Obama Says Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat

In an interview this week, President Obama said that terrorism does not pose an existential threat:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what's the -- you know, what's essence of who we are.

He said something similar in January.

On one hand, what he said is blindingly obvious; and overinflating terrorism's risks plays into the terrorists' hands. Climate change is an existential threat. So is a comet hitting the earth, intelligent robots taking over the planet, and genetically engineered viruses. There are lots of existential threats to humanity, and we can argue about their feasibility and probability. But terrorism is not one of them. Even things that actually kill tens of thousands of people each year -- car accidents, handguns, heart disease -- are not existential threats.

But no matter how obvious this is, until recently it hasn't been something that serious politicians have been able to say. When Vice President Biden said something similar last year, one commentary carried the headline "Truth or Gaffe?" In 2004, when presidential candidate John Kerry gave a common-sense answer to a question about the threat of terrorism, President Bush used those words in an attack ad. As far as I know, these comments by Obama and Biden are the first time major politicians are admitting that terrorism does not pose an existential threat and are not being pilloried for it.

Overreacting to the threat is still common, and exaggeration and fear still make good politics. But maybe now, a dozen years after 9/11, we can finally start having rational conversations about terrorism and security: what works, what doesn't, what's worth it, and what's not.

Posted on February 3, 2015 at 6:15 AM • 72 Comments

Comments

Bob S.February 3, 2015 7:14 AM

Not an "existential threat"?????

Then why the 24/7 the massive over reaction, massive expenditures, massive mass surveillance, mass destruction of our civil rights?

Sorry, but it comes across as doublespeak....which is the new way of saying: doubletalk.

(Voted for him twice, btw.)

HemrajFebruary 3, 2015 7:20 AM

terrorism has new face called "Cyber Warfare"
then is cyber warfare is also "Existential Threat" Mr. President ???

shadowspeakerFebruary 3, 2015 7:21 AM

Behind some western walls its not a high level threat, or at least its diminished. But in a vague way, and not a clear way, the world's 4th world war has started, and it is spreading. The arab spring has not released moderate governance in general. It has unleashed imperialist islam. Today the war gathers pace. Its in Pakistan, India, Afganistan, up into Chechnya, and across into the western region of China, and down to Bali - all across the middle east, Syria - into the horn of africa and across the Sahara into Nigeria - and its agents be they in the public eye, education, schools, workplaces, government orgs banks, finance, and the tech sector - are all active in the west. Although the militants exist and are in 5000 groups, with cariable numbers, these are supplied and supported by islamists that count in millions upon millions.

In the worst cases, education has been entirely replaced with 'madrasa' schools where the young now face 13 hours a day of forced koranic reading and brainwashing. Pakistan alone has a 200 million population with large parts degrading into this. This is the engine and the modern day legions of beyond Mein Kampf lunacy is creating armies in the millions.

A very large part of the numbers of ISIS are European Muslims. Anyone thinking that islamists have not fueled this - are sadly deluded. This war is easily killing 10,000 people a year, its far larger than that in scale. And thats before you start talking about displaced people, people liking under terror, or entire populations being told that their women have to face state enforced FGM.

This war is taking down whole countries. And its ripples and effects are huge. Its not going away, and appeasement and ignorance are going to take the world to the bring. This war now operates over a larger territory and involves more countries than WW2. The population figures affected are now larger, the number of dead is lower, but will overtake ww2 long term, as will the displaced figures.

lazloFebruary 3, 2015 7:35 AM

Although I completely appreciate the sentiment and wish it were more widespread, I think it deserves some caveats, at least depending on your definition. If you define terrorism as anything with a goal of inciting terror, then no existential threat *can* be terrorism, because you can't be terrified after you stop existing. If you define terrorism as 'people bombing crowded places', or 'people trying to hijack airplanes', or something else similarly narrow and currently existing, then no, it clearly isn't an existential threat. If you define terrorism as some relatively small group of people searching for a fulcrum to leverage their actions into widespread effects, then... maybe? The paper you linked on existential threats listed at least one (genetically engineered biological agent) that doesn't seem out of the realm of possibilities for a terrorist that fits this definition. Mind you, I don't think this is likely, but if you're making a list of possible existential threats and that's close enough to your definition of a terrorist, then yeah, terrorists should probably be on your list.

KarlFebruary 3, 2015 7:41 AM

When given this background, what Obama says makes sense with regard to terrorism. However, Obama still appears to be discounting radical Islam, which could be classified as a Shriek according to the linked paper.

Bob S.February 3, 2015 9:24 AM

@shadowspeaker

Re: Imperial Islam

Maybe so. Would that be similar to Imperial Capitalism?

If indeed the premise is correct, how can Islamic countries fall to Islamic Imperialism? Are not they Islamic, already?

In the USA only about 1% of the population is Muslim. I think if we minded our own business, we could easily manage any small group Muslim "imperialsim" here.

Let the Muslims decide what form of Islam they want and let's just stay out of it.

It's not my fight, or yours.

(Frankly, I think Europe has a serious problem, however.)

John E. QuantumFebruary 3, 2015 9:28 AM

While it's a good thing that Obama acknowledged the fact that terrorism isn't the end of the US, there is so much money to be made fighting terrorism that the threat will always be politically impossible to discount or relegate to back burner status. Take the money out of the equation and the threat will then be acknowledged as the nuisance it really is, rather than the number one security issue it is now portrayed to be.

KPFebruary 3, 2015 9:44 AM

He means that it's not an existential threat to _America_. However, the thousands of Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian lives lost on the other side of the world say something different to the people trying to survive in the war zones of the Greater Middle East.

SasparillaFebruary 3, 2015 10:10 AM

John E. Quantum

There is the short term political expedient "safety" angle here too. It's always politically safer to keep the emergency safety measures up and in place...for decades...than have to deal with the fallout of taking them down and then some single incident occurring.

Imagine what would have happened had the Obama administration rolled back all the surveillance stuff (like they should have) before Boston? Even though it was all worthless in preventing that, had it been rolled back the administration would have been burned at the stake in the media.

This also points to the fact that it would take a truly courageous, principles individual as President to roll things back, get shot down slowly piecemeal in the courts, or will have to be rolled back via the House and the Senate with the President acquiescing and signing it.

PaulFebruary 3, 2015 10:22 AM

article.body.each_line do |line|
  if line =~ /obama/i
    comments.post!(
      user: current_user,
      body: gut.reaction(article.headline))
    break
  end
  brain.parse(line)
end

PeterFebruary 3, 2015 10:33 AM

The limits of physics are unknown, and the potential dangers from biological experimentation are rather obvious. One day soon it may be possible for a single individual working in isolation to completely screw the world, killing all humans in the process. Picture an engineered virus, for example, or a very large h-bomb. How can this be avoided other than by having total surveillance directed by "intelligent" machines? Terrorism is certainly an existential threat for the future, if not today.

Erdem MemisyaziciFebruary 3, 2015 11:10 AM

Islam is a problem as much as Greek fraternities are. You cannot destroy an idea, you can only validate it one way or the other. It's extremely closed minded for anyone to think a specific religion is a threat to the world. I'm Muslim, and I live in the US, frankly the level of biggotry is disheartening. A picture meant to be Mohammad doesn't make my head explode, and no, the religion isn't any crazier than any other popular religion. What's crazy is being under constant pressure by everyday people who watch the news and think I'm going to behead them. Although I have to say, there were a few people I gave a second thought to chopping off their heads.

SJFebruary 3, 2015 11:10 AM

"terrorism is not an existential threat. [comparable to a comet striking the planet and destroying the human-friendly nature of Earth's climate]"

I agree, terrorism is not an existential threat to the human race, or the viability of the global climate.

However, I think I disagree with the premise that terrorism is therefore not an existential threat to anything.Some forms of terrorism may be an existential threat to elements of the current world order.*

Whether this existential threat to the current world order means that a "War on [some forms] of Terror" is a good strategy is a separate question.


---------------
*Among forms of terrorism in the past fifty years which were not an existential threat to the international balance of power: the Irish Republican Army, the Tamil Tigers, and the African National Congress.

Among forms of terrorism which usually generate questions about existential threat to the current international balance of power: various Islamist terror groups.

