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Dan Croak

Professor Posner,

I agree with your criticism of the Department of Homeland Security and the glaring lack of an MI5-like domestic intelligence agency in the United States. I disagree with your conclusion, however, that this will shake the U.S. out of our "complacency." I also believe you mischaracterize James Fallows' article in The Atlantic.

I would argue that the real American "ostrich brigade" is currently residing in the Bush administration, with Secretary Rumsfeld representing lead ostrich.

Both you and Mr. Fallows see clearly a list of potential actionable items that would strengthen American security. An MI5 sister organization is one such action. Declaring that the global war on terror is over and that we have won is another action.

Mr. Fallows views his approach as a tactic, not a statement of fact. He rightly points out that al-Qaeda's and Osama bin Laden's central operational capacity has been destroyed. He does not dispute that splinter cells have developed all over the world, but he correctly posits that al-Qaeda can do little damage to the United States currently.

For that main reason and other supporting reasons, such as the wasteful use of resources in Iraq and the worldwide degenerating opinion of the U.S., he proposes this declaration as a legitimate way out of Iraq and the opportunity the nation needs to redeploy its military to really "harass and pursue al-Qaeda" (paraphrased from Fallow's words), adjust its defense spending, focus on domestic protection, and begin an all-out, public relations and diplomatic campaign.

Professor Posner, you are correct when you say that any argument suggesting America is immune to "homegrown" Islamic fundamentalism. Timothy McVeigh is living proof that terrorists can be cultivated within our borders just like anyplace else.

However, you mistakenly cast Mr. Fallows' argument as complacency. His calls for a de-escalation of rhetoric derive from the correct analysis that al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations can be beaten by American and international refusal to over-react.


Two comments in response to Judge Posner.
First, another reason terrorists choose aircrafts as targets is because, as has been pointed out by another conservative commentator, we are conditioned as passengers to be naturally docile in such a highly regulated environment.
Second, the foiling of the recent terrorist plot in Britain should not be cause for celebration. This attempt proves that the proverbial masterminds are not on the run and are still at work. Identifying and neutralizing these individuals is no less important than stopping the terrorist "soldiers" presently under arrest in the UK.

Lawrence Indyk, University of Kansas School of Law

In dealing with crime, even violent and highly organized crime such as that associated with the illegal drug trade and to which we commit enormous resources, most sensible people admit that we can only ever hope to maintain the amount of unlawful activity and harm at a reasonable or tolerable level. At some point there is an economic sense that any further granting of funds or police powers provides a very diminshed rate of return in effectiveness at unacceptably high cost.

The law-abiding citizen, who would be happy with a total prevention of crime, would just as likely revolt against the decrease of civil liberty and after-tax income required to achieve anything near it and so, perhaps grudgingly, accepts an imperfect balance between the government's size and effectiveness and the crime rate.

This balance implies that there could be an economical way to determine the the "optimal" level of government resource expediture and allocation to produce the maximum economic benefit to the society at large.

And so an important, and so far as I know, open question is do we spend much more per life and dollar of GDP preserved in our efforts against terrorism as compared to our efforts against crime and other dangers to life and property. My guess would be we spend much more (in money and in liberty) for each life saved from terrorism than for each life saved from crime or car wrecks.

So, as always, there is an opportunity cost for terrorism prevention. Perhaps then, a moderately resourced and marginally effective homeland security department is actually a net positive for the country if it allows more resources to be shifted to arenas where we are more efficient in protecting our citizens.


Minor point: MI5 is Britain's domestic intelligence agency, not England's.

Justin Donoho

Lawrence, Why is your cost-benefit analysis of government spending limited to that which protects citizens? Rather than decrease the police force, why not focus spending-reduction, for example, on entitlements or pork-barrel politics?

Just my $0.02,

Lawrence Indyk, University of Kansas School of Law

Hi Justin,

Well, I'm not really concerned with spending reduction so much as the idea of diminishing returns in deciding where to allocate the resources as they are. All agencies claim they could be more effective (even without organizational change) with additional resources but they may not use that money as effectively in producing a "net societal benefit" (however you like to measure that) as another agency may be.

