Episode 143, Recorded on April 3, 1969
Guest: Noam Chomsky
Jim Rickards explains why there’s a financial crisis coming, and in so doing, reviews the unusual origins of his predictive analytics tool. He also explores complexity theory and Bayesian statistics. Jim Rickards is a renowned author and the chief global strategist at Meraglim. Filmed on July 12, 2018 in New York.
This has roots that go back to 9/11.12:24Tragic day, September 11, 2001, when the 9/11 attack took place.12:31And what happened then– there was insider trading in advance of 9/11.12:37In the two trading days prior to the attack, average daily volume and puts, which is short12:43position, put option buying on American Airlines and United Airlines, was 286 times the average12:50daily volume.12:51Now you don’t have to be an option trader, and I order a cheeseburger for lunch every12:55day, and one day, I order 286 cheeseburgers, something’s up.12:59There’s a crowd here.13:00I was tapped by the CIA, along with others, to take that fact and take it forward.13:06The CIA is not a criminal investigative agency.13:10Leave that to the FBI and the SEC.13:11But what the CIA said was, OK, if there was insider trading ahead of 9/11, if there were13:17going to be another spectacular terrorist attack, something of that magnitude, would13:22there be insider trading again?13:24Could you detect it?13:26Could you trace it to the source, get a FISA warrant, break down the door, stop the attack,13:30and save lives?13:31That was the mission.13:32We call this Project Prophecy.13:34I was the co-project director, along with a couple of other people at the CIA.13:39Worked on this for five years from 2002 to 2007.13:43When I got to the CIA, you ran into some old timers.13:47They would say something like, well, Al-Qaeda or any terrorist group, they would never compromise13:53operational security by doing insider trading in a way that you might be able to find.13:59And I had a two word answer for that, which is, Martha Stewart.14:03Martha Stewart was a legitimate billionaire.14:05She made a billion dollars through creativity and her own company.14:08She ended up behind bars because of a $100,000 trade.14:11My point is, there’s something in human nature that cannot resist betting on a sure thing.14:15And I said, nobody thinks that Mohamed Atta, on his way to Logan Airport, to hijack a plane,14:21stopped at Charles Schwab and bought some options.14:23Nobody thinks that.14:24But even terrorists exist in the social network.14:26There’s a mother, father, sister, brother safe house operator, car driver, cook.14:32Somebody in that social network who knows enough about the attack and they’re like,14:36if I had $5,000, I could make 50, just buy a put option.14:40The crooks and terrorists, they always go to options because they have the most leverage,14:44and the SEC knows where to look.14:47So that’s how it happens.14:49And then the question was, could you detect it.14:52So we started out.14:53There are about 6,000 tickers on the New York Stock Exchange and the NASDAQ.14:57And we’re talking about second by second data for years on 6,000 tickers.15:03That’s an enormous, almost unmanageable amount of data.15:06So what we did is we reduced the targets.15:08We said, well, look, there’s not going to be any impact on Ben and Jerry’s ice cream15:12if there’s a terrorist attack.15:14You’re looking at cruise ships, amusement parks, hotels, landmark buildings.15:18there’s a set of stocks that would be most effective.15:22So we’re able to narrow it down to about 400 tickers, which is much more manageable.15:26Second thing you do, you establish a baseline.15:28Say, what’s the normal volatility, the normal average daily volume, normal correlation in15:35the stock market.15:36So-called beta and so forth.15:37And then you look for abnormalities.15:39So the stock market’s up.15:42The transportation sector is up.15:43Airlines are up, but one airline is down.15:46What’s up with that?15:47So that’s the anomaly you look for.15:48And then the third thing you do.15:49You look for news.15:50Well, OK, the CEO just resigned because of some scandal.15:54OK, got it, that would explain why the stock is down.15:57But when you see the anomalous behavior, and there’s no news, your reference is, somebody16:03knows something I don’t.16:04People aren’t stupid, they’re not crazy.16:06There’s a reason for that, just not public.16:08That’s the red flag.16:09And then you start to, OK, we’re in the target zone.16:12We’re in these 400 stocks most affected.16:15We see this anomalous behavior.16:17Somebody is taking a short position while the market is up and there’s no news.16:21That gets you a red light.16:23And then you drill down.16:24You use what in intelligence work we call all source fusion, and say, well, gee, is16:28there some pocket litter from a prisoner picked up in Pakistan that says cruise ships or something16:34along– you sort of get intelligence from all sources at that point drilled down So16:38that was the project.16:40We built a working model.16:41It worked fine.16:42It actually worked better than we expected.16:44I told the agency, I said, well, we’ll build you a go-kart, but if you want a Rolls Royce,16:48that’s going to be a little more expensive.16:50The go-kart actually worked like a Rolls Royce.16:52Got a direct hit in August 2006.16:55We were getting a flashing red signal on American Airlines three days before MI5 and New Scotland17:04Yard took down that liquid bomb attack that were going to blow up 10 planes in midair17:09with mostly Americans aboard.17:11So it probably would have killed 3,000 Americans on American Airlines and Delta and other flights17:16flying from Heathrow to New York.17:18That plot was taken down.17:20But again, we had that signal based on– and they made hundreds of arrests in this neighborhood17:26in London.17:27So this worked perfectly.17:30Unfortunately, the agency had their own reasons for not taking it forward.17:37They were worried about headline risk, they were worried about political risk.17:41You say, well, we were using all open source information.17:45You can pay the Chicago Mercantile Exchange for data feed to the New York Stock Exchange.17:48This is stuff that anybody can get.17:49You might to pay for it, but you can get it.17:52But the agency was afraid of the New York Times headline, CIA trolls through 401(k)17:58accounts, which we were not doing.18:00It was during the time of waterboarding and all that, and they decided not to pursue the18:06project.18:07So I let it go, there were plenty of other things to do.18:09And then as time went on, a few years later, I ended up in Bahrain at a wargame– financial18:14war game– with a lot of thinkers and subject matter experts from around the world.18:20Ran into a great guy named Kevin Massengill, a former Army Ranger retired Major in the18:27US army, who was working for Raytheon in the area at the time was part of this war game.18:32We were sort of the two American, little more out of the box thinkers, if you want to put18:36it that way.18:38We hit it off and I took talked him through this project I just described.18:42And we said, well look, if the government doesn’t want to do it, why don’t we do it18:45privately?18:46Why don’t we start a company to do this?18:47And that’s exactly what we did.18:49Our company is, as I mentioned, Meraglim.18:51Our website, Meraglim.com, and our product is Raven.18:55So the question is, OK, you had a successful pilot project with the CIA.19:01It worked.19:02By the way, this is a new branch of intelligence in the intelligence.19:06I-N-T, INT, is short for intelligence.19:08And depending on the source, you have SIGINT, which is signal intelligence, you have HUMINT19:14which is human intelligence, and a number of others.19:17We created a new field called MARKINT, which is market intelligence.19:20How