Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Sam Smith

A conversation with a friend in the dialysis business reminded me that we still haven't caught Osama Bin Laden. Over the past seven years we have ruined our budget, our constitution and our reputation in an effort to suppress the incapacitated warrior and we seem no closer than ever. Since it sounds like the Obama administration plans to continue this escapade, it may help to put it into some perspective. Assuming that Al Qaeda exists - and even a British police commissioner has said it was more an idea than a reality - estimates of its force size are in the 5,000 range with an annual budget, according to the 9/11 Commission, of around $30 million (with an unknown proportion laundered through hedge funds and the like). That's what it cost the Pentagon to build a new mortuary at the Dover Air Force Base.

If a country the size of the United States can't handle 5,000 guerrillas operating on one tenth the amount with which Bernie Madoff absconded, we really are in serious trouble. On the other hand, it may occur to the new crowd that the way to reduce the threat of guerrilla activity is to lessen the cause. After all, Osama bin Laden is a monster created by American foreign policy. You can kill him but unless our foreign policy changes, there are more monsters where he came from.

Sam Smith, 2002 - So here we are a year later, $37 billion out of pocket and still scared as hell someone's going to attack us. We're not the first with the problem. Many years ago some people built castles and walled cities and moats to keep the bad guys away. It worked for a while, but sooner or later spies and assassins figured out how to get across the moats and climb the walls and send balls of fire into protected compounds. The Florentines even catapulted dead donkeys and feces during their siege of Siena.

The people who built castles and walled cities and moats are all dead now and their efforts at security seem puny and ultimately futile as we visit their unintended monuments to the vanity of human presumption.

Like the castle-dwellers behind the moat, we are now spending huge sums to put ourselves inside a prison of our own making. It is unlikely to provide either security for our bodies nor solace for our souls, for we are simply attacking ourselves before others get a chance.

This is not the way to peace and safety. Peace is a state without violence, interrogations, and moats. Peace is a state of reciprocity, of trust, of empirically based confidence that no one is about to do you in. It exists not because of intrinsic goodness or rampant naivete but because of a common, implicit understanding that that it works for everyone..

This discovery is often hard to come by, but it is still cheaper, less deadly, and ultimately far more effective than the alternative we seem to have chosen, which is to imprison ourselves in our castle and hope the moat keeps the others out.

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