To Boost or Not to Boost: North Korea’s Nuclear Trajectory

And so it begins… again. Today’s North Korean nuclear test comes as no surprise. In April 2015 North Korean scientists indicated they were developing fusion technology, and last month Kim Jong-Un, the Stalinist regime’s leader, stated the country had a hydrogen weapon capability. While these claims may be an exaggeration, this most recent test still suggests technical advancements and has strategic implications. Nuclear weapons remain a crucial security tool for North Korea, and the West, particularly the United States, can meet this threat by maintaining and strengthening its own deterrent whilst promoting arms control- a delicate balance, to be sure.

This is North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and follows tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013. Information about the test is still trickling in, but the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) Organization’s International Monitoring Service, along with geological surveys and various governments, reported an ‘unusual seismic event’ at 1:30 UTC in the northeast region of North Korea, close to the Punggye-ri site of the previous nuclear tests. North Korea issued a press announcement that it had tested a ‘miniaturised hydrogen bomb’, developed as ‘self-defense against the U.S. having numerous and humongous nuclear weapons.’

Based on initial reports and seismic readings, the test measured at 5.1 on the Richter scale, meaning an explosive yield between 1 and 30 kilotons equivalent of TNT, and in all likelihood it was a single-stage atomic weapon potentially with boosting technology. Hydrogen weapons, also often referred to as thermonuclear weapons or fusion weapons, are more sophisticated than fission weapons and were only developed by the advanced nuclear states after years of testing. In as simple terms as possible, a ‘boosted’ device is one in which fusion technology increases the yield of an atomic weapon. The more advanced and challenging design is a multiple-stage thermonuclear weapon, with a fission primary that triggers a secondary fusion detonation. This can be further expanded upon in a three-stage weapon, such as the Tsar Bomba, the Soviet Union’s largest nuclear weapon ever exploded that produced a yield of 50 megatons. The yield of today’s nuclear test is much smaller than what would be expected of thermonuclear weapon, and therefore was likely a boosted weapon.

Monitoring of nuclear testing includes various techniques which eventually may be able to confirm whether or not the test was a hydrogen device, but North Korea has a track record of exaggerating its nuclear test performance. Its 2006 test was likely a ‘fizzle’, whereby the explosion inefficiently used the nuclear material by burning through it faster than it could produce a self-sustaining chain reaction. Pyongyang claimed its 2013 test was a miniaturized device, which requires technological advances well beyond its previous tests, but there was no evidence to support this claim. With regards to today’s test, as one North Korea expert posited, ‘North Korea may be claiming a successful hydrogen bomb test because it’s not grabbing much attention with atomic bombs.’ This test may prove to be underwhelming for the North Koreans, but still sets off at least three alarm bells.

First, it is a technological achievement because regardless of the success of the fusion technology, whether boosted or two-stage, North Korea will benefit from the new data generated by the test. The next test might not be a failure and North Korea is producing enough fissile material to ‘waste’ it on testing rather than saving it for nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Second, the test demonstrates Pyongyang remains willing to be an international pariah despite international pressure and waning support from China. Previously, North Korea relied heavily on Chinese financial and political support, but that may no longer be the case as Beijing has already condemned the test, as it did in 2013, and summoned the North Korean ambassador to lodge a protest. The big question is whether or not China has the leverage to reign in Pyongyang.

And finally, North Korea continues to rely on nuclear weapons for regime security and as a symbol of the Kim dynasty’s longevity and status on par with other nuclear powers. North Korea is not alone in its reliance on nuclear weapons. Over the past two years Russia has participated in nuclear ‘sabre-rattling’ and continued to emphasize the role of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine. Other states, such as Pakistan, remain reliant on nuclear weapons for security, as well, in the face of a conventionally superior adversary.

Nuclear disarmament advocates will likely point to today’s test as evidence of the need for a nuclear weapons ban and for nuclear possessors to further reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. Conversely, more hawkish analysts are likely to call for more nuclear capabilities, more missile defence, and more reliance on nuclear weapons to meet this growing threat. Nuance is in short supply in most contemporary nuclear debates.

But deterrence and arms control are not mutually exclusive, and North Korea’s nuclear posturing offers an opportunity for the West to practice this principle. It can ensure the norm against nuclear testing is upheld by speaking out against the North Korean test, levying further sanctions against the Kim regime, and cooperating with the CTBT Organization.

In light of the Russian and North Korean tandem nuclear threats, the United States can strengthen its deterrent by increasing investment in the nuclear infrastructure and proceeding with renewal and modernization of existing nuclear capabilities, reassuring allies of extended nuclear deterrence guarantees, and continuing to engage in activities such as joint exercises, rather than standing down in the face of North Korean aggression. More must be done to strengthen deterrence both to reassure allies, but also to reassure adversaries that any nuclear aggression will be met with retaliation.

Due to Russian aggression, 2015 was a dismal year for nuclear weapons policy, and North Korea has started 2016 on a similarly sour note. But 2015 was also the year of a major arms control breakthrough with the Iran nuclear agreement that brought together the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany in a unique and powerful multilateral effort to target nuclear transgressions. The goal for 2016 should be similarly ambitious. One possible step would be for the United States and China, jointly, to revisit ratification of the CTBT. They are two of the eight remaining states, including North Korea, that inhibit the treaty’s entry into force. Partisanship along with damning reports about the status of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure will not make this easy. But if done in parallel with Chinese ratification this would further stigmatize North Korea, demonstrate multilateral cooperation on denuclearization, and be a tangible contribution to nuclear disarmament. And if done in parallel with steps to strengthen deterrence, 2016 could have potential for striking that delicate balance necessary for security and stability.

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Sayre’s Law in Syria

So, Britain goes to war. Ten hours of Parliamentary debate (including that speech by Hilary Benn) over whether or not to use forces that will be a marginal addition at best resulted in roughly two thirds of MPs voting yes. David Cameron’s strategy, if it is worth the word, appears to be a combination of the Underpants Gnome model (“Step 1: Use force, Step 2: … Step 3: Peace! Victory! Votes!”), and the Goldilocks approach to intervention (Not enough to “win”, not enough to be irrelevant, just enough to make us beholden to events). From my perspective, the pitch of debate regarding what was at stake in the Parliamentary debate appeared to be Sayre’s law in action, albeit with added high explosives. Professor Wallace Sayre’s original formulation, that “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low” is all the more relevant, since we were already using force against ISIS and committing ISR assets to the region.