can you use market data to predict things that are happening.19:24So this was the origin of it.19:26We privatized it, got some great scientists on board.19:30We’re building this out ourselves.19:31Who partnered with IBM, and IBM’s Watson, which is the greatest, most powerful plain19:38language processor.19:40Watson can read literally millions of pages of documents– 10-Ks, 10-Qs, AKs, speeches,19:47press releases, news reports.19:51More than a million analysts could read on their own, let alone any individual, and process19:57that in plain language.19:58And that’s one of our important technology partners in this.20:02And we have others.20:04What do we actually do?20:07What’s the science behind this.20:09First of all, just spend a minute on what Wall Street does and what most analysts do,20:13because it’s badly flawed.20:15It’s no surprise that– every year, the Fed does a one year forward forecast.20:22So in 2009, they predict 2010.20:24In 2010, they predict 2011.20:27So on.20:28Same thing for the IMF, same thing for Wall Street.20:30They are off by orders of magnitude year after year.20:34I mean, how can you be wrong by a lot eight years in a row, and then have any credibility?20:38And again, the same thing with Wall Street.20:41You see these charts.20:43And the charts show the actual path of interest rates or the actual path of growth.20:48And then along the timeline, which is the x-axis, they’ll show what people were predicting20:52at various times.20:54The predictions are always way off the actual path.20:57There’s actually good social science research that shows that economists do worse than trained21:02monkeys on terms of forecasting.21:04And I don’t say that in a disparaging way– here’s the science.21:07A monkey knows nothing.21:08So if you have a binary outcome– up, down, high, low, growth, recession– and you ask21:17a monkey, they’re going to be right half the time and wrong half the time, because they21:20don’t know what they’re doing.21:21So you’re to get a random outcome.21:24Economists are actually wrong more than half the time for two reasons.21:28One, their models are flawed.21:29Number two, what’s called herding or group behavior.21:32An economist would rather be wrong in the pack than go out on a limb and maybe be right,21:37but if it turns out you’re not right, you’re exposed.21:40But there are institutional constraints.21:42People want to protect their jobs.21:44They’re worried about other things than getting it right.21:47So the forecasting market is pretty bad.21:48The reasons for that– they use equilibrium models.21:52The capital markets are not in equilibrium system, so forget your equal equilibrium model.21:57They use the efficient market hypothesis, which is all the information is out there,22:01you can’t beat the market.22:02Markets are not efficient, we know that.22:05They use stress tests, which are flawed, because they’re based on the past, but we’re outside22:12the past.22:13The future could be extremely different.22:16They look at 9/11, they look at long term capital management, they look at the tequila22:20crisis.22:21Fine, but if the next crisis is worse, there’s nothing in that history that’s going to tell22:25you how bad it can get.22:27And so they assume prices move continuously and smoothly.22:30So price can go from here to here or from here to here.22:34But as a trader, you can get out anywhere in between, and that’s for all these portfolio22:38insurance models and stop losses come from.22:41That’s not how markets behave.22:42That go like this– they just gap up.22:44They don’t hit those in between points.22:45Or they gap down.22:46You’re way underwater, or you missed a profit opportunity before you even knew it.22:51So in other words, the actual behavior of markets is completely at odds with all the22:56models that they use.22:57So it’s no surprise the forecasting is wrong.23:00So what are the good models?23:01What are the models that do work?23:03What is the good science?23:04The first thing is complexity theory.23:07Complexity theory has a long pedigree in physics, meteorology, seismology, forest fire management,23:13traffic, lots of fields where it’s been applied with a lot of success.23:18Capital markets are complex systems.23:20The four hallmarks of a complex system.23:24One is their diversity of actors, sure.23:26Two is their interaction– are the actors talking to each other or are they all sort23:30of in their separate cages.23:31Well, there’s plenty of interaction.23:33Is there communication and is there adaptive behavior?23:37So yeah, there are diverse actors, there’s communication.23:40They’re interacting.23:42And if you’re losing money, you better change your behavior quickly.23:45That’s an example of adaptive behavior.23:47So capital markets are four for four in terms of what makes a complex system.23:51So why not just take complexity science and bring it over to capital markets?23:55That’s what we’ve done, and we’re getting fantastic results.23:57So that’s the first thing.23:58The second thing we use is something called Bayesian statistics.24:03It’s basically a mathematical model that you use when you don’t have enough data.24:08So for example, if I’ve got a million bits of data, yeah, do your correlations and regressions,24:14that’s fine.24:15And I learned this at the CIA, this is the problem we confronted after 9/11.24:19We had one data point– 9/11.24:20Janet Yellen would say, wait for 10 more attacks, and 30,000 dead, and then we’ll have a time24:26series and we can figure this out.24:28No.24:29To paraphrase Don Rumsfeld, you go to war with the data you have.24:33And so what you use is this kind of inferential method.24:37And the reason statisticians dislike it is because you start with a guess.24:41But it could be a smart guess, it could be an informed guess.24:44The data may be scarce.24:45You make the best guess you can.24:47And if you have no information at all, just make it 50/50.24:50Maybe Fed is going to raise rates, maybe they’re not.24:53I think we do better than that on the Fed.24:55But if you didn’t have any information, you just do 50/50.24:58But then what you do is you observe phenomena after the initial hypothesis, and then you25:05update the original hypothesis based on the subsequent data.25:07You ask yourself, OK this thing happened later.25:10What is the conditional correlation that the second thing would happen if the first thing25:14were true or not?25:16And then based on that, you’d go back, and you either increase the probability of the25:19hypothesis being correct, or you decrease it.25:21It gets low enough, you abandon it, try something else.25:24If it gets high enough, now you can be a lot more confident in your prediction.25:27So that’s Bayesian statistic.25:29You use it to find missing aircraft, hunt submarines.25:32It’s used for a lot of things, but you can use it in capital markets.25:36Third thing, behavioral psychology.25:38This has been pretty well vetted.25:40I think most economists are familiar with it, even though they don’t use it very much.25:43But humans turn out to be a bundle of biases.25:48We have anchoring bias, we get an idea in our heads, and we can’t change it.25:52We have recency bias.25:54We tend to be influenced by the last thing we heard.25:57And anchoring bias is the opposite, we tend to be influenced by something we heard a long26:01time ago.26:03Recency bias and anchoring bias are completely different, but they’re both true.26:07This is how you have to get your mind around all these contradictions.26:11But when you work through that, people make mistakes or exhibit bias, it turns out, in26:16very predictable ways.26:18So factor that in.26:19And then the fourth thing we use, and economists really hate this, is history.26:23But history is a very valuable teacher.26:26So those four areas, complexity theory, Bayesian