Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Future of Freedom

Reprinted here, at The Strawman, is an Op-Ed I wrote over at the Dominion.

Is your government in a position to profit financially from terrorism? Are you? Would you like to be?

It may have been a passing thought swirling blithely in my mind every once and again, but when I actually tried to recall if it were a real memory, objectively independent from my mind, an actual verifiable fact, I was startled to find out that it was, in fact, true.

Reported in the New York Times on Tuesday, July 29, 2003 was this bracing gem:

The Pentagon office that proposed spying electronically on Americans to monitor potential terrorists has a new experiment. It is an online futures trading market, disclosed today by critics, in which anonymous speculators would bet on forecasting terrorist attacks, assassinations and coups.

There, in plain English, and aided by the venerable research Boolean of Google, was something quite bizarre—beyond comprehension, really. Quite naturally, one’s attempt to settle this bizarre revelation still, and hold on to the withering psychosis slowing cascading through one’s mind causes you to reach for justificatory arguments as to why a futures market in terrorism wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I will return to those shortly.

DARP, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, under the auspices of DOD, had designed a program for a Policy Analysis Market (PAM). Essentially a futures market on terror or international tumult, PAM would have allowed for the

… trading futures contracts that deal with underlying fundamentals of relevance to the Middle East. Initially, PAM will focus on the economic, civil, and military futures of Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey and the impact of U.S. involvement with each.

As per the justificatory arguments, I now return. The markets have become an efficient way to aggregate information. Further, markets, as an indictor of valuation, predict more efficaciously the utility of services, products, and goods. It is with a detached sense of management that such an analytical tool may find its salutary benefits. Why, for instance, can’t the markets also let us know when, say, Hosni Mubarak will get assassinated, asks Ronald Baileyof Reason (Free Minds and Free Markets)?

Consider this scenario. Let's say PAM offers a futures contract on a pool of 50 Middle Eastern leaders and we know that on average one of them gets killed every year. If assassination is random that means that each one has a 2 percent chance of being dead in the next year. Prices that move away from 2 percent indicate that the market participants anticipate a greater or lesser likelihood that any particular leader would be killed. Say terrorists flood the market with bids on assassinating Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak so that the prediction rises to 4 percent. Why would they do that? To direct our attention away from one of the other 49 leaders that they are actually targeting? That doesn't get them a lot of misdirection. And other market participants would still be bidding on other likely candidates for assassination and would take the profits away from the terrorist bidders when Mubarak attends the next Arab summit meeting a year later.

Apart from being an incredibly abhorrent idea on its face, it should also lead, unsavorily, to the complementary extension of a futures market on terrorist attacks within the United States and against its allies. How quickly would that proposition not even be considered? All efforts would be made to protest such a vile idea if it were proposed by anyone other than the US—and directed at the United States. This is a point that could not be reiterated with more emphasis.

On the point of personal profit as a lure for terrorists looking to disclose information, which is a fanciful notion, it has to be assumed, first, that the cause for which they kill could so easily be comprised for a cash incentive. 9/11 and Beslan prove otherwise. If wishing made it so, the problem would simply be about cash. The problem is, rather, about the United States poor human intelligence within the Middle East. It’s about the United States lack of Arabic translator, Arabic and Near-East analyst, and strategic coherence with respect to Middle Eastern Affairs. It’s about the United States realization that cultivating the seeds of genuine and engaged civic, democratic institutions in the Middle East is far more difficult with the imposition of force. It’s an understanding that effecting change will have to be, sadly, financially rewarding for interested parties.

But the dissolution of the former Soviet Union offers a probable, though long term, parallel of the political dynamic in the Middle East, with qualifications of course. As incipient and politically active dissident groups began to flourish and agitate for social and economic change in Eastern Europe during the decades preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western Europe and North America saw and engaged the opportunity to give logistical and ideological succor to these groups—Solidarity is a perfect example.

Such an organizing stratagem is no doubt far reaching and politically unwieldy, but an attempt must be made. A futures market, though I’m sure its noble aim at acquiring secretive intelligence can be reasonably argued for, seems too much a blunt instrument for a task that requires the finesse of language and empathy.

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