Next week, the White House is planning to host a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. It was originally scheduled for last year but got delayed — and then put back on the calendar after the Paris terrorist attacks in January. What should we expect from a summit like this?
Jack JACOBS: Alas, very little of a positive nature. I view this principally as a media event. I hope I’m wrong.
Just in case the summit does turn out to be primarily a media event, we thought we’d take this podcast — which technically, is a media event — and turn it into a terrorism summit. We’ll talk about what’s known and what’s not known about terrorism; we’ll talk about what’s working and what’s not to prevent it — and what we should be thinking about but aren’t. Now how do we accomplish this? Basically, we asked some people who know a lot about terrorism to tell us what they’d say if they had the ear of President Obama and other world leaders:
Robert PAPE: Many people might think that we couldn’t make the problem worse. Oh yes, we can make it much worse very quickly, as we saw with Iraq.
Mia BLOOM: The problem is we can never get rid of terrorism 100 percent in the same way that we can’t get rid of school shooters 100 percent. We have to be resilient as a country to be able to recognize that the outlier attack doesn’t mean that it’s doomsday.
Nathan MYHRVOLD: Leadership is taking people to a place they wouldn’t have gotten to already. If you see a parade going down the street and you run up in front of it, they’re not actually following you.
JACOBS: If you want some bad guys killed, I’m your guy. I’m strongly in favor of that. But what I would like to see is some logic attendant to what our tactical moves are and I don’t see any of that yet.
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Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He teaches economics at The University of Chicago.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey Levitt, how you doing?
Steve LEVITT: I’m doing great. How about you?
DUBNER: I’m all right. You may have heard, the White House is putting together an international summit to address terrorism. Have you been invited?
LEVITT: Maybe my invitation got lost in the mail, but I don’t think so.
Levitt admits that his discipline doesn’t necessarily have much to offer on the topic of terrorism.
LEVITT: If you turn to economics and what economics has to say about fighting terrorism, it’s a hard problem because economics really centers around incentives. The incentives we tend to use are things like prices or punishment in prison or whatnot. But when people are willing to pay the ultimate price in the form of suicide to reach a goal, they’re not the folks that we’re used to incentivizing and motivating.
So rather than rely on economists for our UnSummit, we reached out to a different set of folks … like, Mia Bloom:
BLOOM: I‘m a professor at the University of Massachusetts on the Lowell Campus. I’m a professor of security studies.
PAPE: My name is Robert Pape. I’m professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
MYHRVOLD: I’m Nathan Myhrvold. I’m a C.E.O. at Intellectual Ventures, and I’m very interested in catastrophic risks to the planet.
JACOBS: I am Jack Jacobs, Colonel Army Retired.
Jacobs turns up on TV pretty regularly these days, commenting on national-security issues. It was Jacobs you heard earlier, saying he doesn’t expect much from this White House summit:
JACOBS: If the government is convening a conference about this subject, perhaps the government may be amenable to coughing up some resources to solve some of the major problems attendant to it, but that’s a scant hope. In actual fact, what you need is leadership in order to solve problems about national security, both domestic terrorism and terrorism from abroad. It requires a great deal of effort and organization. If the government is good at things … I can tell you this, they’re not good at this.
All right, so maybe we can lend a hand. A good place to start is what we know, and don’t know, about the root causes of terrorism. It’s natural to react to immediate events, to the emotions and headlines that accompany them. But let’s try to go a bit deeper. We’ll start with Robert Pape. Even though he is a political scientist — a field that most of us associate with theoretical work — Pape is a hardcore empiricist, a data freak.
PAPE: Just as big data has come into our life in sports, our life in the media, so too can big data help to inform at least some of the assumptions and therefore policy prescriptions on national-security affairs.
Most of Pape’s research has focused on suicide attacks:
PAPE: I collected the first complete database of all suicide attacks around the world shortly after 9/11. That data went from the early 1980s, when the modern phenomenon began, to just before the Iraq War, 2003. During that window of time, there were 343 completed suicide attacks where an individual killed himself or herself on a mission to kill others.
All right, so what can these data tell us?
PAPE: The main risk factor people think it’s associated with suicide attack is religion, specifically Islamic fundamentalism, because they observe the attackers on 9/11 were Islamic fundamentalists — many of the attackers in Iraq, ISIS is an Islamic fundamentalist group. What this research found, really for the first time, is that religion is not as prominent a cause of suicide terrorism as many people think. The world leader during that 24-year period was not an Islamic group.