statistics, behavioral psychology, and history26:33are the branches of science that we use.26:35Now what do we do with it?26:37Well, we take it and we put it into something that would look like a pretty normal neural26:41network.26:42You have nodes and edges and some influence in this direction, some have a feedback loop,26:47some influence in another direction, some are influenced by others, et cetera.26:51So for Fed policy for example, you’d set these nodes, and it would include the things I mentioned26:55earlier– inflation, deflation, job creation, economic growth, capacity, what’s going on27:02in Europe, et cetera.27:03Those will be nodes and there will be influences.27:05But then inside the node, that’s the secret sauce.27:08That’s where we have the mathematics, including some of the things I mentioned.27:12But then you say, OK, well, how do you populate these nodes?27:15You’ve got math in there, you’ve got equations, but where’s the news come from?27:19That’s where Watson comes in.27:20Watson’s reading all these records, feeding the nodes, they’re pulsing, they’re putting27:24input.27:25And then we have these actionable cells.27:26So the euro-dollar cross rate, the Yuandollar cross rate, yen, major benchmark, bonds, yields27:36on 10 year treasury notes, bunds, JGBs, et cetera.27:41These are sort of macro indicators, but the major benchmark bond indices, the major currency27:46across rates, the major policy rates, which are the short term central bank rates.27:50And a basket of commodities– oil, gold, and a few others– they are the things we watch.27:55We use these neural networks I described, but they’re not just kind of linear or conventional28:06equilibrium models.28:07They’re based on the science I describe.28:09So all that good science, bringing it to a new field, which is capital markets, using28:13what’s called fuzzy cognition, neural networks, populating with Watson, this is what we do.28:19We’re very excited about it, getting great results.28:21And this is what I use.28:23When I give a speech or write a book or write an article, and I’m making forecast.28:28This is what’s behind it.28:32So we talked earlier about business cycles, recessions, depressions.28:37And that’s conventional economic analysis.28:40My definition of depression is not exactly conventional, but that’s really thinking in28:44terms of growth, trend growth, below trend growth, business cycles, et cetera.28:50Collapse or financial panic is something different.28:52A financial panic is not the same as a recession or a turn in the business cycle.28:57They can go together, but they don’t have to.28:59So let’s talk about financial panics as a separate category away from the business cycle29:04and growth, which we talked about earlier.29:06Our science, the science I use, the science that we use with Raven, at our company, Meraglim,29:12involves complexity theory.29:14Well, complexity theory shows that the worst thing that can happen in a system is an exponential29:21function of scale.29:23Scale is just how big is it.29:24Now you have to talk about your scaling metrics.29:27We’re talking about the gross notional value derivatives.29:28We’re talking about average daily volume on the stock market.29:31We’re talking about debt.29:33We could be talking about all of those things.29:35This is new science, so I think it will be years of empirics to make this more precise.29:39But the theory is good, and you can apply it in a sort of rough and ready way.29:43So you go to Jamie Dimon, and you say, OK, Jamie, you’ve tripled your gross notional29:50value derivatives.29:51You’ve tripled your derivatives book.29:53How much did the risk go up?29:54Well, he would say, not at all, because yeah, gross national value is triple, but who cares?29:59It’s long, short, long, short, long, short, long, short.30:01You net it all down.30:02It’s just a little bit of risk.30:04Risk didn’t go up at all.30:06If you ask my 87-year-old mother, who is not an economist, but she’s a very smart lady,30:10say, hey mom, I tripled the system, how much did the risk go up?30:14She would probably use intuition and say, well, probably triple.30:17Jamie Dimon is wrong, my mother is wrong.30:21It’s not the net, it’s the gross.30:22And it’s not linear, it’s exponential.30:24In other words, if you triple the system, the growth went up by a factor of 10, 50,30:28et cetera.30:29There’s some exponential function associated with that.30:32So people think, well gee, in 2008, we learned our lesson.30:36We’ve got debt under control, we’ve got derivatives under control.30:39No.30:40Debt is much higher.30:41Debt to GDP ratios are much worse.30:44Total notional value, gross notional values of derivatives is much higher.30:47Now people look at the BIS statistics and say, well, the banks, actually, gross national30:52value derivatives has been going down, which it has, but that’s misleading because they’re30:57taking a lot of that, moving it over to clearing houses.30:59So it’s never been on the balance sheet, it’s always been off balance sheet.31:02But even if you use the footnotes, that number has gone down for banks, but that’s only because31:07they’re putting it over clearing houses.31:09Who’s guaranteeing the clearing house?31:10The risk hasn’t gone away, it’s just been moved around.31:12So given those metrics– debt, derivatives, and other indices, concentration, the fact31:21that the five largest banks in America have a higher percentage of total banking assets31:26than they did in 2008, there’s more concentration– that’s another risk factor.31:31Taking that all into account, you can say that the next crisis will be exponentially31:37worse than the last one.31:38That’s an objective statement based on complexity theory.31:41So you either have to believe that we’re never going to have a crisis.31:44Well, you had one in 1987, you had one in 1994, you had one in 1998.31:49You had the dotcom crash in 2000, mortgage crash in 2007, Lehman in 2008.31:55Don’t tell me these things don’t happen.31:56They happen every five, six, seven years.31:59It’s been 10 years since the last one.32:02Doesn’t mean it happens tomorrow, but nobody should be surprised if it does.32:05So the point is this crisis is coming because they always come, and it will be exponentially32:11worse because of the scaling metrics I mentioned.32:14Who’s ready for that?32:15Well, the central banks aren’t ready.32:17In 1998, Wall Street bailed out a hedge fund long term capital.32:23In 2008, the central banks bailed out Wall Street.32:25Lehman– but Morgan Stanley was ready to fail, Goldman was ready to fail, et cetera.32:31In 2018, 2019, sooner than later, who’s going to bail out the central banks?32:35And notice, the problem has never gone away.32:37We just get bigger bailouts at a higher level.32:40What’s bigger than the central banks?32:42Who can bail out the central banks?32:43There’s only one institution, one balance sheet in the world they can do that, which32:46is the IMF.32:48The IMF actually prints their own money.32:51The SDR, special drawing right, SDR is not the out strawberry daiquiri on the rocks,32:55it’s a special drawing right.32:56It’s world money, that’s the easiest way to think about it.32:58They do have a printing press.33:00And so that will be the only source of liquidity in the next crisis, because the central banks,33:07if they don’t normalize before the crisis– and it looks like they won’t be able to, they’re33:11going to run out of runway, and they can expand the balance sheet beyond the small amount33:17because they’ll destroy confidence, where does the liquidity come from?33:20The answer, it comes from the IMF.33:23So that’s the kind of global monetary reset, the GMR, global monetary resety.33:28You hear that expression.33:31There’s something very new that’s just been called to my attention recently, and I’ve33:36done