DONFebruary 3, 2015 11:14 AM

surveillance, civil rights........ ¿ We have not civil rights anymore....

@Hemraj : "Cyber Warfare" You're right about this.


What Obama says is : bullshit

U.S have destroyed everything ---> mass surveillance ----> everything,; We have become "paranoia"

We have become,,,,,,,,,they won!!!!!!!!!


D

J EvansFebruary 3, 2015 11:32 AM

@Peter - I very much agree.

Not everyone is fooled by this pseudo "voice of reason" nonsense and "what, me worry?" arrogance.

I strongly recommend Stephens' "America in Retreat."

Would you say the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was just another murder having no greater consequence than the murder of a random individual? Of course not, but that's the crazy stuff we're hearing, like, more people die from snake bites than terrorism so don't react differently. It's nuts!

Any mention of Obama is a huge mistake, right off. Read "America in Retreat" to gain some perspective on the powder keg that is being created under the guise of reason. And how peddling the "we should just stay home and mind our own business" and "besides, we need the money." are preludes to a perilous withdrawal.

I got so sick of often hearing, just a few years ago, how any mention of cyber-anything was nothing but scare mongering for the purpose of increasing the Federal Budget. The following year, do I have to rewind the whole thing? Cowering in the basement behind an air-gapped computer? Remember that?

BTW Brett Stephens was on Charlie Rose last night.

JRDFebruary 3, 2015 12:06 PM

@J Evans

If we had stayed home and minded our own business, we wouldn't be the target that we are today. I'd *love* it if America had pulled out and focused on itself for a while.

Now we are in the quagmire and are going to have a harder time extricating ourselves than we did with Vietnam.

DanielFebruary 3, 2015 12:45 PM

@Paul. That's funny.

@Bruce, "until recently it hasn't been something that serious politicians have been able to say."

Neither Obama or Biden are up for reelection, that's why they are free to say it. I'd be far more impressed if someone like Clinton or Bush said the same thing--Hillary and Jeb I mean.

Brandioch ConnerFebruary 3, 2015 1:42 PM

@J Evans

Cowering in the basement behind an air-gapped computer? Remember that?
No. I do not remember that. I'm pretty sure that it did not happen.

Would you say the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was just another murder having no greater consequence than the murder of a random individual?
Read the history. It could have been nothing more than a footnote. Name three other princes who have died. That is how unimportant he was.


But like "terrorism" today, it was used to justify attacks that certain politicians wanted.

AdrianFebruary 3, 2015 1:46 PM

What good is it to say such things if you won't do anything to change the government's national security policy?

65535February 3, 2015 2:30 PM

Terrorism is not an existential threat. That is good to hear.

Can we start curtailing the enormous spending on the NSA, the huge expenditures for zero day viruses, the costly Secret FISA Court, the cattle lines of the TSA, and the mass data collection by the like spy agencies - and put the money to better uses?

GrauhutFebruary 3, 2015 2:30 PM

Peter: "One day soon it may be possible for a single individual working in isolation to completely screw the world, killing all humans in the process. Picture an engineered virus, for example, or a very large h-bomb. How can this be avoided other than by having total surveillance directed by "intelligent" machines?"

Trust me, a lone wolf able to set up a bio weapon or nuke lab would have to be more intelligent than your machines to get the job done, so mass surveillance is sensless, you would just see an average information footprint because such a guy or girl would generate one for your surveillance bots. Forget it.

It would be incredibly easy to bring this system to a halt, but nobody with a brain did it yet, so thats not a problem, nobody with a brain wants this.

Take good care of your middle class, invest in them, not in drag net surveillance, and you are secure.

whprattFebruary 3, 2015 2:55 PM

"Individual Who Shall Not Be Named Due To Fear Of Invoking His Name Says Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat" makes for a really poor headline. I commend Mr. Schneier for standing up to the man and not obfuscating.

A is A. Obama exists. Deal with it. You can't discuss the sayings of the man without discussing or at least acknowledging the man. Leave the He Who Shall Not Be Named thinking to Hogwarts.

YankeeFebruary 3, 2015 2:58 PM

It's encouraging to hear leaders in the United States finally start speaking rationally about the threats terrorism posses to American citizens. Such as how American's are more likely to die in a car crash.

With that said, why is terrorism still being used to justify all these mass surveillance programs which monitor so many innocent, law-abiding citizens suspected of no crime.

Can we finally start admitting that terrorism is the pretext being used to hide the extensive list of activities mass surveillance is really used for. Activities such as information control, crushing dissidents, economic espionage, tracking down journalists and their whistleblowing sources. Just to name very few of the things mass surveillance is really used for.

harodotusFebruary 3, 2015 3:21 PM

I think the problem here is that many people don't really know what the word "existential" means. Even though they think they do. I bet a poll of US residents would get a higher percentage for it meaning something like "theoretical" or "really important".

Then there is the trouble with intended scope. Even here in this blog there is debate, the paper in question defines "existential" as global terminal risks. But is that what President Obama meant? Did he mean Terminal risks to the US? To the world order? What was he thinking people would take away from his statements?

I'm not sure even now.

I can agree Terrorism is not a terminal risk to everyone in humanity. But i'm pretty sure that most listeners to reports of President Obama's speech took that as the intended meaning.

harodotusFebruary 3, 2015 3:25 PM

Ugh, I meant "But i'm pretty sure that most listeners to reports of President Obama's speech didn't take that as the intended meaning".

Dirk PraetFebruary 3, 2015 3:32 PM

@ Lazlo

The paper you linked on existential threats listed at least one (genetically engineered biological agent) that doesn't seem out of the realm of possibilities for a terrorist that fits this definition.

Depends on the kind of terrorist. Given that the US associates terrorism almost exclusively with jihadi extremists, one can raise the question to which extent a relatively small group of brainwashed and mostly incompetent douchebag losers can really be considered an existential threat to humanity. Receiving combat training in Syria or Afghanistan is still something entirely different than acquiring the materials and expertise needed for assymetric nuclear or biological warfare. Watching too much "24", "Strike Back" and "Homeland Security" is not good for paranoia levels.

@ Shadowspeaker

A very large part of the numbers of ISIS are European Muslims.

No they aren't. They are a distinct minority and hugely impopular with local population and regional ISIS combattants alike. The last thing either of them need is yet some more retarded farangs telling them how to live their lives.

As to your concern about the rise of a so-called "imperialist islam", it may be worth noting that until a few decades ago, islamic states and religious fanatism was a largely marginal phenomenon confined to countries like Iran and Saoudi Arabia. Unfortunately, very few lessons were learned from Iran. On one side, the traditional power blocks kept supporting friendly authoritarian regimes that were eventually toppled by popular uprisings, while on the other side invading and destabilising others considered unfriendly. The resulting power vacuums were fertile soil for violent warlords and religious fanatics funded by nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This disastrous foreign policy has led to one failed state after the other (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc.) and the rise of AQ and ISIS. If nothing else, we primarily have ourselves to blame.

Another thing you may wish to consider is that the majority of muslims are peaceful people that abhor wahabism and salafism as much as you and I do. This is not a tale of they and us, it's one of all of us together against medieval lunacy and barbarism once more expressed in the decapitation of several Japanese hostages last week and the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh today.

@ Daniel

Neither Obama or Biden are up for reelection, that's why they are free to say it.

+1

BrianFebruary 3, 2015 4:44 PM

Mr.Harper wastes all that tax money on prisons, spying on Canadian downloads all because one soldier died in Ottawa. Bill C-44 is suddenly passed.(Cough cough C.S.E.C, NSA of Canada.) It is ok, after 10 years they will realize that they overreacted. There isnt even an organization like E.F.F to stop Harper spying. I think with him as a PM, it is impossible to communicate with people without encryption.

Clive RobinsonFebruary 3, 2015 5:49 PM

Dirk Praet,

I don't know if you get the satirical magazine Private Eye where you are or not, however they had a reprint of cartoons from previous issues.

One that caused a rueful smile was of a Muslim leader talking to two heavily armed fighters, with him saying "Bad news lads we are going back to the old ways... of education, medicine, art, culture and peace".

