Posted by on June 18, 2017


This is the face of terror.  It is three losers from the council estates of East London, wearing fake bomb vests, driving a rented van and wielding kitchen knives.

Cato has a Free Thoughts podcast entitled “What are the Risks of Terrorism?” with John Mueller and Mark Stewart, authors of Chasing Ghosts: The Policing of Terrorism.  The podcast has three themes.

I have often noted that, fortunately for us, terrorists are not nearly as clever as the screenwriters who come up with plots like the first season of Homeland.  Mueller and Stewart make clear that far from being this smart, nearly all terrorists are, in fact, bumbling idiots.  This is hardly surprising given the ideology they profess.  It is also hardly surprising that, in line with a longstanding American tradition of overestimating our enemies, an art form perfected with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, most of our policy makers fail to realize this.

The second theme is the tiny risk posed by terrorism, which is dramatically smaller than many of the dangers we routinely accept in our society, such as driving cars or crossing streets.

The last theme is that the leading cause of terrorism is unquestionably Western policy in the Middle East.  Mueller and Stewart assert this in an offhand manner, it being so obvious to them.  A recent Cato publication makes the same point, quoting a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Trends in Global Terrorism, which found that the war in Iraq was “shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives” and that the war had “become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

How many times do terrorist have to shout something like “This is for Syria,” to quote a recent attacker – with a hammer, although he also had some knives in his backpack – of a French policeman in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral, for us to take them at their word?

The WSJ also reports that, in an article entitled “ISIS Lashes Out as Territory Shrinks,” that ISIS is…well…lashing out with terror attacks as its caliphate shrinks.  Boy, who could have seen that coming?  And the instructions to the faithful are not to explode dirty bombs in the middle of Grand Central Station.  The leaders of ISIS know the limitations of the material they are working with.  A senior spokesman for ISIS had the following recommendations for killing an infidel in a 2014 broadcast to Western supporters:

…then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be: smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.

The same article that provided this quote also notes that the efforts to cut off terrorist funding, including by denying ISIS territory, are largely pointless.  Over 90% of terrorist cells in Europe from 1994 to 2013 were self-funded, often through petty crime.  The recent attacks at the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice (86 dead), the Christmas market in Berlin (12 dead), the London Bridge and Borough Market attack (8 dead) and the attack at the Houses of Parliament (4 dead) have had a maximum cost of the $350 truck rental in Nice.

Now, it is possible that the more sophisticated bombing attack at the concert in Manchester may show a higher degree of centralized training and control.  The jury is still out on this one, but certainly all the other attacks have been rudimentary and independent, despite ISIS’s transparently and pitifully false attempts to take credit for them after the fact.

All of which leads to the obvious question: How is the strategy of defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Al Qaeda in any place – even assuming these are successful, which is far from obvious as the Afghan war will soon see the deployment of soldiers born after it began – going to stop these attacks?  Or is it just going to cause more of them?

…and Religion

Tyler Cowen has recently had two pieces in Marginal Revolution on the existence of God.  One was an explanation of why he is a non-believer and the other was his strongest argument for theism.

I have a lot of respect for Cowen.  He is the leading contemporary embodiment of the economist as one of The Worldly Philosophers.[1]  But he is also prone to mental masturbation.  As the English would say, he is “too clever by half.”

For me, the question of the existence of God is much simpler.  I simply apply the Garden Fairy Standard.

I don’t believe that Garden Fairies exist.  I have never actually seen a Garden Fairy.  I have never heard nor read an account of Garden Fairies from a source I consider reliable.  And there is nothing in my understanding of the cosmos that would require or even allow the existence of Garden Fairies.

Now, I could be a weasel and say that I am agnostic on the existence of Garden Fairies since it is impossible to prove that they don’t exist.  This is strictly true.  However, people have been watching their gardens for thousands of years.   Scientific instruments capable of observing or inferring Garden Fairies have also existed for a long time and there are a great many people who have used them, any one of whom would have gained fame and fortune if he had proven that Garden Fairies exist.  Yet, we have nothing.

Or, as the physicist Victor Stenger kept repeating in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis, at some point the absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence.  Most people reached this point with Garden Fairies some time ago.