So what changed? Or rather, what now? The problem, as I see it, is that we are now ultimately responsible for a civil war that doesn’t appear to have an acceptable end for anyone. Ending the Syrian civil war appears to be the top priority. Writing in The New York Times, Anatol Lieven argues that this will require working with Russia, and carving up both Syria and Iraq to a greater or lesser extent. I think he’s probably right, but it won’t end there, because, from my perspective, this option ends with complete and utter impunity for war crimes. Much is made of the need to put political pressure on Assad to make way, as this is a symbolic move that might allow the civil war to end. But what about the war crimes? Are we going to have a re-run of the ICTY in the Levant? If yes, please explain to me how we’re meant to make Assad give way, and convince his security forces and military to stop fighting. If no, I’m somewhat bemused that Parliament has managed to debate its way into a crusade for the common good and justice that is predicated impunity.

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Strategies of the Artificial: The Machine View of Strategy and its Consequences

(Editor’s note: Adam Elkus is a PhD student at George Mason University working on computation and strategy)

Recently, KCL’s Kenneth Payne published an article on the potential meaning of artificial intelligence for future strategy. Some of the complexities of tackling this science fiction-esque topic lie in the duality of AI itself as a scientific discipline. While many believe that AI is a discipline oriented around the engineering of synthetic intelligence, one should also note that it has also alternatively claimed that doing so will help us understand human (and other forms of) intelligence. For example, Herbert Simon and Alan Newell’s General Problem Solver was an endeavor with relevance for both AI and cognitive science. Simon and Newell derived the idea of means-end reasoning from a view of human problem solving and implemented it programmatically in a way that could be mechanized by a machine. The same holds true for artificial neural networks as well, which are based somewhat on ideas from computational neuroscience and much more so on engineering utility for problems in machine learning.

Payne and his co-author Kareem Ayoub focus in particular on the use of games and microworlds to develop AI systems:

More complex scenarios than Atari games are possible. Microworlds are abstract representations used by the military to assist in strategic decision-making. They have been used to conceptualise the terrain, force deployment, enemy responses and movements. The use of modular AI in this example domain allows users to create their own microworld simulation with its own rules of play and run limitless iterations of possible events. Jason Scholz and his colleagues found that a reinforcement-learning based AI outperformed human counterparts in these microworld wargames. Their ability to do this rested on two factors: (1) the machine could go through rounds much faster than a human counterpart, and (2) the machine could process every possible move simultaneously, providing previously unseen recommendations.  Allowing that many military campaigns can be dimensionally reduced to microworlds – indeed many tabletop staff college exercises do precisely that – such an approach with modular AI proves valuable for rapid iteration of potential options.

A worthy addition to this observation, however, is that microworlds such as strategy games presume a certain view of human problem-solving behavior that is relatively new to strategic theory. [0] Consider the machine representation of chess, the most famous strategic game played by humans and computers. Like game theory, chess is can be visualized via extended-form representation, as seen in images like this:

aelkus1

The minimax algorithm visualizes strategy in terms of how both “min” and “max” players connect the initial moves to the payoff values in the terminal nodes at the bottom of the tree. The goal of min is to force the max player to the lowest payoff. Conversely, max would like to receive the highest payoff value. For a full explanation of minimax, readers are advised to consult the nearest friendly neighborhood game theorist, such as political scientist Phil Arena.  [1] Yet despite the fact that zero-sum games in game theory and chess share the same basic representation and solution concept, they diverge in one peculiar way.

The following image does not build the full game tree; notice that it only partially encompasses it:

aelkus2

This is due to the problem of how chess is represented on a machine; building the full game tree would be intractable due to the sheer size of the game. Moreover, a chess program would not be able to reason about other games that lack chess’ peculiar characteristics. [2] Two methods that have been commonly used to explain how humans and machines deal with chess’ sheer complexity are knowledge representation and search:

Given the relatively slow rate at which moderately skilled players can generate analysis moves, estimated in Charness (1981b) to be about four moves per minute, it is obvious that much of the time that human players spend is not in generating all possible moves (perhaps taking a move per second) but in generating moves selectively and using complex evaluation functions to assess their value. Computer chess programs can achieve high-level play by searching many moves using fast, frugal evaluation processes that involve minimal chess knowledge to evaluate the terminal positions in search. Deep Blue, the chess program that defeated World Champion Garry Kasparov in a short match in 1997, searched hundreds of millions of positions per second. Today’s leading microcomputer chess programs, which have drawn matches with the best human players, have sophisticated search algorithms and attempt to use more chess knowledge but still generate hundreds of thousands or millions of chess moves per second. Generally,   chess programs rely on search more heavily than knowledge; for humans it is the reverse. Yet, each can achieve very high performance levels because knowledge and search can trade off (Berliner & Ebeling, 1989).

Both knowledge and search, however, stem from the same fundamental way that old-school cognitive scientists and computer scientists define the problem of strategy, which is very different how the strategic studies profession views it. First, let us note therepresentation of game states as a hierarchal tree that proceeds from most abstract to most primitive; it takes us the entire time to move from the top of the tree to the end of the game and the actual payoffs. Another example can be found in the way in which hierarchal task network planning algorithm in AI begins with composite tasks and breaks them down until the algorithm reaches simple actions, which vaguely corresponds to distinctions of strategy and tactics known to Kings of War readers:

aelkus3

Computer-literate readers will also notice the similarity to this tree structure and the directory structure on a computer filesystem. [3]

aelkus4

Why does it make sense to view the world as a tree that moves from most general to most specific? This is an interesting topic about which a good deal of intellectual history was been written. Broadly speaking, it is not surprising that Cold War-era efforts to optimize hierarchally organized systems such as military bureaucracies produced a view of the world as a hierarchally decomposed tree. But that in and of itself does not fully explain the choice of representation. Ontologies, taxonomies, and other forms of hierarchal knowledge representation are common in science and philosophy. What computing did was make them dynamic processes. The interaction or composition of components produced behavior.

George Miller, the famous cognitive scientist, produced a book titled Plans and the Structure of Behavior. In contrast to behaviorist conceptions that did not envision much of an intermediary structure between stimulus and behavior, Miller and his counterparts in AI argued that the internal organization of cognition could tell us much about the outward manifestations of complex behaviors. Hence, it makes sense to study chess players in terms of how they organize their knowledge and search processes, as such internal representation could tell us much about how they are capable of producing complex strategies.

