Worry less about releasing terrorists

by on January 26, 2009 at 12:29 pm in Political Science | Permalink

The total population of terrorists ebbs and flows all the time.  When the number goes up by one hundred, no one much notices.  If the number goes up by one hundred because we release some previously identified terrorists, there is or will be a public outcry.  But it's the same consequence.

Fewer terrorists are better than more terrorists, to be sure.  But a terrorist we release is not obviously worse than a terrorist who was free in the first place.

We evaluate outcomes differently when we feel we are in control or should be in control.  We should examine this intuition carefully, since it is not always justified.

We also treat an outcome differently when we feel it allows an enemy of ours to "get back at us."  I suspect this difference in feeling is not usually justified and that it is the primary driver behind the fear of releasing terrorists.

I can think of "political theater" reasons why an attack from a released terrorist would be worse than an attack from an "already free" terrorist.  Overall I do not yet feel that we are thinking about this issue rationally.

a student of economics January 26, 2009 at 12:38 pm

The number of new terrorists created by Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the occupation of Iraq dwarfs by orders of magnitude the number of potential terrorists that might be released for lack of evidence if we shut down Guantanamo. If one factors in terrorist sympathizers, the numbers are even more skewed.

Morality and self-interest point in the same direction in this case, and in more cases than the cynics want us to believe.

Thankfully, we finally have a government policy that we and the world don’t need to be ashamed of, and in the long run, we’ll be safer as a result.

Marc January 26, 2009 at 12:44 pm

At least we can identify a released terrorist. No one knows (despite all the databases) who the other terrorists are.

Add to that, Obama’s policy only accelerates Bush’s Guantanamo policy. Do you remember when there were 650 worst of the worse inmates? How about 500? How about 300? Now there are about 250. Were the rest rehabilitated?

Thomas January 26, 2009 at 12:48 pm

But of course not all terrorists pose the same threat. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed may be more valuable to al Qaeda and more of a threat to us than the average terrorist.

And one would think that the threat of detainment and the threat of punishment might be relevant to the decision whether to be a terrorist. Releasing detained terrorists would send a signal about the likelihood of that, wouldn’t it?

a student of economics January 26, 2009 at 12:52 pm

Robert Olsen says: “I don’t really care if 100 cleared people are locked up in a detention center.”

Maybe that’s one reason that millions of people think you and, by association, other Americans like me, are evil people and deserve to be hurt.

economist January 26, 2009 at 12:56 pm

“Worry less about releasing terrorists”

Stick to domestic policy.

(In the spirit of offering unsolicited advice)

Bob Murphy January 26, 2009 at 1:03 pm

If the number goes up by one hundred because we release some previously identified terrorists, there is or will be a public outcry.

Hang on a second. I’ve been in a bit of a shell lately, working on a project. Is anybody saying, “We are releasing terrorists.” ? I thought the deal was, there was no court-worthy evidence against some of the Gitmo detainees, and so they would probably end up freed if the same standards were applied to them as to, say, an American accused of shooting his boss.

Bob Murphy January 26, 2009 at 1:04 pm

To clarify: I mean, is anyone in the Obama administration saying, “We are releasing terrorists back onto the streets.” I know Sean Hannity is saying that, but I thought the whole point was, there is not enough evidence to convict these people in a regular court.

Ben January 26, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Houses are being built and demolished (to clear the land for new houses) all the time; when the number goes up or down by 100, no one really notices. But, when 100 perfectly good houses are destroyed by a hurricane people are upset for some reason.

We have spent a large amount of resources to identify, capture and detain *these* terrorists. Sure, letting them go doesn’t really affect the terrorist population as a whole (unless, as previously mentioned, we have managed to capture some of the most valuable terrorists) just as needlessly destroying some number of houses doesn’t really affect the housing market.

