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December 08, 2007

Comments

I would like to give praise to express my agreement with the spirit of this post.

(Attacking Afghanistan made sense... but much of the rest of what was done, militarily and otherwise, was sheer overreaction.)

I would argue that that our reaction to 9/11 was not a uniquely bad use of the military, but that most of our wars were mistaken (as were most domestic reactions like locking up dissenters in WW1 or Japanese in WW2). It saddens me that otherwise intelligent people see restraint as indications of being a crackpot.

Despite your post being entirely correct, if for a moment we ignore the welfare of humanity and consider the welfare of the United States alone, there is a good chance that this irrational overreaction will be remembered, and that it will serve as deterrence to any aspiring attackers for a hundred years to come.

Sometimes irrational wrath pays, especially if you can inflict pain much more effectively than you need to endure it.

The cost to humanity is probably dominated by some 1,000,000 deaths in Iraq, but the cost to the U.S. at least in terms of deaths is comparatively smaller. The Iraq deaths are an externality.

An unrelated but creepy thought: my first reaction to type in some sort of full-fledged assent was immediately dampened by a queasy post-Patriot-Act thought (of, admittedly, a very IT-illiterate person), "If I openly write something like this, will They know and will They care and will I ever come to regret it?" Or maybe it's not such an unrelated thought -- the not always irrational fear of Big Brother did, after all, turn out to be a significant part of the more-than-ten-times-worse assessment of things to come.

denis bider, the people who perpetrated the 2001-09-11 attacks died, and knew they were going to die, so others like them won't be deterred by the likelihood that the USA will go after them personally. It doesn't seem like the US's overreaction to those attacks has been all that effective in harming al Qaeda (I mean, bin Laden is still alive so far as anyone knows). It doesn't seem like it's been all that effective in making people who might have been sympathetic to groups like al Qaeda less so.

So I'm wondering how you expect the overreaction to deter other people who might be considering similar attacks.

In the weeks after 9/11, my colleague Roger Congleton, who had some expertize on terrorism, did a number of radio and other interviews where he argued that 9/11 was a unlucky aberration, and warned against overreacting. It wasn't a message people wanted to hear then, and his being right early wins him nothing in today's media game.

You're right, and the thing that depresses me is that we can see this and yet at least I have barely any notion of what to do about it. Actually... (Well, actually, the relevent thought belongs on the Open Thread, so I'll go there...)

g,

Or, one could do what noted Law scholar and hero of secular humanists Alan Dershowitz calls for, which is destroy the families, homes and towns of the attackers. He has explicitly argued that Israel should destroy the entire town of every Palestinian attacker.

The fact that Dershowitz can say something so obviously hateful and still be considered a sane member of society is another manifestation of the spiral of hate that has gripped this nation.

I'd say they were cowards. Suicide isn't an act of bravery. Murdering the defenseless isn't an act of bravery. Even murdering soldiers in peacetime, when they aren't expecting attack, is cowardly. I still remember a kid who hit me from behind on the street once, because he was too much of a pussy to come up to my face about it. The hijackers attacked, during peacetime, civilians and murdered other civilians. That's cowardly in the extreme.

I understand the point of your post, and don't disagree with the basic premise. But just as you blew the Thanksgiving post with your "Native American Genocide Day" comment (even though you did not and can not present evidence that anyone anywhere is sitting around a table giving thanks that Native Americans suffered a (fictional) genocide), now you're claiming brainwashed (if not drug-induced) suicide of defenseless and unsuspecting people isn't the height of cowardice.

Is there a reason you can't work on your OWN biases?

Denis Bider: if the response to 9/11 prevents many future deaths, than the original post ISN'T "entirely correct." But to those who can't comprehend the possibility that the so-called overreaction might have saved lives, consider that Al Quaeda was escalating attacks until it got the desired response: war. And what, pray tell, do you think the next level of escalation would be, that would one-up the thousands killed on 9/11? Nuclear terrorism, maybe. Biological terrorism. You're letting your hatred of Bush prejudice your interpretation of events. Personally, I agree that the Iraq invasion was a bad idea, and badly done. But I'm open (non-biased) to the possibility that I'm wrong, and that, in the long run, it's impossible to acknowledge all the ramifications, good and bad, of any action. And one of the possible ramifications of the Iraq invasion is an end to the escalation of terrorist actions. Further, it's possible that, even if the childish and hateful number "one million" Iraqi deaths is accepted, how does anyone here know that there wouldn't have been more deaths if Saddam had remained in power? You can't, you can only be biased about the chances, and refuse to remember how many people died in the Iraq/Iran war he waged, and how many of his own people he starved and tortured during his reign.

And to everyone, please: I would highly recommend that, to your refusal to fall victim to Bush propaganda, you add a refusal to fall victim to anti-Bush propaganda.

Why is the board so determined to think that being anti-bias should only mean being anti conservative bias? All the while so easily duped by liberal bias?

To which, I know--let me save you all the trouble of a response--it isn't POSSIBLE to be a victim of liberal bias, because "our kind of people/thinking can't be/isn't biased, it's just RIGHT! "Bias" is what other kinds of people/thinking suffer!!!

It doesn't seem like the US's overreaction to those attacks has been all that effective in harming al Qaeda
I disagree, if we count the invasion of Afghanistan in there. It seemed to have quite effectively smashed al Qaeda proper so that they could not pull off any attacks since (remember that they attacked the U.S.S Cole, two embassies in Africa and bombed the WTC in the years before) with the remaining terrorists who call themselves "al Qaeda" franchises being quite buffoonish.

rukidding wrote: now you're claiming brainwashed (if not drug-induced) suicide of defenseless and unsuspecting people isn't the height of cowardice. Is there a reason you can't work on your OWN biases?

I agree with you on two points, ru, (1) that the overall thrust of this post by Eliezer is strong, and (2) that cowardice is a fair and accurate descriptor of the hijackers.