A large part of the so called Muslim issue had little or nothing to do with the West or Christianity, and a lot to do with the Prophet not naming a successor, if you speak to Sunnis and Shias you will find that they actually agree on over 95% of what they actually believe in as the direct part of their faith and perhaps a surprising amount with both Christians and Jews. It's leadership and interpretation where the differences have led to conflict.

The West had little interest in the many nomadic tribes of the Middle East and it was only due to armed conflict amongst mainly European nations a century ago, that who should run the various "protectorates" became a major political issue for the West.

In many ways it was the escalation of European hostilities and those hell bent on "Empire building" that brought the middle east onto the world stage. This was because of the West's primary industrial energy source moving once again, this time from coal to oil.

A game of "sell baubles to the natives" was started as had been done in many ways in the past. This time the game was "you sell us oil, we will sell you arms and amunition to get the money back".

The game also had the "Cecil Rhodes" twist in it, and this just inflamed the centuries old "ledership and interpretation" issues.

OBL made it fairly clear at several points in time that his issues with the West but mainly US was due to what he saw was a very dangerous relationship with the House of Saud. Thus OBL's claimed targeting of the US was effectivly as a proxie to the Saudis.

It's realy only since 9/11 that it has become clearer to increasing numbers of people in the West, just what an issue certain parts of the Saudi and Quatari nationals are, with their desires to ensure that their "ledership and interpretation" becomes the defacto one by in essence ethnicaly cleansing other sects of the Muslim Faith. As various people have pointed out, this only became possible due to the vast sums of money paid to these people by the West and predominantly by the US.

Whilst it is not to difficult to see how the current state of afairs came about, it is far from clear what can be done about it. The one thing that is clear, is the more, the more Western parts (ie west of continental Europe) of the West interfere the more they sink into the middle east quagmire to the point where getting out will take a minimum of three generations and more likely six or seven, and that there will be no glory, honour, or wins for the West, just blood, sweat, tears, body bags and moral and financial bankruptcy.

WmFebruary 3, 2015 6:54 PM

Handguns kill people. No, people kill people. Here in Texas, handguns being carried by thousands of residents have brought down the crime rate substantially, reportedly by 35%+. It is too bad that eastern European block socialist ideology has infected Bruce's mind against guns.

Dirk PraetFebruary 3, 2015 8:29 PM

@ Clive

It's leadership and interpretation where the differences have led to conflict.

Exactly. As is intentional subversion of the faith by leaders with more worldly goals and ambitions. Or in Denis Diderot's words: "The distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great".

albertFebruary 3, 2015 8:35 PM

@Bruce said:
"...we can finally start having rational conversations about terrorism and security..."
.
The only 'rational conversations' about security have been right here. They're not going to be in the MSM. Those 'conversations' will be window dressing. The anti-terrorism super-security apparatus is now fully bureaucratized and institutionalized. It is as entrenched as the political system that supports it.
.
Did the folks inCongruous vote for the Patriot Act 'cause they were scared? Some did, but really, wouldn't the defense contractors have had more influence? And wouldn't Wall Street be interested as well? Wars are good for business, hence the wars on terrorism, drugs, etc. These guys are brilliant at finding ways to make money.
.
Terrorism IS an existential threat to Americas _interests_ abroad. That's why we need a 'war' against it. Terrorism is bad for business.
.
Regarding 911. According to official government sources and reports, it was planned and executed by a small band of Muslim terrorists. (Don't start with the conspiracy theories) This was a brilliant plan, because it succeeded in taking down the WTC, part of the Pentagon, and damned near the White House. And it was the _second_ attack on the WTC.

What do we pay those spooks and agents for? They are paid to think up these scenarios, and plan for them _before_ they happen, not afterwards. The FBI failed because they're LE, they react, they don't act. So now we invest billions, and we get the Boston Bombings, another intelligence failure. Perhaps we need to stop terrorist generation, by removing the conditions which cause it to grow.

The Middle East is a festering sore, exacerbated by the outmoded colonial policies of yesteryear, and the constant meddling by the US and its allies. Even the EU countries are sick of it, but the oligarchs that run both the US and the EU are a far more cohesive unit.
.
When it comes to picking sides, 'we' always seem to take the wrong one, and end up losing. We should be more pragmatic, like China. The establish _business_ relationships with trade partners. The US is a laughing stock on the world stage, with all the talk about democracy, human rights, and equality. Shut up! Go, buy what you need, sell what you can, and leave. It's simple business practice. So you need to pay a bribe, so what? So there's a horrible dictator, so what? So people are dying, so what. Like no one's dying in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine, etc.,etc.,etc. The world is fed up with our constant meddling. Stop, before it's too late.
.
When the chickens come home to roost, there'll be no roost to roost in.
.
I gotta go...

NobodySpecialFebruary 3, 2015 10:40 PM

I thought terrorism was the existential cause of America?

A group of terrorists get together, kill people, drive anyone how doesn't agree with them out of the country and impose their own laws and religous values on the remainder. You can lose half a continent.

testFebruary 3, 2015 10:42 PM

Blog seems to be rejecting all comments with a "you have submitted too many comments in a short period of time error"
It's the first time I have visited this week !

name.withheld.for.obvious.reasonsFebruary 4, 2015 12:10 AM

I don't know if everyone has figured it out yet regarding national security in the US (and potentially the globe):

1.) Congress has made a trade for security and liberty...
2.) Congress has done so by trading "your" liberty for "their" security...

Unbelievable, though not so much that are cogent, the conservatives have sold the masses another lie--"We're so for the constitution...unless of course it is inconvenient for us."

So unless the voting public (the idiots) wakes up and recognizes that the political class owns them--we are lost.

AlanSFebruary 4, 2015 8:38 AM

I doubt this statement will result in rational conversations about terrorism. Did the response ever depend on terrorism being an existential threat to the US? The response depended on buying into "never again" and the notion that no level of risk is too small, which in turn made prevention and pre-emption, total information awareness and total control, all in the service of 'liberty', make perfect sense. And why would anyone think that the executive and the ever expanding security bureaucracy are interested in sacrificing their self-interest for rational trade-offs that are in the larger social interest?

CallMeLateForSupperFebruary 4, 2015 9:41 AM

Read this post yesterday without any deep thinking since discussions about [name-your-noun] versus existential [name-your-noun] - or even solely extential whatever, really - lull me to sleep. Not my cup o' tea. (Sociology 101 is one example of the several uni-level social/humanistic courses that nearly killed me.)

So then I tune into Charlie Rose (on Public Broadcasting, PBS) late last night and who's the guest? The former director of the Defense Intelligenxe Agency (DIA). And what does he initially waffle on about but whether or not this and that are existential threats. Mercifully, the conversation quickly jumped off that track, but then Mr DIA struggled, in fits and starts, (does extemporaneous speech poorly, in my opinion) to voice his opinion that the recent ratcheting up of the brutality of ISIS' tactics is based on religion, i.e. Islam, saying (something like), "Yes, I think they really believe... I've been doing this for a long time and..." I turned off the TV at that point. It seemed to me that he had an agenda, that he was impatient to get into that, and that he was feeling frustrated that Charlie Rose wasn't leading him there fast enough.

There are good, valid reasons to differentiate threats and existential threats, but the national conversations about (1) what both are and (2) why the differences between them are important have got lost, it seems to me.

anonymousFebruary 4, 2015 10:03 AM

Wm • Handguns kill people. No, people kill people. Here in Texas, handguns being carried by thousands of residents have brought down the crime rate substantially, reportedly by 35%+. It is too bad that eastern European block socialist ideology has infected Bruce's mind against guns.

* sigh *

I get as frustrated as any other gun-owner (and gun-owner rights activist) when the usual skepticism about "security theater" gets jettisoned in regards to gun-owner control on this web site. However, this was not one of those instances.

The next time, please check your knee before you jerk it. You're making the rest us look like fools.

PS -- It's "Eastern Bloc" (without the "k"), not "block".

IrrationalHarryFebruary 4, 2015 12:20 PM

How we react to terrorism may be more a serious threat than terrorism itself. In spite of large amounts of weapons that terrorists may acquire, they will never achieve success or popular local support by terrorising communities. Throughout history such organisations have always failed as their very nature culls their own numbers while angering or terrifying practically all others they might hope to recruit from.

