Invisible Threats, …invisible evidence, invisible analysis

Here’s the thing. If you want to make the case that the world and the nature of security are changing so much that the “very concept of state sovereignty” has to be reimagined, surely you don’t start based on a scenario that sounds like a b-rate Hollywood thriller. Right? Surely.

Or maybe you do. In this paper on emerging threats, here’s the scenario that’s used:

“You walk into your shower and find a spider…you know that any one of the four following options is possible:

a. The spider is real and harmless.

 b. The spider is real and venomous.

 c. Your next-door neighbor, who dislikes your noisy dog, has turned her personal surveillance spider (purchased from “Drones ‘R Us” for $49.95) loose and is monitoring it on her iPhone from her seat at a sports bar downtown. The pictures of you, undressed, are now being relayed on several screens during the break of an NFL game, to the mirth of the entire neighborhood.

 d. Your business competitor has sent his drone assassin spider, which he purchased from a bankrupt military contractor, to take you out…”

My fondness for the imaginativeness of option c aside, this is the kind of paper that exemplifies almost all of the worst traits of so much military/security writing. It demonstrates A) a fantastical phobia regarding technology, B) an extremely simplistic conception of human behavior and human violence, and C) a weirdly and naively god-like depiction of the modern state.

It’s also just so formulaic. There must be a template out there somewhere with all the points you need to cover to write about emerging threats:

1) Point out all kinds of crazy new gadgets and technologies. 2) Make up some frightening ways they could be used for nefarious purposes. 2.5) Acknowledge briefly that you really don’t know much about technology (shucks, you only just got a smart phone a couple of weeks ago) and at any rate, it’s impossible to predict the future. 3) Assert that the military and police currently aren’t capable of preventing such frightening scenarios or nefarious purposes. 4) Propose some legal and policy changes that would help ensure a brave new world.

But style aside, it’s the substance that’s so painful.

A) Fantastical Technophobia: This is the worst part about this genre. It’s the worst because it’s the most intuitively appealing and seemingly unobjectionable. After all, technology does seem to be advancing at a rapid rate, and one does frequently hear about scary and creepy uses for technology. But that’s why it’s so wrong. Yes such scary futures are plausible, but their presentation is usually completely disconnected from anything besides just that: a presentation of the scenario. They’re thrown out to the reader in a way that sweeps them on the wave of first-impression paranoia past any assessment of actual likelihood. As the paper suggests, it’s plausible to conceive “a world rife with miniature, possibly molecule-sized, means of inflicting harm on others, from great distances and under clandestine conditions.” It’s also plausible that economic distress and continued recession/depression might slow down the rate of technological advance leaving us with slightly better smart phones but with nothing close to weaponized “spider-drones” (the author’s techno-nightmare of choice). It’s also plausible that technological advance continues or even accelerates, but that Steven Pinker’s thesis of the decline of violence bears out. In this case people have spider-drones, but they use them to clean their shower, not attack other people in the shower. Or maybe spider robots are used to kill people, but far fewer people are killed with knives and overall homicide rates remain fairly stable. In that case are we really in a worse situation, or just in a more creepy one?

The key here is that a plausible scenario isn’t enough to make an argument worth serious consideration. There are just too many different plausible scenarios. Take the possibility of various natural disasters. The giant volcano under Yellowstone might explode. Or an asteroid or meteor might hit us. Perhaps it’s even possible that solar flares could heat up the earth’s core (sarcasm). Most of the above scenarios are within the realm of the possible, but without extensive and rigorous analyses showing an increased likelihood of any particular one, we’re probably not going to make huge changes in national and international governance structures in response to their possible occurrence.

Worst-Case Scenario

To avoid dealing with this issue, the author relies on caveats. Caveats are supposed to illustrate analytical modesty and to limit generalizations. But in the kind of writing represented by this paper, they’re just used to dismiss problems and leap past objections. “I already said I don’t know anything about technology, so don’t criticize ‘the realism’ of anything I say about technology” and “I already said I have no way of knowing if the possible future I’m depicting is any more likely than any other possible future – so don’t criticize my predictions.” This can be an effective rhetorical trick. But does one really want to have to rely on rhetorical tricks?

B) Simplistic assumptions about violence: This second problem is more serious, but also more forgivable. Most people still rely on intuition and “common sense” to try to understand human behavior. Neither is very useful outside of navigating daily life.

The key here is that outside the author’s intuition, these kinds of claims are completely baseless:

“As the means to inflict violence from afar become more widely available, both individual threat and individual vulnerability increase to a hitherto unknown degree. When the risk of being detected or held accountable diminishes, inhibitions regarding violence decrease. Ultimately, modern technology makes individuals at once vulnerable and threatening to all other individuals to unprecedented degrees: we are all vulnerable—and all menacing.” 

Steven Pinker’s recent book is a great place to start for a wide range of literature dispelling these kinds of claims. But the ready-made counterfactual is also all around us. In fact the author even points this out: “public commentary is rife with reports on the ease and simplicity with which dangerous materials are available for harmful use; and yet, to date, we have seen very few unconventional attacks worldwide. I do not have a good answer to this (happy) conundrum.”  That’s right, it’s been 11 years since the September 2001 attacks. Besides a few major attacks since then (which largely paled in comparison), there’s been very minimal terrorist activity outside of active conflict zones. Moreover, the activity that has occurred has almost been remarkable for its technological simplicity and the ineptness of the people responsible.

