September 11 was a global disaster by any measure. While it cost Al Qaeda half a million dollars to plan and execute this mission, the combined response of the US military and Homeland security exceeded 3 trillion dollars. That 6 million to 1 cost-benefit ratio captures the asymmetric nature of the Western ‘war on terror’ very well.
However, the profound psychological impact of terrorism is much more clearly reflected by the growing populist movements in Western Europe and the USA which have chosen muslim immigrants as the perfect scapegoat. As much as I would like to understand the real problems faced by those backing Le Pen and Trump it’s clear that the populist ‘solution’ will only increase the probability of homegrown terrorism. Hereon, my intention is to analyse these problems and present a solution.
The underlying problems:
First, I must say that war is probably the dumbest possible solution to a very complex problem. Second, the current efforts to monitor homegrown terrorism won’t solve the underlying problem which is that the social fabric in Western countries is broken both socially and economically. While a democracy needs a strong middle class and citizens that have shared values, in Western countries both of these pillars are in peril today.
A foolish resistance:
In the USA, the symptoms of a broken social fabric can’t be made clearer by a ‘Resist’ movement, led by well-off intellectuals and businessmen, which defines itself by vilifying Trump supporters. No doubt globalisation and technological unemployment are playing an important role in this socioeconomic divide and it’s only by addressing these underlying problems that we shall find a solution. Amplifying deep socioeconomic divisions via virulent rhetoric, as practised by the ‘Resistance’, will only lead to greater social unrest.
DIY weapons of mass destruction:
Meanwhile, the risks posed by important social unrest are growing as the development of DIY bioweapons becomes easier with each passing year. In 2016 alone, France had more than 10 terrorist attacks. Most of these involved knives but what if biological weapons were used instead? Furthermore, if we consider the number of mass shootings in the USA every year, it’s clear that the threat isn’t strictly Islamist in nature.
As technology becomes more powerful it also leaves a smaller margin for human error. While a knife might allow a person to harm a few others, a bioweapon can potentially allow a few people to eliminate an entire ethnic group, effectively committing genocide. Moreover, due to the dual-use nature of these technologies we can’t ban their development and for this reason we must work seriously towards greater social cohesion. We don’t have another option.
After thinking carefully about these problems, I propose the following:
- Negative income tax: this would address the problem of economic inequality posed by technological unemployment.
- Compulsory public service: this would address the problem of a decaying social fabric.
The first solution might seem self-explanatory but the second solution occurred to me empirically, while visiting small towns around Britain. In each town I would talk to shopkeepers who would invariably complain about how the internet had a negative effect on their business. However, a more pernicious consequence of the internet culture is that it has allowed society to become transactional to the detriment of important social bonds. Where in the pre-internet era there might have been lively conversations between shopkeepers and customers, today people might get whatever they need on Amazon or have their supermarket goods home-delivered.
While we expect miracles from our governments the most we expect from ourselves as citizens is to vote every four years and pay our taxes. Clearly, this can’t continue. If everybody volunteered an hour or two every week for community service, we could rebuild an important sense of community, and therein lies the solution. Personally, I’ve been helping kids learn programming at Prewired on a weekly basis but that’s just one way of building a sense of community that isn’t socially stratified in its outlook.
Finally, I’d like to emphasise that it’s definitely within our ability as humans to solve these problems and I believe that these challenges will ultimately drive us to build stronger communities and become better people.
Note 1: If you consider my message important, please share it with your friends and colleagues, either by sharing my post or your version of it.
Note 2: I think that in order to address these issues we’ll have to work collectively, as humans, to address these considerable challenges in an intelligent manner.