Instead of standing up against the foolishness of terrorism with warm hearted, generous and kind understanding shown to others, inviting all other nations to collaborate in peaceful actions first and military action only to help others in their defence, we saw government lash out as if it was afraid. Rather than show a government that was strong it instead made the very people it hoped to frighten believe they could strike a critical blow against a much larger opponent.
Government surveillance technology, software and hardware originally designed in secret to spy on foreign targets, was subverted and instead turned against the very public itself. Safety features designed to protect public privacy which were originally built into surveillance technology were quietly and deliberately removed.

Intelligence organisations were collecting private communications belonging to the public long before the most recent terrorist phenomenon, these two separate activities aren't actually connected at all. It was information technology that helped the rapid growth of the surveillance industry, and the stubborn political goals of just a small number of people are what made this monster finally take it's shape.

The desire to retain power completely occupied the focus of the decision makers. Brain matter that should of instead been contemplating how to continue protecting freedom and liberty into the future, was instead contemplating it's own popularity.
Encrypting private information belonging to the public that was caught up by the new monster dragnet had lost the governments favour. The original purpose built hardware to protect public privacy was stripped from the system along with it's accompanying software that separated the information of targets for collection, while encrypting the private information of innocent citizens to protect it from abuse.

A foreign power, natural disaster, crime statistics, race, religion, class, any of those excuses can also be used to collect the private information of the people.

tyrFebruary 4, 2015 3:04 PM


I'm amazed when supposedly rational individuals
propose the idea that single individuals can by
some magic attribute "destroy the whole world".

I have always liked Vernes fictions but never
made the mistake of conflating them with any
reasonable worldview. things are metastable, a
lot harder to push over than they appear to
modern versions of Chicken Little. Usually it's
just fear mongering by propagandists for some
other agenda. Worse there is nothing new about
conjuring up Boogeymen to keep the adrenals at
work.

Once you've been around long enough to see the
cycle of reaction to every new bit of information
take place and it go from Ice Age is coming to
we're all doomed by Climate change then you'll
be a lot less prone to hysteria over some silly
idea presented as factual. The rules of evidence
are not negated by anyones silly opinions.

We evolved in conditions where paranoia was a
virtue because of real threats, real threats do
still exist, one of them just went by our orbit.

There has never been any shortage of megalomaniac
nuts in humanity either, the right response is to
drop a net over them and lock them up. Suddenly
deciding that they are now capable of planetary
actions is pure citythink caused by living in a
hivelike urban existence without experience of
the greater world outside. it is also one of our
major mythic lies about ourselves to think we can
now control nature in some hubristic fashion.

I'm a lot more concerned about the unspoken truth
that no one is really in charge, no one has a clue
as to what to do about almost everything going on.
If the world gets destroyed it won't be planned, it
will be piecemeal bombed out of existence by the
clueless who have no plans for a future. We have
seen the real enemy every time we look into a
mirror.

vas pupFebruary 4, 2015 4:13 PM

@JRD • February 3, 2015 12:06 PM. Very reasonable post!

@all: level of terrorism threat/damage to mankind as a whole depends on direct (e.g. having WMD) destructive power of technology in their possession or ability to initiate/provoke usage of such power by those having it in legitimate possession (US, Russia, China; India, Pakistan; Iran, Israel) against each other (e.g. IT/communication technologies). That level is definitely dynamic.

Marcos El MaloFebruary 4, 2015 5:02 PM

@Erdem Memisyazici

When I turned 50 last year, I was stunned to realize I had made it thus far without murdering anyone. Not that it's on my bucket list, but given my disproportionate violent fantasies conjured by encounters with annoying people, it's quite an achievement.

My sympathies for the bigotry you are encountering. Perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that Muslims are just the latest group to be mistreated by White Anglo Saxon Protestant society. If history is any judge, the intensity will fade eventually. Muslims might even make it into "model minority" status someday.

albertFebruary 4, 2015 6:04 PM

@tyr
A single individual might create a devastating virus, or something like a prion, which could take out millions, but a relatively small number of, to use Obamas term, 'folks' might. It doesn't take magic; an all out nuclear war would do it.
.
The nuclear arms race was insane when it began, and it's still going on ("...The US annual spending on its nuclear forces is $16bn and it is expected to increase on average by 10% annually for the next five years...." - http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/us-begin-1-trillion-upgrade-nuclear-weapons-arsenal-1474990
.
One trillion dollars over the next 30 years! Money that could be invested in disarmament instead.
.
Greed seems to be the primary motivator in Western societies, whether for money or power. Apparently, we were endowed by our creator or creators with inalienable amounts of it. It's really quite amazing. Here is a motivation that virtually trumps all rational thought and human instinct, and consequently, our means of survival as a species. We really are special.
.
Fortunately for most of the Earths inhabitants, its ecosystem is fairly balanced, and, barring cosmic catastrophes, should remain for a long time. It might certainly be better off without us. We do have the ability to control Nature, but not in a positive way. We create chemicals that do not biodegrade, concentrate natural radioactive elements, and synthesize elements like plutonium, with unimaginably long lifetimes. We manage to concentrate deadly, but naturally dispersed elements, like mercury and lead, into small areas, where they can overcome our bodies natural defenses.
.
Pogo summed it up pretty well: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
.
...

AmazedFebruary 4, 2015 7:27 PM

OK it's not a threat. Then why are we spending billions on DHS, NSA, and the vile TSA?

More proof you can't trust a bloody thing any politician says.

Also, the thing about the robots was funny but... in point of fact we may have been taken over already. And they're running the US! But I'm not sure I'd label them intelligent. ;-)

gordoFebruary 4, 2015 7:31 PM

Existential threat: the birth of a cliché
A word that didn’t arrive in English until 1941 is already bonded into nonsense
Dot Wordsworth | The Spectator | 24 January 2015

The construction is strange because it means ‘threat to existence’, rather than ‘threat that exists’. Think of parallels: Islamist threat does not mean ‘threat to Islamists’. Intentional threat is not ‘threat to intention’. (para. 2)

http://www.spectator.co.uk/life/mind-your-language/9421662/existential-threat-the-birth-of-a-cliche/#comments

Nick PFebruary 4, 2015 10:38 PM

@ Bruce

I devised one attack that was an existential threat. It would take a few weeks of operational time, maybe a few tens of millions, and access to specialized hardware. The trick was combining several attacks where they collectively magnify the effect to gigantic proportions. The attack has a moderate to high success probability. It's never been published anywhere else or independently discovered far as I can tell. Searching might give away its details to both U.S. govt and anyone else tapping my comms. Too risky.

I have no intention of publishing the attack or using it offensively: I'd rather my family and I live in a semi-functional country than barely survive or die in a devastated one. I just wanted to point out there is one exception to the rule. The weakness has potential countermeasures for those that see it coming. My partners and I are keeping it as insurance against police state activity for now.

Wesley ParishFebruary 5, 2015 2:06 AM

@IrrationalHarry

I have been hoping since about 2003 and the invasion of Iraq, that the US Navy would name one of its new capital ships the USS Terrified Of Everything, to offset the previous century's then supremely innovative capital ship the HMS Dreadnought. In much the same way I have been hoping that we would soon see the USS Corporate Welfare, to offset the misleading impressions otherwise left by naming its then innovative capital ship the USS Enterprise. False and misleading advertising does carry its own costs, you see ...

Dreams are free ... until they start chipping us and decoding our thought patterns ....

@all

cui bono? who benefits? is still a valid question, and it should the the first one people ask of their representatives when it comes to terrorism, pterorism, pterorists, and suchlike. I'm sure the Wizard of Oz would greatly appreciate you not noticing the man behind the curtain ...

renkeFebruary 5, 2015 7:08 AM

> But maybe now, a dozen years after 9/11, we can finally start
> having rational conversations about terrorism and security

Good luck, but I'm sceptical. The war on drugs with _very_ mixed results is on-going since 4 decades.

gordoFebruary 5, 2015 4:59 PM

... following up on the above post, Existential threat: the birth of a cliché ; some more background and post-9/11 examples:

Existentially speaking
Jan Freeman, Columnist, The Word | The Boston Globe | February 4, 2007

This existential formulation doesn't show up in the Nexis news database till 1984. But once it's launched, there are "existential threats" all over the place: to Palestinians, Jordan, the Soviet empire, all humankind, and most of all to Israel. (para. 5)

[includes examples from Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, and Condoleezza Rice; Columnist William Safire is also referenced (see next item for a time capsule of sorts)]

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/02/04/existentially_speaking/

Essay; All Is Not Changed
William Safire | The New York Times | September 27, 2001

Legend has it that when Lord Cornwallis formally surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War, the redcoated band played ''The World Turned Upside Down.''