Since this counterfactual doesn’t fit with her narrative, she drops it very quickly. Yet it isn’t something that can be simply set aside as “remarkable”. It should really become a principal focus of study. If there are so many people out there that really embrace an ideology that justifies severe violence, and if ideology is really sufficient to produce severe violence (something the author posits as the kind of violence she’s interested in) – then why haven’t we seen more? As just one example, trains are almost completely unguarded in the US. Why hasn’t there been one successful attack on a train? This could be a fascinating question that drives intense scrutiny of our assumptions about whether simple “rational” intent is sufficient for violence to occur. But the tools and methods necessary to study these questions are probably not typically found in the curricula and expertise provided in law school, or even most international relations departments.

A different kind of counterfactual, but one equally interesting, is that where we have seen violence, it hasn’t been enabled primarily by new technology. It’s been enabled by extremely primitive technologies. I’m speaking of IEDs in Afghanistan. When I was there in 2010 there was a saying that it was so easy to make IEDs in Afghanistan that “a caveman could do it.” You don’t have to look long to realize that effective IEDs require only very basic materials. Yet they’re so effective they’re able to thwart technological countermeasures that cost millions and billions of dollars.

The point here is that IEDs are not a technological problem. They’re a social problem. They reveal the underlying reality that humans could wipe out the human race very quickly, and we wouldn’t need advanced technologies, if not for certain biosocial constraints that make us unlikely to do so. Afghanistan, as such, is the exception that proves the rule. It is that exceptional case where the importance of social constraints is revealed to be so terribly important by virtue of its absence. And it is only slightly absent, which is why in a country with millions of men and women who technically could all be creating and emplacing IEDs and who all probably share similar supposed justifications (“being Muslim”, knowing civilian casualties, “being poor”, “hating foreigners”, etc.) only thousands of IEDs get created and emplaced each year. This is a fascinating reality that challenges so many widespread assumptions about violence and conflict. Unfortunately they don’t get addressed in papers like these.

C) Naïve conception of a god-like state: I don’t usually like making generalizing claims about groups of people. I’m going to make an exception for legal scholars writing about national security. For some reason, they tend to write about the State as if it were some ideal super-being. Perhaps this is because they’re used to dealing primarily with law and legal statues that are presumed to be definitive and which typically outweigh other considerations in the cases they’re used to examining (e.g. legal cases before a judge). Whatever the reason, claims like the following are little more than absurd:

“Global policing (a term I use here to denote this model of transnational regulation of violence) is a much more complex task than either conventional domestic policing or traditional wars. Essentially, it requires defending every individual against all other individuals—citizens or foreigners—a much harder task than defending a state against all other states or individuals against their fellow citizens.”

Where does one start with such delusional grandeur? Defending EVERY individual against ALL OTHER individuals? Why on earth would we set that as the expected standard of any possible institution staffed and resourced by individuals who are as limited in time and space as any other non-government individuals? Do we require the state to defend every individual against all other individuals now? No, we don’t. In fact, I would argue that the province of the state currently is not primarily to directly protect individuals. Rather its function is to implement justice after crimes have been committed. The general outcome of an effective implementation of justice is also to sustain a kind of general preventive effect on crime and violence. But such a general effect is rarely capable of preventing those particular individuals who choose to ignore the probability of punishment and carry out violence. The author has given us no reason to believe this balance of responsibilities in favor of post-crime justice over pre-crime prevention will change because of the kind of technological change she dramatically refers to.

Nor is the author’s depiction of transnational crime disrupting the current model of sovereignty very persuasive. Has any state offered any trouble in dealing with “spider-criminals”? A country that refuses to respond adequately will face the combined threat of the international community, just as Afghanistan did. And if individuals rather than states become the primary enemy, then nation-states remain highly capable of confronting them. See the successful hunting of Bin Laden, and of Al-Alawki, and if those aren’t enough, just check out President Obama’s “kill list”. Yes plenty of criminals will get away with crime in the future, but that’s nothing new.

Understanding human behavior requires science, not intuition.

In opposition to the author’s predictions, I’ll make a few of my own. The governance and organization of human society (in other words, politics, international relations, and national and international law) are too important to continue to remain primarily the province of intuition, deep thought, or the study of ancient writers. Whatever the author thinks of what Plato thought, Plato just isn’t a good authority to rely on when it comes to understanding human behavior (tripartite theory of the soul, anyone?). Just as we now rely on more than intuition and ancient scholars to understand and improve physical health and instead demand the analytic rigor and evidence afforded by science; political and social health requires equal attention and serious study. Nicholas Christakis has made this case extremely well.

Of course I’m not suggesting any less democracy, nor am I suggesting that politics and governance will become only about science. This is not the old technocratic soviet model. What it means is that analysis and prescriptions based only on intuition dressed in the garb of rhetoric or on assumptions without evidence aren’t enough anymore and they should be given decreasing attention and respect. Just as more and more of the public are able to understand science in other domains, so more and more of the public should be able to understand science as applied to political and social phenomena. (One example is the application of cognitive science to law.) In the short-term though, the best thing we can do is simply to raise our standards. Issues like defense and national security and emerging threats are incredibly important, and they probably deserve a lot more attention than they usually get. But they also deserve a lot more rigorous and serious analysis than they’re typically given by the very people who are supposed to know the most about them.