Streetwise Professor

June 4, 2017

Terrorism, Populism, and Elite Failure

Filed under: History,Politics — The Professor @ 1:02 pm

Yesterday witnessed yet another terrorist attack in Europe, leaving seven dead in London.

The London mayor, safe behind his massive security detail, assures that there’s no reason to be alarmed.

Easy for him to say. Revelers and pedestrians, not so much.

This kind of vapidity is of a piece with something that I’m sure we’ll hear yet again: People overreact to terrorism. After all, you are more likely to die in your bathtub or some such than be slain by a terrorist. So accept it! Don’t be alarmed! Nothing to see here.

For one thing, this banality about violence does violence to statistics. I’m pretty sure that the Saturday night partiers in London or the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo or the attendees at a concert in Paris or the celebrants in Nice or the schoolgirls at a concert in Manchester are not in demographic cohorts heavily represented in the statistics of bathtub slips and falls.

For another, there is a difference between a small risk willingly taken to achieve some other benefit and being subjected to the risk of political violence in return for no benefit whatsoever. I am perfectly aware that every time I get in my car to go somewhere, I might be killed in an accident. That is part of the full cost of driving, and when I decide to drive I do so because the benefit of the trip exceeds the full cost. I made that choice. Getting decapitated by a religious fanatic while going out for a drink should not be something that must be considered when evaluating the pros and cons of a night on the town. That is the result of a breakdown of public order, not a private misfortune to which everyone is prone.

But those aren’t the biggest reasons to object to the bathtub comparison. The biggest reason is that intuitively people recognize that there is a difference between political violence, a social phenomenon, and the ordinary risks of every day living. They recognize that political violence may start with small, isolated instances, and spin out of control. The history of humanity is a dreary litany of social and political violence, and people have an intuitive sense that if it is not contained, it can well metastasize and make life all but unbearable. People rightly dread the prospect of political violence, because if unchecked, its trajectory is almost always upwards not the other way round. That is categorically different from the random misfortunes inherent in everyday life, and people intuitively recognize it is categorically different, and therefore react differently to it.

In brief, people realize that if you don’t suppress political and social violence when it is a relatively modest problem, it will become bigger: and that if you can’t deal with it when it is a small problem, you will be totally overmatched when it grows.

It is particularly infuriating when such platitudes pour from the pieholes of pompous politicians, of whom the London mayor is only the latest, and by no means the most powerful–the recently elected president of France, and the departed and unlamented (by me, anyways) president of the United States have uttered similar “thoughts.”

The only principled argument for the existence of the state is that people exchange some liberties for security of their lives and property. The primary–and to a classical liberal, sole–reason for the state is to provide such protection. When it fails to do so, it has failed utterly in its mission. When those ostensibly responsible for governing trivialize these failures, it is unpardonable.

It is particularly unpardonable in places like France particularly, but almost as much in the UK, and increasingly in the US, where the state holds itself out as omnicompetent to rule over every aspect of citizens’ lives. As the saying goes: you had one job. You fail at that, yet you presume to tell us that we should trust you with everything from health care to occupational licensing to monetary policy to all the other goddam things you claim only the government can do?

The initial reaction of the increasingly horrid British PM, Theresa May, encapsulates–yet again–the elite failure that is the hallmark of the 21st century. May posits that it might be necessary to restrict–wait for it–the Internet. If you are going to constrain liberties further in your feeble attempts to provide security, mightn’t a little more targeted approach be better, Ms. May? Starting, say, with places like the Finsbury Park Mosque? Or the 1000s of individuals which your security forces have already identified as threats (and then apparently ignored until after they act on them)?

But oh no. That would be discriminatory. Can’t have that, can we? But indiscriminate approaches like restricting the Internet or subjecting everyone from toddlers to the senile to security theater at airports are both wildly over inclusive and wildly under effective, thereby entailing great cost with no remotely corresponding benefit. Which just makes the populace all the more alarmed by terrorism, because it makes them all the more convinced that their supposed betters in government are not serious people and do not have their true interests at heart.

