Saturday, November 14, 2015

Thoughts on Paris and terrorism

1. Despite its obvious tragedy, this event makes me mindful of how our social, media and political institutions assign salience to issues that involve risk, danger and death. It's an old hat that 'more people die in car accidents and from smoking' than from--well, you name it. Terrorism, which kills very few people each year, is the ultimate example. Human psychology does not perform arithmetic expected-value calculations when assessing risk. We prioritize based on a host of cognitive heuristics, such as vividness and simplicity. This intuitive risk analysis is of course what makes terrorism such an effective tactic.

2. Marco Rubio has a curious video response to the attack, in which he explicitly affiliates himself with the political scientist Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations theory. I'll actually admit that I sort of like the style of Rubio's punchy reductionist thinking on security issues. But on substance, Rubio is quite clearly wrong. The values and broad institutional towers of modern liberal democracy have essentially been universalized, with no plausible competitor on the horizon. Radical Islam might talk a big talk and murder some people, but they've had precisely zero success at governing a state and providing services like defense, access to markets, etc. Assuming no existential catastrophes, does anyone really think radical Islam has a shot at ruling the world once every corner of the globe is rich and developed?

3. This seems exceedingly relevant

4. A general point about terrorism: the existence of terrorists that have the funding and organizational capacity sufficient to carry out a coordinated attack like this is directly linked to the institutional strength of states. The persistence of weak and failed states around the world enables non-state actors to engage in violence both domestically and abroad. There is no simple recipe for institutional development. But if history is any guide, strengthening economic and cultural links to poor regions through freer and more expansive trade, investment and immigration is a good way to go.

5. The examples of unity and spontaneous collaboration that typically erupt after events like this are amazing. Talk is cheap, however, and I suspect much of it involves social signalling. I do wonder if similar results would occur if a more impactful historic event were to unfold, such as an impending world-killer asteroid detection or the discovery of sentient alien life. With much more on the line--and more to lose, would we see the same results? Solitaire et Solidaire, as Camus said.

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