|NONZERO THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY By ROBERT WRIGHT|
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND
PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE
PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
in Slate, Sept. 12, 2001]
Problem With Retaliation
Yesterday someone asked me to discuss terrorism in game-theoretic terms, and I realized that, in this case, you almost can't. Game theory assumes that all players are amenable to positive and negative reinforcement. When you're dealing with people who don't mind death—who in a sense even welcome it—your arsenal of negative reinforcement shrinks considerably.
Indeed, killing Islamic fundamentalist terrorists (which the
perpetrators almost certainly were) can be not just ineffective, but
counterproductive. If death in a holy war is a ticket to the highest
echelons of heaven, then the people we kill become not just martyrs, but
role models. Or, at least, they become martyrs to many and role models
to the small but consequential number of fundamentalist Muslims who
themselves aspire to martyrdom.
Safire today derided
President Clinton's response to the African embassy bombings—lobbing
cruise missiles into a terrorist camp in Afghanistan—as an ineffectual
and "demeaning pretense." But it was worse than ineffectual.
Does anyone doubt that the incident gave Osama Bin Laden five eager
recruits for every one of his soldiers who died? Now Safire and many
others want to do the same thing on a larger scale.
Don't get me wrong.
If Bin Laden is indeed behind this, then he should be either killed or
put on trial. There is a difference between Islamic terrorists and major
financiers of Islamic terrorism, and the latter are more amenable to
game-theoretic logic. The number of people in the world who are in a
position to fill Bin Laden's shoes is small, and I doubt that any of
them welcomes death.
Still, how we go
about bringing Bin Laden to justice (assuming, again, that this is his
work) will massively influence how safe Americans are in the decades to
come. One thing yesterday's attack did is give President Bush great but
temporary influence in the shaping of international anti-terrorist norms
and institutions. The NATO allies, and many other nations, will in the
coming weeks show inordinate assent to his initiatives in this area. But
if his first initiative is to launch a unilateral assault on
Afghanistan, that political capital will have been mostly spent, with
few if any good long-term effects and some clear-cut bad ones.
alternative. Bush declares that the Afghan government is morally obliged
to turn Bin Laden over and that, if it doesn't, it will risk military
attack and occupation—and its leaders will themselves risk being
either killed or put on trial for complicity in murder. He asks for
support from the international community—including military support
from NATO in the event of a war with Afghanistan. And he puts all of
this in the proper rhetorical context: He is not just retaliating, but
rather setting the kind of precedent that the entire world needs to set
as we approach an age when terrorists will have nuclear and biological
In all likelihood,
Bush would get military backing from NATO, and, more generally,
sufficient international support to help turn the entire exercise,
however bloody, into a precedent of lasting value. (Note: If he wants to
avoid the bloodshed, he could whisper this threat to the Taliban before
announcing it to the world; once public, the threat becomes
psychologically and politically harder for Afghan leaders to succumb
to.) In fact, as Anthony Lewis suggested this morning (in a column that
was a paragon of reason in the face of crisis and nicely counterbalanced
Safire's column on the other side of the op-ed page), Bush should seek
forceful support from the United Nations; Russia and China, as Lewis
noted, have no interest in sustaining terrorism.
Yesterday Bush said
there will be no distinction made between terrorists and the governments
that harbor them. This is a valid principle. But the choice he faces is
whether to make this an ephemeral talking point that accompanies
unilateral American action or a lasting international norm.
Indeed, if you want
to think really long term, you could imagine this norm further evolving
into a principle of international law that is truly enforceable. But of
course, this train of thought could lead to discussion of an
international criminal court, and even after yesterday this
administration probably isn't prepared to countenance such a thing. For
now I'll settle for a simpler goal: Don't do anything rash, and don't do
anything unilateral unless our friends desert us.
action—including the one I've described—will have a big downside:
fomenting Islamic radicalism, a radicalism that, at the grass-roots
level, is simply not susceptible to normal deterrence. The object of the
game is to outweigh that downside with an upside: 1) Deter the future
financing of these radicals; 2) deter the future hosting of these
radicals by state governments; 3) give the mechanism of deterrence the
broadest possible base of geopolitical support, and hence the most