They were the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist group, a secular group, a Hindu group. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka did more suicide attacks than Hamas or Islamic Jihad. What over 95 percent of all suicide attacks have in common is not religion, but a specific strategic objective: to compel a democratic state to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists see as their homeland or prize. From Lebanon and the West Bank back then to Iraq and Afghanistan today, this idea of military occupation is the leading risk factor producing over 95 percent of the suicide attacks that we see even as we speak.
DUBNER: If occupation, then, is — I don’t know if it’s appropriate to call it the root cause of the majority …
PAPE: That’s a great way to think about it, Stephen. Occupation is the root cause. There are additional enabling causes or secondary causes, so I don’t mean to say that this is a mono-causal explanation, but it’s like smoking causing lung cancer is the root cause of much of the lung cancer that we observe. Military occupation is the root cause of suicide terrorism. There are two types of military occupation. There is a foreign, very distant, or external occupation, such as when the United States occupies Iraq.
And then there can also be an internal occupation, such as when one group occupies another group, such as in Iraq today. The Shia-dominated government is occupying the Sunni population in Iraq.
DUBNER: The reason we’re talking now, the reason that the world has amped up its interest in preventing terrorism lately, is because of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, which were not suicide attacks and were examples of religious extremism or fundamentalism. That goes against the components of your research in a couple ways, but …
PAPE: I’d like to just stop you there for a moment, Stephen, because there’s no doubt that religion was part of the cocktail. But now that we know more about the biographies of the various attackers — made possible because the French authorities arrested, prosecuted several of the attackers, and actually knew quite a bit about them. We have depositions about what’s motivating them. I would just point out what we know about the Paris attackers is that they were powerfully motivated by the Iraq War, by the Abu Ghraib torture abuse.
This isn’t just simply a matter of religion. This is a matter of individuals being motivated by seeing harm on kindred populations, and wanting to do something to prevent that harm or to ameliorate the harm.
DUBNER: Considering that conclusion, how do you start to think about addressing the problem? Maybe it’s not a problem we should talk about in terms of solving, because many problems never get solved, but considering that the root cause is based on an occupation of one kind or another which has happened in the past, even if you’ve de-occupied, the initial cause still exists in the minds of those who are agitated by it.
How do you begin to think about dealing with the aftermath if you’re the kind of country like us, or like France, or like Britain that carries out its national security in the ways that it does, and perhaps inspires people to hold this grudge?
PAPE: There’s really two things that we need to do, Stephen: first is not make the problem worse. Before the invasion of Iraq, there were about 50 suicide attacks occurring around the world in 2001 and 2002 and only a handful of those were anti-American. Then we thought we’d fix the problem of terrorism by going into Iraq and essentially wringing the Islamic fundamentalism out of the Middle East by democratizing it. What happened by 2007 is that there were over 500 suicide attacks that year, over 300 of them in Iraq, which had never experienced a suicide attack before.
We made the problem dramatically worse. In fact, the roots of ISIS and the Paris attack go back to the American occupation, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib. These are the ingredients, the cocktail of what we’re living with today. If we were to then respond to the terrorism that we see by putting another massive army in either Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, these are very big countries, very big populations. Many people might think that we couldn’t make the problem worse. Oh yes, we can make it much worse, very quickly, as we saw with Iraq.
The second thing is we should be focusing on especially empowering moderates in local communities to compete head-to-head with terrorists. We did this in Iraq, starting in late 2006 and 2007 and 2008 in the Sunni community when we started to foment and foster and empower the Anbar Awakening. This was essentially 100,000 Sunnis, many of them connected with local Sunni tribes, where the United States paid individuals $300 a month to do just one thing: Don’t kill us. Don’t shoot at us. Some of these had been shooting us before.
This was a controversial thing when the Bush administration did it. But this had a dramatic effect in weakening suicide terrorism, the most important effect of anything that we did. We should be doing this as we go forward in Iraq. We should be doing this as we go forward in Yemen. In fact, from what I can see of the Obama administration, they are moving in this direction.
DUBNER: Given what the U.S. and others have spent on the War on Terror, how would you characterize the R.O.I.?
PAPE: I would say that, unfortunately, it’s quite negative. Harkening back to Rumsfeld in 2005, he had a famous line where he asked publicly, “Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?” And the answer was, “In 2005, we were.” We not only had invaded and occupied Iraq — most of the public will know about Abu Ghraib and the torture scandal — but in addition to that, we were imprisoning thousands of Iraqis that we thought were connected with the insurgency that was growing.