The same song is being played today in the aftermath of the September massacre. Life will never be the same, we are told with dreary unanimity. From now on, everything will be different. We have to learn to live with dread.

[ … ]

We have no cause, however, to wallow in what is becoming a fashionable dread, and no reason to assume the doom of our personal security and national prosperity.

This debilitating dread is abetted by the belated warnings from agencies that failed to protect us. A chagrined Justice Department and C.I.A. -- which neglected to use present authority to work closely with immigration and customs officials -- now cover up past misfeasance with demands for more intrusive police powers to eavesdrop on and detain suspects.

[ … ]

Suicide hijackers and bombers do not pose what is coolly called an existential threat to -- that is, a danger to the very existence of -- the United States.

[ … ]

And we'll shake off that dread. Americans will return to our future's normalcy ... which will be no more or less safe than the present. Our children's world will be rightside up.

[ . . . . ]

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/27/opinion/essay-all-is-not-changed.html

Wesley ParishFebruary 5, 2015 5:37 PM

I just came across this interesting comment today:

As an American, the chance that you’ll die in any kind of terrorist violence is infinitesimal to begin with. In fact, you’re four more times likely to die from being struck by lightning.

At this point a Dubbya-clone leaps to his feet and demands a War on Lightning-Strikes ...

I am sure people can recall the Directive in the Strugatsky Brothers' Snail on a Slope,that Pepper reads upon his descending into power:

3. With reference to the above-mentioned, it is suggested in the future that all manifestations of chance be regarded as exceptional and at variance with the ideal of organization, and involvement in chance effects (probability)--as a criminal activity, or, if the involvement in chance effects (probability) is not attended by major consequences--as a most serious breach of office and production discipline.
not forgetting the application of the same:
Pepper clicked his teeth and glanced at the next sheet. This was an order too: the imposition of administrative punishment--a fine of four months pay, posthumously--on dog-breeder G. de Montmorency of the military guard, "carelessly permitting himself to be struck down by atmospheric discharge (lightning)." Further on were requests for leave, requests to do with a lump-sum benefit on the loss of a breadwinner, and an explanatory note from one Z. Lumbago concerning the loss of a reel....
The world is full of lunatics. Do we fight them or join them? Or in fighting them, do we join them?

Dirk PraetFebruary 5, 2015 6:45 PM

@ Wesley Parish

At this point a Dubbya-clone leaps to his feet and demands a War on Lightning-Strikes ...

Why not ? If the US Senate can vote against climate change, then what's so outlandish about banning lightning strikes ?

Sancho_PFebruary 6, 2015 6:08 PM


Global Terrorism Index ...

OK it’s “just data”, who knows their intention, but check figure 1 + 2 on page 13,
the success rate of the western “war on terror” since OBL’s death:

http://www.visionofhumanity.org/sites/default/files/Global%20Terrorism%20Index%20Report%202014_0.pdf

On the other hand, also to keep up their success rate of the attacks is impressing, it seems that our steady training and supply of modern arms wasn’t just wasting money (figure 3),
- here I stand corrected!

David E.February 7, 2015 8:26 AM

My guns must all be wimps.

I set several of them (loaded, but behind boxes so they wouldn't tempt thieves) on my front porch for a day. Even though dozens of people went by within easy shooting distance, not a single one of my guns killed anyone! Not even the semi-auto assault-types fired even once.

How do I find the killer guns? I'd like to have a couple...

SkepticalFebruary 7, 2015 6:49 PM


Quick points:

(1) There is a huge spectrum between "existential threat" and zero threat. Non-existential threats can still be gravely serious threats. We should recognize that some international terrorist organizations (ITOs) unchecked still have the capacity to wreak immense destruction upon Western societies and to destabilize the regions in which they are based.

(2) I think one must give normal human response to terrorist acts a little more credit than we sometimes do in these discussion threads.

Consider the following question: how comforting would a statistical analysis of a NYC resident's chance of dying in a terrorist act using the previous 100 years as a data set have been to such a resident on 12 Sep 2001? The answer is not very, and that's not simply because the resident is being irrational. It's because the resident recognizes that older data do not reflect current circumstances, and that terrorism like that of 9/11 may not be a randomly distributed event.

Terrorist acts by ITOs cause dramatic responses because they demonstrate the capability of a hostile actor to commit such acts. Combined with uncertainty about the extent of the capability, one encounters a rational case for a sharp ratcheting of response in the aftermath. For how long depends on evidence discovered regarding the intent and capability of the hostile actor in question.

But now let's take the analysis a step further. Suppose an ITO we'll call Alpha that, after existing for only several years, succeeds in a 9/11 type attack, and has others planned, but over the course of several years of vigorous response becomes sufficiently degraded, while knowledge about Alpha sufficiently grows, such that one can be confident that Alpha poses little serious threat in the future.

So, ratcheting down some measures would appear rational. But let's say in the meantime new ITOs Bravo and Charlie, related to Alpha, have developed, and appear to be growing as threats rather than diminishing. Your knowledge of what Alpha achieved will rationally color your view of what Bravo and Charlie might achieve. And so you might act with greater urgency against Brave and Charlie than you did prior to Alpha's success.

Someone might argue that Alpha's success is a statistical outlier (no reference to the book, which I haven't yet read), which is true, but it's also not relevant because we're incorrectly using data from sets of circumstances that lack our critical independent variables.

That doesn't make Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie existential threats. It doesn't mean that people don't overreact to events that are reported as dramatically as possible by the media and that are focused upon almost exclusively by the media. But it does mean that the magnitude of threat posed by Alpha, Bravo, or Charlie is not necessarily indicated solely by the quantity of harm they have succeeded in inflicting the past. And that makes judging the appropriate level of response, and the appropriate strategy, to Bravo and Charlie, and those who come after, more difficult and much less certain.

WaelFebruary 7, 2015 6:54 PM

@David E,

How do I find the killer guns? I'd like to have a couple...

Be careful what you look for! Lester already found one of them ;)

Coyne TibbetsFebruary 8, 2015 2:53 AM

@Skeptical

Existential, as used here, refers to a threat to existence. Let's suppose that the U. S. suffered a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 every month: about 1,000 times in an average lifetime. A citizen would still have a 99% chance of never being involved in an attack. Less than 1% of the population would die, in 83 years.

It is correct that there is a huge spectrum between "existential threat" and zero threat. My argument against the government is that it insists on using one endpoint of that spectrum (and not the zero end).

Meanwhile, it ignores risks of other kinds because fixing those risks would "cut into someone's profit". The 2014 Elk River chemical spill comes to mind: just bit more poisonous and 1-per-1000 deaths and that would have exceeded the deaths of the WTC attack. (Oh, wait, maybe it's a slow death from cancer and they killed 1-in-1000 anyway.)

It's a bit empty to argue that we must assume a change in statistical risk based on an event that happened fourteen years ago or rely on evidence that isn't. Even if, in 2001, we assumed that terrorist attacks would now be common, the following fourteen years have not borne that out: what about that statistic?

And as for the evidence, when were we ever given any? The only evidence we've heard is, first of all, "Orange! Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Red!" and, "We've caught a terrorist, that we recruited, wound up, supplied fake bombs, pointed him at a target, and laughed as we busted him," and "Our [snake oil] saved you from approximately thousands...no, hundreds...no, wait, 57...no, hmmmm, sorry, we saved you from one cab driver who thought he was donating to a political party, in Somalia, and his two buddies!"

So then we come to ratcheting, and it's clear that the ratchet only works in one direction in the government's hands. And we must not ratchet down because we're at the existential risk endpoint, and there's Bravo and Charlie, and you must give us more money ever more money so we can save you from...we'll get back to you with a reason real soon, we promise.

In the end, the only sane conclusion is that the government is selling snake oil. It has no idea what disease might we have (or even if we have one) but it is certain it has the cure, and we'd better happily swallow it.