While deep neural networks are often viewed as oppositional to this broadly cognitivist view, this is not necessarily the case. [4] After all, one sees hierarchal representations (albeit defined highly differently) frequently in deep learning research. Hierarchal representations are key to recent research in reinforcement learning as well. And hierarchies also appear quite frequently in both AI work on evolving neural networks and neuroscience research on computation in the brain. Finally, one should also note that hierarchy (differing levels of abstraction) and modularity (different functions) appear to be one of the more interesting explanations for what ideas about animal behavior have in common with computing.

The consequences of this view are that the principal problems of strategy, seen computationally, lie in computational limitations.

The main problem for action selection is combinatorial complexity. Since all computation takes both time and space (in memory), agents cannot possibly consider every option available to them at every instant in time. Consequently, they must be biased, and constrain their search in some way. For AI, the question of action selection is: what is the best way to constrain this search? For biology and ethology, the question is: how do various types of animals constrain their search? Do all animals use the same approaches? Why do they use the ones they do?  …. Ideally, action selection itself should also be able to learn and adapt, but there are many problems of combinatorial complexity and computational tractability that may require restricting the search space for learning.

The core problem with a computational view of strategic behavior is that it views strategy in terms of the interface between an “outer environment” and an “inner environment.” If the inner environment of an artifact is well adapted to the outer environment that surrounds it, it will serve its purpose. In other words, if, say, the Department of Defense is able to configure its force structure and military operational concepts to meet the threat of X or Y adversary, its “inner environment” is well-adapted to realize the intended purpose of war and defense. This sort of view of strategy and defense underlies both systems analysis and net assessment, though net assessment is far more qualitative and eclectic. It also underlies the idea of ends, ways, and means held by many strategists – we must find the correct configuration of ways (actions) and means (resources) to meet the desired end. [5]

Let us contrast this to a more classical view of strategy, which would see strategy as the way in which a political community finds a way of fulfilling a desired purpose through the instrumental usage of violence. Here, the problem is not really the combinatorial complexity of searching for a path to the goal or optimizing a utility function, but in the difficult process of using social action to achieve a desired end. First, the end might be contested or ambiguously defined. As KCL PhD candidate Nick Prime and I noted, many strategic ends are essentially compromises and products of fractious politics. Second, what it means to fulfill it is always fairly uncertain during the actual process of strategy formulation.

Mathematically measured criteria are useful for measuring the distance between intention and goal, but metrics of progress depend on highly subjective definitions of not only the goal but also what it means to realize it. Defining the problem in Vietnam, for example, in terms of eradicating enemy infrastructure in South Vietnam presumes that the most important problem lies in Vietcong “shadow governments” that erode power and authority. This is a highly contestable view of the problem, because a combination of targeted killings and the toll of the failed Tet Offensive wiped out enemy infrastructure inside South Vietnam and we still failed to achieve our strategic goals.

Computation is likely a very useful model for thinking about strategy, especially (as Ayoub and Payne do) from a machine’s point of view. But it should also be observed just how alien this view is from the perspective of classical strategy, and recognized that no model is the territory. As a computer modeler, I never assume that any abstractions I build for coursework are anything but reductions of the “real” thing. [6] As computers become more and more present in strategy and command, we should keep these thoughts and the distinctions they suggest in mind. But is there any middle ground?

One meeting ground between the “system” view of strategy and the more humanistic view can be found potentially in the idea of “control” expressed by J.C. Wylie and others.

Control denotes the utility of strategy being found in the way in which an agent is able to manipulate the key features of the environment in a way that advantages the strategist and disadvantages the opponent. The classical view of computation and behavior in AI and cognitive science has been opposed by another set of views that de-emphasizes elaborate internal representation and emphasizes the way in which interaction with the environment produces intelligent behavior. [7]

The environment defines a relation between environmental object and an organism that affords the organism with the capability to perform a certain action. Control of the sea, for example, affords certain strategic capabilities that airpower and landpower does not, and vice versa. The simplest way of designing a mobile robot around its environment, for example, would start with basic behaviors (if X stimulus, perform Y action) and then utilize more complex control structures to inhibit or favor certain behaviors based on the situation. One behavior might be privileged over another even if they both correspond to the same environmental input. Hence, by changing the nature and pattern of the environment to your advantage, you in term exert control over your opponent. If I am playing hide-and-seek with a TurtleBot, for example, I can thwart my Dalek-like adversary if I re-arrange the topology of my apartment as to frustrate it in numerous ways. [8]

Food for thought, certainly. Meanwhile I will continue to dump Golang code into my ParrotAR in the vain hope that I can engineer a taco copter to deliver me tacos while I do research. I at least know that robots can deliver coffee, which is a good start. I can live without tacos but its hard to see how a PhD student can be “intelligent” without any coffee.

 

Adam Elkus is a PhD student in Computational Social Science at George Mason University and a 2015-2016 New America Foundation fellow in NAF’s Cybersecurity Initiative. He writes on strategy, technology, and other subjects while finding time to ponder how a drone can deliver tacos to his domicile.

[0] It is rather old in the social and behavioral sciences as well as other fields. See Margaret Boden’s Mind as Machine for a good history of the cognitive science view. Lawrence Freedman and Nils Gilman have aptly covered the social science literature.

[1] You can use Manhattan distance or some other metric to compute what is “near” in this statement.

[2] Chess and machines have a very old and interesting history. For more, see this handy overview of computer chess.

[3] This is a representation of the UNIX filesystem structure. See this article for an overview of the distinction between Linux and Windows filesystems. Linux and Mac OSX also differ in their interpretations of the basic UNIX structure. For more, see this and this.

[4] Connectionism (known as the Parallel Distributed Processing research program) in artificial intelligence and cognitive science is a different level of analysis. To see how the classical conception of AI and cogsci perceives mind, consult the physical symbol systems hypothesis.

[5] Indeed, Ends-Ways-Means can be viewed as a kind of organizational programming, as implied by Antulio Echevarria here and stated more bluntly by Christopher Paparone here.

[6] For a dense look at the philosophy of simulation, I recommend Manuel De Landa’s book on “synthetic reason.”

[7] It’s worth noting that the answer to understanding rationality probably lies in a combination of both. See this recent overview of new work in neuroscience and AI.

[8] There are two design strategies in AI, broadly. Make a simple organism that can be effective in a range of environments or build a highly brittle and complicated system for a well-defined environment. See Poole and Mackworth for more.

