Saturday, September 23, 2006

Grim milestone watch: Measuring a war by its first defeat 

The wire services have counted up the dead in the American military since September 11, 2001, compared the total to the number of Americans who died in al Qaeda's victory that day, and decided that this bit of arithmetic, when positioned next to a photograph of military caskets, is news of some sort:

(Click to enlarge)

This is such a peculiar way to look at the war it almost seems as though the Associated Press is declaring defeat to make a political point. How quickly after Pearl Harbor did our casualties exceed the 2390 American souls who perished on that day? Fort Sumpter surrendered under Confederate bombardment without a single Union death. Did that fact render the first Union death newsworthy?

There are many obvious problems with the frame of mind that underlies this article, but the most troubling is that it misapprehends the foundation of the American social contract. It is of a piece with a great deal of pseudo cost-benefit analysis tossed around by people who want to minimize the jihadi threat. See, for example, this comment from a few days back, which considered the "expected losses" from terrorism to be low compared to other causes of death and concluded therefrom that there should be no contraction of our civil liberties in the interests of security. But we do not consider the slaughter of Americans by enemies of America to be just another public health problem, in some way comparable to the 30,000 people who die every year in automobile accidents or the 5600 who die from cervical cancer. Provision for the national defense is the first reason for being of any government including ours, its most basic and original purpose. It is the reason we consent to be governed at all. Of course that does not mean that we should sacrifice all competing values in the interests of the national defense, but it certainly means that we do not measure the mission of our military or the success of its campaign by its casualties compared to our dead on the first day of battle (which September 11, 2001 was not, by the way).


By Blogger skipsailing, at Sat Sep 23, 09:44:00 AM:

The concept of cost/benefit analysis is interesting. many of the war's opponents use this as a source of criticism. After reading a fair number of vitriolic comments over the years I have reached the conclusion that this cold calculus is simply an expression of denial.

I work with chemical dependancy counselors and as you can imagine they have a lot of material about denial. The commenter you linked to was "Intellectualizing" his (or her) denial.

By creating a massive coccoon of rarified thoughts the commenter successfully avoids the fact that the Islamic terrorists pose an actual threat to us.

Denial is simply not stated more clearly than this:

Even a terrorist attack that kills tens of thousands is not an existetial (sic) threat.

Lots and lots of big words and rarified "logic" all which add up to simple denial.

Another method that drug abusers employ to sustain denial is called "minimization". The linked comments displays this technique very thoroughly. Here is a diagnostic quote:
At current population levels, that's a one in a million chance you will be killed by a terrorist attack in any given year, making you over a hundred times more likely to die in a car accident.

Denial is a very powerful self protection system. Drug abusers and alcoholics are only one group that relies on denial to preserve their mental status.

In 1938 an entire continent was in denial about the threat of the axis power. They convinced themselves that there would be peace and went on with thier lives. Those few who saw the threat were roundly criticized as being alarmist.

It is important IMHO to recognize this mental dynamic and respond to people who exhibit in ways that help them overcome their denial. They cannot be argued out of it, they must either recognize the threat themselves or live in denial forever.

the commenter quoted above might be able to sustain his or her denial after an attack that killed tens of thousands but few other Americans would. And that's the challenge for the terrorists themselves. Simple scalability.

9/11 could be viewed as a tactical or strategic error on the part of the terrorists. It was an event on a scale large enough to force millions of Americans to shake off the cobwebs and face the threat.

Another attack of that size will no doubt result in still more people clamoring for response, and the response they'll demand won't be a snitty speech at the UN.

Ultimatley Hitler Invaded Poland and massive denial could no longer be sustained. If the islamic madmen truly want a world wide caliphate at some point they must act in a manner that makes denial impossible. Allah help them at that point because a fully roused America is a terrible foe.

thank you for a thought provoking thread.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Sep 23, 02:38:00 PM:

TH -

I'm pretty sure that you're mistaken about the first objective of government. I'm reasonably certain actually that the first and main purpose of government is to subsidize and set artificially high prices on a variety of crops.