I understand Eliezer's point about the folly of tossing every kitchen-sink insult at the Enemy even when it's inaccurate. I think he just chose a bad example. The definition of cowardice doesn't seem very nuanced at all. A willingness to commit suicide does not necessarily entail bravery, and certainly not to the degree that the very idea of calling a suicide cowardly is laughable, as Eliezer implies.

However, this seems to come from a lack of nuance or accuracy in defining that word, not from some overlooked bias of Eliezer's. And the "Native American Genocide Day" thread derailer was misplaced humor (IMO). I fail to see some systematic political bias that you imply.

Also: it seems to me that there are a number of rather vocal people on this board that speak for some pretty conservative philosophical and economic positions. I have no problem with this. I share and understand your frustration with kneejerk liberal bias. But I think you might be burning straw men here. For a blog with an open comments policy, the level of discourse here is remarkably high. Are you sure this isn't leftover rage from some other board?

And to everyone, please: I would highly recommend that... you add a refusal to fall victim to anti-Bush propaganda. Certainly sound advice. But you are mistaken if you think "everyone" who posts to Overcoming Bias needs such an elementary reminder.

Well, I wouldn't have the balls to hijack an airplane and crash it into a building. If they're cowards, what does that make me?

America has one of the largest and best-equipped armed forces in the world. Only an idiot would attempt to confront it directly and according to the "rules of war".

Reality check: when openly declaring war and restraining one's tactics will inevitably lead to defeat, breaking the conventions is not only canny but necessary. There is simply no branch of the contingency tree where playing by the rules leads to a benefit in such a scenario.

I think that militarily President Bush under-reacted to 9/11. The U.S. faces a tremendous future threat of being attacked by weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, before 9/11 it was politically difficult for the President to preemptively use the military to reduce such threats. 9/11 gave President Bush more political freedom and he did use it to some extent. But I fear he has not done enough. I would have preferred, for example, that the U.S., Russia, China, UK, Israel and perhaps France announced that in one year they will declare war an any other nation that either has weapons of mass destruction or doesn't allow highly intrusive inspections to make sure they don't have weapons of mass destruction. After 9/11 Bush might have been able to negotiate this. Now it is probably too late.

"I'd say they were cowards. Suicide isn't an act of bravery."

R U Kidding, I agree in this particular case.

If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death. They were taking the easy way out by dying. Similarly with palestinian suicide bombers. By dying they avoid the treatment they'd get as prisoners of the israelis -- they get off easy.

"I still remember a kid who hit me from behind on the street once, because he was too much of a pussy to come up to my face about it."

He was expressing his feelings. Did he tell you he was too scared to face you? You might have misunderstood his intentions. At any rate, modern war often involves a surprise attack. When your intention is that the other guy wind up dead and you wind up alive, why give him any advantages? Neither the USAF nor the israeli air force typically announce their airstrikes ahead of time.

If the kid you remember had intended to kill you, it would make perfect sense for him to attack you from behind and kill you as quickly as he could, rather than give you anything like an even chance to kill him instead. But he bravely left you alive to respond however you chose to. If he had killed you properly you wouldn't have found out who did it before you died. You owe your life to his courage.

"But to those who can't comprehend the possibility that the so-called overreaction might have saved lives, consider that Al Quaeda was escalating attacks until it got the desired response: war. And what, pray tell, do you think the next level of escalation would be, that would one-up the thousands killed on 9/11? Nuclear terrorism, maybe. Biological terrorism."

AQ had a number of guys trained as infantrymen, and about 10% as many trained for espionage. We rolled up their spies and saboteurs real fast. We maybe got a bunch of innocent arab-americans at the same time, but we got most of the ones we were looking for.

When we invaded afghanistan we got a lot of the infantry guys too. They could possibly have been a threat to saudi arabia -- trained dedicated infantry fighting saudis and mercenaries might have done a lot of damage -- so that's maybe a plus. There's no particular reason to think AQ could have "escalated" after our police and counterintelligence guys hit them. The army thing was more for US public relations than anything else -- the public wanted a war so the US government gave them one. We gave AQ what they wanted, against most strategic sense, because they persuaded the US public to want what AQ wanted, and Bush also saw the chance to gain US public approval.

I think. I can't be entirely sure what Bush was thinking. I assume he was rationally looking at his own advantage, but he may not have been thinking at all.

"You're letting your hatred of Bush prejudice your interpretation of events."

Well, no. My disgust at Bush came *from* the events. Not so much the other way round.

Some very vehement responses.

If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. The invasion of Afghanistan was aimed at eliminating a state that offered aid and support to an enemy who would use that aid and support to project power to the US and harm her citizens or the citizens of other western states. Denying that aid and support would hope to achieve the purpose of reducing or eliminating the ability of the enemy to project power.

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. Iraq was one possible source of aid and support. Any Sunni state with sufficient reason to wish harm upon the west, with the desire to support organizations that might bring about that harm, and with the ability to provide aid and support to that end was (or is) a threat.

al Qaeda is now largely holed up in regions that do not offer much by way of aid and support, at least for now. al Qaeda may still be able to project limited power, but its ability to strike at the US in such a coordinated way has been significantly hampered.

The harms of 9/11 cannot be measured by the harms of the event alone. The economic damage and the lives lost are only a small part of a complete justification for a vigorous response. If we merely rebuilt the towers and moved on, we would have done nothing to deny an enemy the power to strike again. We would have done nothing to deny the enemy their ability to develop their offensive capacity. Without our interference and no change in the demeanor of the enemy, a second attack would likely have been larger and more damaging, as the enemy would have continued to develop offensive capacity and support while we stood aside.

Additionally, toppling two governments sends a strong message to other states that might harbor the enemy that they will be pursued and punished. Although it did not serve Russia or China politically to openly support US actions in the Middle East, it seems likely that both states had reason to desire an outcome in which the extremist groups were heavily disrupted. Of course, their ideal outcome would also involve a significant loss of prestige, financial power, and influence by the US as well.

If you allow an enemy to batter your gates, you could sleep easily knowing that you built your gates to be strong and withstand such assaults. Eventually, however, your enemy will learn the weaknesses of your gates and batter them down or circumvent them. You would have failed: not in the construction of your defenses, but by failing to hunt down your enemy and deny them the opportunity of future assaults.