You could, theoretically, cut all other spending to the bare minimum and spend all tax revenues on security - North Korea gets close to this - but I think you would lose more than you would gain by that strategy. This is an extreme case, but it makes the case that since both extremes are undesirable, there is some "optimal" balance.

The government allocator's problem is to determine what it is we are trying to maximize, how to measure it, to determine the "production fuctions" of the various agencies and to distribute existing resources in a way to produce that maximum benefit. Actually, of course and too bad, it doesn't work that way - except maybe in some political analogue. But when asking questions about policy choices we can play the ideal allocator.

The reason I focused on security services spending and not all government spending is because "net society benefit" can be hard to measure. Lives saved per dollar spent is also very speculative, but since that's the large part of what we ask counter-terrorism efforts to accomplish, it might be possible and enlightening to compare the economic efficiency of those efforts with that of other life-saving efforts.

Also, if you assume that our resources are already optimally allocated, and you don't want to raise taxes, then wanting to do a better job in any effort is not a question of more funding, but involves telling a department or agency to "change your production fuction" - reform your organization, become more effecient using the resources you have, etc...

Typically, most security services say "If you want us to do better, give us more money" but if their marginal return from that extra funding is low, then the better answer is "tranform yourself and get better at your job". If they dont use additional money well, and cant improve substantially, then we might just have to realistic about the limitations of our government and accept a certain level of trouble in our lives. And of course, we already do.


The "ostrich brigade", I like that phrase. I think I'll remember it and store it right next to the phrase, "fifth column". But more than that, i prefer Ambrose Bierce's take on the subject, "Who's being humorous Mr. Swain? To answer your question directly, let me say that armed with the sinister power of life and death, any evil minded person can gratify a private revenge or wanton malevolence by slaying whom he would." Sound familiar? Over a hundred years ago they were know as anarchists, today, terrorists. Perhaps they had a better insight into the problem than we. Or did they? Just ask where's all the money for support coming from?

As for the use of profiling, it has a long history. To borrow from the latin "ecce signum" or behold the sign which becomes the sign in the "sine qua non". The use of profiling has a rich history when things get dicey. Remember when on the frontier, that "the only good indian was a dead one". Or how about the "copperheads" of the Civil War, or the targeting of German-Americans in WWI and WWII. I won't even mention the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

It's kind of like when one goes out duck hunting for the first time, "if it walks like a duck, talks like duck, and looks like a duck; it's probably a duck." One just has to get used to the idea that on occasion, one will come up with a goose. Unless of course the ostriches take control.


terrorism it's very bad ...


It seems that most of our anti-terrorism efforts have been directed toward the "war on terror," whether militarily or through law enforcement. I agree that those "wars" must be fought, with the caveat that they must be directed at the actual groups and individuals that are trying to attack us. That should seem obvious, but the political and military events of the last few years prove otherwise. But I digress.

My concern is that while we are fighting the technical and military side of the war, we are losing ground in the war of ideas. On September 12, 2001, Le Monde declared that "We are all Americans." Today, it is difficult to imagine that France -- much less other parts of the world -- would declare a unity of purpose with America. How did we squander that sympathy and political capital in five short years?

America has thrived for 200 years because we have been a beacon to the world of freedom, industry, and progress. We welcomed to our shores a multitude of ideas and a multitude of peoples, and we asked only one thing: that everyone pledge allegiance to the *idea* of America. America was, perhaps, the first successful experiment in pluralism, and it worked because we preached freedom and democracy and practiced what we preached. (Well not always - as Jim Crow would attest - but we were more true to our rhetoric than others).

The problem now is that America does not preach hope and unity; it preaches fear and division, both in our domestic politics and in our foreign policy. America needs once again to be the beacon of hope to the world. Yes, crazy people will still exist who want to kill us, and we should do everything to stop them. But if America sets an example, and says the right things to the world in the right way, it will not be so easy for demagogues around the world to exploit hatred of us for political gain. The silent majority, who in many countries are now confused, will see those demagogues for the charlatans that they are.