I am also struck by the shrinking room for Garden Fairies.  With every advancement in our knowledge, the “Garden Fairies of the gaps” become more unlikely.  Now, it is possible that Garden Fairies lurk in that which remains unexplained.  But given the steady encroachment of science, I think that it is only a matter of time before these last redoubts are mopped up.

So, I am robust in my Garden Fairy atheism.  And I think that a great many religious people would be equally conclusive when it comes to Garden Fairies.  But for some bizarre reason they refuse to apply the same logical and evidentiary rules when it comes to God.  Is this due to a fundamental difference with God?  Or is it that, unlike religion, a belief in Garden Fairies does not benefit from centuries of history, tradition and upbringing?

At this point, you are no doubt wondering why Economic Man has wandered so far hors piste, particularly in a post that started off on terrorism.  The reason is simple: while a belief or disbelief in Garden Fairies, or disputes about their nature, affinities and desires, appear to have no real world consequences, sadly the same cannot be said about religion.

I have quoted the physicist Steven Weinberg before but this cannot be repeated too often:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

And it isn’t just that some religions are bad and some others are harmless stories[2].  Yes, some probably have doctrines that are better or worse than others – I am no expert.  But this is not the essential difference.  The essential difference is that in the Western world, after the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and centuries of other advances, we have largely learned to ignore our religious inheritance.  After all, prior to these intellectual awakenings, our religious leaders certainly had no problem finding heavenly justification for any barbarism they wished to commit.

The Bible proclaims that man was made in God’s image.  In fact, the West has advanced because it has turned this statement on its head: we have created God in our image.  And as we have become more civilized, that image has followed – not led, followed.  Usually after fighting every step of the way.

This is why religious belief is never innocuous.  Evolution tells us that mankind – weak, slow, clawless and toothless mankind – has only survived and advanced through reason and cooperative action.  Anything that works against these factors, that makes us less reasoning and more tribal[3], is fundamentally anti-humanity.  And few things do this as well as religion.  If you don’t believe me, ask the people who were at Borough Market or London Bridge.  At least the ones who are still alive.

Roger Barris

Weybridge, United Kingdom


I Wish That I Had Said That…

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned” by physicist Richard Feynman


[1] The title of a book by Robert Heilbroner.  The book suffers from a terrible left-wing bias, both in terms of the economists featured and the discussion of their work.  But a great title.

[2] Or beneficial, since some people believe that religion is the foundation of morality.  But the empirical evidence points in the opposite direction.  Religious beliefs are associated with higher criminality, greater STDs, greater substance abuse, and a number of other social ills.  This association certainly does not prove causation; in fact, I think that it is likely that religious belief is just another manifestation of an ill-formed temperament.  However, we certainly do not need religion to have morality.  Most of what we consider moral, including such bedrock believes as “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” (a moral belief that is echoed in many cultures), is simply the logical rules that arise from man’s evolved nature as a highly social animal.

[3] I am willing to admit that religion might play a beneficial role in facilitating intra-group cooperation.  However, in the global world in which we currently exist, the intra-group benefits are far outweighed by the extra-group costs.

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6 Comments on "Terrorism…"

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Dave Anderson

It seems to me that the 9/11 attacks are a challenge to your thesis, in that they are seemed sophisticated – simultaneous airliner crashes which caused skyscrapers to collapse – and not obviously a product of US middle east policy.

Fraser Currah
Great article. To me Creation (god) is a consciousness of Light, Love, Creation and Freedom. In my agnostic belief its up to each individual what they do with it: Good or Evil, sadly, as both make this World what it is. One is not surprised at Terrorism when in much of the world we have 25%+ unemployment with many very bored young people. Its time to be creative in our response by teaching them to Fish, rather than chase the elusive dollar We never had these issues when Western Finance in USA was 14% of GDP but now at 40%… Read more »
frank elston

Hello Roger,

Enjoy your blog. Thank you. Are you familiar with the annual Holy Fire at the Church of the Sepulchre on the Saturday before Pascha (Easter)? How would you explain its occurence every year?

kind regards,



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