But after watching that snake oil chew up people and their Rights...any sane person has to say: Enough!

James K.February 8, 2015 12:56 PM

So whenever the President is unable to devise a competent policy, he can dismiss the problem as "not an existential threat"? Was health insurance an existential threat? Inequality? All these things that Obama has expended great time, energy, and our taxes on are not existential threats either. This is a blatant dodge by Obama, and it is disappointing that you back him up on it.

Coyne TibbetsFebruary 8, 2015 2:27 PM

@James K

The President is trying to put terrorism into a more realistic perspective.

There's a nicely organized page, Terrorist attacks and related incidents in the United States, that lists terrorism attacks in the United States all the way back to the shooting of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. It's nice because we can do analysis on it.

Over its period of 1865-2014, 150 years, it shows 5,068 deaths and 22,157 injuries. Sticking just to deaths, that's 33.7 per year. If we limit it to the period 2001-2014, 14 years, 3223 deaths, that's 230 per year.

Let's compare that to a few other realities from this list on Annual Causes of Death in the United States, we find that there is nothing on that list that goes down that far.

Even if we stretch into supposition, as I did in my response (2nd above) and assume 3,000 killed every month, 36,000 per year, terrorism would still kill less than the top 13 items on that list; and would be comparable to automobile accidents (35,369) and injury by firearm (33,636).

So even if we magnify the statistical threat of 230 deaths per year by 156-fold, it is still essentially no more risky than death from being rammed by a drunk or shot by a robber. We don't consider either of those latter risks "existential", so why should we consider 230 deaths per year, existential?

It appears that influenza can kill you by triggering a runaway immune reaction (a cytokine storm): the immune system attacks and destroys its own organs in response to the virus. This is akin to the response of our government to the 9/11 attack: it promptly proceeded to consume all our privacy and all our Rights in a massive overreaction to a threat that...is much smaller than threats we accept routinely as, "well, that's life."

SkepticalFebruary 8, 2015 2:33 PM

@Coyne: Existential, as used here, refers to a threat to existence. Let's suppose that the U. S. suffered a terrorist attack that killed 3,000 every month: about 1,000 times in an average lifetime. A citizen would still have a 99% chance of never being involved in an attack. Less than 1% of the population would die, in 83 years.

Really I think we'd need to begin by clearly defining what we mean in this discussion when we talk about "threats", but as I've said, I don't think any current terrorist actors would qualify as what we likely mean by "existential threat."

However, you're demonstrating exactly the reasoning that I think is erroneous as applied to certain types of terrorism.

Attacks by an ITO determined to continue attacking you are more similar to attacks by a hostile state than to motor vehicle accidents. That is, assuming an ITO has the capability to do so, then absent any response on one's part attacks will both continue and escalate. Nor will society treat deaths from those attacks as they would those from motor vehicle accidents.

You're also simply counting deaths, and not taking into account other costs. In the case of 9/11, that means the evacuation of lower Manhattan and federal buildings in Washington DC, the grounding of all flights, the closing of financial markets, and so on.

Even assuming a constant death toll of 3k from 9/11 type events each month, no open society would survive as such if those circumstances were unremitting.

If AQ had the capability to mount one successful 9/11 attack per month, then they might indeed qualify as an existential threat, depending on how we use the term.

It is correct that there is a huge spectrum between "existential threat" and zero threat. My argument against the government is that it insists on using one endpoint of that spectrum (and not the zero end).

I'm really not sure what it means for the government to treat terrorist actors, much less "terrorism", as an existential threat.

Meanwhile, it ignores risks of other kinds because fixing those risks would "cut into someone's profit". The 2014 Elk River chemical spill comes to mind: just bit more poisonous and 1-per-1000 deaths and that would have exceeded the deaths of the WTC attack. (Oh, wait, maybe it's a slow death from cancer and they killed 1-in-1000 anyway.)

The US spends huge sums of money on other types of risks, much more than we spend on terrorism. It may not seem that way because most of the costs spent on other types of risks seem very normal to us.

So we don't even notice the amount of money it may cost to build motor vehicles that satisfy US safety regulations, to construct buildings according an array of regulations ranging from fire protection to indoor air quality to structural integrity, and moreover for the processes used to make all of those things to themselves conform to safety regulations. It's all baked into our economy.

In some ways the attitude is reflective of the airline passenger who scoffs at all the money we spend on the TSA when there are far more serious dangers associated with air travel. But of course that passenger forgets the amount of money spent on manufacturing airplanes, including of course all their component parts, to conform to safety regulations, the amount of money spent maintaining the planes according to additional regulations, the certifications necessary to work on the planes in the first place, and the qualifications required of pilots and flight crews.

It's a bit empty to argue that we must assume a change in statistical risk based on an event that happened fourteen years ago or rely on evidence that isn't. Even if, in 2001, we assumed that terrorist attacks would now be common, the following fourteen years have not borne that out: what about that statistic?

The hard part is that you have to use counterfactual reasoning about the last 14 years (and that's assuming you had access to classified information on plots that existed and were prevented). In other words, what would the last 14 years have looked like if we had adopted a different approach to terrorist actors? It's not an easy question to answer. And frankly, given events in the Middle East and elsewhere, the next 14 years don't look particularly encouraging from a counterterrorist vantage.

And as for the evidence, when were we ever given any? The only evidence we've heard is, first of all, "Orange! Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Red! Orange! Red!" and, "We've caught a terrorist, that we recruited, wound up, supplied fake bombs, pointed him at a target, and laughed as we busted him," and "Our [snake oil] saved you from approximately thousands...no, hundreds...no, wait, 57...no, hmmmm, sorry, we saved you from one cab driver who thought he was donating to a political party, in Somalia, and his two buddies!"

No, we saw very public attempts at failed airline bombings, we saw publicized arrests of individuals in the advanced stages of operations to bomb mass transit systems, and in the last 18 months we've learned of a large number of terrorist plots (here and abroad) that were thwarted which we simply don't know the details about.

Nor do we lack for evidence of the continued intent of certain terrorist actors, which they express in a variety of ways.

We should think about all of these things critically, and not assume that any proposal is necessary the best approach, but it seems to me that you've adopted an extreme end of the spectrum yourself, on the point opposite the "existential threat" folks.

Wesley ParishFebruary 8, 2015 5:42 PM

@Skeptical

Attacks by an ITO determined to continue attacking you are more similar to attacks by a hostile state than to motor vehicle accidents. That is, assuming an ITO has the capability to do so, then absent any response on one's part attacks will both continue and escalate. Nor will society treat deaths from those attacks as they would those from motor vehicle accidents.

The only cases I know of, where a "terrorist" organization engages in constant conflict with a nation state, happen to be where the "terrorist" organization is on its own territory. It's a simple matter of hinterland. And as such, more appropriately belongs to the category of "guerrilla"or "irregular" warfare rather than "terrorism" as such. And as such, hardly constitutes an "existential" threat to the occupying power, though it may wind up deeply humiliating - Vietnam against France and the USA, Algeria, the Lebanon, ...

Terrorist acts outside a hinterland tend to be rarities, and are usually more thoroughly planned, because they cannot be regularly repeated. Examples are of course 9/11, 7/7, Mumbai, ...

The terrorism of the Christian Far Right in the US against abortion clinics, the various American Far Right terrorist militias, the Baader Meinhof Gang in seventies West Germany, the IRA in London, the Pinochet terror against the legally elected Allende government in seventies Chile - they're all parasitic on some ideological platform and its supporters. In the case of the Pinochet terrorist campaign against President Allende, it did constitute an existential threat to Chile, which could've wound up a failed state, much like Guatemala did after the US-funded terror campaign against its legally elected government in 1954. But then, the various Far Right state terrorisms of Latin America have been parasitic upon the US taxpayer for far too long.

Sancho_PFebruary 8, 2015 6:08 PM

@ Skeptical

There’s a basic error at the beginning of your post (6:49 PM): ITO’s.

To scare (a lot of) people it doesn’t need an International Terrorist Organization.
Because of high tech and high population density it’s easy to scare people.
Think of Anders Behring Breivik. Not an ITO.
Think of Aurora. Not an ITO.
Think of mass surveillance by NSA. Not an ITO (officially).
Think of US hawks “freeing” the world, e.g. Ukraine. Not an ITO (officially) [1].