The elites are frightened and befuddled by populism: they freaked out at Trump’s very populist reaction to the latest London attacks. They should not be confused in the slightest, but they just cannot admit the truth: that populism is a reaction to profound elite failure, which the elite gives evidence of every passing day. Understanding populism would require that they admit failure, which they adamantly refuse to do.

People fear terrorism when they see it growing and they see those charged with preventing it failing time and again, and consciously avoiding doing the sometimes messy things necessary to do so. That fear seems pretty rational, given the fundamental differences between political violence and the risks of normal life, no matter how frequently the better thans instruct us about mortality statistics.

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  1. I’m sure one could use the same statistical argument when Russia attacked Ukraine. “Why do you worry about war with Russia? Statistics clearly show Ukrainian people are far more likely to die from traffic accident or cancer than being shot by Russian army. No need to fund army, better spend this money on healthcare and roads!”

    Comment by ikti — June 4, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

  2. This is perhaps the hardest conundrum facing the governed. I think what you are suggesting is that “authorities” should preemptively detain or deport possible nut cases. But those same “authorities” have clearly abused what powers the governed have given them for personal gain and power. The problem is that the contract between the governed and the guvners is broken, especially when both cannot abide any shade of grey. maybe what’s freaking the swamp(s) out is that populism in the end may be the only way to bring that contract back.

    Comment by Dh — June 4, 2017 @ 4:30 pm

  3. The first steps should be to apply existing law(s) and a return to common sense – including a robust rejection of the increasingly hysterical grievance and equality industry. Profiling of security at airports is obvious, ANYONE dressed in a burka has full security screening, ditto anyone with a stamp in their passport showing recent visits to any radicalised Islamic states. Let them complain. If you want to claim you are different for wearing a Burka, then you will be treated as different. Stop targeting old ladies and toddlers. Cut the oxygen of publicity for the hate preachers and the so called ‘community organisers’ and make it clear that Sharia law has no place in western society. If you want to live under Sharia, there are plenty of places you can emigrate to. You are not allowed four wives under our culture, you can have a wife and three girlfriends if you like, but only your wife (and her children) are your dependents and entitled to benefits. The girlfriends need their own status to claim housing or any other benefits. In the UK at least the sooner we can exclude the Tunisian married to the Spanish woman (true example) from living in the UK on benefits the better – thanks to Brexit (or for that matter the habit of spoiled middle class lefties marrying men from Somalia and Syria in order to get them a passport). Non citizens who break our laws get deported on a fast track, not deliberately suspended in the ongoing legal aid funded appeals system. Perhaps we agree to pay the countries they are deported to for their prison stay (incentives) and knock it off their foreign aid. Then a few new laws, 1) to announce that anyone going to fight for ISIS will not be allowed back in to the country 2)End the postal voting system that allows systematic abuse and not coincidentally election of radical Islamic council officials 3)Make it clear that anyone expressing support for radical Islam will be barred from holding public office, being a school governor etc.

    Comment by Mark T — June 4, 2017 @ 11:11 pm

  4. Prof,

    I think you need to listen to Mrs May’s speech again (or read the transcript). She didn’t just refer to the internet. Here’s the relevant bit:

    Third, while we need to deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online, we must not forget about the safe spaces that continue to exist in the real world. Yes, that means taking military action to destroy Isis in Iraq and Syria. But it also means taking action here at home. While we have made significant progress in recent years, there is – to be frank – far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.
    But the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism, and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom.
    Fourth, we have a robust counter-terrorism strategy, that has proved successful over many years. But as the nature of the threat we face becomes more complex, more fragmented, more hidden, especially online, the strategy needs to keep up.

    So in light of what we are learning about the changing threat, we need to review Britain’s counter-terrorism strategy to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need.
    And if we need to increase the length of custodial sentences for terrorist-related offences – even apparently less serious offences – that is what we will do. Since the emergence of the threat from Islamist-inspired terrorism, our country has made significant progress in disrupting plots and protecting the public. But it is time to say `Enough is enough’. Everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would. Our society should continue to function in accordance with our values. But when it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.

    It is short on specifics but it does raise the expectation that strong action will be taken.

