JDN 2457180 EDT 13:43.

ISIL flag


As I discussed in my first post, humans are on average about 90% rational—more rational than anything in the known universe in fact, though computers are at least starting to give us a run for our money. Nothing else comes close, and computers aren't as close as most people imagine. Computers are spectacularly good at certain things, but then, so are we; and overall we are vastly more flexible, adaptable, and energy-efficient than computers are. Look at how badly these state of the art robots run (it can't even balance!), climb stairs, throw balls, and catch balls—a human child can do all of these things better, potentially all at once, running upstairs to catch a ball and then throw it. The best facial recognition software is approaching human accuracy by being neural-net based, meaning it basically just copies the way we do it—admittedly that's still pretty impressive.

That said, some humans are considerably more rational than others. I'm hesitant to name any one particular individual the most rational person on Earth, but on the one hand we have, say, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, and on the other hand we have ISIS, or as I prefer to call them precisely because they don't like it, Daesh, whose flag I have made the image for this post (a version made for Wikimedia Commons).

In fact, fanatics are not at the very other end of the scale; they are not completely dysfunctional and irrational. It might be better if they were, actually; anyone that irrational can't do much harm because they'll immediately self-destruct. If the average person is 90% rational and geniuses are 95% rational, fanatics might be 80% rational. They systematically deviate from rational behavior within a certain circumscribed domain. As I said in that earlier post, fanaticism is dangerous precisely because it is not very irrational, and otherwise reasonable and intelligent people can fall prey to it.

So, the question becomes, what do we do about that? We know that fanatics are dangerous, but how do we protect ourselves from that danger?

One answer would be to basically give up on changing their minds or stopping their violent behavior and turn to the last resort: Kill them. Our current policy has largely focused upon this sort of response, from military drones (literal flying death robots #weliveinthefuture) on the other side of the world to increasingly militarized police forces at home.

As I'm sure you well know, this response has not been altogether effective. It does seem to have some short-run effectiveness, as it is effective at stopping any particular fanatic; but quite often where one dies, two more rise in his place, driven all the more by their brother's martyrdom. Moreover, it is astonishingly expensive, not only in monetary terms, but far more importantly in human lives. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost $1.6 trillion so far, and killed not only over 4,000 American soldiers but also as many as 500,000 Iraqi people. Most of these deaths were due to guerilla attacks by insurgents, and it's difficult to say how many of these people would have died in the absence of the US invasion—the invasion may even have net prevented civilian deaths, but even so this is a horrifically high body count.

Yet I can understand why this option is so tempting. It isn't merely that it appeals to our ancient instincts for tribal aggression—although it certainly does. It isn't merely that it's easy and consistent with a long history of US military hegemony—although it certainly is. There is actually a perfectly reasonable argument in its favor: What else are we supposed to do?

When someone is already a dangerous fanatic, particularly in an urgent scenario like during a terrorist attack, killing them may in fact be the only viable option. We should at least try to negotiate and prevent bloodshed—and despite the adage “We don't negotiate with terrorists,” which does make some sense in terms of game theory, we have an entire subfield of military/police officers called hostage negotiators—but in many cases I recognize that probably isn't possible. Once a terrorist attack is already underway true good-faith negotiation is impossible, and even a more strategic negotiation is very likely to fail.

But let's talk about a different scenario, one that is all too often neglected: What about before the terrorist attack? What about before the angry and devout young man even becomes a terrorist? What if he's still a fundamentalist, and hasn't yet crossed all the way over into being a fanatic? (The distinction between fundamentalists and fanatics is one I can hardly stress enough; fundamentalists are ridiculous, fanatics are dangerous. A fundamentalist is someone who thinks the Earth is 6000 years old. A fanatic is someone who sets up car bombs. 40% of Americans are fundamentalists—only a handful are fanatics. Fundamentalists need to be sent to science class; fanatics need to be sent to maximum-security prison.) It is during this period of transition that I believe nonviolent means can still be effective.

The first step is to ask: “What does he really want?” (Normally I use the singular “they” to be gender-neutral, but in fact virtually all terrorists, particularly Islamist terrorists, are young men. Indeed, young men commit the vast majority of all violence around the world, and have throughout history. Women and older men can of course be violent on occasion—but not remotely as often.)

What does he really want? See, I think it's unlikely that any human being comes pre-programmed with a “martyrdom for Allah” term in their utility function. The pre-programmed utility function of a human brain is instead made up of universal desires like health, comfort, security, pleasure, curiosity, meaning, wealth, status, and above all, belonging. If there is one central goal that all human beings have (with the possible exception of psychopaths, who are a whole different can of worms), one fundamental objective for which almost anything else will be sacrificed, it is belonging. We want to be part of something. Part of a family, part of a community, part of a nation.