It is just as unfortunate for the strategists that hatred and emotional fervor clouded the discussion of response. No right minded military commander wishes to unnecessarily expend resources on a purposeless campaign. While it may be that a clearly reasoned discussion on response would not have led to as extensive a result, I believe that leaving the gates to attack those harboring the enemy would have been considered strategically sound.

"I would have preferred, for example, that the U.S., Russia, China, UK, Israel and perhaps France announced that in one year they will declare war an any other nation that either has weapons of mass destruction or doesn't allow highly intrusive inspections to make sure they don't have weapons of mass destruction."

James D. Miller, I think your idea has possibilities. However, it would be very hard for it to succeed with israel on the list of nations that has nukes but denies them to others. Israel would have to be one of the nations that would be destroyed if it keeps nuclear weapons or refuses highly intrusive inspections.

What about india? Shouldn't they be on the list? We don't want war with india, they haven't threatened anybody except, well, pakistan.

And what about pakistan? If we let india keep nukes it would be hard to invade pakistan over their nukes. Should pakistan be one of the nations of the alliance that will destroy anybody else who has nukes?

Now it looks like a hard problem. No, your idea does not look workable. Allow russia to have nukes but not china? No. Allow china to have nukes but not india? Hardly. Allow india to have nukes but not pakistan? Tempting, but no. Allow pakistan to have nukes but not israel? It would be a good idea but it won't fly. Allow israel to have nukes but not syria? A pleasant thought but not practical. Allow israel and arab nations both to have nukes? Not practical either.

There's a logic here that hasn't played out yet. It goes:

1. You don't need nukes unless you have enemies.
2. If you get nukes, after awhile your enemies will too, and you can't stop this.
3. If you and your enemies have nukes then you will be worse off than if neither you nor your enemies have nukes.

Therefore:

4. Don't get nukes.

The world as a whole hasn't recognised this logic yet because there haven't been any graphic examples. Probably after the second nuclear war, when the world sees what happens to the "winner", people will have a much clearer idea about it. But two nuclear wars will be hard on the world. Ideally these wars would involve small countries so they can be small nuclear wars.

So most of us will be better off if lebanon gets nukes. Then a nuclear war between lebanon and israel could be one of the smallest possible nuclear wars.

The next obvious choice is a war between libya and chad.

After 2 nuclear wars the world as a whole will be much more ready for disarmament then they are now, with nuclear war a threat that has not materialised for 62 years.

Ir'a much much easier to stop people from doing something they didn't want to do in the first place, than stop them from something they think can keep you from dominating them.

"If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake. The invasion of Afghanistan was aimed at eliminating a state that offered aid and support to an enemy who would use that aid and support to project power to the US and harm her citizens or the citizens of other western states. Denying that aid and support would hope to achieve the purpose of reducing or eliminating the ability of the enemy to project power.

"Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. Iraq was one possible source of aid and support."

Brandon, your reasoning is compelling. However, it has a subtle flaw that I think will be easier to see when I rephrase the argument as follow:

We will be safer after we conquer every potential enemy.

The claim is obviously true, and yet....

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power.

By that 'reasoning', invading Switzerland would have been a proper response to the 9/11 attacks.

I've always used motorcycle fatalites as the yardstick to put it in perspective; 9-11 came up just short.

I suspected we might be in trouble when they floated the story that Bush didn't return to Washington because of a credible threat to Air Force One, a threat in which, the supposed terrorists were more concerned with establishing credibility than carrying out their attach and thus used some sort of code word that only someone with inside knowledge would have.

It was perfectly reasonable for Bush to put a half dozen states between himself and the most likely nuclear target (no one knew what might happen). But they were worried it looked bad, un-leaderlike, cowardly, when it was quite pragmatic. The fact they were willing to lie instead of telling even moderately tough truths did not bode well.

Consider all the loco 9/11 theories. There is one that almost doesn't sound loco. What if it had been necessary to shoot down a passenger jet to save some unknown target, but afterwards it was discovered that some on board had been mounting an assault on the cabin, and had called loved ones as well?

"We will be safer after we conquer every potential enemy."

There are limits on our physical and moral capacity for making war. My post was simply pointing out that failing to respond to someone who actually attacks you can have increasingly dangerous results over time. That enemy leeches at your resources and learns how to become better at attacking you, while you gain nothing. There are plenty of potential enemies out there who aren't attacking us and may never attack us. They aren't gaining actual experience at attacking us. Their knowledge is only academic. As long as they don't attack us and we don't attack them, we may find our mutual interests transforming us into allies.

So while we could launch a crusade against the world, it doesn't seem to make sense if it has no chance of succeeding and would likely cost us everything we value. At the same time, though, we have to defend ourselves from the potential of an attack and plan for potential responses. Once one of those enemies actively attacks us, we have to defend ourselves (obviously) and then respond by counter-attacking, if capable, to discourage future attacks.

Arguing that responding, violently, to an attack is not an argument for pre-emptively attacking all potential enemies. There are many lines in the sand: resource limitations, economic limitations, moral limitations, etc.

You do hit on the core question: when is it right to preemptively attack another state? Also: what do we mean by 'right'? Strategically correct? Morally acceptable? It seems to me that popular wars will be morally acceptable wars and those will be wars of defense and wars against aggressors. Wars of aggression against non-aggressors would rarely be popular, except in cases of "revanchism" or by non-liberal states that control their population through nationalism. You would expect liberal states to generally not pursue wars of aggression.

If we follow that we cast a bit of light on why the "spreading democracy" meme has been popular among some. "Democracy" as a system has been conflated with classical liberalism. The idea being: conquer non-liberal states and institute democracies. The world then becomes safer, because liberal states prefer to resolve differences in ways that aren't physically violent. The flaw being that simply creating a democracy doesn't guarantee that the values of classical liberalism will be ... ah ... valued.

So yeah. I don't support knocking down the walls of potential enemies "just because."