Terrorism and security is definitely in the top 10 or 20 though...  

By Blogger Susan Duclos, at Sat Sep 23, 03:50:00 PM:

I find as a Democrat myself, that I am very disappointed in my fellow party members. Given the choice today, I will vote Republican all the way.
As I previously stated at: http://wwwwakeupamericans-spree.blogspot.com/
It is time for us to wake up and understand that this IS a war, not a political game. Bush bashing is fun for some people, but personally, I would not have wanted his job when 9/11 hit and I don't think he has done that bad a job since then. I might not agree with every one of his decisions, but I have developed a very large respect for him for having the backbone to make those decisions.
Maybe the country should try a new, novel idea: Stand Behind Your President!!!!  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Sat Sep 23, 03:54:00 PM:

It's not about being terrified, it's about losing one's life so that madmen can advance toward their goal.

It's not that I am terrified, far from it, its that simply allowing the terrorists to attack us with impunity makes no sense.

dieing in an armed robbery so that some junkie can sustain his habit for one more day makes no sense either. Are you suggesting that we abandon police work because armed robbers kill fewer people than poor drivers?

Your comments are clearly indicative of deep denial. Your effort to respond to my analysis with baseless personal attacks simply proves that.

Here's a perfect example:

Clealy, they want to stage the most spectacular attacks they can. If we agreed with you, then we should simply shrug our collective shoulders and get on with life. What's a few thousand dead? Why be concerned? It's statistically insignificant, right? If we don't react at all, they'll stop bombing us at some point because we're not terrified.


We just have to learn to accept random purposeless death and we'll all be fine? That's what you're advocating.

My goodness.  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Sat Sep 23, 07:09:00 PM:

Of course we've suspended our civil liberties to contend with armed robbery. This is a civilized society not anarchy. Therefore we all have agreed to balance between absolute "freedom" and collective security via some restrictions on our actions.

Certainly the criminals that are currenly incarcerated have surrendered their civil rights, wouldn't you agree? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme to you? Jail and all?

All you've demonstrated is your deep sense of denial. All this intellectualing and now this notion of lost rights simply illustrate an unwillingness to face the fact that madmen elsewhere fervently pray for your death.

Since you deny the threat, you deny that any action to confront the threat is necessary.

Rather than take measured action now, it seems you'd prefer a few more thousand American deaths. Then it would be EXTREME and we'd have your permission to confront the danger. That's an irrational position.

Once again, denying the threat is evidenced by your opposition to any proposed means to fight it. The civil rights issue is a boogeyman, an non existant threat that you've used as a substitute for the real threat.  

By Blogger sbchurl, at Sat Sep 23, 10:36:00 PM:


Clearly you're a brave man. A rationalist, something of a libertarian by your own account. Not to be stampeded by cowardly conservatives or fearmongering fascists into sacrificing any of your (unspecified) civil liberties.

You've demonstrated to your satisfaction that the 9/11 attacks posed no existential threat to the US. Certainly the deaths of 3000 people were unfortunate, the destruction of the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, and four civilian airliners all regrettable. But the United States is still here. And, not incidentally, so are you.

Because you're a brave man and a rationalist, I know you'll answer this question clearly and forthrightly: If there were an existential threat to the United States, would you be willing to countenance a temporary abridgement of some civil liberties, if that were necessary to defeat the threat?


By Blogger skipsailing, at Sun Sep 24, 08:55:00 AM:

Thanks Stan, well done.  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Sun Sep 24, 03:36:00 PM:

It's the "actual war" part that's been cleared up.

Your position is quite clear sir.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Sun Sep 24, 06:26:00 PM:

"If there were an existential threat to the United States, would you be willing to countenance a temporary abridgement of some civil liberties, if that were necessary to defeat the threat?"


My goodness, did you just inadvertantly condone the internment of ethnically Japanese, German, and Italian persons in the US in 1942, or the arrest and trial (and occasional execution) of civilians by military authorities under Lincoln during the Civil War?