In this way, I’m not sure how people are thinking about this irrationally. Taking release as the default scenario, we could effectively capture 250 likely terrorists for free, and Obama is passing on that opportunity. I think people are upset not because of the actual impact that releasing 250 detainees will have, but because it’s a waste of sunk costs that goes directly against the goal of reducing the terrorist population.

dsflkfjh January 26, 2009 at 1:23 pm

So, is the point that closing Gitmo will provide more value in international goodwill especially in the Middle East then it will take away through letting detainees out? I think this is probably true but Tyler when you write a post like this you shouldn’t be so coy. Also the sentence “But a terrorist we release is not obviously worse than a terrorist who was free in the first place” implies that there is no selection bias amongst captured fighters…do you really believe that? I guess depends on how you define terrorist but I think no matter what closing Gitmo (or moving it to the mainland more specifically) is on the whole a good thing.

Bob Montgomery January 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm

This makes some sense on its surface, but I’m not buying it.

Let’s make an analogy:
Your total net worth goes up and down all the time. When the number goes down by a $100, you don’t much notice. If it goes down by $100 because you withdrew $100 from an ATM and are then mugged, you raise a fuss. But it’s the same consequence.

So, therefore, we shouldn’t care if we are robbed? And should do nothing to prevent it?

I think it is the opportunity cost here. You already have the terrorist where he can do no harm; you’ve expended time and money (and whatever else) to reach that position. It is better to protect that investment than to throw it away. So to speak.

Randy January 26, 2009 at 1:42 pm

“But a terrorist we release is not obviously worse than a terrorist who was free in the first place.”

Agreed. Take ‘em to a high pass in the Hindu Kush and let ‘em go.

As for whether Gitmo was a good idea, my take is that an enemy that isn’t worth torturing and/or killing isn’t worthy of being considered an enemy. That is, torture and mayhem aren’t unpleasant side effects of war, but tests to determine whether or not we should be at war.

Tyler Cowen January 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm

It’s funny how some of you stop thinking on the margin once terrorists are the topic at hand. I said worry *less*, not don’t worry at all.

cliff January 26, 2009 at 2:07 pm

“The total population of terrorists ebbs and flows all the time.”

Then I guess the key question is why.

Do our actions in killing or capturing them cause a net ebb or a net flow?

Many of those in Gitmo want to be martyrs. If released, which I have trouble believing you are actually proposing, I believe they will kill innocent people, muslim and non-muslim.

Do you agree? If so, are those deaths acceptable? If not, why not? If they are, then why? How would you integrate your answer with the comment “But a terrorist we release is not obviously worse than a terrorist who was free in the first place.”?

I’m not trying to make you wrong here, I am just trying to penetrate what I see as inscrutability.

Grant January 26, 2009 at 2:15 pm

While I agree with Student’s and Tyler’s points, I think it bears mentioning that the existence of Gitmo and rendition programs also serves as a disincentive to terrorists. That half of the point of incarceration, after all: to punish existing criminals, which is a disincentive to would-be criminals. Removing criminals from society, as Tyler mentions, is also significant but may not be the primary effect.

I think its likely that Gitmo provides more terrorist incentives than disincentives, but that is just hand-waving on my (and Tyler’s?) part. When in doubt I err on the side of peace, not dungeons and torture.

I’m not so sure we should be less angry about an attack from a released terrorist. If a mistake like that occurs, we could have avoided it via a very cheap fix (not releasing the terrorist in the first place). It makes sense to concentrate our scarce cognitive resources on less costly solutions (not releasing existing terrorists) than more costly ones (going out to capture more terrorists, or winning hearts and minds).

I’m not trying to defend Gitmo here, I’m just saying the argument hasn’t been fully fleshed out in this thread.

Gabe January 26, 2009 at 2:29 pm

” Where did the terrorists come from before Iraq? Grow up, the world is always going to
have somebody willing to kill indiscriminately in the name of some political cause.”

for evidince of this jsu tlook at Obama killing women and children in Afgahnistan the other day…or the last 8 years of Bush bombing weddings throughout the mide east.