Even the fiercest Libertarians who insist that they are atomistic individualists who need no one else for anything still gather at club meetings in order to belong with other Libertarians. Even scientists whose ultimate purpose in life is the search for knowledge still think of ourselves as part of a scientific community. Even die-hard dog-eat-dog capitalists often rationalize their predations as acting on behalf of the corporation or the shareholders. Human beings need to feel like they belong.

I believe, nine times out of ten, it is this that's missing from the life of a young man who is thinking about becoming a terrorist. He doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere. He feels like the world has brushed him aside, treated him as worthless. He likely has no job, or one he hates but can't afford to quit; no family, or one he cannot care for. He may well be educated, but if so his education has cost him years and thousands of dollars and he has next to nothing to show for it. He lives in a nation that, in his mind at least, has failed its people and given up on its principles. (Given the state of the Middle East, he's very likely not wrong about that.) He very likely has only one thing to cling to: His belief in Islam. Through Islam, he feels like he belongs.

Devotion to Islam and a sense of alienation from secular society are two of very few consistent characteristics that apply to all recruits of jihadist organizations; age, sex, education, and income are all merely tendencies that have major exceptions. Another thing that also pops up a great deal is a sense of “humiliation-by-proxy,” an identification with Muslims in general and a feeling that Muslims are humiliated by Western secular society. So our hypothetical future terrorist likely feels that the West has wronged him somehow, or more precisely wronged us, with the us a more or less narrow vision of what constitutes the True Muslims of which he is of course one. He likely feels that his nation has “sold out” to Western secularism, and may blame the United States in particular for the totalitarian government he must live under. (Once again, he may not be entirely wrong about that—there is a Wikipedia page, List of authoritarian regimes supported by the United States, and it is not all that short. Speaking of nations giving up on their principles….)

Then someone comes along, perhaps an old acquaintance of his, who invites him to a meeting. He's probably vague about the purpose of the meeting, and surely is vague about the organization it represents. When the young man arrives there, he may at first be shocked by the fact that he has been invited to consort with terrorists—but as they all kneel down to pray, or as the imam leading the meeting begins his litany on the lost and the downtrodden, he feels, for the first time in a long time, that he belongs. He agrees to come to next week's meeting, and then the week after that, and his sense of unity grows stronger. A few months later, he's riding in a technical carrying an AK-47 with the rest of them. One day, he may strap on a suicide bomb of his own.

That is the cycle we must break. Our goal should not be to convert him away from Islam (at least not immediately; ultimately I would like to persuade the entire human race away from religion, but that will take time, and the place to start is not fundamentalists on the verge of becoming fanatics). Instead, it should be to give him a place to belong other than Islam, or, failing that, an Islam to belong to that isn't fanatical. Hundreds of millions of Muslims are not fanatics. (I think in fact the vast majority are fundamentalists. The inerrancy of the Qur'an is not something one can publicly question without considerable backlash, and drawing a picture of Muhammad will draw death threats from around the world.) Somehow, whatever they may believe about Muhammad, Allah, and the Qur'an, hundreds of millions of Muslims manage to coexist peacefully with modern society. This is not to say that their ideas are not wrong or in many cases even harmful; but they are in the same boat as Creationists, not with Al Qaeda.

I think a good place to start would be to point that out—arrange to have local Muslim leaders meet with young men who are at the fringes of society, and teach them about the millions of devout Muslims who live peacefully in secular, Western societies. Teach them interpretations of Islam that do not require violence. (And serve pita while doing it; the smell of fresh-baked bread triggers feelings of belonging, though it may just be that it's a pleasant smell.)

We should also show them how wealthy and prosperous we are in the West—and we really are; even what we call “poverty” in the United States is a better life than that available to most of the world's population (the US poverty line for a typical household is $16,000; the world median household income is $10,000) and in Scandinavia they don't even have that (Sweden's poverty level is more generous than ours and Sweden still only has an absolute poverty rate of 7%)—but we must tread carefully while doing so. If our audience perceives that we are gloating our success over their misery, or believes that we have achieved our prosperity only at their expense, it will only enhance their sense of religious, nationalistic humiliation.

Instead the message we need to send is something like this: “This is what we did to achieve peace and prosperity. You can do it too! Here's what you need to do. Join us, become part of the international community. Share in the abundance of the world without fighting over it. If we work together and share, we will all have more than we did before.”

