The Disparity in Terrorism Between the West and the Rest

It goes without saying that North America, Europe, and the wider developed world are much safer in all sorts of ways than anywhere else on Earth.  Terrorism in particular is especially rare nowadays, to the point that it captures a disproportionate amount of our attention despite being one of the least common forms of death or injury (e.g., you are three times more likely to die of rabies than of Islamic extremism).

However, to see this disparity visualized in data is a far more impactful reminder of the massive gap in fortune that exists between huge swathes of humanity. The following graph from a New York Times piece by Lazaro Gamio and Tim Meko looks at just the past year and a half.


Out of the rest the world, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia — all with predominantly Muslim populations — account for the vast majority of terrorism targeting noncombatants. (Indeed, the primary victims of Islamic terrorism, the source of most of these deaths, have long been other Muslims.)

Terrorism IITerrorism III

According to the Global Terrorism Index, as of 2015, close to 80 percent of deaths from terrorism occur in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. Given recent spate of terrorism in all these nations, that proportion has likely remained the same, if not increased.

The top ten terrorism-affiliated countries is rounded up by India, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Thailand. Israel is the only developed country to be anywhere near these figures, and even then it is in 24th place out of 50. The U.K. and Greece are the next runners up in the developed world, coming in at 28th and 29th place respectively — though their rankings are several points less than the worst hit countries, driving home the disparity in terrorist violence.

For its part, the United States comes in at 35, although the events of the last few weeks may bump up that figure. Even so, it will still be far and away from the almost weekly occurrence of terrorism in many other parts of the world. I cannot even begin to fathom what it is like trying to go about one’s life amid an almost normalized pace of random bombings and shootings.

How Can You Police Without Weapons?

Most Americans probably take it for granted that police officers carry guns; after all, how else could they protect and serve the public? But given the high incidence of police killings, many are wondering if armed law enforcement does more harm than good — or at the very least, if it is even necessary.

As a recent article in Quartz points out, several countries, such as Finland, Germany, and Spain, heavily restrict an officer’s ability to fire his or her weapon, while other go even further and prohibit their police from carrying guns — namely Iceland, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, and the United Kingdom.

In the case of New Zealand and the U.K., law enforcement were stripped of firearms as far back as the late 19th century, under the justification that armed police are “antithetical to the values of civil society” and undermine their “authority to protect, not to oppress, the public.” For its part, Iceland, where one third of the population owns guns, reasoned that disarming officers helps to keep the peace “by consent, rather than through the explicit threat or use of force”.

All that is fairly fascinating reasoning, but how does it work in practice?

Well for starters, most of these countries have low crime rates, and what comparatively little crime does occur is usually nonviolent. So addressing the root socioeconomic and cultural causes of crime and violence would probably go a long way towards eventually making armed law enforcement unjustifiable.

Nevertheless, violence still can and does occur in these countries, and police are trained to anticipate and respond to such incidents, up to and including using a firearm during certain situations (such as a report of an armed suspect). Therein lies the core distinction between the U.S. and nations with unarmed law enforcement:

Paul Hirschfield, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University, points out that U.S. police officers are trained for an average of just 19 weeks. Compare that to police in Norway, who have three years of training before they’re fully qualified.

“If you only have 19 weeks of training, you’re going to spend those on the most essential things. Unfortunately, in the United States, it’s about what you need to defend yourself. How you’re going to avoid getting hurt”, says Hirschfield. “If you have three years, you can also learn how to protect people, how to avoid these situations from arising in the first place. It fosters a whole different orientation and culture in law enforcement.”

Police in other countries are generally trained to de-escalate hostile situations and use minimal violence in response to a threat.

In other words, the lack of weaponry basically forces officers to find nonviolent solutions to emergency situations, using violence only as an absolute last resort (and again, usually with a select unit of armed specialists deployed strictly for such a purpose). This is in line with several other studies finding that unarmed police help to deescalate situations and build mutual trust between law enforcement and the community.