Gabe January 26, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Newseek article as well….
http://www.wanttoknow.info/010915newsweek

Alleged Hijackers May Have Trained at U.S. Bases

The Pentagon has turned over military records on five men to the FBI

By George Wehrfritz, Catharine Skipp and John Barry

NEWSWEEK

Sept. 15 — U.S. military sources have given the FBI information that suggests five of the alleged hijackers of the planes that were used in Tuesday’s terror attacks received training at secure U.S. military installations in the 1990s.

THREE OF THE alleged hijackers listed their address on drivers licenses and car registrations as the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.—known as the “Cradle of U.S. Navy Aviation,† according to a high-ranking U.S. Navy source.

Another of the alleged hijackers may have been trained in strategy and tactics at the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala., said another high-ranking Pentagon official. The fifth man may have received language instruction at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex. Both were former Saudi Air Force pilots who had come to the United States, according to the Pentagon source.

a student of economics January 26, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Superheater, I assume the reason I don’t see you condemning torture, abuse, locking up potentially innocent people, rendition, bombing civilians and other morally questionable acts (at least when done by “your” side) is because you think they make you safer.

However, the National Intelligence Estimate assessment concludes that our actions have greatly bolstered terrorist recruiting. Most analysts agree. For instance, Al Qaeda did not exist in Iraq before we invaded, and Guantanamo is a standard talking point our enemies use to undermine our claims of morality and justice. Even Karl Rove said that the damage from Abu Ghraib would take decades to undo.

Moral people, like the founding fathers, oppose immoral actions even if they endangered their own safety. Locking innocent people up and/or torturing them is immoral. Perhaps you think such moral concerns are “effete”. However, even if you are totally amoral, you need to look at the net change in the number of terrorists, not just one side of the equation.

We’ve been creating terrorists far faster than we’ve been eliminating them. That’s not just immoral, it’s foolish.

mulp January 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

The defense of gitmo often cites the 60 something people released from gitmo out of a thousand who are now known to be terrorists.

However, that is the proof that gitmo is an absolute failure and that the US courts would be far better suited to the problem because that is considered the gold standard for justice the world over.

Think about it. Gitmo uses torture that isn’t legally torture to get the truth out of terrorists. But the result for the 60 terrorists released was that they weren’t terrorists. So much for gitmo “keeping America safe.”

On the other hand, gitmo tortured in a way that is legally just harsh interrogation about a thousand terrorists and concluded that they weren’t dangerous, which clearly means they weren’t terrorists, because someone who smokes pot is dangerous and needs to be locked up. So, even if we include the 250 with the 1000 released, that means that 80% of the terrorists harshly treated at gitmo to get the truth were found not to be terrorists, because they aren’t as dangerous as heavy pot smokers, so they can be released.

And we know that significant numbers of the 250 have been determined to not be dangerous and not be terrorists, but they have been declared to be so superhuman that they would bite through hydraulic hoses if not hooded, or explode people’s heads with their minds if not blindfolded and distracted with loud music like in the movie Scanners.

And by the way, for those who believe torture works, McCain is just as black as Obama, he just looks white, but when he was harshly interrogated, but not tortured, in Vietnam he clearly told the truth when he said he was a black pirate. And we all know that pirates are historically Muslims, so that means McCain consorts with Muslim pirates. After all, torture, errr harsh interrogation always gets the truth.

Ryan January 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm

This may be Tyler’s least popular post yet.

I agree that we should consider how our actions affect the total population of terrorists and the danger they pose, not just the danger of terrorists in custody. I have also noticed that people seem to be very concerned with how we handle the terrorists in custody. I think this probably reflects a belief that the way we handle terrorists in custody has a multiplied effect on the total terrorist population. I would think imprisoning (releasing) terrorists would discourage (encourage) terrorism on a large scale. Maybe that is not true, or maybe there are better ways to discourage terrorism (which I think Tyler was perhaps alluding to).

But we should be careful that whatever we do reduces terrorism for both today and the future. I think it is very dangerous to appease terrorist demands or casually release them. I think that was the point Cliff, Blackadder, Steve Y., and Robin Rhea were trying to make.

