Saturday, May 8, 2010

a crisis of probability is not a crisis

So I just heard a discussion between David Frum and Glenn Greenwald. If you want to know what David Frum is thinking now, or how a reasoned discussion between liberals and conservatives is conducted, then I recommend it. What prompted this posting is something Frum said at the end of the discussion about bad things that leaders do during crises. Greenwald tried to get Frum to say whether he believed presidents ought to be able to break the law and be immune from the criminal justice system, but Frum evaded. In that back-and-forth, Frum said, "Bush may have done some things that ... everybody would have thought before [9/11?] were illegal ... that a lot of people think were immoral, and we don't do them anymore, the crisis has passed, the country has found a new footing." I'd like to focus on the "crisis has passed" part.

What I'm gonna say about this crisis of terrorism might sound a little neocon-ish, but to paraphrase one of my favorite comedians, Patton Oswalt, "I'm gonna bring you to Mordor and take you right back to the Shire, so stay with me!" I don't think the crisis has passed at all. Frum is saying what everyone else is saying, but everyone else does not know what the hell they are talking about. I think that the probability of a major, 1000-plus-casualty terrorist attack occurring in September, 2001 was similar to the probability of one occurring today. Of course, the probability was greater in September, 2001 because Richard Clark and other Clinton officials with knowledge of bin Laden's activities were warning the shit out of Bush that something would likely happen and Bush was sitting on his ass. But accounting for that major exception, the probability of calamity is the same today. I can say this because there is almost no data with which to calculate the probability of foreign terrorist attacks. This is up for some debate, because the definition of terrorism is usually in debate, but there have been only two relatively recent foreign terrorist attacks in the U.S. in which people have died: the first and second WTC attacks. Given those data, one could reasonably say that a U.S. citizen's probability of dying in a terrorist attack is ill-defined, but most likely the probability is vanishingly small. This near-zero probability existed in the eighties, the nineties, and the oughts, and it will probably continue to exist forever -- until someone blows up the universe.

My simple conclusion is this: It would be nice if -- in the period of time between now and the end of the universe -- we deal with the vanishingly small probability of terrorism in a rational way. We may do this by keeping the rule of law and democracy in tact.

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