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To Bomb, or Not to Bomb?

Should the UK bomb IS/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in Syria? That is, go above and beyond killing our own citizens in “self defence”. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, says yes, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and the opposition, says no. The fact that the lethal component to any aerial campaigns in Syria will border on insignificance is, from the looks of things, inconsequential. I think I’m in the “containment” camp (e.g. something like: prevent ISIS from taking more territory, propping up the Iraqi government, but otherwise not committing to extensive military operations in Iraq and Syria) and here’s why.

Problem One: “Defeat ISIS” is an aspiration, not a strategy

On the whole, I think Corbyn (alongside dissident Conservatives) is right: the articulated plan to “degrade and defeat” ISIS is both woolly and ill-conceived. What, if anything, will an increased tempo of airstrikes achieve? How will the UK’s minimal contribution to this effort change the overall character or pace of the campaign? The problem here is that I don’t think anyone has quite worked out what IS is, and how it relates to the UK. In the words of Eli Berman and Jacob Shapiro: “Is it [IS] a tremendously well-resourced terrorist group that controls substantial territory, which it uses to plan attacks, vet operatives and manage a complex financial network? Or is it a fledgling nation-state that sponsors terrorist attacks?” If IS is a fledgling nation-state, then containment works (sortof, in the long run, with the likelihood of international terrorist plots in the meantime), since IS is very bad at actually being a state so there’s good reason to believe it will collapse at some future point in time. Until states can agree on a set of political aims beyond “beat the bad guys” it’s probably best not to tilt headlong into a situation that is already bad, and likely to get worse before it gets better.

More to the point, “defeating” ISIS would require urban warfare, either through proxies (the vaunted 70k non-extreme militia) or through the commitment of western forces (Uh, not gonna happen). We have all the precision-guided munitions in the world, but while that might disrupt and degrade ISIS’s ability to act, that is quite different from defeating or destroying the organisation. The west lacks the political will to commit large scale forces to the defeat of ISIS (for some reason, the public got fed up after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya) and it’s probable that ground forces would fan the flames of the Syrian conflict, if anything. One doesn’t have to read far into academic literature on strategy to figure that a divisive conflict, far away, with lofty goals but an unclear aim (and decisive means foreclosed), is unsustainable.

Problem Two: There is no neutral option

I am signed up to the Colin Powell school of thought: you broke it, you own it. I’m also fully signed up to the fact that if the UK contributes ISR assets to a military campaign, then it doesn’t matter who pulls the trigger, we’re still on the hook for whatever happens. From this perspective, the fact that the UK is conducting strikes in Iraq and helping out in Syria means that we are already responsible for acts of violence on both sides of the border. At the same time, there is no violence-free option available to the UK. If we do nothing (as in, pack up our planes and go home) then violence still exists in the region – packing up and going home shunts responsibility for doing something about it to our erstwhile allies, or worse, gives the worst perpetrators of violence in the region license to go about their business of brutally suppressing populations and dissent. I think that it’s at least arguable that nothing we can do now will save us from an unfavourable judgement by generations to come. After all, we stood by and watched while IS erased substantial elements of the common heritage of humankind with high explosives. Whatever happens, therefore, we’re still involved, somehow, even if that means packing up all our kit and taking it home with us. The “act/don’t act” binary (pushed on both sides, I might add) is therefore a sham. Moreover, the UK might be a target of IS, but it’s always going to be a target of IS (and like groups). Free will means that we don’t get to pick who is allowed to dislike us. All the above pushes towards some form of engagement for the UK – we lose more by walking away than staying involved in the US coalition, but this doesn’t necessitate committing ourselves to trying to eradicate ISIS beyond what we’re already doing. The symbolic value of overturning the commons vote against action in Syria would send a message, but the action that follows from it wouldn’t change a thing. Better, in my view, to re-assert our existing commitment with America, and if necessary throw more resources in, rather than committing to a lofty goal that appears impossible with current (or projected) means.

At the end of the day: someone has to pull the trigger

My ultimate unease at widening attacks on IS into Syria relates to my equal unease at British strikes within Iraq. All the high-minded arguments about the ins and outs of international politics and grand strategy boil down to someone, somewhere, being asked to kill human beings, and bear that experience with them for the rest of their life. This doesn’t change if they’re sitting at the controls of a UAV back here in blighty, soaring over the deserts of Iraq, or if they happen to be holding a rifle and face to face with their target. I think that’s a lot to ask of a person. Thankfully, we have an all-volunteer force so some of the moral questions relating to compelling people to kill are at least ameliorated. Still, the political impulse to “do something” in the face of a Gordian knot tends to ignore the fact that service personnel aren’t toys. For all the talk of drones reducing war to a “video game mentality” (which is disproved in most serious takes on the subject), the political reduction of the armed forces to an intercontinental screwdriver is worse. I think there is a clear role for violence in both Iraq and Syria, but the goal of pushing IS out of Iraq, and attempting to prop up and strengthen that state (and perhaps cajole the Iraqi government into rapprochement with its Sunni population) is achievable. Is there a role for expanding strikes in Syria to achieve this? Definitely. But this should be predicated on the political aim of protecting and stabilising Iraq, not on taking us into an indefinite war against a proto-state that we haven’t figured out how to deal with. Articulating this (limited) goal is far more preferable in my mind to lofty goals with total aims.

Anything that looks like a joint campaign with Russia is a really bad idea

The polite way of putting this is that “proportionality” is a subjective concept that has no precise basis in international law, and is therefore an expression of national military cultures and their interpretations of international humanitarian law treaties. The impolite way of putting this is that Russia doesn’t give a toss about killing civilians in the pursuit of military objectives. At the time of writing, Air Wars has tracked just over 8500 US coalition strikes, killing a claimed 20,000 IS fighters, while also killing between 682 and 2057 civilians in the process. At the same time:

Airwars presently assesses 44 Russian incidents as having likely killed civilians in Syria to October 30th – which between them reportedly killed 255 to 375 non-combatants. This is roughly ten times the level of credible allegations against US-led Coalition operations in Syria.