some independent research on it, and it holds up.33:39So let’s see how it goes.33:42But it looks as if the Chinese have pegged gold to the SDR at a rate of 900 SDRs per33:51ounce of gold.33:52This is not the IMF.33:53The IMF is not doing this.33:55The Federal Reserve, the Treasury is not doing it.33:58The ECB is not doing it.33:59If they were, you’d see it.34:00It would show up in the gold holdings.34:02You have to conduct open market operations in gold to do this.34:05But the Chinese appear to be doing it, and it starts October 1, 2016.34:11That was the day the Chinese Yuan joined the SDR.34:15The IMF admitted the Yuan to the group was four, now five currencies that make up the34:21SDR.34:22So almost to the day, when the Yuan got in the SDR, you see this a horizontal trend where34:29first, gold per ounce is trading between 850 and 950 SDRs.34:37And then it gets tighter.34:38Right now, the range is 875 to 925.34:41Again, a lot of good data behind this.34:44So it’s a very good, it’s another predictive indicator.34:47If you see gold around 870 SDRs per ounce, that’s a strong SDR, weak gold.34:54Great time to buy gold, because the Chinese are going to move back up to 900.34:58So that’s an example of science, observation, base and statistics, inference, all the things35:04we talked about that can be used today in a predictive analytic way.35:08A crisis is coming, because they always do.35:10I don’t have a crystal ball, this is plenty of history to back it up.35:13It’ll be exponentially worse.35:15That’s what the science tells us.35:16The central banks will not be prepared, because they haven’t normalized from the last one.35:20You’re going to have to turn to the IMF, and who’s waiting there but China with a big pile35:24of gold.
The New York Times columnist broke down what the Iraq was really about for Charlie Rose on May 29, 2003.
At the end of May 2003, America was on the verge of one of its longest-running, most expensive wars in Iraq. Yet Iraq war boosters were feeling vindicated by the swift march on Baghdad, which had fallen within weeks, and the swift collapse of the regime.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fan of the Iraq war, appeared on Charlie Rose to crow about this rousing success on May 29 2003. The brief clip below from that interview (the full interview can be found here) is a fascinating glimpse into the id of Washington insiders like Friedman before the invasion in March of that year and for the first few months, at least, of what was to prove a long occupation.
He appears to still think it was the right choice. He wrote last June, in a column on Syria, that: “You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America” and “the only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.”
I don’t ever remember a time in my five years in Iraq where the US was generally seen as a trusted “midwife” by a majority, or even a large minority, of people. Whether or not Iraq might have a found a better, less bloody way out from the shadow of Saddam Hussein without an invasion and occupation, is now something forever unknowable.
(I just made the below transcript from the above clip. I’ve omitted most “uhms” and the like, and may have made one or two errors since the audio is a bit compromised):
Rose: “Now that the war is over and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”
Friedman: “I think it was unquestionably worth doing Charlie, and I think that looking back that I now certainly feel I understand what the war was about and it’s interesting to talk about it here in silicon valley because I think looking back at the 1990s I can identify there are actually three bubbles of the 1990s, there was the Nasdaq bubble, there was the corporate governance bubble, and lastly there was what I would call the terrorism bubble, and the first two were based on creative accounting and the last two were based on moral creative accounting. The terrorism bubble that built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that’s Ok. Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in the pizza parlour, that’s Ok. Because we’re weak and they’re strong and the weak have a different morality. Having your preachers say that’s Ok? That’s Ok. Having your charities raise money for people who do these kinds of things? That’s Ok. And having your press call people who do these kind of things martyrs? That’s Ok. And that build up as a bubble, Charlie. And 9/11 to me was the peak of that bubble. And what we learned on 9/11 in a gut way was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our society because there is no wall high enough no INS agent smart enough no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it because part of that bubble said ‘we’ve got you’ this bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don’t care about life, we’re ready to sacrifice and all you care about is your stock options and your hummers. And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad uhm, and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan, We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth. “
What’s maybe most interesting about this bizarre set of views was that they were so commonplace back then. Al Qaeda has hit the United States, so we must hit back at them. Not just at Al Qaeda, or the people who might have directly assisted them, but a much bigger “them:” A whole civilization who had started to loom in the sight of people like Thomas Friedman as an existential threat to America.
Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The Iraqi people had had nothing to do with 9/11. Were there people there who were delighted to see the US get a bloody nose from Osama bin Laden? Yes. The previous decade had seen a US-backed sanctions effort targeting Saddam Hussein that crippled the country. Never mind that Saddam brought that upon his people with the invasion of Kuwait. Average people were the ones who suffered the most. In 1999 UNICEF estimated that the mortality rate for children under the age of five had doubled in central and southern Iraq since sanctions were imposed, from 56 dead children per 1,000 between 1984-1989 to 131 per 1,000 between 1994-1999.
I don’t begrudge them their anger, not least because they weren’t doing anything to harm people here in the US. I never understood the terror that seemed to grip so many Americans after 9/11, perhaps because by that point I’d covered small wars and grasping poverty we haven’t seen the likes of in the US for generations across Southeast Asia. A few years prior, I covered the independence of East Timor. The murder of Monitor stringer Sander Thoenes there was what led me to getting picked up by the paper — and he was just one of over 100,000 excess deaths in the tiny country during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. For comparison, that was one in seven people in East Timor. One in seven Americans dying as the result of war and occupation would be 44 million people.
I had schoolmates who died in the towers, one dear friend who departed from the heights of Tower Two just minutes before it would have been too late, and who struggled with survivor’s guilt about the colleagues who stayed at their desks, for years after (most reckoned the plane that had crashed into the first tower was an accident, not a terrorist attack). It effected me, as it effected almost all Americans.
But it didn’t seem that hard to keep some perspective. And having lived in Muslim majority Indonesia since 1993 and spending the years after 9/11 covering Al Qaeda and aligned militant groups in the region, I’d learned enough to know that a war that could be painted as against Muslims in general would suit Al Qaeda right down to the ground – such a reaction is what they wanted, since they reckoned that would yield them a bonanza of new recruits.