    Comment by MMcL — June 5, 2017 @ 12:56 am

  5. “That is part of the full cost of driving” – and that risk, too, is substantially different in different jurisdictions and is strongly shaped by politics and culture.

    Replace “reckless driver” with “terrorist” and you end up with a need to put an “attitude islamization test” in place of “breath alcohol test”. Now imagine a political class unwilling to do anything about reckless driving and your full cost of driving is suddenly not so small any more.

    So the analogy is in fact quite good. Suggestion to simply accept potholes and reckless driving, not so much.

    Comment by Ivan — June 5, 2017 @ 1:08 am

  6. I am accustomed to the stupidity of the Atlantic political establishment. I was still shocked by May’s primary response being additional regulation of the internet (as you wrote). My first thought was-she can’t be serious. This is Radical Islam versus Radical Stupidity.

    How men can in large measure outsource the protection of themselves and their families to dysfunctional .gov is shocking. Clasp your hands behind your head and assume the police will protect you-might as well bleat baaa baaa baaa as you are doing it.

    Comment by pahoben — June 5, 2017 @ 3:24 am

  7. Spectacularly ill-informed. This is what the Mayor’s statement actually said “My message to Londoners and visitors to our great city is to be calm and vigilant today. You will see an increased police presence today, including armed officers and uniformed officers, there is no need to be alarmed by this.” So, actually an evocation of the British stiff upper lip.

    Comment by Euro Trash — June 5, 2017 @ 4:37 am

  8. Her initial press release-
    “Second, we cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet – and the big companies that provide internet-based services – provide.

    We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning. And we need to do everything we can at home to reduce the risks of extremism online.”

    Comment by pahoben — June 5, 2017 @ 5:20 am

  9. “an evocation of the British stiff upper lip”: the expression was originally American, apparently. From a quite different America of course; nowadays your TV shows persuade the world that you are a bunch of hysterics.

    Comment by dearieme — June 5, 2017 @ 5:53 am

  10. Stiff upper lip these days is just for draining a pint quickly.

    Interesting about national trends in personal safety hysteria. My experience is Norwegians the worst but my sample is not based on the average citizen. EU including Brits tend to hysteria about firearms almost universally (my sample may include bias).

    Comment by pahoben — June 5, 2017 @ 6:48 am

  11. Brits may be irrational about firearms, but they are not hysterical. I’m not kidding when I say that US telly shows depict Americans as hysterics.

    So do the news programmes: just consider the hysteria continuing long after 9/11, or the current hysteria about Russians, or the BLM hysteria.

    Comment by dearieme — June 5, 2017 @ 7:47 am

  12. @dearieme
    I have to think about this and thanks for the observation. I suspect it is a product of US mass media. In films you get Jason Bourne, John Wick, et al really low hysteria characters so must be US mass media news at work.

    Comment by pahoben — June 5, 2017 @ 8:27 am

  13. Brits irrational about firearms. In 2015, in the US, 13,286 people were killed by firearms Of these, 475 were killed in mass shootings (of which there were 375 that year). In the same year, in the UK, 21 people were killed by firearms. Even adjusting for population size, what would a rational person make of these figures dearieme?

    Hysterics. The Professor’s article is a hysterical response writ-large. Between 2000 and 2017 (including Sunday’s attack) 126 people have been killed in the UK as a result of terrorists. Every death is an individual tragedy, but, for goodness sake Professor, keep a perspective and stay calm. That’s what we are doing in London.

    Comment by Euro Trash — June 5, 2017 @ 9:03 am

  14. @Euro Trash
    Very disappointing total for the US in 2015. Very small cull of the herd and not nearly the number that deserved to be taken. The mass shootings should be eliminated from the total since not targeted specifically and largely random violence (as are terror acts) but the remainder is disappointingly low.

    One of the points is that terrorism is on the upswing in the UK and restricting materials on the internet as a response is…well…absurd.

    Comment by pahoben — June 5, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

  15. @pahoben. Upswing in terrorism in the UK? It has certainly changed in nature, but let’s look at the facts. 126 killed in the last 17 years. In the 15 years before that 1,094 deaths and between 1970 and 1985 there were 2,211 killed by terrorist acts. 1972 saw the peak with a total of 368 killed in the UK.

