The co-author of Freakonomics, the celebrated economist Steve Levitt, who recently moved his blog to NY Times asks in his Aug 8th post “If You Were a Terrorist, How Would You Attack?” He states that his general view of the world is that simpler is better (and I agree with him on that) and goes on to wonder about simpler, more efficient ways of creating terror. He asks his readers to think creatively about how they would go about the business of terrorism.
I would love to hear them. Consider that posting them could be a form of public service: I presume that a lot more folks who oppose and fight terror read this blog than actual terrorists. So by getting these ideas out in the open, it gives terror fighters a chance to consider and plan for these scenarios before they occur.
As can be expected given the lethal combination of a widely-read newspaper of record, a highly visible best-selling author, an extremely important topic, and a very controversial stance, nearly 600 comments poured in (further comments are disallowed now.)
I am more than a little surprised by the post by Levitt. I agree that anti-terrorism readers of a NYTimes blog outnumber pro-terrorism readers by orders of magnitude. But then non-terrorists do outnumber terrorists by equal orders of magnitude in the general population. Yet the latter group imposes costs on the former group, not the other way around. The numbers argument is meaningless in this context. A hundred thousand benign readers engaged in an intellectual exercise could still help out a handful of terrorists with ideas that they may not have considered before.
Is soliciting ideas on efficient terror methods a good idea? I don’t think so. Here’s why. The claim is made by some that the terrorists are not stupid and therefore if non-terrorists can think up of great ideas, so can terrorists. That is the “$20 bill on the side-walk” argument. It says that if you were to find a $20 bill on the sidewalk, don’t bother picking it up because if it were genuine, someone would have already picked it up. Levitt surely knows the fallacy of that argument given that it is commonly cited by economists.
The fact is that one does not have to be stupid to not have considered every conceivable idea. Ideas are informational goods. I can on my own come up with only some ideas. And if we all pool our ideas, we each can have a lot of ideas most of which we did not originate. It is the collective idea-generating power of human society that makes us so powerful, either to create wealth or to wreak havoc. To the collective, no idea is unknown. But to an individual, most of the ideas are unknown. That is a very powerful distinction that we ignore at our own peril.
By collecting all the great ideas on tactics that can be used for terrorism in one handy-dandy widely accessible site, one is tempting fate a bit too much.
One mistake that Levitt makes is his implicit assumption that the entire population of readers can be exhaustively partitioned into two groups: normal people and terrorists. But why not into, say, three groups: normal people, terrorists, and psychopaths. The last group could use “good” ideas as well. The Tylenol tampering case comes to mind. Also, the phenomenon of copycat behavior is widely known, from school-shootings to suicides. That depends on the transmission of ideas. So even if the ideas are collectively not new to the terrorists, the ideas are certainly made more accessible to psychopaths and crazies.
Some argue that if Levitt’s post stands indicted, so do all the books and movies that deal with terror, assassination, etc, because terrorists can gain insight from them as well. I agree that The Day of the Jackal could be good training material for a would-be assassin. But merely because a bad thing exists is not good enough excuse for compounding the bad thing. Moreover, it does make a difference if one were to collect a lot of great ideas in one place. I am sure that there are lots of good ideas on improvised explosive devices (IED) scattered all over the internet. Would I be helping or hurting society if I were to collect them all into a wiki using the collective knowledge of experts on explosives? If I were to do that, it would be true that curious readers who have no intentions of making a homemade bomb would outnumber the misfits looking for help on bomb making. But it would increase the number of successful bombs going off in society.
It seems to me that Levitt says that the costs in terms of giving new ideas to terrorists is low because they already know it. It is reminiscent of the argument for burning the libraries: if the libraries contain knowledge that is consistent with the Koran, they are superfluous; if they contain matter that is not in the Koran, they are blasphemous. So libraries have books that are either superfluous or blasphemous and therefore must be burnt. In our case, if the ideas expressed are “good” terror ideas, the terrorists already know them; if they are bad, no harm done.
So let’s assume that the costs are low. Now what about the benefits? Levitt point is that by tapping into the wisdom (as it were) of the crowds regarding terror tactics, it would help those in the business of fighting terror in preventing terrorism. Plausible argument but I think it is flawed because the truth is that broadly speaking terrorism cannot be prevented. One determined to do so can wreak havoc at very little costs. That is, it is relatively cheap to inflict harm but to prevent which would be prohibitively expensive. Most of the ideas expressed in the comments to that article are quite do-able but nearly impossible to guard against.
Levitt is a smart guy. But no one, including smart guys, is immune from very stupid ideas. In a sense, it was good for me to read that post because it underlines for me the idea that I too can be very stupid at times. I only hope that there are others who will point out the flaws in my reasoning. I thank the lord (Ganesh in this case) that there are wiser people than I around.