Mr. Friedman has gone from strength to strength in the years since, with handsome speakers fees for him to explain his theories about how the world is changing and evolving. But that brief clip above shows a man whose analysis is easily swayed by emotion, by sentiment.
“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this” is not the sort of comment that comes from dispassionate, reasoned analysis. It comes from fear.
We learned in a “gut way (that) bubble was a fundamental threat to our society?” That’s not really learning. As horrible as that attack on us was, there was no fundamental threat to our society. We have done a good job in the years since increasing security (to the point that, in some views, we have actually threatened our own open society ourselves) and preventing any further major attacks on our soil. Did the invasion of Iraq and taking out “a very big stick” accomplish that? No.
Finally, even the notion of a “terrorism bubble” in the 1990s was a bit of a myth. The decade that the 9/11 attacks began so horrifically was among the safest ones when terrorism in the skies is considered ever (since supplanted by the last decade). There were 469 fatalities for passengers, crews and passengers for commercial fliers in the 2000s, 256 of those on 9/11. In the 1990s, there were just under 400 fatalities. In the 1980s, there were about 1,400 and in the 1970s, there were just over 800 killed. When total number of commercial flights are included to make apples to apples comparisons, the most dangerous decade was the 1930s, with 616 fatalities per billion passenger flights. The 2000s had 22 per billion flights taken.
If there has been a “terrorism” bubble it appeared to have burst around 1991, judging by this graph at the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Terrorism, though, surged again after 2003, largely with a rise in terrorist incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with the wars being fought in those lands.
At this time of looking back, let’s try to remember the track records and quality of argument presented by people whose views and advice are sought before the wars of our future.
Hurricanes, floods, and wildfires aside, climate change is delivering another threat: a remaking of geopolitics that stands to empower some of America’s adversaries and rivals.
As Arctic ice melts, Russia stands to gain access to oil and gas fields historically locked beneath northern ice — and is building up capability to launch cruise missiles from newly navigable waters to threaten America’s coastlines.
As polar seaways open up, China is eyeing a new “Polar Silk Road” — shorter shipping routes that could cut weeks off of shipping times from Asia to Europe.
And as drought drives more farmers and herders off their lands, extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East are finding fresh recruits.
These are just some of the ways climate change stands to reshape the power dynamics between nations that emerged from interviews for POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast.
Climate change is “making all of our challenges — whether it’s
- weapons of mass destruction,
- violent extremism or
- great power competition between China and Russia —
that much more challenging,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense who led studies of climate impacts on national security for the Center for Naval Analyses.
Some of the biggest power shifts are around the Arctic, which Goodman called “ground zero for the nexus of national security and climate change. In our lifetime, a whole new ocean has opened up because with climate change the sea ice is retreating, the oceans are warming and the permafrost is collapsing.”
A global quest for resources is already underway in the Arctic, said Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Polar Institute. “There are thought to be vast stores of fossil fuels, oil and gas and minerals across the Arctic that have not yet been tapped. Russia is doing so today across its vast Arctic coastline with the help of China,” she said.
Russia is vying for control of Arctic seaways and has built some 40 icebreakers — ships that can channel through ice. “Russia envisions under Putin a northern sea route that is essentially a toll road that requires Russian Arctic escorts in the form of icebreakers or other patrol boats, escorting not only the Chinese but others who want to ship across the Arctic,” she said. By contrast, the U.S. has only two icebreakers, she said.
Meanwhile, China, which is not a polar country, has launched aggressive Arctic diplomacy and gained non-voting observer status for itself at the Arctic Council, the international forum that addresses policy in the Arctic. Last year, China issued its first arctic policy.
“It envisions a Polar Silk Road that stretches from Shanghai across potentially to Hamburg and Reykjavik and parts of Europe across Russia’s vast northern sea route hugging the Russian coastline and both exploiting the energy resources there, potential transport opportunities, shipping, research,” Goodman said.
President Donald Trump’s interest in buying Greenland was driven in part by resources newly available because of melting ice. The Danish government quickly rebuffed the idea, but the incident could be seen as an acknowledgment of climate change from a leader who has derided global warming as a hoax.
Climate change poses additional security consequences. U.S. military bases at home and abroad have already been strained by destructive hurricanes and flooding that have cost billions of dollars to repair — and extreme weather has stretched thin the disaster response capabilities of the military. When hurricanes hit Florida and Puerto Rico and the East Coast of the United States in 2017 and 2018, the military had to slow the flow of forces to Afghanistan in order to be able to provide relief at home. Meanwhile, troops have to operate in higher temperatures across Asia and the Middle East, where temperatures now regularly are over 100 degrees and face a broader array of infectious diseases.
Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base incurred billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018 when winds tore through the roofs of hangars and destroyed buildings. Congress has in recent years directed the Department of Defense to address the climate resilience of military bases and climate risks to operating forces.
“The Department of Defense is beginning to integrate these risks into its strategy plans and plans,” Goodman said.
Another geopolitical threat is migration — whether from low-lying island states that stand to lose fresh water drinking supply or coastal areas susceptible to typhoons. Prolonged drought is believed to contribute to conflicts in the Middle East.
“We know that in Syria the prolonged drought that preceded the civil unrest there was a contributing factor to that unrest, which became instability, which led to the violent extremism, which has become the deadliest civil war in modern times,” she said.
Elsewhere, drought-prone countries are buying up land to grow water-intensive crops in what is called the “virtual water” trade. For example, China has been buying agricultural land in the U.S. and Europe to harvest water-intensive crops such as alfalfa.
Simon Dalby, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, told the podcast that the geopolitical consequences can be difficult to predict. He cited the impacts of a 2010 drought in Russia which led the Kremlin to limit wheat exports, setting off a chain reaction.
“International markets panicked. The price went up quickly — and it is indeed suggested that in fact part of the Arab Spring was partly a response to those price fluctuations. So political disturbances across the Middle East might indeed have been related to the drought in Russia, which was probably at least partly caused by climate fluctuations. So this is where we see how dramatically the global economy and the ecology is interconnected,” he said.
The world will need emergency stockpiles of food and disaster relief aid, he said.
And, he noted, while warming may open up certain regions to new agriculture, unpredictable rainfall and flooding can wreak havoc on crops. “This is much trickier than simply saying, ‘Oh because it’s warmer, Russia will do better.’ It’s not that simple,” he said.
Climate change is transforming agriculture itself.
Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ramps up photosynthesis and makes crops grow more quickly. But the phenomenon has been shown to reduce nutrient density in some crops, like rice. Researchers have begun studying how many people might be at risk for iron or zinc deficiency as a result.
