Protection from terrorists

My heart goes out to those in London who died at the hands of the British born citizen, Adrian Russell Elms, now going by the name of Khalid Masood. May Keith Palmer, Leslie Rhodes, Kurt Cochran, and Aysha Frade rest in peace. Whether he was a terrorist or a mentally disturbed citizen, he inflicted terror. How should we react?

Like health care reform, some topics never seem to go away. Indeed, striking the right balance between freedom and security is and should be under constant review. However, some approaches should be rejected out of hand. Trump’s travel ban would not have helped (hopefully it will never be implemented). In fact, his disgraceful gesture is a political stunt that does harm if anything at all. His rumored ban on carrying laptops and tablets in the cabins of flights from ten Middle Eastern and North African (predominantly Muslim) cities, while the same items may be checked and thus carried in the hull of the same plane is incomprehensible (other than as a protectionist measure, as only non American carriers fly from these cities). Beyond jeopardizing the cooperation we need from these countries to more effectively combat terrorism, these two measures are hurting our tourism and “jobs in America.”

Reasonable measures should be taken to detect and deter organized terrorist undertakings, without undermining our privacy and freedom of movement. But most attacks since 9/11 have been by lone wolves who didn’t have any actual contact with terrorist organizations. Anyone can decide to drive their car or truck into a crowd as was done in France, Germany and now England. No one in their right mind would suggest extending a travel ban to all road travel in the U.S. as a way of keeping us safe. U.S. traffic deaths have fallen significantly from 54,589 in 1972 to 35,092 in 2015 but dramatically exceed any from terrorists. With the advent and wide spread use of driverless cars such deaths will plummet dramatically in the future. But we accept that risk and drive anyway. No sane person would propose keeping every one home as a safety measure. In any event over 25,000 people die from accidents in their home in the U.S. every year. “Our risks from terrorists”

A full, rich life entails taking calculated risks. It is prudent to limit risks were the cost of doing so is not excessive in terms of our freedom of movement and quality of life. We need to keep this in mind when considering the measures we want our government to take to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks.

A related but different issue is how best to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida and the like. During his presidential campaign Trump stated that: “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” “Trump on terrorists families.” Such an approach does not accord with the lessons of experience (aside from being repulsive and violating international law). Combating terrorist groups requires cooperation from the countries in which they operate and from the people in whose neighborhoods they live, etc. The International Crisis Group has distilled these lessons in the following report. From its executive summary they state that Trump’s “administration… should be careful when fighting jihadists not to play into their hands. The risks include angering local populations whose support is critical, picking untimely or counter-productive fights and neglecting the vital role diplomacy and foreign aid must play in national security policy. Most importantly, aggressive counter-terrorism operations should not inadvertently fuel other conflicts and deepen the disorder that both ISIS and al-Qaeda exploit.” “Counter-terrorism pitfalls-what US fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda should avoid”



The challenges of change: Globalization, Immigration, and Technology

“Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”  Alvin Toffler 1970

Some people welcome change as a challenge and embrace the adventures it provides, while others resist it as threatening and disruptive. In addition to differences in temperament, some people gain from specific changes while others lose. Starting with the industrial revolution in the mid eighteenth century, the worlds’ economic life has undergone dramatic changes that continue to this day. As a result the average family’s material well-being has sky rocketed to unbelievable heights. But in the process equally troublesome changes were imposed on almost everyone. To maintain (or regain) public support for the policies that allow these beneficial but disruptive changes, we need to carefully consider what policies would ease or compensate for the costs that often accompany them.