Tyler, I would like to hear what you believe about the best way to discourage terrorism. I think your readers are very concerned you have oversimplified the terrorist situation by ignoring its dynamics and concluded us irrational.

mk January 26, 2009 at 4:06 pm

@cliff (above):
Bravo. Just beat me to esentially the same thought. A new 100 terrorists means “newly discovered and identified by us” 100 terrorists…in other words, they have existed for some time, doing their terrorist doings, and we just now came to know about them. Are you, Tyler, saying that is the same as releasing 100 we-know-for-sure-are-pissed-at-us terrorists? Are you kidding me?

zombie_bot January 26, 2009 at 4:21 pm

are you retard? they haven’t been convicted of terrorism, they are not terrorists.

it’s called guilty before proven innocent.

Tyler Cowen January 26, 2009 at 4:43 pm

It’s remarkable how few of you are thinking clearly about this issue.

Pavel January 26, 2009 at 4:51 pm

They seek martyrdom, don’t they? Clean the world from Guantanamo inmates, fulfil their wish. A win-win situation.

The lives of the whole GITMO terrorists aren’t worth life of one innocent humman being. Just shoot them. Seriously.

Phil January 26, 2009 at 5:39 pm

Perhaps part the problem is with the moral hazard aspect. If non-terrorists see that we are willing to let terrorists go, they are more likely to *become* terrorists.

Barbar January 26, 2009 at 5:55 pm

What a bizarre thread. The only thing missing is someone calling out for the death penalty for the 9/11 hijackers, so that we can seriously deter future suicide missions. And maybe someone explicitly suggesting that it would be worthwhile to kill every innocent person wrongly imprisoned in Gitmo, because innocent human life is sacred and we can’t afford to take any chances.

TIm January 26, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Should link your paper on terror as theater. very good.

Anderson January 26, 2009 at 6:49 pm

And maybe someone explicitly suggesting that it would be worthwhile to kill every innocent person wrongly imprisoned in Gitmo, because innocent human life is sacred and we can’t afford to take any chances.

You misseed Pavel upthread; he’s just endorsed that plan.

If economic theory actually endorsed mass murder in cold blood, that would indicate only somethingn wrong with economic theory. But I rather doubt that Pavel et al. have any such reliance.

Tim January 26, 2009 at 8:42 pm

Also, I don’t know how valuable these Gitmo inmates are going to be to Al Qaeda. Bit tortured up, aren’t they? If you think of it that way, then it’s not quite the huge deal to release them we may think it is. And unless some of them are terror geniuses, releasing a couple extras isn’t a big deal really. Fighting terror is an intelligence game, not a catch and kill game, folks.

MW January 26, 2009 at 9:01 pm

To give an abrasive Rush/Hannity point, the world would have been better off without a certain 19 terrorists.

Like someone said, look at each case on its own merits. Ted Bundy might have only killed a minuscule slice of population a year if he wasn’t caught, but that statistic doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to him walking the streets.

jonm January 26, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Whoa! what happened to the other comments?

Barbar January 26, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Economics is about tradeoffs. And yet no one seems to be aware of the tradeoffs involved in the Gitmo case. As I said on the previous page, bizarre.

Jody January 27, 2009 at 12:26 am

Why not apply the same logic to losing money?

After all, if you lose 100 dollars, it’s a pittance in terms of your aggregate cash flow for the year. And dollars are perfectly substitutable for dollars.

Seth January 27, 2009 at 12:41 am

“But a terrorist we release is not obviously worse than a terrorist who was free in the first place.”

That assumes that the methods that led to capture weren’t very good. Locking up any 100 baseball players (Little League to Pro) will not much effect MLB. However, I’m confident I could choose selection criteria that could leave a mark.

MM January 27, 2009 at 2:44 am

“It’s funny how some of you stop thinking on the margin once terrorists are the topic at hand. I said worry *less*, not don’t worry at all.”

