This is Your Brain on Terrorism

Edward Snowden’s revelations about the federal government’s mass collection of phone records, emails, web browsing history and social media interactions have prompted a collective contemplation of a critical question: Should we surrender Constitutionally-enshrined liberties for the government’s promise of security against terror?

Unfortunately, our ability to reach a rational decision on this question is hampered by our humanity:  While the homo sapiens brain has come a long way, it’s still wired to assess potential threats with emotion rather than reason. As a result, we’re susceptible to extreme exaggeration of the threat of terrorism and may be making a catastrophically bad bargain with our essential freedoms.

Our Lizard Brains: Wired for Snakes

Our tendency to miscalculate on terrorism is in our DNA. In a New York Times piece aptly titled “Scaring Us Senseless,” Nassim Taleb writes:

Terrorism exploits three glitches in human nature, all related to the management and perception of unusual events. The first and key among these has been observed over the last two decades by neurobiologists and behavioral scientists, who have debunked a great fallacy that has marred Western thinking since Aristotle and most acutely since the Enlightenment.

That is to say that as much as we think of ourselves as rational animals, risk avoidance is not governed by reason, cognition or intellect. Rather, it comes chiefly from our emotional system.

When assessing the terror threat, our ability to reason is further undermined by “availability bias,” the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events that are more available in our memory banks. Since availability is amplified by the emotional impact of an event and how often we hear about it, our views on terrorism are especially prone to this effect.

Long ago, when human self-preservation was focused on perils like snakes and rival tribes, emotion- and memory-fueled threat assessment surely served us well. Today, in an era of 24-hour cable news networks and social media, the process is completely short-circuited: By the very definition of “news,” we hear very little about the dominant threats to our lives, and the most about the rarest, including terror.

Just how small is the terror threat? Consider your annual odds of perishing by terror compared to two alternatives:

English: PET scan of a normal human brain

PET scan of a human brain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With bathtubs posing a substantially greater danger than terrorists, why are politicians silent on this menace? Why don’t they accuse rivals of being “weak on bathtubs”? Where are the recurring TV news segments? Why is there no Bureau of Bathtub Security with a $4 billion headquarters and an accompanying array of intrusive, government-mandated safety measures?

That’s absurd, some may say—bathtub deaths are accidental, and terrorist attacks are intentional!

That objection is itself a case study in reasoning warped by emotion. After all, if our government’s goal is to preserve American lives, it makes no difference whether one hazard is accidental in nature and another results from a deliberate act. Both result in grieving families. The difference in our society’s reaction to the two is found deep in our lizard brains, which assign disproportionate importance to exotic threats. If we are to pursue rational policies, however, our efforts to reduce deaths from shocking acts should carry the same sense of proportionality we apply to more mundane perils.

Availability Bias Reinforced

To do that, we must first overcome our emotional biases about terror. That’s a challenge made steeper by the role our media and government play in reinforcing them.

When it comes to other phobias like air travel and sharks, the media and government contribute to our biases, but usually make some effort to help us overcome them too. For example, after a spectacular air crash, they remind us we’re far safer in the skies than on the roads. Following their lead, individuals remind each other of that increasingly well-known fact too.

Where terrorism is concerned, the media and government almost exclusively reinforce our emotionally-charged and deeply flawed conclusions. Each has powerful incentives to do so.

Ghastly as terror attacks may be, news executives will tell you they’re great for ratings. After terror attacks like the one in Boston, networks cast all other stories aside and spend weeks positively saturating the public in images, interviews and commentary that reinforce availability bias—and provide terrorists the very publicity they sought in the first place. And, having long ago morphed from detached observers and critics of government to de facto communication outlets for it, major news organizations spend precious little time scrutinizing government claims about terror.

That’s problematic, because the government has its own incentives to exaggerate the threat. In the wake of 9/11, the United States began building a massive anti-terror bureaucracy, and the first mission of bureaucrats is to not only defend their power and budget but to expand them. To that end, they benefit more from fanning the public’s terror worries than moderating them.