How can we send that message? Here's why I am optimistic: We've done it before. Actually I was just watching a surprisingly moving little animation on World War II and the Long Peace that followed it, which I highly recommend. In the first half of the 20th century, the nations of Europe and East Asia were at each others' throats; tens of millions of people died in brutal wars, endless sieges, and even direct mass exterminations. Even relatively decent and democratic nations like the US and UK engaged in intentional bombing of civilian population centers that killed hundreds of thousands of people—never forget that the only organization to ever use nuclear weapons, state or otherwise, was the United States of America in 1945. The only use of full-scale weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets in history was done by us. (Anthrax and sarin are not weapons of mass destruction, I'm sorry. They are illegal weapons, horrible weapons—but they don't kill a hundred thousand people in the blink of an eye. When you say “weapons of mass destruction”, you should mean something on the scale of nuclear weapons.)

Then, in the second half of the 20th century, Europe and East Asia never fought wars against one another ever again. Yes, there were “proxy wars” like Vietnam and Korea, but these were far smaller, and even then they were in the earlier part of the period. The world's 40 richest economies, including the US, China, the UK, Japan, Germany, and Russia—the major powers of World War II—never fought against each other directly ever since. With the integration of global trade and the reduction in military spending—not to mention the simple fact that nations were not depopulating themselves!—economic growth in Germany and Japan was exceptional; economic growth in South Korea was astonishing. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that the entire field of development economics is the enterprise of figuring out what happened in South Korea and how to make it happen again. A big part of how we pulled those things off was by spending huge amounts on foreign aid—but less-huge amounts than we'd previously been spending on war. The Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe cost $120 billion in today's money. The US gave an average of $3 billion a year (in today's money) in aid to South Korea during the 20 years following the Korean War. Whenever people say you can't solve poverty by throwing money at it, I want to ask, “Have you tried?”

Indeed, I believe that the most effective anti-terrorism intervention we could implement also happens to be the most beneficial humanitarian project. We should end world hunger.

If that sounds like a pipe dream (“End world hunger? Oh, is that all?”) you haven't been following the research. The United Nations estimates that the total cost of eliminating the $1.25-per-day extreme poverty level is only $200 billion per year. We would only need 0.7% of GDP in foreign aid in order to achieve this amount; the UK already gives that much, and Norway, Sweden, and Denmark give more (because #Scandinaviaisbetter). We only need about $60 billion more to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Meanwhile the US gives less than 0.2% of GDP, $31 billion. Adding that extra $60 billion would only raise us to 0.6%. If we actually followed through and decided to give the most of any country in the world as proportion of GDP, we'd have to give 1.1% of GDP, which is $165 billion—and what do you know, almost enough to meet the target of ending extreme poverty. So let's go further, and actually take the initiative of paying the full $200 billion ourselves; that's still only 1.3% of GDP; add it to the $31 billion we're already paying and we'd be paying 1.5% of GDP, or just about twice the UN standard of 0.7% that we are currently nowhere near meeting.

$200 billion is not a trivial sum by any means; but can you think of a better way to spend it? Do you think that the $664 billion we currently spend on the military is a more efficient use of resources? I in fact think that by national security considerations alone we would be better off spending $200 billion of that on foreign development aid instead of the military. Killing people once they become our enemies hasn't worked out so well for us; making enemies into friends absolutely has. We did it with Germany and Japan and South Korea; why can't we do it with Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan?

Yes, once they're part of Daesh there isn't much else we can do. But if you think about how we might help people before they reach that point, provide them with an incentive—or even just an opportunity—to take a different path, our options look a lot brighter.

How do you deal with fanatics? Keep them from being made in the first place.


Patrick Julius

Patrick Julius

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  • It is ironic, but many of the things you post here are in fact what is being done to the united states. Might I querry ? The numbers you indicate on military spending are waaay off. You do realize that we now spend 1.3 TRILLION A YEAR on defense right ? The BASE military spending is what you quote - but the Total yearly budget is nearly 1.3 Trillion. Amazing

    I am a military vet. I am a disabled Naval Operational Intelligence officer. During the 70's and 80's I had the rare privilege to visit 76 countries. (77 if you count Oklahoma as a separate country) Many of them countries you speak to. I can honestly say, speaking to hundreds of people in every city I visited (the pyramids are way cool!) I would always talk to the locals. One thing that I can say without reservation is certain countries in the mid-east (e.g.) WANT to be Americanized. Iran is one. The P Gulf states are all nearly in our sphere. What you don't address is the history of technology and the invasive nature of these states. Indeed, look what happened to Iran, Iraq and others like Kuwait. They were literally penciled in during the potsdam conference. I know for a fact only the fanatics are the ones that want us gone because of religion. The vast majority of muslims I have personally met are pissed for one reason - our big corporations rape their lands for their natural resources. In doing so and with the modern media, then can "see" what THEIR national resources are doing for America and the west. They want their cut and they do NOT get it. Nor do the governments. Why? well, Big conglomerates control not just the U.S., but over 90% of the populated world. Rape and pillaging have been going on for thousands of years. The only difference is back in the day, people wore robes and used Scimitars. Now they wear 3 pc. suits and use Smart Phones & Satellite phones to do it.