And maybe suicide can be viewed as cowardly, but not many people are capable of slitting someone's throat with a boxcutter. See a MR blog (and the linked book chapter):
http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2007/11/violence-a-micr.html

The one point where I think Eli goes off the rails is assuming the response would be completely disproportionate. I agree with those who've said that the Afghanistan campaign was just about right (from the perspective of the government). Unfortunately, this even happened when the New American Century crowd was in power, and it gave them the opportunity to fulfill an agenda they'd had in place well beforehand.

But then the bundle of biases I tote around in my bandana-on-a-stick wouldn't come up with "Never ever never for ever." Sometimes the symbolic will be answered with the tangible. Were the electorate and those they give power clinical and intelligent enough to put a building and a hamlet-sized loss in perspective, they likely would not have had to ever worry about one/


Comparing the lives lost in 9/11 to motorcycle accidents is a kind of moral calculus that fails to respect the deeper human values involved. I would expect people who die on motorcycles to generally understand the risks. They are making a choice to risk their lives in an activity. Their deaths are tragic, but not as tragic. The people who died in the WTC did not make a choice to risk their lives, unless you consider going to work in a high rise in America to be a risky choice. If you're doing moral calculus, you need to multiply in a factor for "not by known/accepted risk" to the deaths in the attack.

Tragedy of Death:
(by Known / Accepted Risk) < (by Unknown Risk) < (by Aggressor Who Offers No Choice)

My last post, though, since The More I Post, The More I'm Probably Wrong.

rukidding:
And one of the possible ramifications of the Iraq invasion is an end to the escalation of terrorist actions.
How does the causality work there?

childish and hateful number
I have never read any of those two adjectives precede that noun.

how does anyone here know that there wouldn't have been more deaths if Saddam had remained in power?
Look at a graph of deaths under Saddam, assume any current trends continue. It's not certain, but it's a reasonable guess.

Why is the board so determined to think that being anti-bias should only mean being anti conservative bias? All the while so easily duped by liberal bias?
I don't think you've been reading this blog very long, it's often accused of right-wing bias. I don't think you can establish that what's been said demonstrates bias either.

To which, I know--let me save you all the trouble of a response
Sounds like you don't even care what others actually believe because you'd rather have a strawman caricature to argue with.

James D. Miller:
I think that militarily President Bush under-reacted to 9/11.
What do you mean "militarily"? The rest of your post makes it sound like the failure was diplomatic, unless you wanted to threaten other nuclear countries to assist us in holding the line.

The U.S. faces a tremendous future threat of being attacked by weapons of mass destruction.
What probability do you give for this happening within the next decade? Next two decades?

Unfortunately, before 9/11 it was politically difficult for the President to preemptively use the military to reduce such threats.
I remember Clinton bombing Iraq because they weren't cooperating enough with inspections and everyone said it was a ploy to make him more popular since Congress was trying to impeach him. I agree that it got easier after 9/11 though.

J Thomas:
If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death.
We didn't torture Khalid Sheik Mohammed to death. We tortured him, sure, but not to death.

By dying they avoid the treatment they'd get as prisoners of the israelis -- they get off easy.
Terrorists in Israeli prisons are still allowed to have kids that they instruct their relatives to raise into terrorism. Doesn't sound too strict (or bright) to me.

Brandon Reinhardt:
If you believe invading Afghanistan was a correct choice then I'm not sure how you could say Iraq was a complete mistake.
It's very simple: IRAQ DID NOT ATTACK US

Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power.
What's with that word "might"? So there has to be a probability of 0.0000000? If we don't have absolute proof a country isn't doing so we should invade them? And why haven't we invaded Saudi Arabia and Egypt?

Iraq was one possible source of aid and support.
Except it wasn't.

Any Sunni state with sufficient reason to wish harm upon the west, with the desire to support organizations that might bring about that harm, and with the ability to provide aid and support to that end was (or is) a threat.
Saddam had already gotten a bloody nose from the U.S once, he knew better than to try that again. His support for terrorism was limited to destabilizing his neighbors (Kurdistan Worker's Party in Turkey, Mujahedin al Khalk in Iran).

al Qaeda may still be able to project limited power, but its ability to strike at the US in such a coordinated way has been significantly hampered.
That's because of the invasion of Afghanistan, not Iraq.

The harms of 9/11 cannot be measured by the harms of the event alone.
I suppose then you agree with Eliezer, the main harms were in the overreaction.

If we merely rebuilt the towers and moved on, we would have done nothing to deny an enemy the power to strike again.
I would have suggested restricting immigration as a much more sensible way to go about it, but Bush prevented a bill with that purpose from passing.

Additionally, toppling two governments sends a strong message to other states that might harbor the enemy that they will be pursued and punished.
We punished a state, Iraq, that had NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US. Was Saudi Arabia or Egypt punished, since the 9/11 hijackers came from there? Was Pakistan punished for selling nuclear technology to other countries, or North Korea punished for making nukes? No.

it seems likely that both states had reason to desire an outcome in which the extremist groups were heavily disrupted.
Invading Iraq did not accomplish that, it caused chaos and disruption for people who just wanted to continue with their lives.

You would have failed: not in the construction of your defenses, but by failing to hunt down your enemy and deny them the opportunity of future assaults.
Solution: open the gates and invade countries that have NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US.

J Thomas:
Allow israel to have nukes but not syria?
Seems like Israel is implementing that plan itself.

If you and your enemies have nukes then you will be worse off than if neither you nor your enemies have nukes.
No, you're both better off because you won't get invaded. Iraq: no nukes and got invaded. North Korea: nukes and not invaded. Now you're Iran, what do you think is the smart move?

The next obvious choice is a war between libya and chad.
Are they angry at each other now? I know in Trevor Dupuy's "Future Wars" Libya was supposed to attack Egypt, but I forget if Chad was involved.

burger flipper:
What if it had been necessary to shoot down a passenger jet to save some unknown target, but afterwards it was discovered that some on board had been mounting an assault on the cabin, and had called loved ones as well?
Flight 93 still crashed, so then it would have just been a waste of a missile and nothing more.

