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The “refugee” koan

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — considering both sides, while tilting one way or the other ]

I call it a koan because you can flip it — there are two sides to it, and very possibly a serrated edge that it can balance on, foiling your best efforts to come up with a yes-no answer:

On the one side, Tsarnaev:

Not a Christian, BTW..


Okay, before the second shoe drops…

Consider this, from Benjamin Wittes, In Defense of Refugees today on Lawfare:

It is worth reflecting at least briefly on the security risks of turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of helpless people fleeing some combination of ISIS and Assad. Imagine teeming refugee camps in which everyone knows that America has abandoned them. Imagine the conspiracy theories that will be rife in those camps. Imagine the terrorist groups that will recruit from them and the righteous case they will make about how, for all its talk, the United States left Syria to burn and Syrians to live in squalor in wretched camps in neighboring countries. I don’t know if this situation is more dangerous, less dangerous, or about as dangerous as the situation in which we admit a goodly number of refugees, help resettle others, and run some risk—which we endeavor to mitigate — that we might admit some bad guys. But this is not a situation in which all of the risk is stacked on the side of doing good, while turning away is the safe option. There is risk whatever we do or don’t do.

Most profoundly, there is risk associated with saying loudly and unapologetically that we don’t care what happens to hundreds of thousands of innocent people — or that we care if they’re Christian but not if they’re Muslim, or that we care but we’ll keep them out anyway if there’s even a fraction of a percent chance they are not what they claim to be. They hear us when we say these things. And they will see what we do. And those things too have security consequences.

And, from a very different area of the political spectrum, this:

There’s a reason that hospitality is actually a religious virtue and not just a thing that nice people do: it is sacrificial. Real hospitality involves risk, an opening of the door to the unknown other. There is a reason it is so important in the Biblical narratives, which were an ancient people’s attempt to work out what they thought God required of them in order to be the people of God. Hospitality isn’t just vacuuming and putting out appetizers and a smile — it’s about saying, “Oh holy Lord, I hope these people don’t kill me or rape my daughters, but our human society relies on these acts of feeding and sheltering each other, so I must be brave and unlock the door.” Scary stuff. Big stuff. Ancient and timeless stuff. “You shall welcome the stranger.”

Now: is that wisdom, or foolishness?


Aha, the second shoe..

Besides Tsarnaev, who else do we know who came here as a refugee?

albert einstein non christian refugee

Einstein, no less.

And Einstein was not a Christian either, FWIW.

Rasputin’s Apocalypse

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — most likely a “foolish virgin” (Matthew 25) — I had no idea today was the day until today ]


According to Pravda, which I believe means Truth:

August 23, 2013 is the day, for which the infamous Grigory Rasputin predicted the end of the world in the beginning of the last century. Rasputin predicted a “terrible storm” in which fire would swallow all life on land, and then life would die on the whole planet. He also said that Jesus Christ would come down to Earth to comfort people in distress.

I would be remiss if I did not attempt to warn you…

The easy way or the hard way?

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — thinking more in terms of challenge than of threat, and skipping via Chicago Law, Everest, and Handel’s Messiah to a Venn diagram of the workings of conscience ]

Well, I don’t always read the Chicago Law Review cover to cover, or even at all to be honest — but I confess I did like this opening paragraph from George Loewenstein† & Ted O’Donoghue†† (love those daggers after your names, guys):

If you ever have the misfortune to be interrogated, and the experience resembles its depiction in movies, it is likely that your interrogator will inform you that “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The interrogator is telling you, with an economy of words, that you are going to spill the beans; the only question is whether you will also get tortured — which is the hard way. In this Essay, we argue that much consumption follows a similar pattern, except that the torturer is oneself.