    Also, what you are describing is a form socialism. You seem to forget that 7 times in our history, we have had major fiscal blowouts. The Gilded age perhaps ? The August 08, "greatest theft in history" by Cheney and Bush was epic... AND that was done to the U.S. ... the neocons supposedly love us.

    I agree with your whole premise. It is a beautiful dream. From someone who holds 2 science degrees, 5 professional Engineering certifications and many accolades in my life, it is a pipe dream for one simple reason.

    Greed has taken over - again. Until the Big 4 mega Global US based conglomerates are broken up, America, the nation, will continue to diminish. Terra the planet will also. The neocons and those that helped them, stole 22-32 TRILLION beans. The IMF found it 2 years ago in the Cayman Islands and Bahamian Banks. The IMF reported that a vast majority of it, came from US BANKS.

    The corruption that exists here exists elsewhere. Just getting all that aid to people is daunting and people won't do it for free. Technology has replaced tens of millions of jobs in the US. This is a global thing now. Billions can't make a living because there is no living to make.

    Instead of killing them - POPULATION CONTROL. The U.N. has plans already drawn up.

    Teaching one of these kids over there NOT to hate US is a daunting task. From the Crusades forward, the west, like so many other places it has been, has ignored billions of starving people unless it was in our interest to do so. THAT is the new America, compliments of Corporate Fascist America.

  • Well, I only included the figures on Department of Defense spending, because that's indisputably military spending and it's already more than enough to fund the foreign aid program I'm talking about. Yes, if you include the nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, interest on war debt, and the smattering of anti-terrorism programs in the Department of Justice and the Department of State, I believe you can probably reach a total of $1.3 trillion. But some of these are disputable, and many of those programs are not things we'd be prepared to cut. Are you going to eliminate veterans' benefits? Perhaps we should disarm our nuclear arsenal (or at least most of it), but that requires spending too. The FBI is one of the few agencies we have that's actually effectiveagainst terrorists, so no sense getting rid of that! And as bad as paying war debt may be, not paying it is surely worse, as the global financial system depends upon the absolute security of US Treasury Bonds. Moreover, we don't need to cut these things; we can raise $200 billion by changing the way defense contracts are negotiated (this should be monopsony, but we're paying like it's monopoly), closing unnecessary bases, decommissioning unnecessary naval vessels, and cutting research programs into weapons systems that don't work and we have no intention of using (like the F-35). Assume we could cut 30% from base operations, 20% from the Navy, 15% from the Air Force, and 20% from R&D; leave the Army and the Marine Corps intact as they are much more cost-effective. That's $85+$30+$25+$16=$156 billion already.

    For the other $44 billion, we could cut the Department of Homeland Security in half for $30 billion and then another $10 billion from foreign military assistance. The remaining $4 billion can be trimmed from lots of different programs.
    Or maybe we should just raise taxes, or cut from something else; that's not the point. The point is that we have plenty of money if we're willing to spend it.

    While I certainly agree that multinational corporations have far too much power, I cannot support this "rape and pillage" narrative. Violence worldwide has declined precipitously over the last half-century, and the three leading candidates for explaining why are American military hegemony, nuclear weapons and economic globalization---all very much American projects that most people would accuse of making the world more violent. The data simply doesn't back that up; they've made the world more safe. Nuclear weapons because they make major countries afraid of attacking each other (and so, they haven't; the world's 40 largest economies have not engaged in war against one another since 1945); economic globalization because it gives all countries incentives to work together in trade instead of trying to steal from each other in war; and military hegemony is obvious, no one will fight if they know we would win. China doesn't attack us for four reasons: Our aircraft carriers, our nuclear arsenal, their holdings of our national debt, and their dependence upon our trade flows---that is in ascending order of importance. You could decommission every naval vessel and nuclear warhead and we'd probably still be safe, as long as the iPods keep flowing.