Brandon Reinhardt:
My post was simply pointing out that failing to respond to someone who actually attacks you can have increasingly dangerous results over time.
We responded by invading Afghanistan. Iraq, let me repeat myself, HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ATTACKING US.

when is it right to preemptively attack another state?
When they are actually about to attack you, like in the Six Day War. Iraq was not about to attack us.

Wars of aggression against non-aggressors would rarely be popular
The Iraq war was just that and popular for far too long.

Robin, Elizer or other moderators: if you are unhappy with how the thread has developed, make a note of it and I will move the discussion to my blog unless others would like to have it at their blogs.

Well its more or less an empirical question isn't it? On the one hand maybe 9/11 was a fluke - in that case the best option would be to just rebuild and carry on, like Eliezer says. But maybe it wasn't - maybe the people behind it were/are both willing and capable to successfully launch more attacks. In that case it seems to make sense to wager, or at least consider wagering, some amount of lives to prevent greater losses in the future. It all depends on the information available: what are the resources/intents of your enemy? Would it be at all possible to eliminate them, and is the cost of such a possibility less than the cost of (reasonably predictable) future attacks? Skimming through blogs and newssites you can get hundreds of different answers to these questions - the problem is that theres no metric available with which they can be evaluated.

And heres the real kicker. Imagine you had perfect knowledge of 'terrorist' activities, and could formulate a prediction of how many future casualties would be sustained if these organizations were to be left alone. Pretend you come up with a figure of, say, roughly 10,000 dead over the next 20 years. Furthermore, you know (with omniscient precision) that you can eliminate the threat at the cost of a minimum 20,000 foreign lives (with minimal losses to your own side in the process). Such a scenario seems to reveal an insurmountable problem with running a nation state: reason seems to dictate that you suck up the losses on your own side (on the assumption that a life is a life and as many should be preserved as possible) but the workings of politics almost certainly dictate that you make the 'sacrifice' of at least double the amount of nondomestic lives.

So when I said that no metric is available to asses a given strategy, I meant that it cannot exist at all, period. There are fundamental differences in how people assign value to the lives of strangers - some Americans would sacrifice 100 Iraqis for one of their own (or even just the possibility of losing one of their own); others would sacrifice 0.

As long as you have nation-states you are going to have this dilemma, since the nature of war dictates that you occasionally must annihilate scores of foreigners to preserve your own sovereignty.

The most frustrating thing about our war is that it is (as far as I know) impossible for the layman to determine if the cost is worth the effort. Is there any definitive (minimally biased) source that we can go to and look up, say, the military strength of al-qaeda, in number and resources, and in both pre and post 9/11 eras? Not that I know of. We (yes, myself included) all seem to have the intuition that damage inflicted by ourstruly surpasses all potential damage that al qaeda could render. But who can really demonstrate that for sure? Are we just playing to the bouquet of biases against the unobservable? None of these questions are meant to be rhetorical, btw.

Afghanistan and iraq were stupid mistakes. The bush administration simply fed off the people's desire for revenge and gave them afghanistan, which in turn let bush build a case for plundering oil rich iraq.
All this was exactly what al quaeda wanted, to show the infidel empire attacking the moslem lands.
End result, massive polarisation of moslem opinion against america and the creation of a whole new herd of terrorists and sympathisers across the world.
America should have gone after Osama and only Osama and avoided any impression of a crusade. Special forces and spies not armies and air strikes.
Right now the US is in an unwinnable 4gw situation, where all those high tech gadgets and heavily armed soldiers are completely irrelevant.
So yes poor judgement and greed led to overreaction by the government and the mess we are in now.

I don't believe in heaven, so for me it would take a lot of courage to commit suicide, but I don't know if it's the same for a devout religious person, because I can't get in to their head. Probably there would be some sort of fear response on the biological level, even for them, so at the very least they would have to achieve "mind over matter" and probably bravery also, but I can't say for sure the last.

As for 9/11, I think the correct response would have been to attack the organization "Al Qaeda," and to ask all other governments in the world who may have Al Qaeda operating from their territory to help you out. But what do you do when the governments in question refuse (for example the Taliban) is a moral question that's beyond my current abilities to reason out.

Susan Sontag pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers weren't cowards a week after the event, and took an enormous amount of shit for it. And in fact there were a great many people engaging in relatively sane, measured reactions after 9/11. But they were drowned out by the much louder negative death spiral.

Many conflicts are really formed out of two mutually reinforcing negative death spirals. In this case, our overreaction to 9/11 caused us to take actions that produced more hatred of us in the Islamic world, leading to more conflict, leading to further hatred on both sides. This is a very basic dynamic underlying war.

ego in action, hard to stop, but in conscious circles, the outcomes were already known... ego-driven people are mostly unconcsious

An unrelated but creepy thought: my first reaction to type in some sort of full-fledged assent was immediately dampened by a queasy post-Patriot-Act thought (of, admittedly, a very IT-illiterate person), "If I openly write something like this, will They know and will They care and will I ever come to regret it?"

I see this "omnipotent government" bias all the time. I wonder why.

I remember my initial reaction to the attacks of September eleventh. I hoped our country would do the right thing. Despite this tragic occurrence we would be leaders. We "would not let the terrorists win." We would clean up the mess and rebuild. We would learn from our mistakes. We would reinforce our national security structure, and possibly make a few key intel and military maneuvers.

By no means did I think that this was grounds for an endless full scale war on keyword Terror. If anything the lessons of September eleventh have extended beyond security and intel to the need to for more restraint and regulation of the "Executive Branch." How can one president be impeached for lying about his sexual conduct and another get a way with MURDER and torture right under our noses? How? Is there anyone left who is still for We The People? I vote Ron Paul for President.

I remember my initial reaction to the attacks of September eleventh. I hoped our country would do the right thing. Despite this tragic occurrence we would be leaders. We "would not let the terrorists win." We would clean up the mess and rebuild. We would learn from our mistakes. We would reinforce our national security structure, and possibly make a few key intel and military maneuvers.