(Rem: I’m not sure if 9/11 was caused by an ITO, it seems OBL wasn’t happy about.)

We, the people, cause “terroristic threats” by violating ethical standards.
We create ITOs by military aggression and then sell “the cure” to fuel our business.
Treat people with respect and they won’t bite you.

Otherwise an impressing daydream, congraz!
Might be a story for the media, probably TV or computer games?


[1]
If you are looking for an existential threat check the US warmongers.
Forget about “ITO”s - they’d have sticks and knifes if we wouldn’t sell them more.

SkepticalFebruary 8, 2015 7:28 PM

@Wesley: As I've said in every comment I've made on this thread, I don't think terrorist actors currently qualify as anything we (meaning participants in this discussion) would be likely to define as an existential threat.

The only cases I know of, where a "terrorist" organization engages in constant conflict with a nation state, happen to be where the "terrorist" organization is on its own territory.

It may be that doing a little research in this case is a better guide than a quick check of your memory banks. Black September, Hezbollah, and others, operated in multiple countries for years.

As to "constant conflict", there have been multiple attempted attacks within the US, and within other Western nations, by AQ operatives. You're also kidding yourself if you think that AQ was not engaging in constant conflict with the US well before 9/11, and in multiple countries.

@Sancho_P: To scare (a lot of) people it doesn’t need an International Terrorist Organization.
Because of high tech and high population density it’s easy to scare people.
Think of Anders Behring Breivik. Not an ITO.
Think of Aurora. Not an ITO.

Neither of which launched a global military conflict against certain ITOs. You understand that the US has faced mass shootings and bombings prior to 9/11 without embarking on the path it has taken, right? 9/11 changed US perception of what certain ITOs could, and if they are able to, will, accomplish. Some had been warning of the danger for some time, of course.

Think of mass surveillance by NSA. Not an ITO (officially).
Think of US hawks “freeing” the world, e.g. Ukraine. Not an ITO (officially)

This is just bizarre. You want to compare signals intelligence and the State Department funding democratic NGOs in Ukraine, to al Qaeda and ISIL.

We create ITOs by military aggression and then sell “the cure” to fuel our business.
Treat people with respect and they won’t bite you.

It takes a special kind of naivete to suppose that everyone in the world just wants to respect everyone else, except for the US. As to the US creating ITOs for business purposes... this is silly. I suggest you lack information about the US economy and about US foreign policy.

And I'm curious. How much respect should the world show to ISIS? How many hugs do you think it would take to get them to start respecting others according to your concept of respect? Would you like to be the first one to test out a "hug" strategy? I'd imagine not.

Coyne TibbetsFebruary 8, 2015 8:08 PM

@Skeptical

Well, yes, if there is an, "ITO determined to continue attacking [me]", yes, that would be an existential threat to me. I don't see how it would constitute an existential threat to my country; and generally speaking, no ITO is going to go after any particular person (well, maybe the President, but even that is not an existential threat to our nation).

If there is anything that is scary about ITOs, it is the random nature of their attacks; that I might be caught randomly in such an attack. But this is largely an illusory fear since I could just as easily be randomly killed by a drunk driver when I'm thinking about nothing more than getting lunch.

And, yes, there are additional costs I didn't mention. It turns out that by far the largest costs arising from 9/11 are the endless security and war that has arisen in its wake. I noticed you neglected to mention that in your list because there is little doubt that, over fourteen years, it has far exceeded all the costs you did list. One 9/11 Tally: $3.3 Trillion breaks those costs down: Direct and economic damages, $178 billion; war, security etc., more than $3.1 trillion; dwarfing the direct costs. And then, on the page, if you drill down into the direct costs, you see that even most of those were due to the security overreaction.

"I'm really not sure what it means for the government to treat terrorist actors, much less "terrorism", as an existential threat."

I think it probably falls into some of the areas of quotes from your original post. That, "a rational case for a sharp ratcheting of response in the aftermath" and, "And so you might act with greater urgency against Brave and Charlie than you did prior to Alpha's success," because, "Your knowledge of what Alpha achieved will rationally color your view of what Bravo and Charlie might achieve." Which, together are another way of saying we must stay ratcheted to the top level in case of Bravo, Charlie, Devin, Evan, Fritz, Gustave, Hayden, ..., Yuri, Zoltan, and after them, Aaron, Abner, Ace, Aden,...forever and ever. If we are, indeed, to feel that we must assume that every ragtag band of ITOs will achieve what Alpha achieved, then--it's still not really an existential threat; even if the government pretends it is.

"No, we saw very public attempts at failed airline bombings, we saw publicized arrests of individuals in the advanced stages of operations to bomb mass transit systems, and in the last 18 months we've learned of a large number of terrorist plots (here and abroad) that were thwarted which we simply don't know the details about."

And what did we learn from those? The public attempt at an airline bombing was foiled by citizens (instead of the massive security apparatus); and the mass transit attempts, were most of them, cases I referred to earlier where the FBI provided the (fake) bombs.

It's not that there is no risk from terrorism and that we shouldn't take precautions. But to act continuously as if the nation will be utterly destroyed by these acts, is an entirely different thing. For example, again another of your quotes:

"Even assuming a constant death toll of 3k from 9/11 type events each month, no open society would survive as such if those circumstances were unremitting."

Why should we assume that our nation would have so little resilience as to be able withstand this? Oh, right, because the government would change it to a closed, oppressive society...such as it seems to be doing now.

But we actually don't have to guess about the resilience of nations: We have Israel as an example. We truly don't think we could do as well as they have done? Of course we could, but guess what? 90% of what we're doing now would be ash-canned as security theater which we could no longer afford; under those conditions, only security that works would be used.

"Nor do we lack for evidence of the continued intent of certain terrorist actors, which they express in a variety of ways."

But that was exactly my point with my comments in the preceding post: That we've really seen none of that evidence. The government basically is saying, "There are bad guys out there. We have evidence. We won't show you that, because that'a a matter of national security. But trust us, there are bad guys out there. And they will kill you, unless we can make the ultimate sacrifice of your open society to protect you. Because the nation will be utterly destroyed if we don't take all your privacy. And your Rights."

And then President Obama had the unmitigated gall to say, "It might not be that serious..."

Dirk PraetFebruary 8, 2015 8:27 PM

@ Skeptical, @ Coyne Tibbets, @ Wesley Parish, @ Sancho_P

The hard part is that you have to use counterfactual reasoning about the last 14 years (and that's assuming you had access to classified information on plots that existed and were prevented).

I'm not a fan of counterfactual thinking because there's exactly nothing you can prove with it. Many cognitive therapists struggle with it too when dealing with patients. The only thing you can tell is that an outcome may have been different, but there's no telling whatsoever if that outcome would have been better or worse. "If only I had asked this woman out on a date I would now have been happily married with children". That's only one possible outcome. Another one could have been that after a year you would have found out she was cheating on you, you subsequently strangled her to death and you are now serving a life sentence or awaiting execution on death row.

As to the plots we don't know about because classified, I don't think there are many of those given the fact that both administration and IC are struggling very hard to come up with some tangible stuff to convince the public that their programs are indeed paying off. And no, I still don't accept anyone's "trust us on this because national security", especially when coming from known liars.

No, we saw very public attempts at failed airline bombings, we saw publicized arrests of individuals in the advanced stages of operations to bomb mass transit systems, and in the last 18 months we've learned of a large number of terrorist plots (here and abroad) that were thwarted which we simply don't know the details about.

You'll hardly find anyone claiming that there is no such thing as a terrorist threat and that it should not be acted upon. Neither will you find a lot of people denying that the USG and other governments through various programs have been successful in preventing a number of attacks (List of unsuccessful terrorist plots in the United States post-9/11).

Risk management however also means constant (r)evaluation not only of vulnerabilities, threats and risks but just as well of results and costs of programs associated with transfer, mitigation or acceptance of risks. When looking at the success rate of the 5Eyes' surveillance dragnet revealed by Ed Snowden, then I believe there are plenty of reasons to question these programs not only in terms of monetary cost, but just as much in terms of technology subversion, privacy and civil liberties erosion and legal justification thereof.