Across the world the standard of living saw virtually no change for thousands of years. Starting with the industrial revolution 250 years ago incomes and individual welfare have exploded. From $712 in 1820, world annual GDP per person shot up to $7,814 by 2010 (in 1990 dollars). The number of people living in extreme poverty, which peaked at 2.2 billion in 1970, has been cut in half since then. The percent of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day has plunged from 61% in 1980 to 13% in 2012.[1]

These dramatic gains are the result of increases in what each person was able to produce. Individual output has dramatically increased in the last several centuries because trade has allowed more specialized and productive ways of organizing work to serve larger markets (factories, etc) supported by new technologies (including improvements in public health and medicine) and better transportation infrastructure. We might summarize these factors as expansions of product markets because of cheaper and freer trade, improved labor output from freer labor mobility to move to the best paying jobs and better tools from investments in technical innovation. If we extend these factors across national boundaries we call these “globalization,” “immigration” and “technical innovation.”

On average, the world’s population has benefited enormously from each of these, i.e., from “globalization,” “immigration” and “technology.” But each of these has also disrupted the status quo, imposing sometimes-painful adjustments on business owners and workers whose products or skills are no longer wanted or needed, not to mention many misstarts and failure along the way.

Those who have lost jobs to technical innovations, cheaper imports, or immigrants are understandably unhappy at the changes, though in the longer run better, higher paying jobs may have been created in the process. Donald Trump’s promise of a Mexican wall and high tariffs on Chinese imports seem to resonate with many of these people. Given the enormous, widely shared benefits from globalization, immigration and technology, it is very desirable to adopt policies and approaches to promoting these activities that minimize and mitigate their damage to specific individuals. I will lightly touch on this need with regard to globalization and technology as a prelude to the particularly challenging issue of immigration.

Technology: While displaced workers have long complained about the hardships imposed on them by improved technology (though manufacturing output in the U.S. is at an all time high, improved productivity has resulted in a continual decline in manufacturing employment), the benefits to society as a whole are so obvious that few would propose freezing or slowing technological progress in order to protect their jobs. Of course, the adoption of new technologies concerns more than its impact on employment (e.g. public safety) but the case for allowing such progress basically makes itself. Instead we attempt to ease the transition to the skills needed for newer jobs through adapting educational programs and adopting retraining programs to the changing employment needs (though firms tend to do a better job providing such training themselves than does the government) while providing temporary unemployment compensation.

Globalization: The impact of freer and more extensive cross border trade on employment is similar to the impact of technology and the policy approaches are similar. The freer mobility of capital aspect of globalization will not be discussed here while the freer mobility of labor is discussed under the heading of immigration. While the benefits from trade are enormous and those from further liberalization of trade are still worth the effort, these benefits are less obvious to the general public than are the costs to a limited number of individuals. While strengthening those programs that help displaced workers find and qualify for the new jobs created (essentially the same programs needed for adjusting to technical improvements) is desirable, we also need to make a more convincing case for the benefits of trade. All studies of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement forecast increases in American income from its adoption (and obviously in the incomes of our trading partners as well), but such projections are more abstract and thus carry less emotional and political impact than would examples of the specific industries and firms that would benefit from increased exports (though it is not always possible to anticipate what these will be).

The benefits of trade and globalization are not just economic. Countries that trade with each other and companies that operate around the globe are less likely to go to war with each other. Robert Samuelson noted that “If there was an organizing principle to U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War, it was globalization.” Balancing China’s growing influence in Asia is clearly an important motivation for TPP. /us-presidential-candidates-shouldnt-put-globalization-in-retreat/2016/06/05/

Immigration: The issues raised by immigration are much more complex and challenging. Capital and labor mobility are necessary for maximizing the output of existing labor and capital resources (deploying each where its marginal product is highest). But along with the immigration of hard working people looking for better opportunities and greater freedom, the United States has enjoyed the extra benefit of attracting to its shores the world’s “best and brightest.” This has been true from its founding to this very day. Nonetheless, immigrants sometimes displace existing workers from their jobs, who most often (but not always) move to better ones.

The flaws of the U.S. immigration laws (preference for extended family is crowding out the quotas for badly needed skilled workers, the status of the undocumented MUST be resolved, etc.) are well known. The bill passed by the U.S. Senate in 2013 (S-744), which was drafted by the bipartisan gang of eight (which included Marco Rubio back when he cared about legislating in the American interest) deserves serious consideration.