By no means did I think that this was grounds for an endless full scale war on keyword Terror. If anything the lessons of September eleventh have extended beyond security and intel to the need to for more restraint and regulation of the "Executive Branch." How can one president be impeached for lying about his sexual conduct and another get a way with MURDER and torture right under our noses? How? Is there anyone left who is still for We The People? I vote Ron Paul for President.

You abuse, commas when you, write your blog post. Stop abusing commas, because they make all, your sentences start sounding, just like this. Like William, Shatner. Only, without the, differing intensity levels, between pauses.

hmmm... Happy Death Spirals, indeed. No comments on the religious, social and cultural biases that caused a group of extremists to hijack passenger planes and kill as many people as they could. That reveals a bias in itself, actually. (So much for the scientific method, eh?) (Hint: They didn't hate us just because we're rich and happy and decadent, or because the last of the Ottoman Empire collapsed during WWI. They don't even hate us because of Western foreign policy.) Culturally and socially, the world is still a dangerous place. There are still people who will find a reason to kill you, however nice a person or nation you happen to be. However much you share your possessions with others, there are still those among the beneficiaries of your philanthropy who will steal (or defraud you of) the rest of what you own. However nice you happen to be, or however good your communication skills, there are still those humans among you who will kill you, just because they can. Others will kill you simply because you are not them. That's simple reality. No matter your appeasement, no matter how much you ignore them, some groups and people will hurt you and your families - and thereafter continue to harm you and others - if you don't stop them. Sadly enough, at times, violence must be used in order to prevent them from harming you. You ignore such realities at your own peril. Under our current paradigms, Always Nice is a losing strategy. Although things are *beginning* to change culturally and socially, the world is still a dangerous place. For all practical purposes, it always will be. Don't play with matches. When the tide unexpectedly goes out, head for higher ground. When visiting a state or national park, don't sleep where bears eat and don't pet the American Bison - if you do, you might die. Don't hike on mountains with billowing flames, smoke and noxious gases. Hot coffee is hot. Knives are sharp. Dogs have sharp teeth. Guns and automobiles are not toys. Don't let your kids play where mountain lions sleep. If you climb a mountain, no matter how experienced and safety conscious you happen to be, you can still fall to your death and/or become a popsickle. Thermodynamics, the laws of physics, of tooth and claw, and of entropy, still apply. You also ignore such things at your own risk. The world is not a 'nice,' quiet, middle-class, suburban neighborhood. Happy Death Spirals, indeed.

"If the USA had completely ignored the 9/11 attack - just shrugged and rebuilt the building - it would have been better than the real course of history."

The World Trade Center was comprised of several buildings -- doesn't everyone know that? The centerpiece was the twin towers, which is what the planes hit. The towers were each a city block square and over 100 stories tall. They were so huge and held so many people they had their own zip code. When they fell, the impact destroyed several other Trade Center buildings in the surrounding blocks, not to mention one of the region's major transportation centers underground.

I wouldn't even bother to reply, but A) your post is the number one item on Reddit and B) I was there that day. As far as I'm concerned, saying "just shrug and rebuild the building" shows a level of ignorance and immaturity that invalidates your entire post.

If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK's after the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. Admittedly the bombings weren't of the same league as the September 11th attacks, but virtually nobody in the UK was saying "let's bomb the f***ers" And a month or two later (at the most) it was as if nothing had ever happened.

"If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK's after the London Underground bombings of 7th July 2005. Admittedly the bombings weren't of the same league as the September 11th attacks, but virtually nobody in the UK was saying "let's bomb the f***ers" And a month or two later (at the most) it was as if nothing had ever happened."

Mike K, I tend to agree with you, but....

The fact is, the british empire is gone and the british are ex-colonialists. As a nation they're old and tired and wimpy. It's different for us -- you can't be the world's only superpower and let anybody get away with anything. If we let one terrorist group have the WTC they'll all want one.

So as the winners of the cold war we have to respond to any provocation -- we have no choice. Any little group of terrorists can tell us who to invade and we have to do it, or we let the terrorists win. Either we kill off every terrorist group that isn't under our direction, or we lose our special status and have to admit we aren't in control of the world.

Think about it.

"The world is not a 'nice,' quiet, middle-class, suburban neighborhood."

Translation: a bellicose attitude is to be adopted when dealing with other nations.
Preemptive wars, false insinuations about other countries, breaking alliances, CIA-meddling in other nation's affairs, disingenuous overtures of peace, torture, mass imprisonment, black-flag operations and shit-on-you diplomacy is what is called for.

None of us know to what future conflicts our whimsical meddling will lead... very unfortunate. Seeing the US's hopeless bumbling on the international stage is like watching someone perform brain surgery while wearing mittens. Oh, did we just alienate Turkey? alienate Russia? grant unprecedented powers to our executive branch? bankrupt ourselves by building enormous military bases which demand further commitment? see our currency fall to new lows? corrupt our political discourse into chest-pounding cretinism?

Friends, I entreat you to be lighthearted– none of these things could possibly ever have consequences!!

"The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event."

Those were my thoughts that day too, except for the multiplier of ten. I don't think i put a number on it, but 50 to 500 times was probably close.

It'd give the current administration and all the hawks a blank-check excuse to do all kinds of fundamentally bad moves, that they'd had on their wish-list for a long time. Sadly they have made the most of this possibility and have hardly wasted any time ever since, making the world a worse place and squandering foreign support of the US.


I do so regret not having a blog at that time, as this would've been a 'told you so' so big it's scary.

Okay, I'm totally not understanding the claim that the attackers were cowards. Either the people saying that are using a different definition of "cowardice", or perhaps they're thinking of the attack's mastermind(s) who stayed safely at home. m-w.com defines "coward" as "one who shows disgraceful fear or timidity" -- perhaps the hijackers timidly crept to the front of the plane, and killed or incapacitated the pilots with disgracefully shaking hands?

