The RAD Index and counterterrorism

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The RAD Index and counterterrorism

As we have often mentioned, five questions must be asked in evaluating every policy or measure. These are:

1. What problem is the policy or measure trying to solve?

2. How can it fail in practice?

3. Given the failure modes, how well does it solve the problem?

4. What are the costs, both financial and social, associated with it, and

flowing from its unintended consequences?

5. Given the effectiveness and costs, is the policy or measure worth it?

Anyone who has gotten on a commercial aircraft in the last half decade recognizes that the problem that most of the visible policies and measures are trying to solve has nothing to do with terrorism. Instead, they are designed to give the impression, through wasteful “security theatre” of something being done. Why do we accept this kind of waste? The best explanation lies in the RAD (Relative Acceptability of Death) Index. The RAD Index says that there is a hierarchy of acceptability among types of deaths. Thus, according to this theory, if your child dies of diphtheria you feel bad. If your child is hit by a drunk driver you feel really bad. If your child is shot and killed you feel really bad with cherries on top.

Judge Richard Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit, speaking on “The Role of Intelligence in Counterterrorism” at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University on 27 November 2006, was quite forthright about this, although he did not refer to the RAD Index by name (no surprise, since we invented it). He noted, in discussing why the same protections offered in most crimes would not be appropriate in prosecuting terrorism that “Well, actually we implicitly draw a very great distinction between ordinary crime and terrorism. So we have 30,000 murders a year and no one bats an eye, right? … We don’t think that 30,000 terrorism deaths a year in the United States would be comparable to 30,000 deaths from ordinary murders.”

ÆGIS, December 2006 9It is not uncommon for people to make emotional decisions that appear counter to their best interests. We remember some time ago watching a decision being made as to whether the National Rifle Association’s Eddie Eagle program should be taught in a school. For those not familiar with the program, it teaches young kids that “If you see a gun: STOP! Don’t Touch. Leave the Area. Tell an Adult.” One mother said that she would rather have her child shot and killed than allow a program by the evil NRA into her school. In the end, the program was rejected. We would certainly hope that this mother did not get her wish, and that her child – and the children of others affected by her application of the RAD Index – will never be shot.

We also recall joining The Society for Technical Communications and receiving our first issue of their magazine. The lead story was on statistics being evil because they shielded the reader from the human suffering that lay behind the numbers. It made us recall the fact that our uncle died as a reaction to a smallpox inoculation many years ago. We are sure that the author of the STC article would have been incensed by our family’s recognition that the statistical benefit of eliminating smallpox far outweighed the personal tragedy that our family faced behind the numbers.

We definitely remember watching from our office window as the second tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, and the smoke that poured out of the wreckage for so long. We also remember that on that day, independent of this horrific event, some 6,800 other Americans died, as they do each day. The tragedy of 9/11 added half again to that figure for that one day. But 6,800 Americans died the next day, and the next, and the next…. The roughly 3,000 deaths attributed directly to 9/11 amounted to slightly more than one tenth of one percent of American deaths in 2001.

The idea that somehow the deaths of those who died at the World Trade Center were more meaningful than those who died elsewhere somehow astonishes us as much as does the idea that we might be less upset if our child died of a childhood disease than we would be if she were shot and killed. Our experience is that dead is dead, and that the living do not mourn based on cause of death, but, rather on the stark absence of their loved ones.

It has been said that money wasted on security theatre – that is to say money spent where the problem being solved is one of giving the impression that something is being done, rather than actually doing something that will actually reduce risk – is money well spent because it make people feel more comfortable. It is still waste. Frankly, if we waste (to pick a figure out of the air) $60 billion that could go to cancer research, or to eradicate other more accessible diseases, or to make sure that every American can read and write and be fully employed, the tradeoff for feeling good does not seem to be a good deal.

With all due respect to Judge Posner, we think that people should make decisions about what liberties they are willing to see abrogated based on actual risk and reward, rather than being based on the RAD Index.

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