Here’s the easy vs hard contrast I was thinking about as I googled my way to the Law Review — as you’ll see, it has nothing to do with interrogation:


So, a little background. Jason Burke has been covering Everest for The Guardian lately, since it has been almost exactly sixty years since Hillary and Tenzing were the first to “conquer” the highest peak on earth — and one of his reports caught my eye — Everest may have ladder installed to ease congestion on Hillary Step:

It was the final obstacle, the 40 feet of technical climbing up a near vertical rock face that pushed Sir Edmund Hillary to the limit. Once climbed, the way to the summit of Mount Everest lay open.

Now, almost exactly 60 years after the New Zealander and his rope-mate, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, stood on the highest point in the planet, a new plan has been mooted to install a ladder on the famous Hillary Step, as the crucial pitch at nearly 29,000ft has been known since it was first ascended. The aim is to ease congestion.

That’s what the upper panel, above, is all about — and I think it contrasts nicely with the bottom panel, which shows a rurp. Should you need one, you can obtain your own Black Diamond rurp here.


Rurps are awesome. Here are two descriptions of them, both taken from the mountaineering literature, and neither one of them focusing in too closely on the poetry of the name…

Steve Rope, Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, p. 107:

Chouinard’s “rurp” was obviously something special. An acronym for “realized ultimate reality piton,” this ludicrously small fragment of heat-treated steel opened our eyes to untold possibilities.

and Chris Jones, Climbing in North America, p. 273:

It was about the size of a postage stamp. The business end was the thickness of a knife blade and penetrated only a quarter-inch into the rock. With several of these Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons, or rurps, Chouinard and Frost made the crux pitch on Kat Pinnacle (A4). It was the most difficult aid climb in North America.

Chouinard named this postage-stamp-sized thing the realized ultimate reality piton (RURP) because if you willingly and literally hang your life on that quarter-inch of steel, you’re liable to realize, well, ultimate reality.

Zen — yours for $15 and exemplary courage.


Here’s my question: should we make the hard way easier?

When is that a kindness, and when is it foolish?


In its own way, of course, a rurp is an assist — it makes the hard way a tad easier for the serious climber.

As indeed would the proposed “ladder” on Everest: here’s why it might be not-such-a-bad idea:

This year, 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest. On 19 May, around 150 climbed the last 3,000ft of the peak from Camp IV within hours of each other, causing lengthy delays as mountaineers queued to descend or ascend harder sections.

“Most of the traffic jams are at the Hillary Step because only one person can go up or down. If you have people waiting two, three or even four hours that means lots of exposure [to risk]. To make the climbing easier, that would be wrong. But this is a safety feature,” said Sherpa…

Besides, the idea is to set it up as a one-way street…

Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.

“It’s for the way down, so it won’t change the climb,” Vrijlandt told the Guardian.

Ah, but then there’s human nature to consider:

It is unlikely, however, that tired ascending climbers close to their ultimate goal will spurn such an obvious aid at such an altitude.



Shouldn’t we just level the top off, as Handel and Isaiah 4.4 suggest, and as we’re doing in the Appalachians?

A little mountaintop removal mining, a helipad, and voilà — even I could make it to the summit!


But to return to Loewenstein† & O’Donoghue†† — their paper’s full title was “We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way”: Negative Emotions, Self-Regulation, and the Law — how can a theologian such as myself resist a diagram such as this?

The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

My friend Dave Schuler who blogs at the excellent The Glittering Eye and on foreign policy at Dr. James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway , queried me as to what I thought of the Boston Bombers in light of the concept of the Superempowered Individual.

For those not familiar with the concept, the term “superempowered individual” originated in phrase coined by Thomas Friedman and quickly gained traction and evolved in the .mil/strategy/defense blogosphere and communities of interest after 9/11 turned everyone’s attention to the potential reach of catastrophic terrorism. Many people, including myself have written on the topic and while no single, agreed upon, definition of SEI exists, there is a consensus around an individual having the capacity to multiply the scale of the harm they can cause by leveraging or disrupting complex systems, be they mechanical, social, cyber or some combination. I defined SEI’s this way:

To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”.  