Whatever disagreements campaigners may have with the US or UK government over the conduct of aerial warfare, targeting and precaution, I think both would agree that no-one wants a Russian-style air campaign. The problem is, if the US-led coalition escalates a large scale aerial campaign against IS in Syria, and Russia also strikes IS in Syria, the two campaigns will not only become functionally indistinguishable to those on the ground, but also to audiences worldwide. It really won’t matter if we take every precaution possible under the sun, wait 72 hours for someone to drive a Toyota into an abandoned road before killing them with a bomb, or conduct battlefield assessments to make sure that no-one else got hurt, if at the same time the Russian air force piles in and bombs an urban area without guided munitions. The US (and potentially, the UK) could say “It wasn’t me” until they’re blue in the face, but all the world is really going to care about is the headline civilian casualty count, which isn’t going to distinguish between us and the Russians (or, for that matter, the Syrian government). With this in mind, restricting the use of lethal force to areas that the Russians don’t operate in is a good way of maintaining some sort of distinction between us and them. Even if we part “own” strikes by the US, the UK could still maintain a semblance of narrative distance from Russian attacks.

Conclusion: Whoever wins, the UK loses

This is pretty much a foregone conclusion. We will spend money, effort and time killing people in an attempt to achieve a more-just state of affairs than the one that preceded it, in the midst of a region dominated by religious governments that are completely illiberal and, on the whole, antithetical to the core values of western democracies. Walking away doesn’t work because Russia and China would probably be there to take our place, which leaves long term engagement, which is messy. Note here that I am talking about governments, not people. If we could treat populations as indivisible from those that rule them, then the choices on offer would be a lot simpler. We know, however, that the societies living under theocracy and autocracy contain many people who, like us, just want to get along with their lives, rather than export their own brand of religion across the region. Those people tend to face persecution or execution (hi Saudi Arabia!), calling into question every single element of ongoing engagement. Nonetheless, we must engage, somehow. The extent to which we engage may be a reflection of circumstance, but it always remains a choice. The question is whether we double-down for no apparent reason and nail ourself to a cross of “Defeat ISIS” or whether we continue muddling along, trying to do our best with what is available to us. I’m for the latter, until a better option presents itself.

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ISIS and Irrelevance

It’s SDSR-day in the UK, when we finally get to hear what the government hasn’t leaked over the weekend (more F-35s), overnight (a pair of 5000 person ‘strike brigades’ for overseas use), last week (2000 new spooks), and so on, and so forth. The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, has a lot to make up for, given that the fudges (carrier strike, anyone?) of the last one are already coming home to roost. In fairness, however, the four highest priority risks identified in the 2010 SDSR (terrorism, cyber security, natural hazards, preventing international military crises) all appear to have been on the money, so to speak. Of the four, Libya and the Crimea is perhaps evidence that the UK did worst on the last point. Still, after Paris, and the rise of ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh, it’s clear that terrorism is going to remain a clear focus for the 2015 SDSR. Given that the Government appears to be on a full-court press to get Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria (except when they’re an act of self defence versus its own citizens), it’s a fair prediction to make. But what’s the point? What is the end that the UK is seeking?

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it’s understandable that the rhetoric against ISIS has been ramped up, both at home and abroad. The UK has been talking about “defeating” ISIS’ ideology for a while now, and witnessing Brussels lock itself down to raid and arrest suspected terrorists lends a sense that European states are starting to take the “Trudeau approach” to jihadists. Still, as a strategy document, I hope that the 2015 SDSR doesn’t have “defeat ISIS” written into it, because, frankly, that’s impossible. Sure, we can bomb Raqqa, send in special forces, arm Kurds, arm Sunnis, arm Syrian rebels, and, in theory at least, pull apart the Islamic State as a functional entity, but that’s not going to make these ideas go away. As Will McCants points out in his excellent new book on ISIS’s ideology, there’s no telling what lessons ISIS (and its adherents) would learn from such a defeat. They might pack up their bags, but equally, they might take it as a lesson that they need to “double down” on apocalyptic violence, bloodletting and fear. That can never be defeated by force, nor, really, can it be “defeated” or “eradicated” in the increasingly illiberal environment at home. British society is, however, littered with the remnants of violent ideologies from the past decades and centuries. The British state never “defeated” or “eradicated” anarchism, Stalinists, Maoists, and so on, and so forth. Nor, for that matter, is there anything that the British state could do to eradicate these ideologies. Although there are plenty of smart people who profess similar beliefs, at the extremes there are always those who are essentially as impervious to reason as the most warped jihadist getting his kicks with a kalashnikov somewhere in between Aleppo and Mosul. Setting out to defeat an ideology is a set-up for a fall. Anarchists once struck fear into the states of Europe, now, they are, to borrow from Douglas Adams, “mostly harmless”. The UK shouldn’t seek the end of ISIS, it should seek to make it irrelevant.

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Britain’s al-Awlaki moment, sortof

Yesterday David Cameron played a political blinder: “We’re here to talk about refugees, but enough of criticising my terrible response on that, I had a British citizen killed two weeks ago.” Understandably, this blindsided most, and the fact that the UK government has committed to sheltering a paltry 4000 Syrian refugees per year, as opposed to larger numbers in Germany and elsewhere has fallen quickly off the front pages. These numbers are an abdication of moral responsibility towards refugees. Nonetheless, the use of a targeted killing against a UK citizen (by the UK government, not our American friends after we revoke their passport) is the topic du jour. Understandably, this has been called our ‘Anwar al-Awlaki moment’ – the first time the government crosses the proverbial rubicon of intentionally and openly killing a citizen that has run off to a foreign country to (supposedly) organise terrorist campaigns against their home state. The UK, of course, has much more recent experience of the moral and legal quandaries of using force against our own citizens due to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Over at Lawfare, Robert Chesney pointed out that this is actually a test of a particular scenario and legal interpretation – the American interpretation of the concept of self defence as it applies to terrorists that has developed since 9/11.

The legal justification, as presented was that this was an act of self defence, broadly in line with American interpretations of self defence versus individuals and terrorist organisations:

As part of this counter-terrorism strategy, as I have said before, if there is a direct threat to the British people and we are able to stop it by taking immediate action, then as Prime Minister, I will always be prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else….

We should be under no illusion. Their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we ourselves took action. Today I can inform the House that in an act of self-defence and after meticulous planning Reyaad Khan was killed in a precision air strike carried out on 21 August by an RAF remotely piloted aircraft while he was travelling in a vehicle in the area of Raqqah in Syria…

Mr Speaker, we took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots. And there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home. So we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action…

First, I am clear that the action we took was entirely lawful. The Attorney General was consulted and was clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law. We were exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence. There was clear evidence of the individuals in question planning and directing armed attacks against the UK. These were part of a series of actual and foiled attempts to attack the UK and our allies.