Another article published in Quartz earlier this year explored this idea:

Gregory Smithsimon, professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, argued in a recent article at metro politics that arming police tends to feed violent interactions in marginalized communities. “Police demand respect, civilians resent disrespect, and interactions become confrontations that escalate into mistreatment, abuse, and violence,” Smithsimon writes. Pointing to the example of St. Louis police officer Darren Wilson, Smithsimon notes that the addition of weaponry can accelerate confrontation. “Wilson could have continued on his way,” he says. “But the gun on his hip gave him the possibility to escalate with Michael Brown.”

uns aren’t just a danger in and of themselves. They enable a policing philosophy built on violence and forced compliance, rather than one founded on respect, trust and consent. That philosophy affects every police interaction, even those that don’t involve actual shooting.

“Even if disarming the police only reduced police shootings and not other police homicides, it would be a historic improvement,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “But I suspect that taking guns out of the equation in police officers’ everyday interactions would improve police-civilian relations, like the kind that Eric Garner experienced repeatedly.” Garner sold loose cigarettes on the street in New York and was frequently hassled by police. In July 2014, he was killed when officers put him in a choke hold.


“U.S. police wearing their gun all the time has an important ideological effect,” Smithsimon tells Quartz. “It makes police feel like they are never civilians, never normal people, that they’re always cops, and that they’re never safe without a gun. I don’t think that’s the most productive frame of mind for civilians who are charged with keeping our cities safe and calm.”

So even in societies that are not as small, homogenous, and peaceful as Iceland or Norway, disarming police can ostensibly work.

However, selling this idea to both governments and the public is a whole other story. With so many millions of guns out there (both legal and illegal), and a high (though declining) rate of violent crime, the thought of policing with firearms sounds absurd — which is why no local government, let alone a state or federal institution, has ever seriously considered this approach; even the smallest and seemingly most peaceable towns employ at least a handful of armed officers.

Indeed, an article in The Conversation that also explores the disparity in the U.S. and European policing found that the “brutalization” process runs both ways: just as armed police may elicit fear, distrust, and hostility among the community, an armed and violent citizenry only reinforces police officers’ willingness to turn to violence.

Acquiring guns illegally in the US is not much harder. About 57% of this year’s deadly force victims to date were allegedly armed with actual, toy or replica guns. American police are primed to expect guns. The specter of gun violence may make them prone to misidentifying or magnifying threats like cellphones and screwdrivers. It may make American policing more dangerous and combat-oriented. It also fosters police cultures that emphasize bravery and aggression.

Americans armed with less-lethal weapons like knives – and even those known to be unarmed – are also more likely to be killed by police.

Less-lethal weapon holders make up only about 20% of deadly force victims in the US. Yet the rates of these deaths alone exceed total known deadly force rates in any European country.

The article also cites endemic racism, hyper-individualism, and deeply rooted resentment towards government as reasons why both government officials and the public at large seem so tolerant of and aggressive police tactics. Racism is perhaps the most commonly identified culprit, although it does not account for the fact that even white Americans are far more likely to die from police shootings than their counterparts across the Atlantic, or why deadly encounters with law enforcement are high in mostly white areas like Montana, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Therein lies another surprising and novel culprit: the localized nature of most policing in the U.S.

Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.

To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.

More than a quarter of deadly force victims were killed in towns with fewer than 25,000 people despite the fact that only 17% of the US population lives in such towns.

By contrast, as a rule, towns and cities in Europe do not finance their own police forces. The municipal police that do exist are generally unarmed and lack arrest authority.

As a result, the only armed police forces that citizens routinely encounter in Europe are provincial (the counterpart to state police in the US), regional (Swiss cantons) or national.

What’s more, centralized policing makes it possible to train and judge all armed officers according to the same use-of-force guidelines. It also facilitates the rapid translation of insights about deadly force prevention into enforceable national mandates.

At this point, the Conversation article overlaps with Quartz in observing the higher standards by which most European officers operate under — Spain’s national guidelines require cops to “incrementally pursue verbal warnings, warning shots, and shots at nonvital parts of the body before resorting to deadly force” (whereas only eight U.S. states have such a requirement), while Finland and Norway “require that police obtain permission from a superior officer, whenever possible, before shooting anyone”. Centralized standards mean that every community, regardless of its size, wealth, or social and demographic makeup, ostensibly gets the same sort of treatment.