    The economic success of the West has not been due to a unique propensity toward violence or pillage; every civilization throughout history has engaged in those activities, and if anything the British Empire and its successor we might call the Pax Americana have been among the most benevolent. The success of the West was due originally to superior ecology, which led to superior economic institutions. Now that we know how to build those economic institutions, we can; and we are doing it. We did it in South Korea and Japan. We are working on it in China and India. Yes, there are many barriers in our way; but for the first time in history we have a basic idea of what needs to be done.

    Yes, I suppose it is a form of socialism. Social democracy, to be precise, the center-left socialism that is predominant in Scandinavia, the most egalitarian and the happiest countries on Earth. I made a hashtag for it: #Scandinaviaisbetter

    Greed has always been a part of the human mind. Unless we modify ourselves with genetic engineering or cybernetics, or replace ourselves with artificial intelligence, greed will continue to be with us---and probably even then. The answer is not to conquer greed, but to tame it; to put on a leash and point it in the direction we need it to go. This is why capitalism works, when it does; a properly regulated capitalist state uses greed as a weapon against itself, making the psychopaths who run our corporations compete against each other until they've driven each other's profits to zero. They will always resist this, but we must always stand firm; we can do this, for we have in the past. We failed in the 1920s and had the Great Depression; we failed in the 2000s and had the Second Depression. But we succeeded in the 1950s and 1960s and had the Golden Age of American Capitalism. With remarkably simple reforms we could go back to that system, only better in fact because now we've enfranchised women, racial minorities, and LGBT people to a much greater extent. The market is like a nuclear reaction: Shut it down completely and it does nothing for you; let it run wild and it will destroy all you hold dear. But control it properly and it will expand the bounds of human potential.

    The corruption problem is a serious one; believe it or not, the United States is less corrupt than most nations in the world (though more corrupt than most of the First World, and increasingly so---but not all; Greece and Italy are worse). One of the few concerns I do have for what might be called the Sachs Plan of global poverty eradication is that I'm not sure he has done enough to respond to the corruption that we know exists in most Third World countries. But we could at least start in countries with lower corruption, such as Botswana, and show that the program can indeed work.

    The replacement of labor by technology has been going on for a long time, but I think you're right that we are approaching a new epoch in which robots will be so good at replacing human labor that there won't be enough human labor left to do. This is not a reason to despair; it is a reason to rejoice. It means that for the first time since we first began to walk in the savannah---nay, the first time cells first began to divide!---we will finally be free of the Sisyphean existence that has plagued all life on Earth. Our existence will no longer be defined by working constantly simply to preserve that existence. Artificial intelligence holds the promise of heralding a fundamentally new era in the human condition, in which we work because we want to and not because we need to. Of course, getting there from here will require significant technological advances and even more significant economic reforms, but of a magnitude that we've already achieved in the past. If we simply go through the same amount of change in the 21st century that we did in the 20th, a post-scarcity future will already be upon us. The first step is realizing that it can be done at all.

    This sentence I must admit I find baffling:
    "Instead of killing them - POPULATION CONTROL. The U.N. has plans already drawn up."

    Are you suggesting that we should not institute policies to achieve population stability, that it would be better to let people starve in famine or else kill them outright in genocide? Exponential population growth is obviously unsustainable.

    The good news is that we don't actually need to do much that we wouldn't do anyway; as nations develop economically they naturally settle into lower population growth. Actually, they go through three phases: First, a high birth rate and high death rate, like Ghana; then, a high birth rate and low death rate, like Lebanon; and finally a low birth rate and low death rate, like Germany. It looks like population growth is exploding only right before it drops off to zero. World population is projected to level off around 10 billion, about 40% larger than today.

    But suppose we did need to implement some more drastic policy to control birth rates, as China did (it probably wasn't necessary, as India's far less draconian policy was almost as effective at controlling population growth, but suppose it were). What choice would we have? It's simply not possible to sustain unchecked population growth indefinitely. The United Nations has made the eminently sensible and moral decision that working to reduce birth rates is the best way to avoid even worse outcomes like war and famine.

    Finally, yes, the task is daunting. But many of the world's great accomplishments seemed impossible until they were done. From the invention of the computer to the Civil Rights Act, great achievements have always had naysayers who were certain that it couldn't be done. Social change should frankly be the easiest one; all you need to do is convince everyone that it should happen---and it will already have happened. Discovering new science or inventing new technology isn't like that; we can want fusion very badly indeed and still not have it. But if the whole world wants peace, peace is what it shall have.

    And never forget: Apathy is one of the greatest weapons of the oppressor. The easiest way to defeat you is to convince you to stop fighting.

  • YOUR REPLY ? BREVITY. Think about it.