The economic/jobs aspect of immigration is only part of the challenges it raises, however. Our genetic clannishness, which arouses our fear and hostility toward “others” can be softened and overcome by our genetic curiosity. Exposure to other peoples and cultures can be exciting and enriching. Deriving the economic as well as the cultural benefits of immigration both depend on the success with which immigrants are assimilated into the economy and culture of their new home. The host population needs to be confident that new arrivals embrace its laws and culture. With its more liberal labor laws and active civil society support, the United States has been more successful at assimilating immigrants than have most other countries. British complaints a few years back about a flood of Polish plumbers have largely faded away. In fact, the hard working Polish plumbers proved to be very advantageous for Britain.

The flood of war refugees into Europe and fear of terrorism are adding a new element to the fears of immigrants. The Western world, especially Europe, faces serious challenges to accommodate the rapid inflows of refugees, which we all have a moral and legal obligation to house and protect, and immigrants seeking a better life from the predominantly Muslim Middle East and North Africa at a time when a fringe of the Muslim world (ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc.) has declared war on the rest of us. Thus the fear of terrorist attacks, especially following the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., has become a real factor in public attitudes toward immigrants. Donald Trump and right wing nationalist parties across Europe have attracted growing support exploiting these fears.

Western fears of Muslim immigrants are not limited to the fear of admitting terrorist. Donald Trump’s recommendation to stop all Muslim’s at the border “until we figure out what is going on” either reflects ignorance of the exhaustive process such visitors must go through to get visas and the much easier ways for terrorist to enter the country if they are not here already, or deliberate exploitation of public fears. With Trump it is probably both of these. These fears also concern whether the prescriptions and doctrine of Islam are compatible with liberal, western, democratic values. /2016/03/24/fighting-terrorists-part-ii/

Some statements in the Koran seem to be incompatible with “Western Values” just as are some statements in the Christian bible. Muslims, like Christians, have developed different interpretations of the meaning and requirements of their faith in today’s world. Some American’s and Europeans worry that the Salafi (Wahhabi), fundamentalist interpretations of Muhammad’s teachings and some of the provisions of one or the other versions of Sharia (Islamic law) that are incompatible with the American constitution, laws and traditions, will come to dominate Muslim beliefs and that they will attempt to impose them on the rest of us. These are serious concerns and are shared by many Muslims as well. Immigrants and residence of any faith should only be welcomed if they accept the laws of their host country. Mainstream Christians are not generally blamed for the fanatical and racist beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. Quoting from Wikipedia: “Although members of the KKK swear to uphold Christian morality, virtually every Christian denomination has officially denounced the KKK.” The same should be true for Muslims, though they need to make a bigger effort to distance themselves from their minority of radical jihadists than they seem to have so far.

The growing fear of Islam has begun to take on a form and tone reminiscent of the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany: /trump-like-opposition-to-islam-is-growing-in-europe/2016/06/06/. The key question is what to do about it. Just as the overwhelming benefits of globalization and technical progress were not enough by themselves to win broad public support without addressing the accompanying costs, the benefits of immigration and the moral obligations to house and protect refugees, will not be enough by themselves to over come the growing public fear of immigrants (especially of Muslims). Attempting to push immigration on a reluctant public seems to be creating the backlash that we are now seeing in America and Europe.

The Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade abortion decision short-circuited the state-by-state process of liberalization that was already moving in the same direction. Forcing a mother’s legal right to an abortion on states that had not yet come to that view has been counter productive and created a protracted debate that most likely would have faded away long ago. The partisan forcing of Obama Care on Americans without a broad consensus on its new directions provides another example of ill-advised legislation lacking broad support. The Court’s decisions striking down restrictions on interracial marriages (Loving vs. Virginia) and more recently extending equal protection of the law to same sex marriages (United States vs. Windsor and Obergefell vs. Hodges), were only taken after a much wider public acceptance of these freedoms had developed. They have been accepted with far less controversy. What are the lessons for our immigration policies?