Using that definition, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are far from superempowered individuals. They were not “super” anything and rather than being masters of complexity, they ginned up some primitive IEDs  and blundered miserably after their attack on the Boston Marathon. The younger of the two accidentally ran over his own brother with a car, killing him, which gives some idea of the operational amateurism of these culprits. If Islamist terrorism has a Darwin Award, the Brothers Tsarnaev are contenders

Yet the cost of their attack, the Boston bombing, allegedly tops $330 million dollars? Why?

I would argue that the US is systematically “superdisempowering” itself by VASTLY multiplying the costs of any given act of terrorism with absurd and outrageous levels of costly security theater and glitzy paramilitarization of law enforcement that continue to cascade and accumulate long after sorry nitwits like Richard Reid, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or the amazingly incompetent Underwear Bomber have become obscure historical footnotes. It is incredibly counterproductive in every sense and has overwhelmingly negative effects that only add significantly to the costs of terrorism

Timothy McVeigh, in a much more heinous act of terrorism, blew up a Federal building and killed 168 people and injured 800 others with a massive truck bomb and America did not feel a need to dress our police officers like extras in Starship Troopers or it’s airport security like customs officials from a minor Fascist puppet regime. This is not a criticism of police officers who do a dangerous job with professionalism and bravery but of a national policy of paternalism and creeping authoritarianism that is slowly morphing them into asphalt soldiers.

The attacks on September 11 were thirty times worse and far more spectacular than McVeigh’s bombing, transfixing the attention of the whole world, but somehow we got along without President Bush declaring martial law and closing New York city and sending troops door to door to roust citizens in their homes without warrants or probable cause.

We need to take a healthy step back and put the brakes on our own policy and security responses to terrorism and dial them down to a rational minimum level required for investigative effectiveness. If not because these policies have become dangerously injurious to liberty and American democracy or because they are mostly wasteful government spending then we should do it because we have become so expert at making the costs of any act of terror extremely expensive by our own reaction that we are providing the enemy and itinerant crazies with a tremendous incentive to attack us more.


The only thing superempowered right now is own own lack of strategic sense.

US Foreign Policy, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

The Obama administration, though they would not characterize it as such nor have much desire to acknowledge it at all, have attempted  a strategic detente with the “moderate” elements of political Islam.

This policy has not been entirely consistent; Syria, for example, is a quagmire the administration has wisely refrained from wading directly into despite the best efforts of R2P advocates to drag us there.  But more importantly, under President Obama the US supported the broad-based Arab Spring popular revolt against US ally, dictator Hosni Mubarak, and pushed the subsequent ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Libyan revolution against the entirely mad Colonel Gaddafi. These appear to be geopolitical “moves” upon which the Obama administration hopes to build.

I would like to emphasize that there is one legitimate and valid strategic pro to this sub rosa policy; namely, if everything went well, it would provide the United States with powerful triangulation against revolutionary, apocalyptic, radical Islamism as expressed by al Qaida and various Salafi extremist movements. There are reasons, rooted in takfirism, strategy and the politics of lunacy that our terrorist enemies frequently hate and revile the Brotherhood as traitors, apostates or whatever. Isolating the most actively dangerous and violent revolutionary enemies from a large mass of potential allies is, at least, a good strategic goal.

It is also my view, that this “outreach” is as politically sensitive  to the Obama administration as was the China Opening was to Nixon and about which they have been equally opaque and misleading for fear of a domestic backlash. The weird, foot-dragging, dissembling, embittered, kabuki drama inside the Beltway about public statements and intelligence on whether Benghazi was caused by obscure crackpot Islamophobic film makers or a well-orchestrated terrorist attack  is in my view due to a major foreign policy strategy never having been framed in public for what it is. I’m sure people will differ strongly with me on this (which is fine), but I would characterize detente with Islamists as a strategic shift on par with the “Pivot to Asia”.

