Marginal Terror AvoidanceI didn’t watch the State of the Union address, so Thursday’s press conference was the first time I’d actually seen Bush speaking since – wow, maybe not since 9/11. And I noticed something interesting: he’s learned to speak like a real president. No, seriously. The accent is milder now (I grew up in Texas, and even I couldn’t stand the accent as it was before), he speaks carefully and earnestly, and the lurking smirk is gone. He actually exhibited, dare I say it, gravitas.
And that’s too bad, really, because much of what he had to say doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Will Wilkinson has some choice commentary on the evasiveness of Bush’s answer to a question about the cost of making war on Iraq. The basic gist: in response to a question about costs, the president talked about benefits instead.
What yanked my chain, however, was his reaction to a question about whether making war on Iraq might arouse even greater anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, thereby by inciting more terrorist acts. His reply was eloquent, persuasive, and ostrich’s-head-in-the-sand wrong. “I think, first of all, it's hard to envision more terror on America than September the 11th, 2001. We did nothing to provoke that terrorist attack. It came upon us because there is an enemy which hates America. They hate what we stand for. We love freedom, and we're not changing.” In other words, Bush assumes that terrorism is a function of only one variable – our values – and invariant to changes in anything else. Given the Arab world’s frequent condemnation of American imperialism and involvement in the Middle East, isn’t that claim patently false? Even if we agreed that 90% of their hatred were attributable to our values (and that seems an incredibly high estimate to me), the other 10% would be due to something else that we might be able to influence. And, if I may be excused for invoking econo-speak, it’s always the marginal effect that is most relevant for optimal decision-making. The actions we take now could push the “marginal terrorist” – you know, the Arab who hates American values but is not *quite* ready to join the jihad – over the edge.
And really, is it that difficult to “envision more terror on America than September the 11th, 2001”? I’ll give Bush the benefit of a doubt and assume he meant more *new* terror, since otherwise just one more dead body would do the trick. Still, the rest of us have spent the 17 months since 9/11 thinking of much worse things that could happen: suitcase nukes, smallpox attacks, etc. Moreover, terrorist attacks need not be as spectacular as 9/11 to have a cumulative effect just as horrific. We are more likely to suffer death by a thousand cuts than by a single sword thrust. And this fact, again, puts a premium on thinking at the margin: the question is not whether there will be a terrorist attack, but how many. Every action we take in the war on terror must therefore be weighed in marginal terms: will the marginal benefit from deterrence outweigh the marginal cost from widening the pool of potential terrorists?