    Your comment about the deaths in the US is supposed to outrage, but it paints you as rather pathetic. Its like a Trump tweet. I had higher hopes. There was a chance I was corresponding with a thinker but you reveal otherwise.

    Comment by Euro Trash — June 5, 2017 @ 2:20 pm

  16. “Even adjusting for population size, what would a rational person make of these figures dearieme”. He’d ask why on earth you are comparing the UK to the USA rather than Canada?

    Comment by dearieme — June 5, 2017 @ 4:52 pm

  17. Both seem to be suboptimal. Israel seems to have figured terrorism out, and it is my belief that the plethora of weapons (and trained users) have to be an effective deterrent.

    Comment by dh — June 5, 2017 @ 6:06 pm

  18. Glad to see that all of the problems in the US have been solved and the biggest remaining concern of the American right is London’s Muslim mayor!

    Comment by aaa — June 5, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

  19. @Euro Trash
    Some people just deserve to go to their maker and some of those meet their demise by firearms. Your statistics are inflated since the majority of suicides in the US are by firearms while in the UK hanging. I didn’t intend it to be shocking-the world improves when some people meet their demise.

    The previous upswing was IRA related. This will be an interesting social experiemnt. Keep lobbying for international censorship of the internet and let’s see the impact this has on future terrorist acts in the UK. One of the most dangerous places for Americans at this time is the streets of London. Each of these incidents includes an American casualty and the latest is a head shot by London police.

    Agreed about future communication-no need to respond.

    Comment by pahoben — June 6, 2017 @ 2:28 am

  20. In Oklahoma a man was shot and killed over the weekend by a neighbor because he was drowning his twin 3 month old babies in the bath tub. Oh the horror of another firearm death.

    Comment by pahoben — June 6, 2017 @ 3:01 am

  21. How can the UK be so lacking in compassion that they allow so many dear people the implements to hang themselves. They sell these implements freely and openly-shocking.

    Comment by pahoben — June 6, 2017 @ 2:48 pm

  22. @dearieme. Because its a discussion about America the UK! Try and keep up.

    The figure of 13,286 people killed in the the US by firearms in 2015, excludes those who used firearms to commit suicide.

    Newsbreak. The UK has stopped selling rope and string.

    PS. The last statement employs irony and is fake news…………..worth spelling in this thread!

    Comment by Euro Trash — June 7, 2017 @ 8:35 am

  23. You seem to have missed the point, Eurotrash. It’s the US that’s the odd man out, not the UK. Lots of different advanced countries have had all sorts of gun laws since, for example, 1900. None, as far as I know, has had anything like the rates of death by gun that the US boasts. So comparing Kingdom X or Republic Y with the US is usually useless.

    There were very few gun deaths in Britain when I was a boy and the gun laws were far more permissive than they are now. The laws were changed because two loonies took it into their heads to imitate the kind of mass shootings they’d seen on news reports from the US, and one of them did it as a general election approached. The new laws were a result of political panic by a weak Prime Minister (Major) facing an unscrupulous Leader of the Opposition (Blair). A few minor reforms, added to strict enforcement of the existing laws, were probably all that was needed.

    The Bill of Rights of 1688 gives a pretty reasonable model of what a British law ought to be: “Subjects’ Arms. That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” You’d need to modify the Protestants category – but perhaps not by much – and define the Conditions that matter, and then you could pass some detailed Law covering safe storage. Done.

    Comment by dearieme — June 7, 2017 @ 9:09 am

  24. Elite failure, live on television in living colour:

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — June 7, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

  25. @dearieme
    I believe the U.K. Totals about 500 murders per year. Jeez there are neighborhoods in Chicago that match that. Telegraph has interesting stats in this article-

    Comment by pahoben — June 7, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

  26. No one has mentioned this, but Khan is not vapid. He’s consciously conniving.

    If you know anything about Islam, you’ll know that Khan is deliberately temporizing; working to keep the population docile while Islam advances. Khan’s loyalty is to Islam; not to the the UK, not to London.

    He’s the agent of a foreign power — the Islamic umma — a mole paving the way for Islam. It’s standard practice in the West.

