. Americans are far more likely to be killed on their morning commute than in a terrorist attack. And for that reason, I argued, what we’re being asked to give up to fight terrorism is irrational and unreasonable. When confronted by far deadlier threats, Americans are much less willing to cede civil liberties and privacy.
My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, writing at Bloomberg View, partially agrees with my mindset. He believes “resiliency is the key to successful counterterrorism,” and notes his discomfort with a government that appears ready “to alter the nature of our open society” by adopting laws and policies “that would allow for the creation of a comprehensive surveillance state.” This is significant. If most Americans insisted on resiliency as the appropriate response to terrorism, and rejected fundamental changes like the construction of a surveillance state, we’d be better off.
But Goldberg says that I understate the danger terrorists pose, because I consider only the actual murders they’ve succeeded in perpetrating, and neglect to mention their much bigger ambitions:
The fear of terrorism isn’t motivated solely by what terrorists have done, but what terrorists hope to do. Although it’s true that bathtub accidents account for a too-large number of deaths, it isn’t true that bathtubs are engaged in a conspiracy with other bathtubs to murder ever-larger numbers of Americans. We know for certain, however, that al-Qaeda, its offshoots, and other organizations and individuals in the Islamist orbit seek unconventional weapons that would allow them to kill a far-larger number of Americans than died on Sept. 11.
This raises a fair point: the number of gun deaths or drunk-driving deaths is highly unlikely to significantly increase, while it is at least possible that terrorists could get much better at killing us than they’ve ever been in American history. There are, indeed, people attempting to do just that:
As early as 1998, Osama bin Laden asserted that Islam required him to use weapons of mass destruction in the conduct of his jihad, and he made the acquisition of these weapons a high priority. The al-Qaeda leader Sulaiman Abu Ghaith famously argued that Muslims had the right to “kill four million Americans, including one million children, displace double that figure, and injure and cripple hundreds and thousands.” (For a fuller understanding of al-Qaeda’s WMD ambitions, see this Rolf Mowatt-Larssen article in Foreign Policy.)
Is there anyone who actually believes that al-Qaeda or its offshoots would hesitate to use chemical or biological weapons against Western targets if they could? The only reason radical Islamists haven’t used such weapons is that they haven’t been able to acquire them — mainly, I think, because of effective American countermeasures.
It’s for just this reason that I included the following passage in my piece: “Of course we should dedicate significant resources and effort to stopping terrorism.” I didn’t dwell on the point, since literally every elected official in the federal government agrees with it. But I do believe what I wrote.
I don’t think it’s probable that Islamists will one day be able to launch a nonconventional attack on an American target. But I think it’s plausible, and now that mass stockpiles of chemical weapons may be in flux in a highly unstable Syria, the likelihood that these weapons will fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-influenced organizations is going up, at least slightly.
Personally, I worry a lot more about a future where potent biological weapons are available to those who wish to do us harm; and even a “dirty bomb” could prove extraordinarily expensive to address.
Read all of this at the Atlantic.
Execution by cannon, in Shiraz, Iran, Mid-Late 19th century imgur
The Romance of Train Stations
The train station is the ideal scenario for greetings and farewells. The car is too banal. What does it mean to set off in a car? Nothing. The airport is too exhausting and impersonal, the plane itself remote, unseen, the barriers and security disturbing. Here the powerful beast of the locomotive thrusts its nose under the great arch of the station. The lines straighten from the last bend. Clanking and squealing, the train slows. The last moments of waiting begin. Eyes focus on the platform, keen to possess their loved ones; in the train corridor, meanwhile, the long-awaited beloved is jostling and jostled, luggage at his heels. The train slows, slows, slows, teasing everyone on both sides of the divide, making them wait, making them savor the tension between absence and presence. Text messages are flying back and forth: “The last carriage but one.” “The first after the restaurant car.” “You’ll have to help with my bags.” “Be nice to Zia Eleonora, her dog just died.” “I look a state without my makeup.”
Read more at the Medium.
Heart of Sharkness
It was a show of unprecedented aggression in a surfers’ paradise: ten shark attacks in the past two years, three of them fatal. Now the surfers are biting back, calling for a posse to hunt and kill the offending animals. Bucky McMahon paddles straight into the insanely unsafe waters of Réunion island, a little slice of France off the coast of Africa, and reports on a raging turf war between man and beast
It seemed somehow significant, or maybe particularly unfair, but anyhow a cold, dumb fact: Mathieu Schiller had just paddled out. He hadn’t had a chance to catch a single wave. In a case of bad timing within worse, the 32-year-old bodyboarder, a former French champion and the owner of a local surf school, had launched from the beach as one of the biggest sets of the day humped on the horizon. There’d been a month of solid swell (which may have been significant as well), and though the wave heights were finally beginning to decline, it was still a big day at a surf break renowned for its powerful waves, and negotiating the set would take Schiller a little farther out to sea than the normal lineup. He duck-dived under the last wave, feeling the upward surge of power as the lip of the breaking wave threw out over him. He came up, streaming water, scanning the horizon with his characteristic enthusiasm, his ever present stoke.
Then he burst up out of the sea. The shark stood him up, his legs in its mouth. And while he beat at its snout with the blunt end of his boogie board, another shark leapt from the water and bit into his torso. For one impossible, hopeful instant, while the second shark hung in the air, jaws snapping, the whole thing must’ve seemed like some kind of terrible hoax, or a collective hallucination. Then the momentum of the leaping shark carried man and beasts back down into the water, into a spreading pool of blood.
This primal scene of large wild animals hunting us could’ve been witnessed by any number of locals and tourists sunbathing on the beach or sipping drinks at the cafés along the promenade, for it was three o’clock on a sunny afternoon, September 19, 2011, the tail end of the surf season at Boucan Canot beach and a busy time at this festive resort town on the west coast of Réunion, a French island about 400 miles east of Madagascar. The lifeguards, surfers themselves and friends of the victim, saw it going down right in front of them. Vincent Rzepecki, a powerfully built 31-year-old, was the first guard to hit the water. He couldn’t believe what was happening. He’d grown up with Schiller, had dinner with him the night before last. Now he paddled like mad, hoping for the best.
Finish reading HERE.
Do some harm
Traditional Chinese medicine is an odd, dangerous mix of sense and nonsense. Can it survive in modern China?
Facial acupuncture is administered to a patient in Beijing. Photo by Justin Jin/Panos
A few minutes after getting her traditional Chinese medicine injection in a hospital in Chongqing, southwest China, 25 year-old Zhang Mingjuan began hyperventilating. She’d had only a slight fever, but wanted to try the appealing combination of traditional medicine with the more rapid vector of a jab. Now she felt like she was dying, and she passed out.
In the hospital emergency room, where she awoke, she was told that quick treatment saved her life from the allergic reaction to the shot — a mixture of herbs and unlabelled antibiotics. Later, doctors told her that she would have been better off sticking to hot water and aspirin.
The combination of traditional medicine and hospital setting, of pseudoscience and life-saving treatment, might seem strange. But in modern China, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is not the realm of private enthusiasts, spiritual advisers or folk healers. It’s been institutionalised, incorporated into the state medical system, given full backing in universities, and is administered by the state. In 2012, TCM institutes and firms received an extra $1 billion in government money, outside the regular budget. TCM as a whole is a $60 billion dollar industry in mainland China and Hong Kong.
Read all of this HERE.