I think they choose planes as weapons because they are far cheaper to use than purchasing missiles. Also, the hijacking can occur unpredictably unlike a transatlantic missile attack. Many of these other symbolic or psychological effects seem insignificant when trying to explain how a terrorist organization's motives. They seek destruction, and aim to do it efficiently and without warning.


danny, Looking for a motive? Try simple murder, mayhem and throwing a wrench into the works. It's all part of the strategy of disruption and terror. As for missles, they always have a return address.

David Bartlett

Great post David.

No matter how much money gets spent on stopping terrorism....no matter where it gets allocated....the threat will constantly be there given the attitudes towards the enemy and thus the reasons for the terrorism in the very first place.
As was mentioned in a comment on the Becker opinion...were America to focus more on addressing reasons for terrorist attacks against them, Al Qaeda might just find themselves without an enemy to fight.....while America might find that money will find far better use elsewhere.

Terrorists use planes not because they are cheap. Yes, they are cheap....but more important is their ability to humilate. By using their own forms of transport against Americans, they show that as long as Americans exists and for as long as they have a problem with America's policies....those opposed have a means to put a spanner in the works.
Whether a terrorist attack happens today or in five years time, it is the potential for attack that achieves the goal, not the tangible fulfillment.
A brazen missile attack would never achieve the same effect. Whereas, even the failed suicide attempts have achieved a positive step for the opposition.

I feel it is becoming evident that the truly powerful nations of this world are the ones that don't find the need to defend themselves. Its sad that terrorism and extremism have to be around to teach us this.

The bar bully walks out of the saloon doors victorious after initiating a fight, but will never feel comfortable in that bar ever again. Looking over his shoulder constantly, he never enjoys a drink with his friends.

Fair enough, the guy who waits for revenge in the dark corners of the bar is at the end of the day just as bad as the original bully.....but the fact is, after the initiating incident, unless the bully stops going to the bar, or offers to buy a reconciliatory round, his social life will suffer.


David, Perhaps you ought to read Washington's "Farewell Address" of 1796. Our policy remains the same today as then. You don't have to love us. You don't even have to like us, but you will, respect us. Such is the world of real-politik.


Instead of thinking in terms of giving up civil liberties, why not reframe the issue in terms of granting new rights? Why not offer a pre-screening background check. Those who give up certain privacy rights to allow background checks will then be given certain positive rights that will allow them to go through airports with less inconvenience. That would free up TSA resources to do a better job of screening others. Personally I find it very frustrating to have to stand in a long line going through security knowing full well that another branch of the govt has issued me a security clearance that is much higher than anything the TSA screeners have. Hey, I should be screening them!!! Here's another example. My sister is a diplomat and was recently on official govt business to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Normally this would sound like a suspicious itinerary, so the TSA spent about four hours thoroughly checking out her luggage. But shouldn't a distinctive diplomatic passport have been a tipoff that this person was not a security risk?

Bottom line is that the govt could offer a greater set of airport rights if people would be willing to trade-off certain privacy rights. As it is now you end up losing your privacy rights without getting anything in return.


N.E. Hatfield: perhaps I was not clear enough in my post. I don't deny the need for a certain amount of real-politik, and I certainly think that America should demand respect from the world. But our actions have not engendered respect. Incompetence, cronyism, and the politics and fear do not earn a government respect throughout the world. Nor does waving the sword mightily but randomly. If we had hit back hard at those who had actually attacked us (instead of demoting that fight to a lower priority), and sought to address other, less imminent problems in a more refined way, we could have changed the world for the better, rather than for the worse, over the last five years.

David Bartlett

Thats correct....

Treat others with respect and they will most likely treat you with the respect you therefore deserve.
If someone doesn't practice what they preach, they begin to lose authentcity.