Sure looks like it. But somehow, it seems to me that you'd contest this assertion because now, in retrospect, those acts are considered gross injustices which you'd oppose on (modern) moral principle. Let's examine more morally questionable situations that I can assure you are all too real.

What if Al Qaeda was preparing to detonate an atomic weapon in Washington? Would that count as an existential threat? What about another major city that wouldn't necessarily ruin the government but would kill untold thousands? Is your right to not have your phone tapped when you call Egypt worth 10,000 dead?

Let's say we capture the mastermind of this nuclear plot. We know he's the guy behind it, because we've heard him talk about it on the phone. He, naturally, refuses to talk, and mocks us about our impending nuclear doom. Do we torture him?

Let's say that we do and he gives a name and address and phone number, from memory, of an operative in the US prepared to receive and activate this device. The information checks out; it's a real person on the Eastern Seaboard named Jose Padilla.

We don't know where the device is, and our source doesn't either. It could theoretically be pulling into a dock now. Taking the operative would at least temporarily delay the detonation, but information gleaned from a foreign source under duress without the presence of a lawyer will not hold up under US law. Do you seize the named individual as an 'enemy combatant?'

A second source is bought by the CIA and reveals the location of the weapon; it's hidden in a secret compartment inside the cargo hold of a neutral, third party nation. The ship is only a day out of port in Africa where the device will be transferred and again lost. Seizing the ship and searching it top to bottom is politically unacceptable, as it violates freedom of the seas, and what if your source is wrong? Can't be done. So do we board it with submarine launched SEALs, check the veracity of the claim with a geiger counter, and then scuttle it over the deep ocean making it look like catastrophic engine failure?

National security questions aren't so simple, are they?  

By Blogger skipsailing, at Mon Sep 25, 10:02:00 AM:

Based on this:
Would the United States cease to exist? No. Then by definition, not an existential threat.

It is clear that the bar for effective reaction is set quite high by this commenter. anything short of complete anihilation simply doesn't merit a reaction it seems.

Of course by the time total anihilation occurred any reaction would be too little to late anyway, so effectively what we have here is suicide. suicide for the commenter and if he had his way suicide for the rest of America as well.

I am quite certain that our charred remains will long enjoy their civil liberties.

It all comes down to whom the commenter views as an enemy. In his mind the true enemy is the Government. I'm speculating here but I strongly suspect that this sense of threat from his own government would diminish markedly if a member of the Democrat party occupied the oval office.

a very complex set of arguments that all point to a single dynamic: denial.  

By Blogger Dawnfire82, at Tue Sep 26, 08:49:00 PM:

"The question was, "abridgement of some civil liberties" not "abridgement of any or all civil liberties." Even in the case of a true existential threat, we should still abridge only those civil rights that we absolutely have to. That is a far cry fron endorsing concentration camps."

Splitting rhetorical hairs. The government at the time believed that those steps were necessary. i.e. they absolutely had to. What's more, it was legal and temporary. Suspension of habeus corpus is Constitutionally authorized during times of foreign invasion and insurrection. So this particular incident of history still passes your qualification.

"Would the United States cease to exist? No. Then by definition, not an existential threat."

Then the threat of a nuclear detonation doesn't justify a temporary abridgement of civil liberties for the sake of protecting the country. Got it. I reckon that this would have applied to a limited Soviet nuclear strike as well? Say, only against certain targets in Western Europe and the Eastern Seaboard?

"The government is free to tap my phone if they have a warrant. If they can't show the modest cause needed for a FISA warrant, they have no good reason to tap my phone."

An imminent national disaster in which you are suspected to be an accomplice does not justify listening to your phone conversations without going through a time-consuming legal procedure. Got it.

"Do we torture him? No."