And in the prevailing circumstances in Syria, the airstrike was the only feasible means of effectively disrupting the attacks planned and directed by this individual. So it was necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK.

There are, however, significant differences between the UK and the US in both legal opinion and the jurisdiction of international courts.

  • Armed conflict: The US claims to be in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, the UK doesn’t. Therefore while the UK talks about IHL and military rules of engagement, this is ‘icing on the cake’ so-to-speak – we’re not at war (proverbially) or engaged in an armed conflict (legally). This aspect of Cameron’s statement is effectively saying that when UK armed forces kill outside an armed conflict, they still consider themselves constrained by the rules developed within it.
  • The extraterritorial applicability of human rights treaties: A bit of a mouthful for non-lawyers. Unlike America, the UK considers its obligations as extending beyond the territory of the UK, which means that outside armed conflict human rights law definitely applies, and furthermore UK cases have applied human rights standards to matters in the context of armed conflict (much to the chagrin of many people, but that doesn’t matter so much here).
  • The European Convention on Human Rights: Unlike the US, we have the ECHR, and we are also subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, meaning that judges beyond our immediate political system can pass judgement on the actions of the state (like, err, Article 2, protecting the right to life – expect to see arguments about 2.a. where “Deprivation of life shall not be regarded as inflicted in contravention of this article when it results from the use of force which is no more than absolutely necessary: a. in defence of any person from unlawful violence”). This is a key difference from the al-Awlaki case as there is no international court with jurisdiction that America accepts that can pass judgement on the American state for his death.
  • No constitution: Unlike America, we don’t have a written constitution. This means that whereas the American debate on the domestic legality of killing citizens has plenty of plain text hooks and principles to work from, as well as the separation of powers, the UK debate will likely be more nebulous, involving the royal prerogative, and so on. I’d expect some British anti-monarchists to come out of the woodwork at some point to state that it’s a bit bloody odd that the Queen is technically the one in charge of all of this, and David Cameron ordered a citizen dead based on inherited authority. For American readers worried about the ‘Imperial Presidents’ of Bush and Obama, at least you have the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to complain about, as well as requirements for intelligence oversight, Presidential findings etc etc.

My last thoughts on this (for now) is that this appears to be the way things are going: that the ‘Caroline test‘ will apply to individuals and small scale groups, and that the American “unwilling/unable” test, discussed by Robert Cheney, will propagate. The use of straight up self defence as a justification for targeted killing (as opposed to self defence that leads to/in context of armed conflict) is discussed in a pretty accessible way by Kenneth Anderson in a 2009 paper here. What strikes me about Cameron’s decision is that the US has hewed towards the armed conflict model for justifying targeted killings and explaining their legal rationale, whereas the UK decision appears to be straight self defence. From everything I’ve read about targeted killings, the armed conflict model is better, as it is at least more explicit and requires political declarations of war. The US Congress can always call off its war with al-Qaeda, and hem in the President’s authority. The British political system has markedly fewer constraints on the exercise of power by the Prime Minister.

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Autonomous Weapons: A Thought Experiment

Human Rights Watch is one of the driving forces behind the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, who make headlines from time to time in their current quest to get “lethal autonomous weapon systems” banned under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. I have no particular beef with HRW, it’s an admirable organisation, but since the newspapers are in full-on “reprint the press release” mode after the publication of an open letter calling for a ban on autonomous weapons signed by a lot of scientists, it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that HRW has choices to make. Like: choosing between a world where states can make (usually imperfect) interventions to prevent mass atrocity, and a world where they can’t. The TL;DR version of this blog post is: if you ban autonomous weapons then aircraft carriers become floating junk, next time someone starts massacring people don’t expect anyone to ride to the rescue. That’s not to say the “the West” has a particularly admirable track record in atrocity prevention, but most of the arguments that now happen usually pre-suppose that if Western political elites could be coerced or persuaded, then they would have the technical means to deliver military forces to some point on the planet where very bad things are happening to civilians.

"Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention."

“Reaction time is a factor in this, so please pay attention.”

The problem with the autonomous weapons debate as it currently stands is that, for the most part, it ignores the current bits and pieces of automatic and autonomous systems that are part and parcel of everyday military life. Like the Phalanx Close-In-Weapon-System (CIWS) and other bits of gear that are designed to shoot down incoming missiles. Because shooting down missiles is something that humans are physically incapable of doing, outside of Hollywood. If one would like the capability to shoot down a missile, then you need a largely autonomous system to do the heavy lifting of identifying, tracking and targeting that missile, and the human being “in the loop” is largely reduced to something to whom a weapon system says: “Hey, meatbag, press the button so that I can save your life.”

"Look Dave, I can see you're really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over."

“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over.”

In theory, you don’t even need the human. Phalanx, and like systems, are tied to command and control systems such as AEGIS, which can be set to an automatic mode with user-defined “If… then…” routines doing the work. Like “If a missile is heading towards this ship, then please shoot it down as soon as possible.” The reason this is necessary is that one doesn’t want to entrust the ability to protect a ship to a person who is, well, liable to die when the anti-ship missiles start flying. Having a system the keeps working despite casualties is a sensible design for a military system. “But wait,” cry the detractors, “We’re not talking about missiles, we’re talking about machines that can make the decision to select and kill human beings (insert lengthy disclaimer about drones being controlled by human beings here).” That may be true, but from a machine’s point of view (and this is perhaps the core of the problem) the means of identifying an object as a missile is not too different from identifying a human being. If someone does conjure up a weapon system to run around killing human beings, then the difference is likely to be most evident in the sensors designed to detect human beings (over, say, a supersonic missile) and the code that interprets the information derived from those sensors, than in the actual process of going from detection to destruction. The difference between “automatic” and “autonomous” is merely the capability of the system to sense different objects, and what to do with them once it senses them. A system designed to identify humans and avoid them is one rule-change away from a system designed to identify humans and kill them. Program an autonomous weapon system to shoot down missiles and it’ll carry that out to the best of its technical limits, just as if you programmed it to shoot readers of young adult fiction over the age of 29, which, I think, is why the ethicists (and adult Harry Potter fans) are correct when they point out that autonomous weapon systems are disturbing. So why not ban them? The problem, returning to the Phalanx CIWS, is that they’re here to help, and in certain situations, autonomous systems are impossible to replace.

"Come with me if you want to live."

“Come with me if you want to live.”

