14 February 2015

"Quick" hits

1) There was an atheist who killed some Muslims in North Carolina, for what appears to have been a parking dispute. For some reason this became a widely circulated presentation that atheists a) want to kill people or b) want to kill Muslims in particular. I think it may be prudent to investigate other possible motives, but unfortunately human beings often kill one another or seek violent means of resolution over pretty ordinary things. Or at least we often quarrel over very silly things. We may be more prone to do so with violence where the offending parties are "other" in some manner (race, religion, type of music listened to, accent, etc). But I'm not sure this rises to a level of hate crime so much as a general animus that all of us tend to have for people we're not familiar with, and who are engaged with us in something moderately annoying. Muslims are not generally familiar to ordinary Americans. I've pointed this out in various forms, but basically our association is "Middle Eastern, terrorists, oil, hates women, women wear funny clothes", and almost none of those describes the ordinary Muslim on the planet, particularly in the US. More to the point, if we are to pick out 30 American residents at random, the likelihood that even one of them will be a Muslim is small. So most of us know almost nothing anyway. Not enough even that we can form animus toward individuals that we come to interact with on a semi-daily basis. Probably enough that we as a society can form animus toward unknowns.

There are other problems with how this story has circulated. For instance, it follows the usual protocol of "minority group must disavow any knowledge". I, like most people in minority groups, don't presume to have an ideological association that says "it's okay to kill people from some other group for no good apparent reason". Which then makes it pretty strange that most of us should have to disavow anything at all whenever a story like this appears; atheists, Muslims, Catholics, whatever. I rarely make the association that it was this aspect of their character that provided a violent nature. Sometimes it does, but often there are any number of other beliefs and mental schema that could be blamed besides the racial or religious overtones. It reminds me of the shell games that are played over Hitler's religious affiliations and affectations as though this was an essential element of his genocidal plans. People who share passing characteristics are constantly being called upon to deny that they share other characteristics, particularly whenever something bad happens by someone who shares those characteristics and particularly when these characteristics are somewhat rare and therefore unknown. Something that should perhaps be concluded by human beings is that other people are more complicated than the one or two things we know about them to infer reasonably almost anything else about them, much less to do so to dismiss them or remove them from any discourse as we often do. This also applies to the "he is crazy" mantra that describes "deranged lunatics" as a one-off rather than someone who was in any way representative of a belief structure. This also is dismissive. We usually have no evidence suggesting this to be the case other than that several people are now dead. One can assume this is from some variety of mental imbalance, but it's not actually a very safe assumption. People are frequently killed in domestic or friendly disputes that do not require the perpetrator to be a deeply demented and psychopathic character. They usually just require anger and a weapon close at hand, possibly a substance of mind-altering capacity at worst (alcohol most commonly). There can be sometimes detailed evidence of a bizarre or warped psychology provided and there are undoubtedly many Americans who think merely being an atheist is evidence of such, but this is not a given whenever someone kills or plots to kill other human beings.

Second problem: Obama is asked to comment on it, principally by other world leaders. To the extent there may be any civil rights related issue; that it is in any way some variety of "hate crime", fine. That's something the President can comment on and has on occasion given issues like possibly racially motivated police shooting or killing other citizens. That's a clear governmental issue since the problem, whether one agrees with it or not, is agents of the government are in situations that result in the deaths of citizens they are intended to serve and protect and this should be regarded as a failure of government whenever it happens. Even if the shooting was "justified". But there are, apparently unlike in other countries, thousands of murders and other violent crimes in the US every year. Asking and demanding the President take time to comment on all of them seems trivial and stupid versus asking and demanding the President take time to try to implement or push for a societal change that improves safety and security for many more people. Obama's remarks seem mostly framed in the former paragraph design. Which to the extent he should have any remarks at all, would be the only reason to have commented. Except we haven't established there need be any reason to comment yet. Ordinary murders happen all the time.

2) Freakonomics did a podcast on an upcoming anti-terrorism summit. I found several obvious flaws in the comments that were made by the various players they sought comment from.

Levitt makes a case that economists are probably going to be pretty good at thinking up incentives and ways that terrorists could attack in a more "scary" or damaging way to devastate the opposing society. Unlike Levitt, I actually think that makes them more suited to appear at a summit to make up part of a "red team" style approach to thinking through the problems and how we could better prepare as a society. They're more apt to look for vulnerabilities that are overlooked. It also means that they may be better suited to identify the incentives for terrorist cells based on what their financial backers seem to think works as well. For instance, other countries have had several armed gunmen running around causing mayhem at hotels or media establishments as a terrorist attack. This has happened in the US too, but it's typically an ordinary crime by some "random lunatic" rather than some foreign backed attack. Or as we might otherwise call it: "a Saturday night". One reason that say, the DC sniper isn't being replicated at shopping malls or hotels in the US is that these backers and planners may worry about the crime being too ordinary, or be concerned about the notion that there may be some idiot packing a 45 who would stop the whole thing, or whatever. The return on investment is too risky and too low versus bombings or other relatively cheap styles of attack (but not as cheap as arming several people with guns). So they keep trying to hijack or bomb airplanes or something like that instead.

Some of those vulnerabilities are being described as "terrorism" probably more because they may be under-proportioned resource wise by government or society in general, but not because we are at any grave risk of a terrorist actually doing something to us in that way. Bio-terrorism for instance is much more likely to pose a problem as a pandemic or from anti-vaccination pockets or from overuse of antibiotics causing resistant strains and not from biologically engineered viral or bacterial cells by terrorists. Similarly "cyber-terrorism" isn't actually likely from some terrorist cell, but from ordinary hackers taking out identity and credit card information from unsecured points in the business architecture. Neither of these is likely to be part of some ideological attempt to destroy America or meddle with our IR incentives and projects where it appears as a problem in society. But because planting "terrorism" in it makes it sound more important right now, they get tossed in the same boat.

I would tend to agree that terrorism isn't a very likely threat to daily life anywhere in America. It may be somewhat more likely in DC or NYC, but that still doesn't make it a significant concern. I've seen a number of articles complaining about say, 50 Shades of Grey as a major social problem. I'm not inclined to say it is a significant problem either, but if someone is hyperbolically comparing it to ISIS (and some people have), from an American perspective, I don't know that this is actually a significant difference in actual danger and harm being posed. Mis-representing BDSM or generally kinky sex, roleplaying, and the communications and trust involved in these is probably doing a little harm at least for those people who are consuming this as media. ISIS is only doing damage to Americans to the extent that we are still engaging them directly in Iraq and Syria rather than leaving it to regional players like Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Turkey to work out how to respond and that our engagement internationally in direct physical combat has costs.
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