Not even an explanation? Hmph. Ok, so the name of the subject receiving the device to detonate goes unknown. Additionally, captured terrorist masterminds, like Khalid Muhammad for instance, will continue to spit on our faces because he knows we won't hurt him, making the interrogation of high value targets almost a worthless endeavor. Got it.

BTW, I've read the Al Qaeda training manual. They count on responses like yours. Seriously.

"Do you seize the named individual as an 'enemy combatant?' No."

Another explanation lacking.

Let's pretend that US intelligence magically learned his identity through telepathy, since we're not allowed to extract it from the mastermind. So even though we have the name and address of the guy who's supposed to set off an atomic weapon in the continental US (and we're sure of this, mind you, through our magical powers), we can't touch him because "magical telepathy" is not an acceptable source of evidence in US courts. Even putting him under surveillance is not allowed without special permission because he is a 'US person.' Additionally, once special permission is gained, only the FBI can do it. Unfortunately, they can't get permission either because of the "telepathy" problem, even after we jump through the hoops necessary to send foreign intelligence into the FBI system.

"I don't feel qualified to comment on the finer points of international maritime law."

Very well. By. (bye?)

"Think about how many lives could be saved if we just got lists from police of every known gang member in every city and just rounded them all up and shipped them to Gitmo. How many fewer murders would there be? How much safer would our cities be? Yet we don't because that's not how we do things in a free country."

False analogy. Apples and oranges. Petty criminals (most of whom are citizens, BTW) out for easy money and foreign enemy warriors out to destroy our civilization.

"Absent due process, for every criminal you imprison, how many innocents will be imprisoned? By the same token, for every terrorist you torture, how many innocents will you torture?"

And these questions unanswerable, thrown in for rhetorical flourish. Witness. *ahem* Carefully observing due process and taking the utmost to ensure every possible legal right to terrorists, for every one you manage to convict how many more will slip the system and escape to attack again? For every one that repents and gives up information out of the goodness of their hearts, how many more spit in your face and laugh as plots they know about come to fruition?

"there is nothing you can ask that will result in me agreeing to take that first step toward tyranny for the sake of security."

If your opinions were law/policy, then you will likely die an early death. Or rather, a whole lot of your countrymen will instead, since the odds of you in particular being targeted are small in a country of 300,000,000. Glad you're comfortable with that, probably because it's not enough casualties to threaten the destruction of the country as a whole. Oh well, what's a major city in the grand scheme of things, after all?

Snarkiness aside, I think to myself that you'd think differently if you knew what I did. A vain idea, but possible.

"Patrick Henry did not say, "Give me liberty unless it makes me less safe."

Oh don't go quoting Founding Fathers. I could go dig up words and actions from Hamilton, Jay, Madison, and Adams to contradict you. Whooptie doo; they lived more than 200 years ago in a completely different world. Everything they said and did existed in time and region-specific context. Quoting two century old sound bytes and trying to apply them to new modern situations is amateurish.

Case in point. Allow ME to quote Mr. Henry, from the very same speech: "There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free--if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending--if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained--we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of hosts is all that is left us! They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house? Shall we gather strength but irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance by lying supinely on our backs and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power...

...It is in vain, sir, to extentuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace--but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

The crowd jumped up and shouted "To Arms! To Arms!". This speech is credited by some with single-handedly delivering the Virginia troops to the Revolutionary War."

He was urging his fellow countrymen to war against an enemy who could not be placated except by surrender. By all rights, I ought to be using this famous speech by a revered figure of American history against YOUR position.

Also, however, Mr. Henry spoke against the US Constitution, in the name of individual rights. Consider: "It is said eight States have adopted this plan. I declare that if twelve States and an half had adopted it, I would with manly firmness, and in spite of an erring world, reject it."

Happily, the country did not adhere to this idea. Equally happily, I think, our national executive does not at this time adhere to yours. Times come when the needs of the corporate body outweigh the preferences of the component individuals. It's nice that you stick to your principles and all, which is admirable on a personal level, but I'm terribly grateful that you aren't in charge of this country's security.  

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