Now, none of this is to say that these other countries have spotless records of police conduct, or that the wide range of differences in culture, demographics, and socioeconomic variables don’t account for at least some of the disparities in policing methods. But that is not reason enough to disregard these case studies, or to fail to apply at least some of these policies to the many cities, counties, and states with comparable social and demographic profiles.

Moreover, the psychological and sociological data that support less violent policing is largely translatable to American society — most people, regardless of nationality, feel uncomfortable in the presence of an armed agent of the state, and any law enforcement agency subject to rigorous standards of training should subsequently be more professional and competent; it is not as if Americans are somehow immune to higher standards of performance if properly trained and educated.

What are your thoughts?

Unfettered Internet Access Declared a Human Right

This past June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution in June that defines free and open access to the web is a human right and in strong terms “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”.

The four page document, which you can read here (PDF), takes a broad view of the Internet’s importance, from its empowerment of “all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology” to “[facilitating] vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally”. It even affirms how the expansion of telecommunications technology has the “great potential to accelerate human progress”, an observation most denizens of the Internet Age can attest to. Continue reading

The Symbolic Passivity of the Term President

When the Founding Fathers of the United States set about forming a new nation, for obvious reasons they wanted to ensure that the executive could have neither the potential nor the pretensions of tyranny. So in addition to setting in place all of the checks and balances we learn are integral to the U.S. political system, they made a conscious effort to devise a new and unusual term for their head of government: President, derived from the Latin prae- “before” plus sedere “to sit”.

Up until that point, a president was someone originally tasked with presiding over (e.g., sitting before) a gathering or ceremony to ensure that everything runs smoothly. It was largely limited to academia, and was hardly an authoritarian position — which of course was precisely the point. The executive of the United States was not vested with anything more than the power to help enforce the laws of Congress, and to essentially preside over a system of power wherein the people, via their representatives, governed themselves.

(Interestingly, several countries, such as Germany and India, have offices of the president that are truer to the original etymology of the term: their presidents are mostly figureheads with few actual powers in paper and in practice.)

Granted, all this was pretty idealistic and aspirational, and as we all know, the office of the president has not always been true to its original spirit; indeed, even back then there was debate as to how much authority or power the president should have, and it was not long before presidents of all political stripes started pushing the boundaries of executive power. But it is interesting to see how even semantics could be an important consideration in formulating a political system.


Four Examples of Philosophy Making a Difference

Philosophy has something of a bad rap. While associated with high mindedness and culture, it popularly perceived as an armchair discipline with very little real-world application. (Nevermind the research showing how surprisingly lucrative a philosophy degree can be.) But philosophy has more to give us than interesting thought experiments to chew on, or intellectual credibility among our peers. Even as we speak, it is being utilized in some very potent ways, as philosophy professor Patricia Illingworth highlights in a HuffPo piece.

Today innovative work in philosophy combines philosophical analysis and rigor, with organizational acumen and leadership. Much of this innovation is taking place in applied ethics. Typically, applied ethics involves identifying and analyzing social problems; sometimes it also proposes means for solving those problems in an ideal world. It rarely creates mechanisms capable of solving problems in the real world.

Personally, applied ethics is the part of philosophy that matters most to me, given how very relevant it is in a world beset with so many problems yet also so many potential solutions. Why humanity still struggles with hunger, poverty, war, and exploitation despite unprecedented abundance and freedom (by historical standards) must necessarily lead us to consider reflecting upon, and tweaking, our own moral and ethical foundations.

That said, here are some of the ways philosophers are seeking to improve the world by applying philosophical principles and discoveries:

  • Lisa Fuller helps Médecins Sans Frontières (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) ground its missions and goals “on the basis of sound moral principles”, as informed by field research and the voices of those it has served. She helped refine the group’s values, such as organizational independence, solidarity, and integrity, and fleshed them out more transparently so as to improve moral and decision making, as well as set the bar for other humanitarian organizations.
  • Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund (HIF) addresses one of the most glaring yet little discussed injustices in the world: why so many sick and poor people are deprived of medicines for often treatable diseases. The HIF incentivizes research on neglected diseases by rewarding research and development funds to pharmaceutical firms that demonstrate quantifiable good health outcomes. This model is already being tested in Mumbai, India with regards to tuberculosis.
  • The Life You Can Save organization, founded by Peter Singer, encourages people of all incomes to give more money to charity, and to do so in a way that will have the greatest impact. Through extensive and rigorous research, it highlights the best charities for donors to consider, and even offers a public forum through which people can pledge — and be accountable to — a certain promised amount. The group’s efforts have spawned the “effective altruism” movement, which emphasizes evidence and reason as guides towards high-impact giving.
  • In the book Blood Oil, (which is on my reading list), Leif Wenar makes the case that the “purchasing practices of affluent countries, guided by the rule of might makes right” leads to untold human suffering in resource-rich countries. He advocates two solutions: the Clean Trade Act, which would make it it illegal to purchase oil from mis-governed nations; and the Clean Hands Trust, in which countries that purchase oil from exploitative regimes are subject to taxes that are then used to fund trusts in the interests of citizens of resource-cursed countries.

These are just some of the appreciable ways in which philosophy is being applied. They may not all prove effective or viable, but the point is to expand the limits of what we think we know in terms of evidence, reason, and ethics so as to continually improve the world and the human condition. The more analyze, debate, and reflect upon the state of the world and how we can better it, the closer we come to a fairer, more just, and more prosperous global society.

What are your thoughts?


The Most Popular Second Languages in the World

So there is an app called Duolingo that is apparently one of the most popular language-learning services in the world. (I’ve heard of it but never knew much about it, let alone tried it.) With about 120 million users worldwide learning one of nineteen different languages, it seems to offer a pretty good sample size for determining which of the world’s languages are most popular to learn. That said, the company crunched numbers and discovered the following:


As is always the case with this sort of research, there are some caveats. As Quartz reports: Continue reading

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

Continue reading

The 2016 Soft Power 30

Last summer, I shared and discussed the first results of the newly launched Soft Power 30, an annual index of the world’s most successful nations in terms of “soft power” — the culture, values, international image, and other factors that allow a country to influence the rest of the world. Portland Communications, which conducts the survey, explains what exactly soft power is and why it is so important to understand.

Soft power shuns the traditional foreign policy tools of carrot and stick, seeking instead to achieve influence by building networks, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules, and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world.

In short, “hard power is push; soft power is pull”.

Joseph Nye, the originator of the concept, initially set out three primary sources of soft power as he developed the concept. Nye’s three pillars of soft power are: political values, culture, and foreign policy. But within these three categories, the individual sources of soft power are manifold and varied.

Our index builds on those three pillars, using over 75 metrics across six sub-indices of objective data and seven categories of new international polling data.

In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, where warfare and conquest are no longer acceptable means of fulfilling national interests (albeit not fully extinguished either), the ability to win over hearts and minds is as integral to power and prosperity as any military. This is especially true in an era where hundreds of millions of people regularly visit, study, work, and settle down in nations across the world, offering the most attractive destinations valuable labor, skills, knowledge, and other human resources.

So which countries have been excelling in this key dimension of power? Unsurprisingly, the top performers include the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, all of which cultural outputs, from film to music to art, are known worldwide. Of course, it helps that they are wealthy and populous, since these resources make cultivating and projecting culture much easier — hence why few poor nations made the cut. Many of the highest ranking nations also have a long history of being great powers, giving them a legacy of connections — through colonization, language, and settlement — that allow their cultural and diplomatic influence to disseminate.

But there were some new and surprising contenders in this exclusive club as well, such as Hungary, Russia, and Argentina, none of which may strike the average American as prominent cultural powerhouses, but each of which are influential in some particular way — Hungary in its rich mathematical and musical achievements, Russia in its renewed leadership role in global affairs, and Argentina in its benign international image, to name but a couple of examples for each.

Here are the full results:

Soft Power 30 (2016)

The original chart allows you to click on each country to see its score in each of the seven sub-indices — such as digital presence, economic enterprise, and global public opinion — as well as a summary of the strengths, weaknesses, and overall trajectory of the their soft power status. If you are so inclined, you can download the 120-page report here (PDF).

What are your thoughts on the results?