The previous waves of immigrants in the U.S., generally concentrated from particular geographical areas, have always complained about the next one, generally concentrated from a different geographical area, and there have often been religious tensions and concerns. What is new this time (in addition to terrorist concerns) is the fear that Muslim immigrants seek to overturn our laws and customs with those of a radical fundamentalist understanding of Islam that is incompatible with liberal Western values. To address these concerns the United States (it will be more difficult in Europe) needs to update its immigration laws (as in the Senate bill already passed) and continue to build on its previous successes in assimilating immigrants, and Muslim communities need to more clearly differentiate and separate themselves and their beliefs from those of the radical jihadist. The U.S. and Europe need to undertake a frank and reasoned discussion of the rules for immigration that best serve the needs and interests of each country. It will not do to force more immigrants on an unwilling public even if it is to their benefit in the long run.

The bottom line here is that the clear benefits to society at large of globalization, immigration and technology are not sufficient to insure their continued support. Though the flow of economic immigrants have been responsive to economic needs, open borders are unfortunately not likely to be acceptable to the general public yet. Despite the racist comments of Donald Trump, between 2009 to 2014, 140,000 more Mexicans left the U.S. than came, largely to reunite with their families in the face of a drop in the demand for their labor in the U.S. There has been no net immigration from Mexico between 2007 and 2014. Most immigration in recent years has been from south of Mexico, East and South Asia and to a lesser extent from Africa and the Middle East. Important public policy decisions should be openly, frankly and thoughtfully discussed with the goal of gaining broad public support. The costs that fall on some in the course of broad gains for the many should be minimized, and fears should be honestly addressed. It is critically important in this regard that mainline Muslims distance themselves from the radical Islamists.


Fighting Terrorists, Part II

How do we as a free society protect ourselves from terrorists without in the process losing our freedom to our protectors? To the extent that terrorists are part of organized groups, our counter terrorism agencies need to identify and track the members of such groups with tools and techniques that do not violate our individual privacy. As such groups often operate internationally, the information collected should be shared with similar agencies in other trustworthy countries, though this has been and will remain challenging given quite different data standards from one jurisdiction to another. Individuals identified as part of a terrorist network, or suspected of such involvement, or suspected of having potential interest in such involvement should be closely watched wherever they are. The risks of such state scrutiny to our civil liberties are obvious, but should be pursued with proper oversight and care. The careful balancing of these conflicting objectives is a critical aspect of successful, largely free societies.

The above measures can be helpful up to a point, but they cannot eliminate all risks of terrorism even if we should give up all of our liberties to a security garrison state, which hopefully we still have the courage to resist. Throwing up our arms and bunkering down every time a terrorist blows himself and others up only feeds the enthusiasm of the terrorists. Just as even the safest societies have and will always have some criminals, we can never be fully free of terrorists. Effective policing and a respected, fair, and efficient court system will minimize but not eliminate crime. Most mass murders in the U.S. have been the work of mentally disturbed individuals. While we can do better at identifying and helping those who might otherwise undertake mass murders, we will never succeed fully even if we lock up every person we think has such potential, and those Americans who still value their freedom enough to face such risks would not want to live in such a society.

In the past, terrorist attacks and mass murders in the U.S. have been perpetrated by a wide range of groups and individuals, including white supremacists, black extremists, anarchists, anti-Semites, Puerto Rican nationalists, anti-abortion radicals, and the emotionally disturbed, to name a few. Today’s best identified terrorist risks come from the Islamic State (Daesh) and the radical Islamists who join them or are inspired by them, though the vast majority of deaths in the U.S. from mass murderers since 9/11 have not been at the hands of Muslims.