The problem with aircraft carriers is that they are quite expensive, relatively rare, and vulnerable to missiles designed to kill them. America has ten Nimitz class aircraft carriers. They are the cornerstone of American power projection worldwide. By way of comparison, Russia has one, and China has one. I’ll leave it to my colleagues in KCL’s Naval History Mafia (err, “Laughton Naval History Unit“)  to debate how good any of these actually are. America’s carriers are so expensive that it takes over half a billion dollars to de-commission one. Of course the alternate route to decommissioning an aircraft carrier is to hit one with enough missiles to sink it. Logically enough, this is China’s approach to America’s 10:1 advantage in aircraft carriers. For this reason, anyone seeking to deter America needs some kind of long range anti-ship missile capability. For America (or anyone else using an aircraft carrier) you need defensive capabilities mounted on your aircraft carrier and support ships that stand a chance of shooting down said missiles, otherwise they become a bit useless in contested areas.

Contested areas are important, partly because the kind of regimes that carry out massacres usually have powerful friends. Consider Syria. Way back when in 2013, when meaningful international intervention was still a possibility, Russia transferred advanced anti-aircraft missile systems and anti-ship missile systems to the Syrian government in order to effectively forestall said intervention. In effect, Russia escalated the likely cost of international intervention by providing Assad with an asymmetric capability. Perceived costs are important because: politics matters. To return to HRW and autonomous weapons: there is a big difference between persuading America to intervene in a situation, and persuading America to intervene in a situation which puts one of its aircraft carriers at risk.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

Alternate use for a Nimitz class carrier: attempt to save Pearl Harbor.

So here’s the issue as I see it: if you want to ban the military use of autonomous weapon systems, then you’re going to need to ban the kind of autonomous systems that are currently in service, and any that are being developed to combat anti-ship missiles in future. If you ban those kind of point defence systems, then any kind of power projection becomes very, very risky and costly for the country involved, so even though America has a poor track record, don’t expect them to help in future if a brutal regime is killing its citizens. This ushers in a world where states like China and Russia can effectively prop up any regime that they like, and, given the studied neglect-to-care about human rights in either country, this reduces the capability of states that purportedly care about human rights to intervene in the world at large. This lack of capability to intervene will reduce the incentive for would-be human rights abusers to adhere to the vaguest interpretation of compliance with human rights standards. This is a legal, political and technical issue – given the makeup of the UN Security Council – but at the moment Western states still have a technical means to intervene (if not the legal authority to do so, or the political will), forcing them to abandon the autonomous systems that they use to defend their prime military assets would deprive them of that. As disturbing as autonomous weapons are, is a world where dictators can massacre their populations without fear of reprisal better or worse?

Oh, and just to muddy the waters a bit: they already figured out how to point Phalanx at small surface ships that would probably contain human beings.

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For whom the Channel referral tolls…

It appears that things are picking up in the wonderful world of radicalisation. Following hot on the heels of David Cameron’s speech on extremism, the Evening Standard reports that a primary school has referred one of its pupils to the Government’s multi-agency Channel programme because a child that can’t be older than 11 was “deemed at risk of Islamic radicalisation.” Yes, folks, you heard that right, because “the behaviour of the child’s parents caused concern among staff” a kid is now the subject of government study. That’s because non-violent extremism leads to violent extremism, even in the case of primary school children. Except it doesn’t, or at least doesn’t work like a conveyor belt.

Here’s the resulting paradox in a nutshell: we live in a country that retains global power pretensions (even though we fudge on paying for it) and are committed to retaining a nuclear deterrent to bolster that self-image. At the same time, in a supposedly free and democratic society, we are referring under twelves to a counter-extremism programme because otherwise… bad things might happen?

Channel operates in “pre-criminal space”, which is a nice way of saying that a Channel referral doesn’t require an actual criminal offence. The Channel vulnerability assessment framework is particularly worth reading in full:

1. Engagement with a group, cause or ideology Engagement factors are sometimes referred to as “psychological hooks”. They include needs, susceptibilities, motivations and contextual influences and together map the individual pathway into terrorism. They can include:
• Feelings of grievance and injustice
• Feeling under threat
• A need for identity, meaning and belonging
• A desire for status
• A desire for excitement and adventure
• A need to dominate and control others
• Susceptibility to indoctrination
• A desire for political or moral change
• Opportunistic involvement
• Family or friends involvement in extremism
• Being at a transitional time of life
• Being influenced or controlled by a group
• Relevant mental health issues

2. Intent to cause harm Not all those who become engaged by a group, cause or ideology go on to develop an intention to cause harm, so this dimension is considered separately. Intent factors describe the mindset that is associated with a readiness to use violence and address what the individual would do and to what end. They can include:
• Over-identification with a group or ideology
• Them and Us’ thinking
• Dehumanisation of the enemy
• Attitudes that justify offending
• Harmful means to an end
• Harmful objectives

3. Capability to cause harm Not all those who have a wish to cause harm on behalf of a group, cause or ideology are capable of doing so, and plots to cause widespread damage take a high level of personal capability, resources and networking to be successful. What the individual is capable of is therefore a key consideration when assessing risk of harm to the public. Factors can include:
• Individual knowledge, skills and competencies
• Access to networks, funding or equipment
• Criminal Capability

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure that any 10 year old fulfils: “A need for identity, meaning and belonging/A desire for status/A desire for excitement and adventure/Susceptibility to indoctrination/Being at a transitional time of life”. Cynicism aside, the basic problem with this vulnerability assessment framework is that it contains very ambiguous criteria that effectively makes being pissed off at the current state of things a red flag for authorities. This wouldn’t matter so much except that the latest Counter-Terrorism and Security Act put it on a statutory footing. From a not-quite-half-arsed grab bag of indicators that someone might (and could) commit a terrorist offence, to a statutory duty for Councils everywhere to assess people in this way. I have no idea whether a ten year old can develop the intent to cause harm, but I somewhat doubt that they have the capability to cause harm. The question for the rest of us is how well we’d fare if put under the microscope by someone who may, or may not, have any of the training necessary to differentiate between, say, a lonely person and a lone wolf nutcase. Just remember not to express “extreme” opinions to anyone official in future, just in case, like.

Identity? Status? Dehumanisation? That’s got Kafka written all over it.

