Monday, April 29, 2013

The Rat Model of Terrorism

"By gnawing through a dike, even a rat may drown a nation."
  Edmund Burke

Consider the rat. Honed by natural selection, it is superbly adapted to its environment. It prospers in sewers, woods, deserts, plains, jungles (concrete or vegetable) and just about everywhere else.  Its senses guide it through dark, narrow places. It gnaws or wriggles through most barriers. It eats anything and everything. It breeds prodigiously. It learns quickly, from experience and observation. It fights viciously, against other animals and its own kind. Yes, rats die a lot, but that doesn't matter because there are always more rats.

People don't like rats. They carry filth and disease into our homes. They damage our infrastructure, even the most secure. They consume and worse, contaminate, our food.

Now consider the terrorist. Except for their conscious malevolence, what's the difference?
They prosper in environments from mountains to deserts to jungles to cities. They learn, they adapt, they use our technology against us, infesting the Internet just as rats scurry along the girders of our skyscrapers. They breed, in both the biological and the psychological senses. They constantly seek to penetrate the barriers we erect against them, to avoid the traps we design. Yes, they die a lot, but others learn from each failure. There are always more.

Rats are decentralized. There may be many in one nest, but the nests are independent. Destroying one doesn't affect the others; it gives them an opportunity to expand into new territory, bringing their filth, disease and viciousness with them. As Darwin and Nietzsche would predict, whatever doesn't kill them makes them stronger, more adaptable, more vicious. And we can never kill them all.

Like rats, terrorists are decentralized. There is no central command, no secret headquarters. There are nests of violent people in every corner of the world. Wiping out one creates only a temporary respite and, ironically, the opportunity for another nest to expand.

How do people deal with a rat infestation? They protect their food supplies, barricade their buildings, set poison and traps. A farmer or rural homeowner might sit in wait with a rifle, killing as many as become visible, which isn't many. In a city that option isn't available. All of this takes time and resources, and both are limited. Rats have unlimited time and use our resources.

All the options have downsides, too. Traps and poisons kill other, innocuous creatures. Children and the foolish need to be protected from them. Barricades need maintainence. Shooting creates its own problems. Not every bullet goes where intended and in any case the shooter has other things to do. Rats don't. And, of course, in the modern world there are the soft-hearted, who lobby for and legislate the "humane" removal of creatures who would happily eat the soft-hearteds' childrens' faces.

The world's governments are in the position of the farmer or the homeowner. Each tries to buttress their homes, barns, and silos against the infestation. Sometimes they share information and advice, sometimes not, believing that if their neighbor suffers they'll gain a competitive advantage. Some, like the United States, attempt a humane policy. Others (think Russia and China), traditionally and historically brutal, don't mind inflicting collateral suffering and damage. Neither policy is successful.

Ask yourself a question: Given all the rat's evolutionary advantages, why aren't we hip-deep in them? There's an easy answer. Predators. Hawks, owls, foxes, wolves, coyotes, cats large and small, and so forth. As the rats evolved so did the predators. The same eons of natural selection have equipped predators to hunt and kill. It's how they live. Like rats, the predators are decentralized, hunting as individuals or small independent groups. Like rats, they learn quickly and well. And, very importantly, like rats they have nothing else to do.

It would be a mistake to think of predators as our friends. They prey on whatever they can catch most easily. They can be just as dangerous to us as to the rats---more so, if we're easier prey. You can't just drop a predator into an ecosystem, or you're likely to get what happened in Hawaii, where the mongoose was introduced as a way to control the rats infesting sugar cane fields. In another irony, rats were also brought by people, though inadvertently. It's a tossup as to which is now the bigger problem.

The principle applies, though. To control terrorists we need independently operating predators with nothing else to do but kill them. The challenge is predator control. How do you keep the feral cats from eating your free-range chickens, so much tastier and easier to catch than rats?

I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I had any answer. Our current policies are not only ineffective but foolish, the product of self-delusion and wishful thinking. We're not asking the right questions, because we're thinking in terms of either warfare or criminal justice, neither of which applies. We need to ask the questions an ecological model demands or we'll be living with a plague of rats for a very long time.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Jack, Interesting analogy, and you are there is no easy answer. Armies and police are not trained for this kind of vermin. This may be around for long time.


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