Like governments, businesses are studying how to address long-term risks to their business models, said Gary Litman, vice president for global initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“We definitely need to prepare, to adjust, to adapt to climate change to mitigate the impact of the industry on climate,” he said. But he added that it’s part of a broader pressure on companies to address long-term environmental sustainability and compete for increasingly scarce resources. “We’re dealing with finite resources. There’s not going to be more cobalt on this planet. There is not going to be new soil on this planet. There is not going to be a new oxygen on this planet,” he said.
He noted that advanced technologies, such as batteries, require rare metals. “You cannot address the climate issue — you cannot prepare, for example, for the rise of the oceans — if you don’t invest in new construction materials. How do you build the dam? If you use the current resources, you’ll run out of gravel before you build anything. If you don’t have access to reliable supply of cobalt, you won’t be able to switch to e-mobility,” he said.
BERLIN-—The German man detained after a live-streamed and ultimately botched attack on a synagogue that left two dead in Germany’s east was charged with murder on Thursday after what authorities described as a terror attack.
But as more details about the 27-year-old suspect and his plan emerged, it became clear that Germany had narrowly escaped a far bigger massacre.
Witness accounts, information from authorities and the suspect’s own writings and recorded statements, painted a portrait of a determined extremist who was, by his own admission, ultimately thwarted in his plans for globally broadcast carnage by shoddy preparations.
“What we witnessed yesterday was terror,” General Federal Prosecutor Peter Frank told journalists as he unveiled the charges. The accused, he said, “had intended to cause a massacre.”
The man, identified by a security official on Wednesday as Stephan Balliet from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, tried and failed to enter the locked gate of the synagogue in the city of Halle around midday on Wednesday, according to authorities and witnesses.
He then turned around, shooting dead a passerby and killing a patron at a fast-food restaurant, streaming the entire episode on the Twitch online service using a camera fixed to his helmet.
The live-streaming of the attack showed the suspect wanted to cause a global impact, Mr. Frank said, following the example of recent attackers such as Australian Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly killed 50 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was inspired by others and wanted to inspire others, Mr. Frank said.
In written documents that security experts said they believed Mr. Balliet had posted online before the assault, the suspect describes his motivations, his tactics and the makeshift weapons he had built to execute his attack.
In the documents, written in English and seen by The Wall Street Journal, the author uses familiar far-right tropes, expressing hatred of Jews, Muslims and liberals. The bulk of the documents, however, detail plans to attack the Halle synagogue and the various handmade guns and explosives created for the operation.
The author lists three objectives:
- “Prove the viability of improvised weapons,”
- “Increase the moral [sic] of other suppressed Whites by spreading the combat footage,” and
- “Kill as many anti-Whites as possible, jews preferred.”
Florence Keen, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London, said the documents bore similarities to manifestos of other hate-crime perpetrators, including conspiracy theories about alleged threats against whites.
Blyth Crawford, a fellow research fellow at the center, said “the end of the manifesto, detailing his ‘achievements’ and tasks, really exemplifies the ’gamification’ of these kinds of killings.”
The suspect’s reliance on handmade weapons, including two automatic guns and a shotgun, and sketchy planning seems to have played a role in limiting the toll victims.
In a recording of the live-streamed video seen by The Journal, the man can be heard swearing as his guns repeatedly jam and fail to fire. Earlier in the sequence, he expresses surprise at finding the gates of the synagogue locked and frustration after 15 minutes of trying and failing to force his way in.
After the bungled attack, authorities said, the suspect shot dead a woman on the street and drove to a nearby kebab shop where he killed a customer who can be heard on the video crying for his life. The attacker is repeatedly shown aiming at passersby but failing to fire his makeshift guns.
“I will die like the loser I am,” he explains at one point, apologizing to viewers for not causing more casualties.
According to German officials, Mr. Balliet killed a 40-year-old German woman from Halle and a 20-year-old German man from Merseburg, who was identified by the fan club of local soccer team HFC as Kevin S.
After a brief shootout with a police car more than 20 minutes into the attack, the suspect drove off, stopping on the outskirts of the city where he tried to swap his car, and shooting and wounding two people in the process, according to a witness.
Kai Henze, 36, owner of an auto shop, Kai’s Garage, in Landsberg, east of Halle, said he was working when he heard a shot outside. Two minutes later, a man entered, pointing a gun and saying he was a wanted criminal, had just shot two people and needed a car.
“I threw him the keys of a taxi that I had just here for repair. Then he said ‘I know you will call the police now, but please give me 10 minutes,’ and threw two €50 bills on the street for me and then quickly drove away with the taxi.”
Mr. Henze said he then attended to the two victims nearby, a couple around 40, before calling the police. Mr. Balliet was arrested soon after.
Details of the suspect are slowly emerging.
Ursula Siebenhüner, 68, from the village of Ahldorf, said Mr. Balliet lived alone with his mother, a teacher, in the neighboring hamlet of Helbra.
A German official who declined to be named said Mr. Balliet had been among the last Germans to do compulsory military service before it was abolished. He had served six months to the end of March 2011 in Hagenow, where he didn’t stand out in any way.
Holger Stahlknecht, state interior minister of Saxony-Anhalt, said the suspect wasn’t known to German intelligence agencies prior to the attack.
A man described as Mr. Balliet’s father told the Bild tabloid that Mr. Balliet had been a loner with few friends and spent most of his time online. “He was always blaming others for everything,” the man said.
Neither Mr. Balliet’s mother nor his father could be reached for comment.
Mr. Balliet faces two murder charges, nine counts of attempted murder and several charges related to other crimes, the prosecutor said.
While the attacker appeared to have acted on his own, authorities said they were still investigating whether he had support or if anyone had prior knowledge of the attack. The suspect was due to appear in the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe later Thursday.
German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said the attack had shown that far-right extremism was “one of the biggest threats we are currently facing.”
As long as the United States has existed, there’s been some version of white supremacy. But over the centuries, the way white supremacy manifests has changed with the times. This includes multiple iterations of the infamous Ku Klux Klan.
According to the sociologist Kathleen Blee, the Klan first surfaced in large numbers in the 1860s in the aftermath of the Civil War, then again in the 1920s, and yet again during the civil rights era.
Blee is a professor and dean at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement, as well as Understanding Racist Activism: Theory, Methods and Research. She says the anonymity allowed by the internet makes it difficult to track just how much white supremacist activity we’re seeing today.