Or perhaps you mean fear of facing their enemies directly in fair combat, instead of behind the controls of a deadly projectile? It's a bit of a twist, but I might grant an argument along those lines. On the other hand, can it *ever* be cowardice if you know you're going to die, regardless of how defenseless your target is?

Or maybe you mean the hijackers were too cowardly to buck their religious/jingoistic upbringing, and say "wait a minute, this is just wrong"? That one seems a bit more of a stretch, but it's at least arguable.

Also: "Murdering the defenseless isn't an act of bravery." -- the US is hardly a defenseless target. (Or, rather, *would* have been hardly a defenseless target if the first response system hadn't been systematically hobbled... but I digress.) Under ordinary circumstances, the hijackers should have expected their planes to be shot down rather than being allowed to reach a densely-populated area. Insider theories aside, the hijackers had absolutely no guarantee of success and should have been up against quite steep odds. Furthermore, they saw the US as the invulnerable steel monster out to destroy their way of life (whether or not this is accurate). The people in the tower, left inexplicably defenseless that day, were just the monster's Achilles heel.

Calling them "cowardly" seems to me more like an emotional bandaid -- something to mitigate the overwhelming impact of what they did -- than it sounds like either of the possible nuanced interpretations I've suggested, but I'm prepared to hear further explanation.

I've been reading this blog in RSS for a while onw and I was happy to see it on the front page of Reddit!

In "The Fog of War" about McNamara's life, he discusses proportionality when dealing with your enemy. The fact that America invaded Iraq (that had nothing to do with 9-11), enacted the Patriot Act, and will have troops in Afghanistan for decades to come is not a proportional response to a small group of hijackers flying planes into three national symbols.

Many people wanted blood after 9-11 though. My neighbor was a vet student (so he's presumably smart) and he was ranting on 9-11 about the need to show everyone "who's boss." I guess that hasn't worked out so well in hindsight.

So is the propensity to say, "I knew it instantaneously" a kissing cousin of the hindsight bias?

p=.02 the first 3 conscious thoughts were, sequentially:
"I guess I really am living in the Future.
Thank goodness it wasn't nuclear.
and then
The overreaction to this will be ten times worse than the original event."

I can see the utility in starting off the post with such a narrative (grabbing attention and establishing svengali authority), and don't doubt those 3 thoughts popped up fairly quickly, in one form or another.

I know it's effective, but I expect a little better.

9/11 was created to permit global empire and a police state.

EVIDENCE:
http://home.comcast.net/~plutarch/911.html
http://home.comcast.net/~plutarch/PoliceState.html

I think this is the first blog post I have read in years that contains ONLY civil and intelligent response. It makes me hopeful!

Almost all of our responses to 9/11 seem irrational, most of them ineffective. It seems to me that fear informed almost all choices, whether it was fear from the 'terrorists', or fear from domestic political reactions. America became fearful of gels, liquids, underwire bras, breastmilk on airplanes, pocket knives, tshirt slogans, and remarkably, the disapproving eyes our our fellow citizens... we don't want to look unpatriotic or unsupportive of our troops. ALl this permitted unchecked action on the part of incompetent leaders and has left us in a very tenuous position regarding the viability of our democracy. We've begun to adopt memes that sacrificing the highest qualities of our civilization is permissible if we gain a scintilla of incremental safety.

I am in great despair regarding what WE have done and sad beyond measure for what we have done to the world and its hopes for a better future. We're now as bad as the worst of the lot.

A true leader... a true good man... a true christian would have salvaged something worthwhile from this disaster. Sadly, Bush is none of the above, and like a school yard bully egged on by his even more cowardly cohort, the damage he has done accrues to everyone... victim, bully, enablers, society. He has shown why we must insist on intellect, morality, engagement, and creativity in our next leader.


Warren Bonesteel (is that seriously your last name?):
No comments on the religious, social and cultural biases that caused a group of extremists to hijack passenger planes and kill as many people as they could.
Eliezer discussed that here.

Eliezer never said the world was a nice place or that people wouldn't try to kill us. He said the reaction was foolish, and judging by the bodycounts we can say worse.

Mike K:
If you want to see an example of a measured response, take a look at the UK
Didn't they shoot a Brazilian electrician and pass all sorts of Big Brother-esque anti-terror legislation? They also helped us invade Iraq, I don't know who they would have invaded following the subway attacks? Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Carribean?

J Thomas:
we have no choice
Of course we do.

Either we kill off every terrorist group that isn't under our direction, or we lose our special status and have to admit we aren't in control of the world.
I think you underestimate the ability to self-deceive, but the latter option still sounds preferrable.

david:
You might like this from the Onion. Unfortunately after Counterpoint we went through with Point's plan.

Forrest:
I think this is the first blog post I have read in years that contains ONLY civil and intelligent response.
Even Zack?

I wish we could draw a distinction between the mess we're in now, as a country, and what was going on a few months maybe even a year after 9/11. But with everything becoming so muddled, it's really hard to accurately look back and understand what was going on, then.

But as rational people, we know that Iraq and 9/11 have nothing to do with each other - and regardless if 9/11 even happened or not, there is an educated chance that, knowing the Bush admin - that we'd end up in Iraq anyway.

To stand idly by though as terrorists blatantly attack and murder people though, is a bit much. What kind of response would be considered not over reacting? (and this is trying to not include the Iraq debacle - all that aside)

Although interestingly enough, when the terrorist attacks in London happened - Brittan didn't respond militarily.

I guess we can try to have a debate in the philosophies about appropriate response, but I know if some dude ran a plane into my house, I'd want to kick his ass.

This is one of the truer things I have read since 9/11; I know that because it perfectly matches my own opinions. :) I also had more or less the same three thoughts in rapid succession in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the towers. A previous commentator, 'david', was skeptical about that kind of claim, i.e. that the mental event would have gone down precisely in that fashion. To david, I would concede that certainly in accounts such as this we omit some stray thoughts, such as: "Where's the remote control?" or "I bet nobody's going to get any work done today." But I think it is fair game to discount such unmemorable or tangential thoughts, just as I hope it is understood by all that our mental experience does not actually consist of crisp series of sentences in italics.