Department of Homeland Security's $4 Billion Headquarters: Still under construction, it's the largest project in GSA History (click to enlarge)

Department of Homeland Security’s $4 Billion Headquarters:   Still under construction, the largest project in GSA History

Terrorcrats are aided in that effort by the same potent mix of politicians, lobbyists and federal dollars that has pushed U.S. military spending far beyond its rational limits. If Eisenhower were here today, he’d surely be disturbed to find that the military-industrial complex he warned us about is now paired with a formidable terrorism-industrial complex touching more than 1,200 government organizations and 1,900 private companies and consuming billions in taxpayer money. (There’s no telling how many billions: Much of the anti-terror budget is classified, shielded from scrutiny under the absurd pretense that mere knowledge of the price tag would aid the enemy.)

Saving Lives: Weighing Costs and Benefits

We return, then, to the question at hand.  Are Americans making a reasonable trade-off between:

  • Government policies that are supposed to decrease our risk of dying in a terrorist attack, and
  • The cost to society for the additional margin of safety actually gained?

With the shocking images and deep sadness of 9/11 understandably seared into their psyches, many Americans seem to feel that no cost is too high to ward off future attacks. However, few would reach the same conclusion about other risks.

Consider this: Some 30,000 American men, women and children die in vehicle accidents each year. Would you support a government-mandated safety feature that would spare 3,000 of those lives and add $50 to the cost of every single car? Probably.

What if it cost $500, and even current car owners were ordered to add it? How about $5,000? $15,000? $25,000?

At some point, your answer likely became “no.” It’s not because you place little value on those 3,000 American lives—a 9/11 casualty count every single year—but because you realize life is inherently risky and we have to weigh the costs, benefits and unintended consequences of our various life-preserving policies.

Which brings us back to terror. Here, the cost is measured not only in untold billions of dollars but in something even more precious: our liberties. Endangering generations to come, all three branches of the federal government have colluded to give current and future presidents and their appointees the power to engage in mass domestic surveillanceindefinite detention and execution without trial—offering us a promise of enhanced security in return.

But how much extra security are we actually getting for that price? It turns out most of the plots the FBI claims to have foiled were concocted and often even equipped by the FBI itself, coaxing a variety of social misfits into attempting attacks they didn’t have the capability to carry out on their own. Meanwhile, as the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated, government agents aren’t nearly as skilled in thwarting attacks that weren’t their idea in the first place.

And remember, this massive and expensive effort is directed at a mortality risk that’s already among the slimmest Americans face: Despite Islamic terrorists’ dedication to destruction, our “porous” southern border and the countless low-tech means of killing people, they’ve only claimed an average of 1.6 lives per year within the United States since 9/11.

To counter that fact, defenders of domestic surveillance and other counter-terror programs will point to the same threat their confederates used to justify the invasion of Iraq: What if the terrorists go nuclear? For a variety of reasons, their prospects of making the leap from box-cutters and pressure cookers to a nuclear bomb are almost unfathomably slim.

Caveat Emptor

None of that is to say we shouldn’t make any effort to thwart terror. The question is whether today’s extraordinarily expensive and un-Constitutional measures represent a rational, cost-effective and proportionate response to the danger terrorism truly presents—not in the emotion-laden recesses of our lizard brains, but in the real world.

In the domestic war on terror, the federal government is essentially making this offer to the American people:  “Give up your Bill of Rights and plunge the country far deeper into debt, and I’ll improve your risk of dying in a terror attack from one in 3,500,000 to—who knows—one in 3,501,000.”

Considering what we’re being offered, giving away the protections we fought a revolution to achieve is a bargain so outrageously lopsided that future historians will certainly marvel at what is unfolding today.

Given what Americans are up against—their own flawed reasoning and an imposing set of forces with powerful incentives to exaggerate the risk of terror—there’s little reason to hope a majority can be persuaded they’re paying an obscene price for the slimmest margin of additional safety against an already-modest risk.

But we have to try.

Netanyahu: The Bibi Who Cried Wolf?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s constant, dire warnings about Iran convey one quality in great abundance:  Sheer confidence.  With an air of omniscience, he tells us precisely what the Iranians are thinking, planning and doing—even what they will do in the future.