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Birth Pangs of a New Order, Volume Whatever

So, to re-cap the past week or so: the two-state solution is (almost) dead (again) after Bibi’s victory in the Israeli elections, the Americans came off the sidelines in Iraq with airstrikes in support of an offensive to re-take Tikrit from ISIS, Yemen’s President has reportedly fled the country and Saudi Arabia has now launched airstrikes against the Houthi rebels, Syria has dismantled 3 chemical weapons sites, Syria stands accused of continuing to use Chlorine weapons, Canada announced that it won’t bother to ask the Syrian government before attacking ISIS, oh and nine British citizens have reportedly entered Syria to work as medics in IS hospitals.

Spot the odd one out. That didn’t stop the nine medics making the front pages, though.

What is the British government to do about British citizens that are willing to travel to Syria and support ISIS? The Guardian called this “a test for British policy” and I agree, but it is a general policy problem that any state whose citizens get involved in irregular conflicts will have to face. I had a good debate on Twitter with Shashank Joshi regarding his argument that this constituted “material support” for terrorism, although the question he was asked was slightly different to its presentation. As I see it, the problem here is that two norms are in direct conflict with one another: the idea that the British citizens shouldn’t support ISIS, and the humanitarian impulse to save lives.

The key problem with any assessment is the same as most arguments about foreign fighters: we don’t really know what they’re up to except via scraps of information and rumours spread via twitter/instagram/the internet. As I see it, however, there are three ways that they could be involved (as medics): as a standard fighter with some medical expertise, as a dedicated medic working in a battlefield role, as a medic working in a hospital or similar facility. The first case is the easiest – even under international humanitarian law medical personnel can carry a light weapon for personal protection but lose the protection of their status if they act like standard personnel. The second is perhaps the trickiest issue. A battlefield medic would be providing material support, but at the same time, although medical personnel are integral to the conduct of military operations, they are commonly protected from attack precisely because international humanitarian law seeks to preserve the ability for medical personnel to tend to the sick and wounded while fighting rages. Even though debate rages about what constitutes “direct participation in hostilities” in non-international armed conflicts, this concept doesn’t include medical aid. Fundamentally, in international law there isn’t anything to prevent a person from pulling wounded people from a battlefield or tending to their wounds.

There is little doubt in my mind that the British government could figure out an argument for making it illegal to go to Syria and provide medical support for ISIS, even though this will be fundamentally a British law for British citizens. The question is, do we want to be seen to criminalise the humanitarian impulse? Will nine medical students really make much of a difference? In terms of narrative it seems a needless own-goal. If these students did go to Syria to heal people instead of kill them, the best thing the British government could do is ignore them and focus on something more important. Throw a dart at a map of the middle east, and it’ll probably land on something that should be a priority.

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“If You Tolerate This…”

“…then your children will be next” – the chorus of The Manic Street Preachers’ 1998 ode to (Welsh) foreign fighters going abroad (to Spain) to kill people (Fascists) because of their beliefs. It also happens to be the kind of sentiment that is currently driving anti-Islamic/immigrant demonstrations across Europe, most notably in Germany this week, many of whom were quick to jump on the killing of 12 people by Islamic terrorists in Paris 2 days ago. If you happen to be non-French and would like to get up to speed on French counter-terrorism, check out War Studies’ own Frank Foley, and his book “Countering Terrorism in Britain and France”.

Last night Andrew Parker, Director General of MI5, gave a speech highlighting the attacks (full text) that displayed a degree of caution (“It is too early for us to come to judgements about the precise details or origin of the attack…”) as well as a call for, well, the sustainment of communications intercept powers granted in emergency legislation last year (“we need the capability to shine a light into the activities of the worst individuals who pose the gravest threats”). It is, in my mind, a decent speech – one that we should expect from a person in Parker’s role – and highlighted MI5’s commitment to oversight and accountability. It is also, I think, a speech that will persuade no-one who isn’t already a believer in this institutional commitment.

The bit I liked in Parker’s speech was a turn of phrase – “crude but potentially deadly plots” – to describe a number of recent attacks. You know, the ones defined as “lone wolf” attacks, or as the metaphor of the lone terrorist is now being stretched, “wolf pack” terrorism. Lone individuals can do a lot of damage – see Anders Breivik, Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski – but the spate of individuals committing murder in the name of Islam (much to the horror of many Muslims) is seen as a growing threat to the ordinary way of life in the West. Something must be done.

The reason I liked Parker’s turn of phrase is that he somewhat unintentionally put his finger on the limits of his service (and all security forces in democratic states). Almost every single adult is capable of carrying out a “crude but potentially deadly” terrorist attack. It doesn’t take much training to stab someone, like Roshanara Choudhry, who stabbed the MP Stephen Timms. If you ask any A&E doctor or nurse, they’ll probably give you a sober description of quite how fragile the human body is when it encounters sharp objects. Any society where humans possess some degree of agency will be full to the brim of people capable of “crude but potentially deadly” attacks on one another. Guns help, of course, as do explosives, and training. Restricting access to these is the right and proper function of a government. But nothing can save us, 100%, from our fellow citizens. The kind of society in which individuals could not replicate Kaczynski, Choudhry, et al would be a prison. As Rebecca Solnit wrote (on a different topic): “the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” Unless a person cuts themself off from all human contact – like a hermit or sociopathic executive in an ad for premium London property – then they have to put up with imperfect safety from others.

There is little doubt in my mind that in the coming days and months politicians, analysts and securo-crats will offer up any number of “solutions” to lone wolf terrorism. Preventing general access to guns, explosives and training is good, but that will never stop the truly driven: nothing will. More to the point, there’s nothing that can prevent said lone individuals from taking cheap hits at society. Regardless of the motives of all involved, your average muslim waking up to find the internet flooded with offensive images of the prophet Mohammed is likely to be offended, just as if Christians were to wake up to a billion re-tweets of mocking death metal depictions of Jesus, or if atheists wake up to find the world’s papers full of images celebrating executions for blasphemy around the world. All that offence and division from a single attack, conducted by a handful of people. That said, such offence isn’t a knock out blow, and for the life of me, I can’t see how lone individuals ever could land one.

The point, I think, is that democracy survives on the tensions that states with blasphemy laws seek to eradicate. Most average people can reconcile the right to free speech and the general principle of “don’t be an offensive idiot” (Ross Douthat has a great piece on Blasphemy re Paris here). Democratic states are all the better for that, even if it does mean that, from time to time, cowards will murder people in cold blood. We tolerate the latent threat of our fellow citizens to our own lives, and those of our children, because there is no way to eradicate it without changing the fundamental principles of freedom that underpin our society.

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