We all know by now that the Stellar Winds warrantless wiretapping program Bush Jr. authorised was illegal. A lot of questions remain about the constitutionality of PA Section 215 and FISA 702, to the point that even the PCLOB about two weeks ago released a damning report saying that the program, which the administration claims is authorised under PA Section 215, is illegal under the terms of that same law and doesn’t actually keep us safe. Likewise, in the UK this week, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled that GCHQ's data sharing with the NSA until December last year was in violation of articles 8 and 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

And yes, this is a very clear vindication of Snowden's reasons for doing what he did, so I couldn't agree more with you that we should indeed continue to think about all of these things in a very critical way.

As to the US creating ITOs for business purposes... this is silly.

It is. It has more to do with general stupidity and short-term thinking in US foreign policy that the military-industrial complex as a by-product almost invariably can capitalise on. AQ originated in Afghanistan with CIA dollars until they turned on the hand that fed them. ISIS is the result of overthrowing and destabilising the regimes of several countries this sore is now festering in, and sponsored by the same US allies that previously forked out monies to AQ and other terrorist organisations. So if there's anything to fear from upcoming Charlies and Bravos, perhaps it would also be wise to look back at what actually caused the rise of Alpha and who funded them.

Sancho_PFebruary 9, 2015 6:32 PM

@ Skeptical, Dirk Praet

Err, the US launched global military conflicts, not ITO’s / not ITO’s.
9/11 was the chance for big business and against common sense / ethics ( Dubaya ).
The chance was “taken” and celebrated, to say the least.

No, I don’t compare mass surveillance and US hawks to AQ and ISIL,
but I want to point out that this kind of aggression scares a lot of people probably more than AQ and ISIL together.

With all due respect, the naiveté may be on both sides of the table.
Do you really believe in bringing peace by sending rockets and drones?
Do you need a lesson in history?
Think back to the good old peacemaker times, white man shoots, red man is dead:
Genocide, you have to kill them all but not from the distance, by occupying the country,
- or you keep out.
I’d prefer the latter.

ISIL: You seem to forget that the US has engineered this disaster.
See Global Terrorism Index, my posting and link here.

Regarding the hugs, I would walk down the streets of any Islamic town by night (before the Americans brought them western democracy), but today not together with you, an American, on my side.
However, in NY I’m sure to avoid some places, with or w/o you.
Thugs may kill some individuals,
but destabilizing countries and continents just for “political” benefits endangers the whole world.

That’s an existential threat, not a thug.

ChrisFebruary 10, 2015 5:41 PM

"No challenge  poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change," -Obama, State of the Union speech, 2015.

Obama is entitled to his opinion, but it amuses me that with climate change, we think hundreds of years in the future, but with ISIS terrorism, we look no more than a few years in the future (e.g., "they don't currently have the capability for another 9/11 style attack"). But what happens when Iran hands ISIS nuclear weapons? Do we seriously think they won't use them? Why wouldn't they? I think in our brains we consider that too horrific to contemplate, but it's a mistake to think folks in that part of the world have the same world-view as us.

Gerard van VoorenFebruary 11, 2015 3:21 AM

@ Chris

Obama is entitled to his opinion, but it amuses me that with climate change, we think hundreds of years in the future, ...

It is also inevitable. It will happen. Just like other things that are inevitable.

But what happens when Iran hands ISIS nuclear weapons?

Then it is probably global mushroom time.

I am quite sure the leaders of Iran know that too.

Wesley ParishFebruary 11, 2015 5:27 AM

@Chris

But what happens when Iran hands ISIS nuclear weapons?
Iran is currently fighting Islamic State. Iran is an ally of Hezbollah, which is fighting Islamic State. Iran is an ally of Assad, who is currently fighting Islamic State. Iran's nuclear program has been regarded as being 5 years short of producing a nuclear weapon for the last twenty odd years.


The United States is an ally of Saudi Arabia, which is currently supporting some elements of Islamic State. The United States is currently supporting certain elements of the Syrian Civil War, which feeds into Islamic State. The United States is not an ally of either Hezbollah or Iran.

Now given those facts, who is most likely to give Islamic State the Nuclear Option?

@Skeptical

Have you ever heard the expression "Arab Nation"? I didn't think so either. What we consider international borders the Arab Nation may choose to disregard. So Black September in Jordan in 1972 would've been regarded by the Palestinian organizations taking part, as a civil war.

The Munich Massacre would've been retaliation for Israeli actions against Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank, and the 1948 Nakba. And the casual murder of unarmed Palestinian refugees sneaking over the border following the 1948 Armistice to check up on their property. The Israelis called them "infiltrators" ... kind-of like the "criminal offense" African Americans refer to as "living while Black".

How many such acts by various Palestinian guerrilla groups did Munich see? For how long?

SkepticalFebruary 11, 2015 5:45 PM


@Dirk: AQ originated in Afghanistan with CIA dollars until they turned on the hand that fed them. ISIS is the result of overthrowing and destabilising the regimes of several countries this sore is now festering in, and sponsored by the same US allies that previously forked out monies to AQ and other terrorist organisations. So if there's anything to fear from upcoming Charlies and Bravos, perhaps it would also be wise to look back at what actually caused the rise of Alpha and who funded them.

We can locate many causes that led to the existence of AQ. The Soviet invasion, funding from Saudi Arabia, funding of other (though related) groups by CIA, the funding of core ideologies supportive of AQ, the civil war in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal, etc. But CIA funding never went to the groups that evolved into AQ.

What if the CIA never funded opposition to the Soviets? Who knows.

As to future terrorist threats... I'd say it's going to be more of the same type for some time. In each case the hard part will not be naming the threat, but assessing the threat. Naming al Qaeda was always easy. Assessing it? Not so easy.

As to your points re surveillance programs, the fact that even those most critical of the NSA also agreed, after viewing classified intelligence, that collection under 702 provided very valuable intelligence, is persuasive. These would be the people with the greatest interest in denying such a proposition, and that they cannot tells us much.

@Wesley: It's not relevant whether this or that group views borders or not. You made a specific claim, and I showed you counterexamples. The fact is that ITOs can, do, and have, operated consistently in multiple countries.

@Sancho: Rockets and drones are about winning conflicts. Winning a peace is equally important, and requires additional tools. However you still must sometimes win a conflict as well. Such is life.

Dirk PraetFebruary 11, 2015 9:08 PM

@ Skeptical

But CIA funding never went to the groups that evolved into AQ.

Er, no. It's common knowledge that the CIA through all kinds of front-ends and with the support of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan poured about 3$ billion of US tax-payers money into the Afghan war, effectively creating and nurturing AQ. Several analysts even claim OBL himself received CIA security training.

Naming al Qaeda was always easy. Assessing it? Not so easy.

Probably one of the most spectacular intelligence failures in the history of US IC which eventually led to 9/11. Even after the 1998 embassy bombings and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, little to nothing was done by the different agencies to share information and coordinate their efforts which would have revealed an entirely different picture.

... the fact that even those most critical of the NSA also agreed, after viewing classified intelligence, that collection under 702 provided very valuable intelligence, is persuasive

I am more interested in the fact whether or not the provided intelligence is also being obtained in a fully legal and constitutional way. As long as 702 is being kept under a veil of secrecy, we will never know. As in the recent Jewel vs. NSA ruling that the plaintiffs can not make a case without disclosure of classified information that would harm national security. In other words, “state secrets” trump the judicial process and leave a plaintiff (or defendant) without standing. That's not the way things are supposed to function in a democracy.

Sancho_PFebruary 12, 2015 5:50 PM

@ Skeptical

What you call “conflict” can’t be won by rockets and drones.
In fact, there (ME) isn’t anything to win but hate.

On the contrary, even moderate muslims who have already seen some advantage of western culture are disgusted by the ongoing killing of their brothers and sisters. As @ Wesley Parish said, they are the “Arab Nation”, they are brothers and sisters without borders, a fact that we in our western decadence can’t and won’t understand.
And they live next to your door, not “there”.
Instead of having them as moderator we make them our enemy.

And we are too haughty to address the other burning fuse in our backyard: Poverty, joblessness, racism and hopelessness.
Collecting “intelligence” to extinguish that fuse could really pay back.

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