The threat from Daesh is particularly challenging because it is built upon religious beliefs. The radical religious beliefs of Daesh are incompatible with modern civilization.[1] Killing non-believers, whether by suicide bombings or otherwise cannot be justified by the religious or moral beliefs held by most of humanity, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, humanist, or whatever. Virtually all terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 have been, and can be expected to be, committed by Americans. Of those few claiming to act in the name of Islam, we have benefited from American Muslims reporting radicalized, potential terrorists in their midst to the authorities. This helps explain why so few of these attacks have been by Muslims. Attempting to protect us from such attacks via the police methods noted above cannot stop those who are driven by what they believe is right in the eyes of their god (or those who are mad more generally). They are prepared and even eager to die for those beliefs. If some individuals are willing to blow themselves up for what they believe in, it will never be possible to totally prevent them from occasionally achieving their goal.

Deterring radicalized Islamist youth from their terrorist plans would require convincing them that their understanding of Islam is wrong. Given their willingness to die for their beliefs, undermining those beliefs is likely to be insufficient, though it is important. Virtually all young people seek an understanding of the purpose of their lives and moral values to guide their behavior. Muslims are best equipped and best placed to convince radical Islamists that their understanding of their religion is wrong. But all of us through our Churches, Mosques, Synagogues, schools and our culture more generally must do a better job teaching our young the moral values, and where appropriate the religious beliefs, that should guide their and our behavior toward our fellow man appropriate to living together in the modern civilized world. Coercion will not be enough.

[1] See my earlier blog:

Fighting Terrorists

A front-page article in the Washington Post announced that: “Saudi Arabia launches alliance to fight terrorism.”[1] This news truly gave me pause. If the irony of this does not hit you in the face, and even if it does, please read on.

Before exploring approaches to fighting terrorism, we need to define who or what our terrorist enemy is. The failure to do so clearly has badly undermined our efforts to defeat this enemy. Clearly the thousands of young men and women from around the world fighting in Iraq and Syria under the self designated Islamic State are terrorist enemies, as are Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, who killed 15 of Farook’s co workers in San Bernardino, California recently, and so are the French and Belgian Jihadists who killed 130 people in Paris on November 13th. Dropping bombs on San Bernardino or Paris or carpet bombing the Levant will not stop this enemy and the collateral damage, both human and physical,… well, you get the point.

If we understood why they were doing what they are doing, either at home or in far off places, we might be better able to deter them. What is their goal? Several steps are needed to reach such an understanding, but they all claim to be fulfilling what they understand to be their obligation to Allah to kill non-believers who refuse to convert to Islam:

I have been ordered by Allah to fight and kill all people (non-Muslims) until they say “No God except Allah.”

The above statement is a hadith collected and recorded by Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, the two most important compilers of the oral history of the words and deeds of Muhammad.

So our enemies are young Muslims who accept martyrdom and the prospect of early entry to paradise by fulfilling the commands of their religion as it has been taught to them. Those of us who live beyond this period of desperate searching for the meaning and purpose of our lives and make it to a more mature adulthood generally find less demanding objectives and meanings for our lives. Do most Muslims accept this version of their religion? This is a complicated subject but obviously we see the vast, vast majority of Muslims living in compliance with the laws and customs of whatever country they live in. Have they embraced a more peaceful understanding of Islam or have they managed to ignore those aspects of their religious beliefs that are clearly unacceptable in the modern civilized world?

Following 9/11, once I was able to return to the U.S., I asked a Pakistani colleague why he and his fellow Muslims did not speak out to condemn this barbaric act made in the name of Islam. He replied that it was very difficult for a Muslim to publically criticize a fellow Muslim. I only now think I understand what he meant. For a Muslim to criticize or renounce his religion is called apostasy. According to Dr. Tawfik Hamid in his very illuminating book Inside Jihad: “The portion of Sharia concerned with apostates is known as Redda law, and according to the literal implementation of Redda in Saudi Arabia, the punishment for apostasy is death.”[2]  Thus condemning Muslim’s who kill non-believers can be dangerous.