But despite this difficulty, she and other experts say there’s been an indisputable uptick in hate crimes — and an overall rise in white supremacist violence: Earlier this fall, a gunman shot and killed 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. In 2017, a clash with protesters at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., left one woman dead. In 2015, the shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C., killed nine black churchgoers. And in 2012, a rampage at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek, Wisc., killed six people.
As we consider this spate of racist attacks, we thought it’d be helpful to talk to Blee about the ebbs and flows of white supremacy in the United States — and what, exactly, those past waves say about today’s political climate.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
First, can we talk about the various phases of white supremacy in the U.S. throughout history — and what caused those ebbs and flows?
The 20th to 21st century Klan actually formed after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period. Then it was entirely contained within the South, mostly in the rural South. It [was] all men. There were violent attacks on people who were engaged, or [wanted] to be engaged, in the Reconstruction state, [including] freed blacks, southern reconstructionists, politicians and northerners who move to the South. That collapses for a variety of reasons in the 1870s.
Then, the Klan is reborn in the teens, but becomes really big in the early 1920s. And that is the second Klan. That is probably the biggest organized outburst of white supremacy in American history, encompassing millions of members or more. … And that’s not in the South, [it’s] primarily in the North. It’s not marginal. It runs people for office. It has a middle class base. They have an electoral campaign. They are very active in the communities. And they have women’s Klans, who are very active and very effective in some of the communities. That dissolves into mostly scandals around the late ’20s.
Then there’s some fascist activity around the wars — pro-German, some Nazi activity in the United States — not sizable, but obviously extremely troubling.
The Klan and white supremacy reemerge in a bigger and more organized way around the desegregation and civil rights movement — again, mostly in the South, and back to that Southern model: vicious, violent, defensive, Jim Crow and white rights in the South.
And then it kind of ebbs. After a while, it kind of comes back again in the late ’80s and the early 21st Century as another era. And then there’s kind of a network of white supremacism that encompasses the Klan, which is more peripheral by this time. Also Neo-Nazi influence is coming as white power skinheads, racist music, and also neo-Nazi groups. The Klans tend to be super nationalist, but these neo-Nazi groups have a big international agenda.
Then the last wave is where we are now, which is the Internet appears. The movement has been in every other era as movement of people in physical space like in meetings, rallies, protests and demonstrations and so forth. It becomes primarily a virtual world, and as you can see, has its own consequences — many consequences. It’s much harder to track. And then there are these blurred lines between all these various groups that get jumbled together as the alt-right and people who come from the more traditional neo-Nazi world. We’re in a very different world now.
That’s a long history. You mentioned that, for a variety of reasons, the Klan in the Reconstruction era collapsed. What are some of the factors that contributed to that?
I would say two things that mostly contributed to that ebb over time.
One is the white supremacist world, writ large, is very prone to very serious infighting. Internal schisms are quite profound in collapsing white supremacists, even as an entire movement, over time.
What’s that infighting look like? How racist to be?
No, no. It’s almost always power and money. So, for example, the ’20s Klan — I say “Klan” but in every era there were multiple Klans, they all have different names, they all have different leaders — they are trying to extract money from their groups, and they are all fighting about money …. and then over power, and who controls the power, because white supremacy groups don’t elect their leaders right away. To be a leader just means to grab power and control. So there’s a lot of contention in these groups of control.
It’s not ideas. Ideas aren’t that central. They have these certain key ideas that they promulgated — race and anti-Semitic ideas — but the fine points of ideological discussion don’t really occur that much in white supremacist groups, nor do they get people that agitated. It’s not like in other kinds of groups, where people might have various versions of ideas, versions of ideologies. [The Klan] just have kind of core beliefs. But they do tend to fight over ideas for money, power and access to the media.
So that’s the fighting. The other thing is, in different waves of history, there are prosecutions, either by the police or civil prosecutions that collapse groups and movements. Sometimes, there’s kind of a blind eye to white supremacist organizing, but at other times there is really successful either civil or state prosecutions of these groups that do debilitate them.
How does the longevity of white supremacy or these [hate] groups coincide with who has political power?
It’s very hard to create a generalization here. Certain groups, like the Klan, tend to rise and fall based on the threats to who is in power. The 1870s Klan [was] based on the Southern racial state formed during slavery being threatened by Reconstruction. In the 1920s, the idea was that political power [was] being threatened by this wave of immigrants. The 1920s Klan [was] very anti-Catholic, as well as racist and anti-Semitic. Part of this anti-Catholicism [was] based on the idea that Catholics were going to start controlling politics as well as the police.
There’s some really good analysis by some sociologists that showed that the Klan appeared in counties where there was the least racist enforcement of the law. Because in counties where the sheriff and the county government was enforcing racist laws, there was no need for the Klan.
How does this apply to this more recent wave of white supremacy?
Right now, we have an extremely heterogeneous group that we might call white supremacists. So some of them, probably the smallest group, are nationalistic. And probably the larger group are not particularly nationalistic. This is why it’s hard to make generalizations. It’s not the case that nationalist fervor just finds itself in the white supremacist movement. The person accused of the shooting in Pittsburgh is an example. If you look at [his] writings, they’re not nationalistic, they’re in fact anti-nationalistic. And that’s pretty common with white supremacy today — some of them have this sense that their mission is this pan-Aryan mission. They’re fighting global threats to whites and creating a white international defense. So that’s not a nationalist project, that’s an internationalist project.
And the other reason is there’s this idea among white supremacists in the United States that the national government is ZOG — Zionist Occupation Government — and that’s a shorthand way of saying that the national government is secretly controlled by an invisible Jewish cabal. So some of them will be amenable to very local government … they’ll embrace, and work with, and even try to seize control of the government at the county level. But generally, national politics are quite anametha for those two general reasons.
In the 1920s, synagogues were targeted by the KKK. Can you run through other examples of violence like this?
People will say the ’20s Klan was not as violent as other Klans. But that’s really because its violence took a different form. So there, the threat that the Klan manufactured was the threat of being swapped — all the positions of society being taken by the others — so immigrants, Catholics, Jews and so forth. So the violence was things like, for example, I studied deeply the state of Indiana where the Klan was very strong — pushing Catholics school teachers out of their jobs in public schools and getting them fired, running Jewish merchants out of town, creating boycott campaigns, whispering campaigns about somebody’s business that would cause it to collapse. So it’s a different kind of violence but it’s really targeted as expelling from the communities those who are different than the white, native-born Protestants who were the members of the Klan. So it takes different forms in different times. It’s not always the violence that we think about now, like shootings.
When did we start seeing the violence that we see today?
Well, the violence that we see today is not that dissimilar from the violence of the Klan in the ’50s and ’60s, where there was, kind of, the violence of terrorism. So there’s two kinds of violence in white supremacy.