    All the soft-spoken, ‘it’s a religion of peace’ promoters are working to suppress any popular reaction until Islam has enough power to lower the boom.

    And the collectivist left is their fifth column.

    Comment by Pedric — June 7, 2017 @ 8:01 pm

  27. pathogen:

    “the US actually ranks 11th in terms of firearm-related deaths, with 10.54 annually per 100,000 of its population. Ahead of it are a slew of Latin American countries: Honduras (top with 67.18),
    Venezuela, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Brazil, Panama and Uruguay. Swaziland and Jamaica complete the top 10.”

    So the US is the gun-deathiest of the advanced countries. (Unless you care to classify Uruguay as advanced.)

    Comment by dearieme — June 8, 2017 @ 10:05 am

  28. The FBI 2015 murder statistics show 9616 gun related murders in the US. With a population of 305 million, that’s one gun murder per 31,700 people = 3.15 per 100,000, not your 10.5 dearieme.

    Total US murders were 13455 = 4.4 per 100,000.

    World wide, the US is 99th in murder rate, not wonderful, but not tenth.

    Given the ethnic skew of US murder rates, your grandiose sweeping generalities are misleading at best.

    Comment by Pedric — June 8, 2017 @ 11:57 am

  29. @Pedric and @dearieme–Treating the US, a vast (305mm people), sprawling, and diverse nation as a single data point on an issue like guns is likely to lead one astray. As @Pedric suggests, the distribution of gun murder in the US is highly concentrated both ethnically and geographically. Three percent of the counties in the US account for 75 percent of the gun deaths. The south is very different from much of the north and the west. And the murder rate among black young males is 90/100k.

    I wrote about these stats here. Gun violence is a complex phenomenon and reducing it to the mere issue of gun availability misleads more than informs. I would wager that if guns disappeared from the US tomorrow, it would have a very high rate of knife and blunt instrument murders, especially in some areas/regions/neighborhoods, and among some ethnic groups. The problem is that having this discussion pushes some major PC buttons.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 8, 2017 @ 2:43 pm

  30. @Global Super-Reg. It should be easy for Khan to answer the question of where those 400 people are: “In jail or dead.” The fact that he can’t follow all of them is exactly the goddam point.

    When you’ve lost Piers Morgan . . .

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 8, 2017 @ 2:46 pm

  31. I’m late to the game here, but I love this post. Rational thought seems to be on the decline these days. I’ve found the hubris that delegitimizes common sense these days is getting more and more dangerous.

    Comment by Howard Roark — June 8, 2017 @ 8:38 pm

  32. Yes, there aren’t very many deaths in the West (yet!) from terrorism. Maybe more people die from hairdryers in the bathtub. But how many resources do we waste trying to make sure people don’t die from hairdryers and how much encroachment on our liberty is there from the state attempting to limit death by hairdryer? The costs (both in terms of resources and loss of liberty) of terror prevention are ALREADY MASSIVE and they are GROWING. Yet the elite refuse to take low-cost steps we all know would work. Great post, by the way.

    Comment by Mark — June 9, 2017 @ 2:12 pm

  33. […] 7. Wise words on terrorism […]

    Pingback by Saturday Assorted Links | Against Jebel al-Lawz — June 9, 2017 @ 10:06 pm

  34. Mark, death by hair drier is random and accidental. Death by terrorism is systematic and by intent. That puts D by T in a different category entirely, statistics be damned.

    By the way, those interested should read John Lott’s “More Guns, Less Crime.” Lott shows that violent crime decreases as more people carry. Apparently, when criminals do not know who’s carrying, they’re less likely to attack anyone. Rape apparently decreases as well. Not only might women carry, but some nearby guy may draw a gun on seeing a woman assaulted.

    Apparently, also, when carry laws relax in county A, crime goes down there, but goes up in neighboring county B. Criminals aren’t stupid, even if they are maladapted, and move to where the prey are easier.

    Lott also shows that those who do carry legally are highly law-abiding.

    I have searched Google Scholar for responses to Lott’s book. There have been plenty, including claimed disproofs. On my last survey, the disproofs were themselves disproven.

    Comment by Pedric — June 13, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

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