English: Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu (Credit: Wikipedia)

This is, however, the same man who—with every bit as much outward certainty–-declared that Saddam Hussein was “feverishly” developing nuclear weapons as he urged the United States on to an invasion that proved wholly unjustified. While Netanyahu’s assertions about Iran’s nuclear program are grave, it could be the gravest of errors to assume that what he’s saying is true.

Netanyahu in 2002: “No Question” Iraq Pursuing Atomic Bombs

On September 12, 2002, Netanyahu testified at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing titled, “Conflict with Iraq: An Israeli Perspective.”  At the time, “conflict with Iraq” wasn’t underway; rather, it was being contemplated—and aggressively pushed by the Bush administration, Netanyahu and others.

Scanning his testimony, we find little to distinguish what Netanyahu told us about Iraq in 2002 from what he tells us about Iran in 2012:

  • “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons—no question whatsoever.”
  • Saddam is hell-bent on achieving atomic bombs, atomic capabilities, as soon as he can.”
  • “Every indication we have is that (Saddam) is…pursuing with abandon, pursuing with every ounce of effort, the establishment of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.  If anyone makes an opposite assumption…that is simply not an objective assessment of what has happened.”
  • “…this is not a hypothesis. It is a fact.  Iraq, Iran and Libya are racing to develop nuclear weapons.”
  • “Mr Kucinich…it is simply not reflecting the reality to assume that Saddam isn’t feverishly working to develop nuclear weapons, as we speak.”

We now know his emphatic claims were emphatically wrong.  That knowledge came at a terrible price—in American and Iraqi lives and limbs, and in more than $800 billion of U.S. taxpayer money…and counting. If Netanyahu was so categorically wrong about Iraq, is it wise to put faith in his claims about Iran?

Evaluating Today’s Claims About Iran

It wouldn’t be equitable to evoke the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf without acknowledging that, while the Aesop character’s first cries of “wolf” were false, his final one was not.  Ignoring his pleas, the villagers’ inaction allowed a very real wolf to slaughter the boy’s flock of sheep. With that in mind, and given what’s at stake, we have a duty to carefully examine warnings about Iran now presented by Netanyahu and others.

Whether said explicitly or not, these justifications for pre-emptive war typically have three underlying tenets:

  1. Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon.
  2. Iran is genocidal.
  3. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will use them regardless of the consequences to itself.

Let’s examine each one separately.  As we do, bear this in mind:  The question isn’t whether Iran’s public rhetoric is offensive or its human rights record highly defective—those factors alone wouldn’t be sufficient to wage war.  If they were, we’d be bombing or invading much of the world.

Has Iran decided to build a nuclear weapon?

While 84 percent of Americans think Iran is already building nuclear weapons, the answer is actually no, according to:

  • U.S. intelligence.  American intelligence still adheres to its finding in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran:  “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”
  • Israeli intelligence.  Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that, according to senior Israeli officials, “Israeli has come around to the U.S. view that no final decision to build a bomb has been made by Iran.”
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency.  The IAEA, which inspects the nuclear operations of Iran and other countries that have signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, says it continues to confirm nuclear material isn’t being diverted to military use.  (It hedges, however, noting it can’t assure “the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activity.”  That is, it can’t prove a negative.)

While those who study Iran closest agree it isn’t developing a nuclear weapon today, some are concerned that its peaceful nuclear program could turn military, noting that the further its peaceful program advances, the faster Iran could pivot into military use.

Iranian Scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, Killed in January 2012 Car-Bombing Attributed to Israel and the MEK Terrorist Group (AP Photo)

However, those advocating the reinforcement of “crippling” sanctions, additional Israeli-sponsored terrorist assassinations of civilian scientists or unprovoked military attacks to send Iran “back to the Stone Age” should consider the possibility that their approach makes it more likely Iran will decide it needs nuclear weapons—as a deterrent…particularly when you remember:

  • Iran has already seen the United States execute “regime change” invasions and decade-long occupations of both its eastern and western neighbors.
  • The United States and Great Britain overthrew Iran’s own democratically elected leader in 1953 to replace him with a West-friendly tyrant.

Are Iran’s leaders bent on genocide?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is widely quoted as declaring “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map.”   Time and time again, these words are offered as proof of genocidal intent, repeated not only by Netanyahu but by politicians, reporters, commentators and everyday citizens—the trouble is, he never said them.