Dear Professor Posner:

The best economic explanation for governments is the provision of public goods like, for example, defense. But maybe – an is what I personally think- the modern state is not really prepared for this kind of threat. There is a problem of scale. I tend to think we should begin to think more on a federalist or maybe country clubs systems if we want to be safe. The anti federalist founding fathers of United Stated were right in many things, but also in the war against terrorism (more than 200 years before!). It also would eliminate the politic subjects of terrorism. What condominium would you like to attack ?
Eduardo Stordeur Jr (Argentina)


"The percentage of American Muslims who are potential terrorists is undoubtedly smaller than the corresponding percentages in either Britain or Canada. But ... there are many more American Muslims than there are British or Canadian ones ..."

: Polling data on sympathy for the use of terror could partly quantify this assertion as to Britain vis-a-vis Canada and the U.S. My impression is more assimilation of Muslims in the U.S. (& Canada?) (from socioeconomic status) than in Britain. Absolute numbers count, but so does un-assimilation and concentration, at least for nihilism on a grand scale, a paradigm "public bad".

christopher garbacz

If you openly profile a group, the group will alter its behavior due to the extra scrutiny. Is it possible that our announced aversion to profiling is a ruse? Probably not.

Suppose we now announce that we are going to profile. A dedicated profiled group will respond with more sophisticated efforts. A simple example would be to form an alliance with non-profiled groups who hate us. On the other hand, innocents among the profiled group will have more incentive to expose those who are not innocents. But the additional chance of exposure will lead to reprisals. And so forth. It can get messy and mall America is one or more disasters away from believing that such an effort is necessary.


"we cannot afford to assume that we are safe."

Judge Posner,

Does your agreement with Becker's analysis extend to include an endorsement of profiling? To my knowledge, you have not previously supported profiling of this type. However, the tone of the posts here has become increasingly alarmist and your linkage of terrorism to "Muslims" has become increasingly broad. Perhaps reflecting the zeitgeist, perhaps not.

I still remember Oklahoma City, the second worst terrorist act in our recent history... committed by some white Christian folks from the upper midwest.

Humans pressed into a constant state of fear will submit to philosophies and tyrannies that the "complacent" and safe would rebel against. We could all do with another read through Orwell's 1984. Else we will wake up to discover that privacy is extinct, the police are the state, and otherwise respectable jurists and scholars are endorsing the racial and religious stereotyping that their predecessors worked so hard to eradicate.

But then again, Korematsu never really was overturned...


"In our state the individual is not deprived of freedom. Because the state protects him and he is part of the State."

-- Benito Mussolini (explaining how freedom and facism can coexist)

Dan Cole

In support of Lawrence Indyk's comments, John Mueller from Ohio State published a terrific article, "A False Sense of Insecurity" in Regulation (Fall 2004). The article compared the risks Americans face from terrorism with other risks, and concludes that the risks from terrorism are actually quite low. Far more people throughout the world die each year from automobile accidents and civil wars than from terrorism. According to Mueller, "[e]ven with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts." Between the Sept. 11 attacks which killed 3,000 Americans and the Fall of 2004, nearly 100,000 Americans died in auto accidents.

This is not to say that we should not spend a significant portion of GDP to defend against such attacks. However, the federal government should be far more mindful of the respective costs and benefits of its security measures. According to economist Roger Congleton (cited in the Mueller article), measures that delay airline passengers by half an hour cost the economy $15 billion per year.

Of course, it's difficult for politicians to control spending on issues such as Homeland Security given the electorate's less than rational demands for virtually total safety. Studies by Paul Slovic and others show that people greatly overestimate the chances of dramatic causes of death, and coverage in the news media seems designed to heighten their fears. Nevertheless, a real political leader would at least try to use the bully pulpit to explain that the real level of risk of terrorism remains quite low for most, if not all, Americans.

Dave Meleney

You say our committments to civil liberties were formed in a safer period. How quickly we forget how close we came to nuclear exchanges on several occasions and the level of danger we sustained for 30 or 40 years!

And yet we took civil liberties pretty seriously in spite of those profound difficulties. It's so easy to now assume that the cold war destined to turn out the way it did with Washington and Moscow and all of our nation's population going on as if nothing had been at risk.


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