In 2004, the insurgency was estimated to be just 5,000. Then we started to imprison and arrest and we ended up imprisoning almost 20,000 over the next year and half. Then we started to kill insurgents. We ended up killing 18,000 over the next year and half. We thought we were going to go and stamp out the problem with toppling Saddam, changing the political system. When that didn’t work, we thought we’d go and stamp out the problem with vicious behavior on the hornet’s nest of some of the insurgents, like Fallujah.
What those policies did by 2005 is they just made the problem dramatically worse. Rumsfeld himself saw that.
DUBNER: Let me ask you the flip question then: how would you characterize the R.O.I. for terrorists? And let’s not limit this to Islamic fundamentalists in the last 10 or 15 years; let’s talk about terrorism generally. It seems as though they force their enemies to spend billions, perhaps trillions of dollars — there are all kinds of less easily measured costs than dollars — all by investing a relative pittance of their own. It’s hard for me to think of a movement, an action, an activity, that has a larger R.O.I. frankly, horribly, than terrorism.
It works, doesn’t it?
PAPE: You’re exactly right, Stephen. 9/11 by all estimates, including the 9/11 Commission, cost Al Qaeda less than a half million dollars and it produced many billions of dollars of damage, not just in the loss of air traffic over the next year and a half, but in launching two major wars, one of which, in Iraq, turned out to be extremely expensive, extremely costly. There is absolutely no doubt that terrorists have an enormous return on their investment, that terrorists are doing terrorism because they think it pays, and there’s evidence that it pays.
But that wouldn’t work if we wouldn’t overreact and help terrorists increase their return on investment. We have smarter approaches to the problem than just simply reacting on the basis of fear and anger, and hitting back.
DUBNER: Give me an example of a government that you feel understands and deals with terrorism well.
PAPE: I’ll give you two examples: one is the Basque government. We used to have, in Spain, a Basque terrorism problem. That terrorism problem has essentially gone away. It was a major problem for several decades in Europe. In the early stages like many governments, the government tries heavy-handed military force to try to deal with the issue. Publics, of course, are afraid and fearful. The publics like to see tough talk and tough action. But that just made the problem worse.
Then, basically, through a series of education and demographic policies, basically the Basque separatists disappeared. It disappeared because the Spanish government stopped treating the underlying Basque community as a separate community and started to have more integrationist and assimilationist policies. In the case of Northern Ireland, the British had an enormous problem with the I.R.A. that really was just awful, thousands of people dying in the early 1970s.
The British, at first, tried to deal with this problem by being very tough. Maggie Thatcher, who was a very conservative leader of Britain in the 1980’s, was known as being a very tough woman. Well, she’s the one who started the secret talks with the I.R.A. leaders, which the public didn’t know about at the time. [It] ended up leading to the Good Friday accords in 1998 that essentially cut a deal for a tremendous amount of political autonomy for the local communities in Northern Ireland, which effectively, virtually ended terrorism that had gone on for decades.
What we have see is we have seen a pattern. We’ve seen a pattern where states who face terrorism initially want to react with very heavy-handed force — some force, of course, is necessary, I’m not saying none — but often overreact, make the problem worse, and then over time, learn.
Like Robert Pape, Mia Bloom, the U-Mass professor of security studies, also thinks a lot about terrorism before it happens.
BLOOM: One of my main approaches is to look at how terrorist groups change and innovate, how they learn from each other. Looking at, for example, changing operatives from males who were suicide bombers to looking at women terrorists and to increasingly moving to the future, looking at children who engage in political violence. For example, we see children in Boko Haram and ISIS Cubs and we’re seeing more and more children who are militarized across the world.
Bloom takes what you might call an environmental approach to understanding terrorism:
BLOOM: If you have an environment in which young people think that there is nothing for them to lose, and if they’ve got nothing to lose, becoming a martyr isn’t really a high cost. That is a very different environment than if you have a society in which you have very capable young people who think that they have a bright future ahead of them. The push factors are the structural conditions of poverty, lack of education, perhaps occupation. But the pull factors are also things that the terrorist groups are able to offer the individual.
For instance, many people think it’s cool to be a terrorist. There’s this Jihadi cool associated with being a young person who might travel either to Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia or now increasingly, to Syria.
To that end, Mia Bloom says the Internet can tamp down the cool factor as much as it might build it up:
BLOOM: We have some of these Jihadis on social media from the U.K. complaining that, you know, they went to Syria thinking that they were going to be a hero and all they’re doing is cleaning toilets.