What he did say, as he in turn quoted the Ayatollah Khomeni, was, “The Imam (Khomeni) said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” As Arash Norouzi explains in a detailed analysis of the sentence and its context, Ahmadinejad was comparing the Israeli “regime” with other once-powerful regimes that had fallen, including the Soviet Union.

In other words, he wasn’t calling for the annihilation of a population, but for the dismantling of a governing entity. That’s highly antagonistic language, to be sure, but it’s not genocidal—any more than Ronald Reagan’s assertion that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history” was a pledge to incinerate the Soviet, Chinese or Cuban people.

Iran’s leaders have made countless more anti-Israel statements, but when examined closely—understanding that Iran does not officially recognize the government of Israel, claims it was wrongly created and says it denies the rights of Palestinians—these statements likewise seem focused on the Israeli government and not Jews as a people.  (The Anti-Defamation League maintains a catalogue of Ahmadinejad’s most provocative lines; review them for yourself in that light.)

Anti-Zionist Jews of the Neturei Karta

Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory statements are also awash with contempt for “Zionists,” yet, significantly,  not “Jews.”   There is a distinction: “Zionism” refers to the nationalist movement which championed the creation of the Jewish nation-state of Israel.  Underscoring that distinction, there are Jewish anti-Zionists who embrace Judaism but actively oppose the concept of the modern country of Israel.

Iranian leaders’ opposition to the formation and perpetuation of a government or country may be objectionable, but is it genocidal?  Those who accuse Iran of genocidal intent must reconcile the fact that Iran has the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East—behind only Israel itself—living peacefully and openlypraying in synagogues and even operating Hebrew schools and hospitals …and the fact that the Ayatollah Khomeni, after the 1979 revolution, issued a fatwa prohibiting the harassment of Jews and other religious minorities.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, would it use them regardless of the consequences to itself?

This question might be rephrased another way:  Are Iran’s leaders rational and concerned with self-preservation, or are they impulsive and suicidal?  After all, a nuclear strike executed by Iran or by terrorists it equipped would invite Iran’s own devastation.

Some argue that religious fervor makes Iran’s leaders indifferent to their own nuclear destruction—a notion that first assumes a certain interpretation of Islam and further assumes religious considerations outweigh Iranian leaders’ interest in perpetuating their own power and privilege.  Even assuming those things, there’s a religion-rooted flaw in the hypothesis:  In 2005, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, issued a fatwa declaring, per an Iranian government statement at the time, “that the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons.”

Let’s turn again to those who have observed Iran most closely:

  • “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”  Israeli Defense Forces Chief Benny Gantz.
  • “We are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor.  They act and behave as a rational nation-state.” U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey.
  • “The regime is a very rational regime.  There is no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions.”  Former Israeli Mossad Chief Meir Dagan.
  • “Iran poses a serious threat but not an existential one.”  Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.
  • “We continue to judge that Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach.” U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
  • “Iran is unlikely to initiate or provoke a conflict.” U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Ron Burgess.

Finally, while proponents of military action against Iran may find fault with many Iranian government actions and policies, can they point to a single one that demonstrates an impulsive, reckless, suicidal or self-destructive tendency?

A Citizen’s Duty: Focus on Facts, Question Everything

The case for preemptive war against Iran withers under close scrutiny, revealing that the common caricature of Iran—as a maniacal, fanatical nation bent on nuclear genocide—cannot be substantiated.

If the United States is to act justly and in a way that advances our nation’s true best interest and avoids shedding blood in vain, our policies must be rooted not in misinformed passion, but an objective evaluation of the facts. Regrettably, when it comes to Iran, its nuclear program and its implications for global security, the American public operates in a thick fog of myth and misunderstanding—so much so, that when the truth is shared, it sounds to many like a falsehood…or perversely, a sign of disloyalty.

A truly loyal American, however, relentlessly seeks what’s best for the United States.  Doing so requires an unwavering dedication to learning the truth, and a never-ending vigilance against misinformation that flows both from honest mistakes and from purposeful manipulation by those advancing their own, separate interests.

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