Quibbles about hyperbole aside, the more important question is how we bring about an America where citizens each have at least a p=.02 chance of having these level-headed thoughts when something like this happens again?

I tend to agree with Eliezer-February-2007:

"If you want to make a point about science, or rationality, then my advice is to not choose a domain from contemporary politics if you can possibly avoid it. If your point is inherently about politics, then talk about Louis XVI during the French Revolution. Politics is an important domain to which we should individually apply our rationality - but it's a terrible domain in which to learn rationality, or discuss rationality, unless all the discussants are already rational."

First of all, to Eliezer: The use of the comments section for politicking was highly predictable; I don't see why you used such a highly polarizing example.

Secondly, to dive into the politicking:

"The cost to humanity is probably dominated by some 1,000,000 deaths in Iraq, but the cost to the U.S. at least in terms of deaths is comparatively smaller. The Iraq deaths are an externality."

Even assuming that the US is the only country with any moral value, our situation is far worse than it would have been had we just shrugged and rebuilt the buildings. We've spent over six hundred billion dollars on reacting to 9/11, our military has been effectively crippled, and we've lost a lot of prestige internationally (which will come back to bite us).

"I'd say they were cowards. Suicide isn't an act of bravery. Murdering the defenseless isn't an act of bravery. Even murdering soldiers in peacetime, when they aren't expecting attack, is cowardly."

That is not what the word means. To quote from http://www.dictionary.com:

"cour·age /ˈkɜrɪdʒ, ˈkʌr-/ –noun 1. the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear;"

The 9/11 hijackers, in their mission to murder innocent civilians, faced a great deal of difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear (or at least without enough fear to dissuade them from carrying it out). Their *goal*, as despicable as it was, has nothing to do with whether they showed courage in trying to achieve it.

"I still remember a kid who hit me from behind on the street once, because he was too much of a pussy to come up to my face about it."

I once read (can't remember where) that we tend to judge actions by who carries them out and not the other way around. This is a textbook example. In the winter of 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware river, snuck up on a Hessian encampment in the early morning, and surprised everyone into surrendering. He faced the same situation that the 9/11 hijackers did: an overwhelmingly superior opposing force. He chose the same workaround: attack the enemy at their weakest point. And yet, we call him a "hero" instead of a "coward".

"(even though you did not and can not present evidence that anyone anywhere is sitting around a table giving thanks that Native Americans suffered a (fictional) genocide)"

Even though it (mostly) wasn't intentional, the Native Americans *were* killed more thoroughly than the European Jews were during WWII.

"but to those who can't comprehend the possibility that the so-called overreaction might have saved lives,"

According to (very rough) estimates, the Iraq war alone has killed over a million Iraqi civilians. I find it hard to believe that the invasion saved more than a million lives, especially considering that the reasons for invading (WMD, links to al-Qaeda) were bogus. Even the Civil War, which went on for *four years*, killed fewer than a million people.

"consider that Al Quaeda was escalating attacks until it got the desired response: war."

Out of all the possible responses, why should we have chosen the one that al-Qaeda *wanted*?

"And what, pray tell, do you think the next level of escalation would be, that would one-up the thousands killed on 9/11? Nuclear terrorism, maybe. Biological terrorism."

This is, quite frankly, so screwed up I don't even know where to begin. Obviously, al-Qaeda *wanted* to launch a nuclear or biological attack. This does not mean that they could have actually done so. Even assuming that al-Qaeda wanted to "one-up" each successive attack, that does not imply that the "one-up"s would have continued forever without bound.

"Further, it's possible that, even if the childish and hateful number "one million" Iraqi deaths is accepted,"

This is lunacy. You're actually accusing- on a public forum- a *number* of being "childish" and "hateful"? A *number*?! The worst thing you can say about a number is that it is wrong. If you believe it is wrong, you are free to explain why, although I doubt you'll get very far.

"how does anyone here know that there wouldn't have been more deaths if Saddam had remained in power?"

Because we can model the world and conclude that that future was very, very unlikely. Asking the question in this way can get you absurd results- eg., you could justify the Holocaust by saying "Hey, how do we *know* that one of the people Hitler murdered wouldn't have become another Stalin?"

"You can't, you can only be biased about the chances, and refuse to remember how many people died in the Iraq/Iran war he waged, and how many of his own people he starved and tortured during his reign."

Stating that one policy has bad effects does not make the alternative policies automatically better. Letting Saddam stay in power would have been bad, for the reasons you just mentioned. That does not mean that the invasion was a better idea.

"Unfortunately, before 9/11 it was politically difficult for the President to preemptively use the military to reduce such threats."

Pre-emptive war is a crime against humanity. Two of the indictments against the Nazis at Nuremberg were, to quote:

"Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of crime against peace" and
"Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace".

"If they had lived, we would have caught them and slowly tortured them to death."

For what? For *planning* a terrorist attack? Name one case, in any first-world country, where people were slowly tortured to death for actually *carrying out* a terrorist attack, let alone planning one.

"Any other state that might offer aid and support to the enemy would enable the enemy to rebuild their ability to project power. Iraq was one possible source of aid and support."

Aye! So let's get busy invading Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Russia, China... all of which are "possible sources" of "aid and support". This is not a realistic policy. It certainly isn't the *best* policy, as it would involve starting WWIII.

"If we merely rebuilt the towers and moved on, we would have done nothing to deny an enemy the power to strike again. We would have done nothing to deny the enemy their ability to develop their offensive capacity. Without our interference and no change in the demeanor of the enemy, a second attack would likely have been larger and more damaging, as the enemy would have continued to develop offensive capacity and support while we stood aside."

Yes. This would probably have been better than the actual outcome.

"Additionally, toppling two governments sends a strong message to other states that might harbor the enemy that they will be pursued and punished."

This was the motivation behind the Nazis' doctrine of collective punishment- if we retaliate against entire populations, we will discourage anyone from aiding our enemies. Do I really need to explain why it is a bad idea?

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