Bloom also likes the idea of patrolling the Internet:
BLOOM: We need to make sure that the Internet is a safe place for young people, so inasmuch as we police for sexual predators, we should be looking for these Jihadi predators. We need to have community policing that is very successful, as well as outreach and supporting communities.
We should note, however, that Robert Pape’s research does not give much credence to Bloom’s contention that poverty and lack of education are what push someone toward terrorism.
PAPE: I did the largest demographic profile of suicide attackers that we have. I was able to collect socioeconomic data on 462 suicide attackers, about half of them from Middle Eastern countries. That is the populations we most want to know about. It really shows quite strikingly that the impression we have in the media — that suicide attackers are these loners, dregs of the earth, they’re uneducated, all religious — [is] simply not the case, even in the Middle East.
In fact, most of them come from quite normal backgrounds and are mobilized by the political anger and the political problems. It’s political activism gone wrong.
In any case, Mia Bloom’s view of terrorism contains a personal strand …
BLOOM: Within about three years of starting my research in terrorism, a friend of mine from school — who was someone I’d grown up with — had gone to Israel and joined the military. In 1993, he was kidnapped and tortured and eventually killed by Hamas. Part of my interest was to try to understand what motivated individuals to perpetrate terrorist attacks. But I also felt that the reaction to Jason’s death was very disquieting. It caused a lot of people to say, “We should just kill everyone who’s in the Territories.”
The reaction was very negative against all Palestinians, even though, at the time, Hamas was a fringe movement. Of course, that’s no longer the case. But I thought it was important to have an approach to studying terrorism that was to try to understand the motivations, the political context, the environment in which we see terrorism, and to look at terrorism in a global perspective and not just, for example, looking at terrorism in the Middle East.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: what are the motivations, and what should be done about it? Also: do we — and by “we,” I mean “Americans” — do we make too big a deal out of terrorism?
LEVITT: Terrorism in America is not something to worry about.
And: if you do want to worry about terrorism — could it be that we’re worried about completely the wrong kind of terrorism?
MYHRVOLD: For example, a bio-terror attack on the United States, in all simulations in the studies done so far, could kill 100,000 to a million Americans.
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Today we’re hosting a Freakonomics summit to gather ideas to pass along to an upcoming White House summit on fighting extreme violence in the Middle East, in Europe, in the U.S., and elsewhere. We’ve been talking with people like the security scholar Mia Bloom — who, since we interviewed her, has been invited to join the White House summit. So maybe President Obama and the others there will hear a story like this one, about a would-be homegrown terrorist:
BLOOM: I asked a close friend of mine, Mubin Shaikh, about his experiences because he ended up in an Al Qaeda training camp and in fact, came back to North America with the intent to perpetrate a terrorist attack. He eventually changed his mind and he began to work as an undercover agent for the Canadian Security Services. But I asked him what appealed to him. This was a middle-class kid who didn’t personally experience Islamophobia or hatred. He was well-integrated. I asked Mubin how he was able to be convinced of the value of Jihad, and he said, “One of the things that they did was they distorted the Koran.”
Perhaps we need to make sure that people have a good Islamic education. It’s not a secular education that is the solution, but it’s to make sure that people have an education that is grounded in the Koran and doesn’t skip chapters or verses, doesn’t look at Surat At-Tawbah and go from verse five and chapter nine to verse seven, skipping six, which talks about the Prophet provided free access or free exit for people who wanted to leave the battlefield, and he protected them.
Perhaps when young people are studying the great books, one of the great books should be the Koran. Perhaps children in middle America, in the middle of Nebraska, should know what the Koran is about. Demystify it, not just for Muslim communities so that they integrate and they don’t feel isolated, but also just to educate the country in general.
When it comes to educating the country in general about terrorism, some people think we need a different kind of education entirely:
MYHRVOLD: The world has really turned a blind eye towards what I call strategic terrorism, the idea that a terrorist group could inflict damage of enormous consequences, and we just don’t seem to be working on it.
That’s Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive who now runs Intellectual Ventures, and writes about modernist cuisine, and a couple years ago made some noise in national-security circles by publishing a monograph called “Strategic Terrorism: a Call to Action.” Strategic terrorism is categorically different from what Myhrvold calls “tactical terrorism”:
MYHRVOLD: For example, a bioterror attack on the United States, in all simulations in the studies done so far, could kill 100,000 to a million Americans. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber at a mall could kill ten people. Now if you wanted to kill 100,000 people with suicide bombers you would need 10,000 attacks. Frankly, that’s not very likely, but it may be possible for a group to execute one attack that kills 100,000 or a million or maybe even more.