The proponents of this strict, fundamentalist form of Islam are called Salafists. According to Dr. Hamid: “Salafists desire a return to the Islamic Caliphate. They do not respect secular states or weak Islamic regimes. They believe Sharia law should constitute, ideally, the only legal system in any society, because it is the divine law…. For Salafists, the perfect world is one in which apostates are slain, adulterous women are stoned to death, enslavement of war captives is permitted, polygamy is admired and wives can be beaten when the husband deems it appropriate.”[3] Such views are not compatible with our Constitution or culture nor with any other modern culture and should be condemned as unacceptable.

According to Dr. Hamid, Salafist interpretations of Islam promulgated around the world by the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam financed by the Saudi Arabian government has come to dominate the understanding of the teachings of Muhammad by most Muslims. In exchange for the commitment of the Wahhabi leadership to respect and not politically challenge the Saudi royal family, the Saudi rulers financed the Wahhabi movement and its expansion. So the irony of Saudi Arabia launching an alliance to combat terrorism is that it is Saudi Arabia that continues to finance its primary cause, the Salafist version of Islam. For starters the Saudi government should cut off the funds it now provided to the promotion and spread of such teachings.

If the United States or any other military were able to kill every ISIS fighter in the Levant (Iraq and Syria), even if it could do so without destroying the cities and communities and kill their citizens that ISIS now occupies and controls, and even if it could leave behind or install a creditable, peaceful, and broadly accepted government that could prevent a new ISIS from arising, this would not end the threat of Islamic terrorism. As long as young men and women around the world continue to believe that their ticket to paradise entails fulfilling their religious duty to kill infidels, innocent people will continue to die at their hands and we will remain at risk.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has the right idea, if he means it, that “we” must “stop the flow of funds to terrorists and confront the ideology of extremism that promotes killing of the innocent.”[4] But according to Dr. Hamid, this is not enough. “Islamic terror is not likely to decrease until Muslims cease being passive terrorist and become active defenders of hard truth, true peace and real tolerance.”[5] “For every jihadist in the world there is a much larger number of individuals who quietly approve of his conduct. Islamic terror often makes passive terrorist secretly proud.”[6] This is because the passive terrorist believes on the basis of Salafist teachings that the active terrorist is fulfilling the requirements of Islam. “In the case of passive terrorists the schism is one between the cultural mind and the religious mind.”[7]

Islam needs a reformation. While peaceful forms of Islam already exist (e.g., Sufism), Dr. Hamid argues that a more rigorous and scholarly reinterpretation can emerge from a refocusing on the Koran (the word of Allah), which does not contain many of the offending texts in the hadiths and Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad), and placing certain commands and acts in the historical context in which they originally occurred as is generally done when interpreting the Bible.

The United States and other secular societies need the help of peaceful Muslims, those who have accepted the secular laws of their country (e.g. the U.S. Constitution) and thus rejected those Salafist teachings that contradict them. We need their help in attracting Muslims to its acceptable and peaceful versions and we need their help in isolating and exposing the few Islamic terrorists among them. These peaceful Muslims, in turn, need our condemnation of the intolerant and violent elements of Salafism, to help support their campaign for reformation. To ignore that Islamic terrorists are acting on their understanding of their religion, i.e. that they are Islamic, undercuts any effort and hope for the reformation that Islam needs in order to peacefully take its place in the modern world.

In his farewell speech to the Nation in 1988 Reagan spoke of America as a shinning city on the hill: “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” Implicit in Reagan’s vision was that anyone “with the will and heart to get here,” had already embraced the laws and customs of their new land. Those who have and who satisfy our other requirements for immigration should be welcomed.


[2] Tawfik Hamid Inside Jihad: How Radical Islam Works, Why it Should Terrify Us, How to Defeat it, Mountain Lake Press, 2015 page 83.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Washington Post Op. Cit.

[5] Hamid, Op. cit. page 98

[6] Ibid. page 87

[7] Ibid. page 102