The downside here is that first, things are not likely to come out well at all, as unfinished revolutions tend to give birth to monsters; and secondly, any detente with “moderate” political Islam is an uncertain gamble based on certain exceptionally optimistic conceptions of not only what the Brotherhood might do, but about it’s very nature.

While the removal of Arab dictators resonated with American values , it was questionable realpolitik while the administration’s de facto support of  Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faction over poorly organized secular liberal modernists was an act of realpolitik that required a compromise of the democratic values so recently invoked to justify abandoning Mubarak. This was cynical diplomatic flexibility worthy of Talleyrand.

Unfortunately, the most democratic thing – perhaps the only thing – about Mr. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters was his election.

The Egyptian people who are subjected now to thuggery from both Morsi’s Islamist stormtroopers and from the security forces of the Egyptian military are less sanguine than are the Brotherhood’s cheerleaders inside the administration. The Egyptian people, in fact, seem to be in revolt against domination by the Muslim Brotherhood’s shadow government.

The first question to ask in assessing if the Obama administration policy here is wise would be “What is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Americans love to personalize foreign policy, but if  Morsi were to be toppled or die, the Brotherhood will remain what it currently is, the best organized political force in Egypt and one widely influential throughout the Arab world and the West itself.

I am not an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, nor am I an Arabist by education. Most of us aren’t – a group that I fear includes most of the Obama administration officials involved in shaping this policy. Almost fifty years after King Faisal determined to export Wahhabism, more than thirty years since Khomeini’s Revolution and more than ten years since 9/11 the USG still has less in-house expertise related to Islam than it did about the Soviet Union and Communism a decade after the Berlin Blockade.

Perhaps we all should begin learning more?

Here is an analysis from FPRI; it is extremely critical but it touches on organizational aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood that I have not seen elsewhere (hat tip to David Ronfeldt). Feel free to suggest others, both for and against. The Brotherhood is a very large group with a long history that includes violence , terrorism and subversion on one hand and peacefully representing expressions of pious, middle-class, social conservatism in other places and times:

Lecture Transcript: What Every American Should Know about Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Delivered by Eric Trager 

….Two years ago when I was doing my dissertation fieldwork in Cairo, I sought out interviews with leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I was referred to a man named Muhammad Morsi, now the President of Egypt. At the time, President Mubarak was ill and had gone off to Europe for operations amid a lot of mystery surrounding his health. I asked Muhammad Morsi whether the Muslim Brotherhood would run a presidential candidate if Mubarak died tomorrow. Here is what he said:

[From an audio file played by Trager]

Eric Trager: You don’t see the Muslim Brotherhood nominating a presidential candidate [if Mubarak dies tomorrow]?

Muhammad Morsi: No… because society is not ready… Our society is not ready yet to really defend its worth. We want a society to carry on its responsibilities, and we are part of this society. Another thing, if we are rushing things, then I don’t think that leads to a real stable position.

When he made that statement, I don’t think he was lying, and I don’t think he was being coy. I think that he didn’t expect that he would be faced with this reality in a mere six months. He did not expect that Mubarak would step down six months later and, to be completely honest with you, neither did I. My dissertation was entitled “Egypt: Durable Authoritarianism”—until the revolution.

What did Morsi mean when he said that the Brotherhood was trying to build a society? Let me give you some background on the Muslim Brotherhood. It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, who was a schoolteacher in Ismailia. The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal was then—and remains now—to establish an Islamic state in Egypt. The way it pursues this goal is by trying to Islamize Egyptian society. Through social services, education, and the mosque, it sought to make Egyptians more religious and more Islamic as a grassroots strategy for building an Islamic state. That’s very, very different from a strategy that says, “We’re going to run for president, run for the Parliament, and use that power to transform society.” Rather, the Brotherhood says, in effect, “We’re going to Islamize society to build towards power.” It was a long-term strategy; it took them 84 years before they ran for and won the presidency. So Morsi told me in 2010 that the Muslim Brotherhood was not going to run for the presidency because it was not done Islamizing Egyptian society….

Read the rest here.

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