With all due respect, I agree with previous sentiments. This is a peculiarly reaching post that would seem to epitomize the meme of the insular ivory tower econ geek (said without intending disparagement) mindset that these days is felt to famously and frequently miss the forest for the trees. While I don’t believe every remaining detainee at Gitmo is a hardened terrorist, and I haven’t seen evidence that the detainees of real concern are simply going to be releasd, I can’t for the life of me get my head around the purpose of this post.

don falcot January 27, 2009 at 4:40 am

The US military “defense” is hiring, the total number of terrorists will absolutely go up. Hopefully the defeat in Afghanistan will cripple the country for good, the world will rejoice.

Anonymous January 27, 2009 at 11:36 am

I think Tyler’s point was more that if we have the evidence, we should try and convict them like any other criminal, and that in the absence of that, releasing a terrorist or two or a dozen back into its natural habitat isn’t going to have a measurable impact on the ecosystem.

If there are thousands or tens of thousands of terrorists in the world actively seeking to blow stuff up, it is unlikely that releasing a few from the lockdown is going to cause some threshold effect that increases the amount of violence we see. The only exceptions I could see would be high-value indivudals like Khalid Sheik Mohammad.

In a perfect world, we would have stuck with the field manual techniques of repoire building with the detainees, so that there is at least some potential upon release that they might not want to blow up American stuff even more than they did prior to capture. That seems unlikely after a regime of enhanced interrogation.

MNPundit January 27, 2009 at 11:45 am

It is hard to think rationally because nature did not create us as rational beings.

Jason January 27, 2009 at 2:58 pm

We are not releasing terrorists.

There are no terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. They are enemy combatants some of whom are suspected terrorists.

They aren’t guilty of being a terrorist until a military tribunal says so.

Superheater January 28, 2009 at 1:06 pm

Student of (Marxist) Economics”

“Superheater, I assume the reason I don’t see you condemning torture, abuse, locking up potentially
innocent people, rendition, bombing civilians and other morally questionable acts
(at least when done by “your” side) is because you think they make you safer.”

Look, troll, these guys weren’t dragged off the street, they were plucked out of other less glamorous places.
In most cases, the chance of potential innocense is zip. Whose morals are you applying? Its always a canard of
the left that there are no objective morals (except when they gin up some visceral indignation)? In any
case, I lost patience with you guys when you couldn’t distinguish between torture and discomfiture.

Torture is what went on at Bataan & Aushwitz and innumerable Soviet gulags. These aren’t innocents being
confined like those taken in the Japanese and Italian (you don’t hear about the Italians, it doesn’t fit
the everything is about race template) internments in World War 2.

I have no sympathy for unlawful combatants. Nor do I countenance morons who think being forced to wear
(your) underwear on your head is torture. If that’s an effective way to obtain the truth, go for it.

Barbar:

“The only thing missing is someone calling out for the death penalty for the 9/11 hijackers.”

Uh, how do you execute the dead?

matt February 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm

First of all, they are not necessarily being released, but potentially relocated to Continental US.

Second of all, some of them may not be actual terrorists.

Third, these are the ones who get caught. IF they ARE terrorists, they certainly aren’t the best of the bunch, cause they got caught, or at least handed over to the US>

Forth, I agree with a commentor above: the fact that we have lots of info on them, makes them easier to track. And could even work to our favor as they lead us back to more important figures. They become unintended plants in a way.

Fifth, Gitmo was causing a lot of ill-will towards the US. IS the cost/benefit of our GWOT and middle east policies really working out in our favor right now?

Sixth, the world is a dangerous place. End of story. We work to eliminate risks. Monitoring and trying suspected terrorists is part of that. But isn’t there some sort of law of diminishing returns or something? And aren’t there more ffective places to focus our attention on risk reduction to a population? Thousands of people die from doctor prescribed drugs, not to mention OTC medicine. If deterrence is really the goal of Gitmo, why don’t we start locking up and torturing doctors hoping that this “deters” future doctors from making mistakes?

I’ve deleted the rest of my comment because I”m getting all “rant-y”. Enjoy the weekend folks, weather seems to be getting nice around these parts, you?

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