An Ancient Philosophical Concept Gets Some Scientific Backing

The concept of consciousness — broadly speaking, the state of being aware of one’s self and the external world — is so complicated that a clear, universal definition is difficult to pin down. Indeed, the consensus within neuroscience seems to be that we will likely never have a solid, totally provable theory of consciousness — though one idea does come close, and it validates an observation made over two millennial ago.

As Quartz reports:

In 2008, neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness put forward his “integrated information theory,” which is currently accepted as one of the most compelling explanations about what consciousness is.

One of the central claims of the theory is that, for consciousness to exist, it must have “cause-effect” power on itself.

Neurologist Melanie Boly, a resident at UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health who has worked with Tononi, explains that for anything to exist, it must be able to have an effect; it must be able to make some small difference to something else.

“Consciousness exists for itself and by itself”, says Boly. “Thus it should have cause and effect on itself”.

Boly is currently working with other researchers to develop a mathematical framework to test the predictions of integrated information theory.

The neurologist goes on to note that this promising theory they are working on testing follows a stream of conjectures going back at least to Plato, the famous fourth century B.C.E. philosopher. As he wrote in the dialog Sophist in 360 B.C.E.

“My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.”

So if integrated information theory remains the most credible explanation for consciousness, as many neuroscientists believe is the case, we will have yet another example of pre-scientific philosophical conjecture managing to get at the fundamental nature of humanity and the metaphysical. Very interesting stuff, to say the least.

Required Reading For International Relations Buffs

If you share my background or passion for geopolitics, foreign policy, and international relations, then consider including the following books to your reading list, recommended by leading international relations thinker and professor Stephen M. Walt. Feel free to add your own must-reads, which I will do myself in a future post.

1). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.

According to Walt, the book provides “an enduring typology of different theories of war (i.e., locating them either in the nature of man, the characteristics of states, or the anarchic international system)” coupled with a powerful critique of each approach.

2). Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

This classic examines how “small differences in climate, population, agronomy, and the like turned out to have far-reaching effects on the evolution of human societies and the long-term balance of power.”

3). Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence.

The author has since won a Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering theories on international conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis — topics that are explored in this still relevant 1966 book.

4). James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

This book examines the long and depressing history of authoritarians trying their hand at progress, with disastrous results (think the collectivization policy of the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward). It serves as a cautionary tale on utopian ventures, especially when undertaken by centralized political authorities and well intentioned by narrow minded idealists. Definitely an important work to keep in mind in this era of big projects.

5). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest.

Like the previous selection, this book explores the follies and foibles of policymakers, specifically with regards to the Vietnam War.

6). Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.

This intriguing book looks at world politics and foreign policy through the prism of psychology. How do the perspectives and mental states of policymakers impact international relations? It is a question that is not asked enough, let alone explored.

7). John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

This book is about the vagaries and misfortunes of nations. As Walt sums up: “Why do bad things happen to good peoples? Why do “good states” do lots of bad things? Mearsheimer tells you. Clearly written, controversial, and depressingly persuasive”.

8). Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.

“The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures”. Given the rise of nationalism among both emerging powers and smaller nations fearful of globalization, this is a very necessary read.

9). Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years & Years of Upheaval.

Kissinger’s questionable legacy makes his memoir all the more important to read, if only because it helps us understand firsthand the brutal logic of realpolitik. The book also offers insights of various other major political players in both the U.S. and abroad, though as Waltz warns, none of it should be taken at face value.

10). Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

Polanyi ambitious tries to trace the origins of industrialization, and the subsequent modern world, and what impact it has had on society, culture, and politics. The book takes a critical stance on capitalism and the idea of a self regulating market, concerns that are increasingly relevant in our globalized planet.

Waltz also offers several honorable mentions worth considering.

Geoffrey Blainey The Causes of War; Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History; Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Robert Gilpin,The Political Economy of International Relations; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars; T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars; R. R. Palmer,The Age of the Democratic Revolution; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Tony Smith, The Problem of Imperlalism; and Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker.

Needless to say, these books are just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast world of political and international relations literature. But they are definitely great places to start. I will put together my own list of recommendations when time permits, but feel free to share your own! (No worries, you do not need to be an expert or anything — just share whatever book had influenced or otherwise appealed to you.)