- There’s the “go out and beat up people on the street” violence — that’s kind of the skinhead violence. And then there’s the sort of
- strategic violence. You know, the violence that’s really meant to send a message to a big audience, so that the message is dispersed and the victims are way beyond the people who are actually injured.
You see that in the ’50s, ’60s in the South, and you see it now.
I was wondering if we could kind of talk a little bit about the language we use when we talk about mass killings that are related to race, religion or ethnicity — especially about the second type of violence, “strategic violence,” that you describe. I’ve seen people use the phrase “domestic terrorism.” What do you make of that phrase?
Terrorism means violence that’s committed to further a political or ideological or social goal. By that definition, almost all white supremacist violence is domestic terrorism, because it’s trying to send a message, right? Then there’s that political issue about what should be legally considered domestic terrorism, and what should be considered terrorism. And that’s just an argument of politics, that’s not really an argument about definitions right now.
How these things get coded by states and federal governments is quite variable depending on who’s defining categories. But from the researcher point of view, these are terrorist acts because they are meant to send a message. That is the definition of terrorism. So it’s not just, you don’t bomb a synagogue or shoot people in a black church just because you’re trying to send a message to those victims or even to those victims and their immediate family. It’s meant to be a much broader message, and really that’s the definition of terrorism.
I think what we don’t want is for all acts of white supremacist violence to be thought of as just the product of somebody who has a troubled psyche. Because that just leaves out the whole picture of why they focus on certain social groups for one thing. [And] why they take this kind of mass horrific feature … so I think to really understand the tie between white supremacism and the acts of violence that come out of white supremacism, it’s important to think about that bigger message that was intended to be sent.
What are the most effective strategies to combat these ideas of white supremacy, or this violence?
I’d say the most effective strategy is to educate people about it, because it really thrives on being hidden and appearing to be something other than it is. I mean, millions of white supremacist groups have often targeted young people, and they do so often in a way that’s not clear to the young person that these are white supremacists, they appear to be just your friends and your new social life, like people on the edges who seem exciting. … And so helping people understand how white supremacists operate in high schools, and the military, and all kinds of sectors of society gives people the resources the understanding to not be pulled into those kinds of worlds.
If you are worried that ISIS might strike the United States and want to prevent the loss of American lives, consider urging Congress to invest in diabetes and Alzheimer’s research.
Terrorism is effective in doing what its name says: inspiring profound fear. But despite unremitting coverage of the Paris attacks, an objective examination of the facts shows that terrorism is an insignificant danger to the vast majority of people in the West.
You, your family members, your friends, and your community are all significantly more at risk from a host of threats that we usually ignore than from terrorism. For instance, while the Paris attacks left some 130 people dead, roughly three times that number of French citizens died on that same day from cancer.
In the United States, an individual’s likelihood of being hurt or killed by a terrorist (whether an Islamist radical or some other variety) is negligible.
Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.” Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University, has observed that “[e]ven in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never [comes] close to the number of traffic deaths.”
No one in the United States will die from ISIS’s —or anyone’s — terrorism today.
What accounts for the fear that terrorism inspires, considering that its actual risk in the United States and other Western countries is so low? The answer lies in basic human psychology. Scholars have repeatedly found that individuals have strong tendencies to miscalculate risk likelihood in predictable ways.
For instance, individuals’ sense of control directly influences their feeling about whether they are susceptible to a given risk. Thus, for instance, although driving is more likely to result in deadly accidents than flying, individuals tend to feel that the latter is riskier than the former. Flying involves giving up control to the pilot. The resulting sense of vulnerability increases the feeling of risk, inflating it far beyond the actual underlying risks.
When people dread a particular hazard, and when it can harm large numbers at once, it’s far more likely that someone will see it as riskier than it is–and riskier than more serious hazards without those characteristics. For instance, people have been found to estimate that the number killed each year by tornadoes and floods are about the same as those killed by asthma and diabetes. But the latter (diabetes, in particular) account for far more deaths each year than the former. In fact, in the year that study was conducted, actual annual diabetes deaths were estimated in the tens of thousands while fewer than 1,000 people died in tornadoes.
Islamist terrorism has all three of these characteristics, inspiring excessive fear — surely by design. For instance, the Paris attacks harmed large numbers; its victims could have done very little to escape it, since the timing and location of such attacks are unpredictable; and the idea of being shot or blown up by a mysterious set of masked extremists is incredibly dreadful.
When we miscalculate risks, we sometimes behave in ways that are riskier than those we are trying to avoid. For instance, in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, millions of Americans elected not to fly. A significant proportion decided to drive to their destinations instead. Driving is more dangerous than flying. And so one scholar of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, calculated that more people died from the resulting automobile accidents than the total number of individuals who were killed aboard the four hijacked planes Sept. 11.
Kahneman believes that the news media’s disproportionate focus on cases of Western terrorism reinforces such mistaken perceptions. As he explains in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “extremely vivid image[s] of death and damage” resulting from terrorist attacks are “reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation,” leaving us with highly accessible memories of such events. When people who have been exposed to such coverage later assess how likely more terrorism is, such events come readily to mind — and so they are likely to assign probabilities biased upward.
America’s panicked obsession with Islamist terrorism is understandable but may skew public policies in costly ways. In particular, a serious public policy problem emerges when unsubstantiated fear fuels excessive public spending. More than a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has committed trillions of dollars to fighting the war on terror. Certainly, some – perhaps even most – of this funding is warranted.
Consider, however, that federal spending on improving vehicular safety and research for Alzheimer’s and diabetes pales in comparison. Yet traffic deaths, Alzheimer’s and diabetes account for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in the United States.
Whether diverting counterterrorism funding to research in Alzheimer’s and diabetes research would save more American lives depends on the respective marginal benefits. But our government is unlikely to objectively evaluate its investments as long as most Americans have outsized fears of the threat of Islamist terrorist attacks.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the United States and other Western countries are facing no risk of more terror. Quite the contrary: We will almost certainly be attacked by terrorists again during the coming years and decades.
But people will also die from other unlikely events during this same period: a number of unlucky individuals will die after falling out of bed. Others will die of head injuries from coconuts falling from trees. The likelihood that you or those you love will be directly affected by any of this in your lifetime is exceedingly small.
And so perhaps the best way to counter terrorists is to do just as the French pianist who played “Imagine” in public outside the Bataclan did after the attack, or as did the widower whose wife died in the attack, and whose open letter to the terrorists included this: “I will insult you with my happiness.” We can refuse to give them the fear they so desperately want from us.