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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Costs & benefits”

In this July 28th, 2005, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I warn against hotheaded, poorly thought-out responses to terrorist attacks. You can read my warning beneath the fold.

Costs & benefits

If retaliation for terrorist attacks is poorly thought out, it will be poorly aimed.

And if it is poorly aimed, then three regrettable consequences follow.

How should a government respond to a barbaric and unjustified terrorist attack such as the suicide bombings in London?

The answer seems obvious: strike back quickly and hard. Inflict such suffering on those responsible that they, and others who might otherwise follow in their footsteps, will never again harm innocent people.

Our instincts immediately embrace this conclusion. But let’s pause and ponder the matter dispassionately. Let’s do so not to question the unquestionable justice of punishing those persons responsible for the attacks, but rather to make sure that we properly understand who is responsible and what motivates them.

Already I hear impatient groans. “The egghead professor wants to ‘understand’ — which smells of a wish to excuse.” Not at all. I want to understand only because I want whatever steps are taken to be ones that minimize the risks of future terrorists strikes. I desperately want peace, but I’m no pacifist. If violent retaliation against guilty parties is possible and will promote peace, I’m all for it.

What I’m not for is retaliating thoughtlessly or against people who are not responsible. Nor am I for retaliation carried out chiefly to energize constituencies who whoop and wave the flag at the mere sight of “our” troops and warships blasting away at “them” — where “them” are only vaguely identified as perhaps, maybe, responsible in some way for the terrorist attacks.

The problem is obvious: If retaliation for terrorist attacks is poorly thought out, it will be poorly aimed.

And if it is poorly aimed, then three regrettable consequences follow. First, too many innocent foreigners will be killed. “We” will begin to sink to the immoral depths of those who attacked us. (Are American and European lives so much more sacred than Muslim lives that only we, and not Muslims, are justified in feeling angry and vengeful when innocent fellow citizens are slaughtered?)

Second, those who are responsible are more likely to escape just punishment.

Third, those who are responsible will be better able to persuade larger numbers of their fellow citizens to terrorize us.

Each of these consequences promotes continued violence.

But doesn’t vigorous retaliation against the countrymen and co-religionists of the actual terrorists raise the cost to future terrorists of committing attacks? And doesn’t raising this cost reduce the likelihood of such attacks?

The answer to the first question is yes. But the answer to the second question is quite unclear.

Suppose that your neighbor’s brother-in-law murders your child. You’re enraged. But when you get to your neighbor’s house to avenge your child’s death, you discover that the murderer has fled. “No matter,” you think. “These people are related to the murderer. I’ll kill one of them. That will inflict such a cost on them that they’re less likely in the future to do violence against me and my family.” So you kill not the murderer, but the murderer’s father.

Have you made your family safer• By showing that you’re willing and able to kill, you’ve indeed raised the cost to your neighbors of inflicting more violence on you and your family — but so, too, have you raised the benefits to them of inflicting further violence on your household.

Like you, they detest the murder of an innocent loved one, and they thirst for revenge. Also like you — following your example, actually — in carrying out their revenge they’ll not be so persnickety as to insist on inflicting their revenge upon only the actual killer. A family relation is close enough. If you’re unavailable to be slaughtered, why not kill your wife or son?

Like you, they reason that doing so raises the cost to you and your family of inflicting further violence on them. “After all,” they conclude, “if we don’t retaliate, we’ll be letting our neighbor’s family get away with murder. For our own safety’s sake, we must prove that we’ll strike back decisively. Only in that way will we raise their cost of harming us.”

So they kill your innocent son.

Your family is in a blind fury. And on and on goes the scarlet cycle of violence, with each side sincerely justifying its brutality as necessary to protect its members from further violence.

I here offer no solution. And I emphatically do not excuse the London bombings or any other violence inflicted upon innocent people. I merely point out the inadequacy of the simple mantra “We must retaliate to make ‘them’ less likely to terrorize us.”

Raising the cost to party X of inflicting violence on innocent people is an unambiguously desirable step only if doing so does not simultaneously increase party X’s perceived benefit of inflicting violence.


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