What kind of bioterror attack does Myhrvold envision?
MYHRVOLD: Smallpox is the one everyone talks about because smallpox is a truly horrific disease. A huge part of the population was never immunized because we drove smallpox extinct, except there’s some labs that have it. Russia actually produced weaponized smallpox that was probably a much more virulent strain than the wild one. They produced literally tons of it, thousands and thousands of pounds of this deadly, deadly transmissible thing.
If a terrorist got their hands on that, or frankly, they got their hands on a natural thing like ebola. We saw the amount of terror that ebola has struck. Ebola is actually fairly mild compared to many of these biological agents in terms of infectiousness, that’s because ebola requires you to get bodily fluids on you and in you. Smallpox transmits through the air, so just having a conversation with someone riding on a bus or a plane, you’re going to get it.
To the degree that you have a human-to-human transmissible disease like this, and you release it, you create a global pandemic that would shake the foundations of modern civilization. A skeptic would say, “Look, it hasn’t happened yet, so maybe it won’t happen.” Or someone could say, well, “Gee, terrorists are more interested in blowing people at shopping centers or flying airplanes into buildings than they other things.”
I call this the Blanche DuBois strategy, from A Streetcar Named Desire: “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.” Well, this is relying on the kindness of terrorists. It’s true that most terrorism is low-tech, and it’s true that most terrorism is about getting some misguided person to strap a suicide vest on, and go to a crowded place. But the 9/11 attack showed enormous strategic intent. It showed tremendous planning. It showed operational discipline.
Mohammad Atta, the leader of that attack, had a masters degree from a university in Germany in urban planning. If he’d had a masters degree in molecular biology instead, he could have done a lot more damage.
In Myhrvold’s view, the U.S. needs to put a lot more emphasis on strategic threats, versus tactical threats, as it’s done in the past:
MYHRVOLD: Well, the best example is, after World War II, with the advent of the nuclear weapons, we split the Air Force and the Navy into both the strategic forces, the Strategic Air Command in the case of the Air Force. It’s the nuclear submarine force in the case of the Navy. Those folks deal with ICBMs, missiles that have nuclear warheads that could frankly end the world. They don’t give a damn about anything else. They’re not about tanks. They’re not about pistols or helicopters, or any other weapons. They’re about what are called strategic weapons.
Meanwhile, the rest of the armed forces, they’re the guys that carry guns, have tanks and ships, and all of the other sorts of things that are focused on the tactical stuff.
DUBNER: Why do you think there’s not more coordination, whether within the U.S. or between countries against strategic terrorism? Is it a resource allocation issue? Is it a probably misperception issue? Something else? All of the above?
MYHRVOLD: It’s a lack of top-down leadership. In the U.S., the military, the F.B.I., the intelligence agencies, many people recognize that this is a possibility. There are people who study it, work on it, and they do so in their own little silos. If there was an attack tomorrow, a future 9/11-like report written by the survivors would say, “Actually, we had this piece of intel on this, this piece of intel on that, and we put it together, but not fully.” Then, “Oops, we didn’t actually have any protective gear, and we didn’t know what to do.”
There’s this old truism that generals always are ready to fight the last war, not the one they have to fight. It’s human nature. It’s the thing that we actually focus on, are the things that are fresh in our minds, the lessons we think we learned from last time.
DUBNER: Right, but you could say that a lot of things that we do naturally they’re human nature and therefore we accept them. We explain them. We rationalize them. Whether it’s something to do with how we treat our bodies, something we do in society, how we treat the environment and so on. Yet, we work pretty hard to supersede that human nature in matters where the stakes are high enough, so how do you do that here?
MYHRVOLD: That’s the definition of leadership. Leadership is taking people to a place they wouldn’t have gotten to already. If you see a parade going down the street and you run up in front of it, they’re not actually following you. You’re only leading if you take them to a place they wouldn’t have gone to by their lonesome selves. Of course, we have lots of people trying to supply that leadership at many parts of the government.
I don’t mean to sell them all short, but the fact that we haven’t seen this attack already deeply affects everyone’s expectations.
JACOBS: If you ask anybody at the top of the food chain in national security he’ll tell you exactly the same thing.
That’s Jack Jacobs, the retired Army Colonel, he’s a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroism during the Vietnam War. He’s now a military analyst for NBC and MSNBC.
JACOBS: We really don’t have any national strategy, but to be fair, trying to develop a national strategy in this national-security environment, where we’re just getting started, is probably too much to ask. In fact, the National Command Authority — that includes the President of the United States and all the people who directly report to him, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and so on — what they’re doing is solving tactical problems. They’re making tactical decisions. In the circumstances, in the absence of an overarching strategy, that’s probably all you can do.
But I would like to see a summit convened and not an open session either, by the way, that would determine what our national security objectives are and what are the specific goals we need in order to achieve them. Until we do that, we’ll be playing tactics and not strategy. We’re going to be sending drones to blow up guy A or guy B without any idea about what the long-term positive strategy that achieves. I’m not averse to that. If you want some bad guys killed, I’m your guy. I’m strongly in favor of that.
But what I would like to see is some logic attendant to what our tactical moves are. I don’t see any of that yet.
DUBNER: What’s the difference, Jack, in how politicians view terrorism compared to military, law enforcement, intelligence?
JACOBS: Politicians have a tendency to use the term “terrorism” to apply to anything that looks dangerous and particularly those things that we don’t seem to have any plans to deal with. It behooves them to categorize almost everything as terrorism. The result of that is that we’ve ignored some of the threats in which people don’t directly get killed and cybersecurity is one of them.
DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about that. If you were allocating resources to physical security and cybersecurity and whatever other kinds of security you might want, how would you, Colonel Jacobs, suggest we do things differently?
JACOBS: Well, I spend a lot more money, a lot more time, a lot more other resources, including human resources, attempting to solve the problem of how we protect our data at rest. We’re just now realizing that all of our data are at risk. I was talking to a friend of mine who runs a very large retail operation. We were talking about cybersecurity. I said, “What do you care? You’re just, like, selling socks or Slurpees or something or other.”
He says, “You must be joking. We’re a bank! We have everybody’s credit card numbers, banking information, everybody’s address, their phone numbers, everything about them.” Every enterprise, every commercial enterprise, has data at rest that needs to be protected, not just the Defense Department or the Energy Department. So far we’ve paid short shrift to that threat. Enemies of the United States, casual hackers, especially if they’ve got sophisticated computers have no problem entering our systems.
The danger is real and we are just now realizing that the danger is real. I would spend lots more money on that.
So what sort of advice have we turned up today to pass along to the White House summit? As Mia Bloom and Robert Pape told us, the root causes of terrorism are often not what we assume — and this, obviously, affects how you think about prevention. Jack Jacobs and Nathan Myhrvold warned us not to spend so many resources preventing old-fashioned, physical terrorism when the threats of bioterrorism and cyberterrorism may be much greater. Steve Levitt, meanwhile, my economist friend — he too thinks that Americans worry more than they should about the threat of physical terrorism:
LEVITT: You just want to start with the basic idea that it is almost at zero. That whether it’s a little bit bigger now or a little less now, terrorism for essentially forever has been just a drop in the bucket of the ways that people can die. If you compare it to any health risk, like diabetes or heart attacks or cancer, or any socially-constructed risk, like dying in a car crash or even accidents like falling down stairs, in general, terrorism in America is not something to worry about.
Very different if you live in Syria or Iraq or someplace like that, terrorism matters there because terrorism is like a way of life. It’s really terrorism and the fight for control of government or whatnot that are all mixed together. But if you’re American and you don’t want to be a victim of terror, if you basically stay in the United States or anywhere other than places that are actively fighting for control of government, you’re incredibly safe.
Levitt doesn’t think that he has much to contribute to an anti-terrorism summit:
LEVITT: To be honest, if someone wanted to use my services more effectively, I would be much less effective in an Obama Administration get together trying to fight terrorism than actually working on the other side. It’s much easier for economists to come up with good ideas about how to be terrorists rather than how to fight terrorists, because how to be a good terrorist is about thinking what are the things you can do to a society, which is most disruptive and most affects either the psychology or the commerce of a country.
It’s almost the economic question in reverse. Economists spend a lot of time thinking about how most efficiently to make economies run, so we’re actually pretty good at thinking about how to destroy economies, too. Not that any of us are actively engaged in that endeavor, but Iwe would be more useful on that side of the table.
DUBNER: O.K., so after the anti-terrorism summit is over, if they hold a pro-terrorism summit, you’ll volunteer for that.
LEVITT: I’m not saying I would volunteer, but I would say that if ISIS wanted to be particularly effective, perhaps they should kidnap a bunch of economists and treat us kindly and trick us into believing in their mission and take advantage of our knowledge.
DUBNER: Win-win because then the economists go away, too.