Thirteen Years Later
Thirteen years ago I observed in The Three Conjectures that attaining WMDs had the potential to destroy Islam because not only because it might lead to a ruinous exchange between terror groups and the rest of the world but:
Even if Islam killed every non-Muslim on earth they would almost certainly continue to kill each other with their new-found weaponry. Revenge bombings between rival groups and wars between different Islamic factions are the recurring theme of history.
What must have sounded wacko back then seemed a little less implausible yesterday when president Obama warned leaders at the Nuclear Security Summit of "one of the greatest threats to global security - terrorists getting their hands on a weapon of mass destruction." A nuclear attack by terrorists, Obama said, "would change our world."
General Raymond Thomas told the Senate the Pentagon plans to spend a $1 billion to give special forces units the “tools to locate, identify, characterize, assess and attack WMD production and storage facilities with minimal-to-no collateral damage or loss of life,” specifically mentioning a special shaped charge presumably intended to mess up the explosive lens of a notional bomb.
The return of the terror WMD threat comes more than a decade after the press concluded that WMDs didn't exist in Iraq because the the current tooling for it could not be located. Now the administration appears found them after all -- exactly where the Three Conjectures said they would be: inside the mind of man, the imperative of a toxic ideology. This marks a change from the attitude that the WMD danger lay in things, like aluminum tubes. The real danger can be hiding in plain sight; encoded inside hate doctrines preached by radical mosques often sponsored by "American allies".
The problem with trying to control WMDs through things is that even backward countries can now access technology superior to anything available to the Manhattan Project. Department store items are now viable weapons components and one scenario discussed at the nuclear summit supposed the use of hobby drones to spray radioactive material over Western cities.
A strategy of controlling things is hard is because it is so easily overwhelmed by entropy. As Claude Shannon demonstrated entropy also describes the unpredictability of information content. The greater our ignorance of the WMD threat, the greater the entropy associated with it.
In 1949, the entropy associated with arms control was low. With one technology and two atomic powers, all possible outcomes could be represented as a two bit number: 00, 01, 10, 11, representing whether the US and the USSR would not strike (0) or strike (1). One could eliminate all the uncertainty by checking the USSR and the US. Once the status of these two actors was known the entropy (and ignorance) associated with the system was reduced to zero.
In 2016, there are many more powers and WMD technologies and uncertainty has grown. It must be represented by a string of bits so much larger than at the dawn of the nuclear age that checking on any single party no longer reduces uncertainty to zero, only decreases it by some amount. Technology is increasing entropy -- our potential ignorance about the situation -- faster than verification and/or smart diplomacy can reduce it. The fact that North Korea, Iran and Russia skipped Obama's summit means they are outside of his entropy reduction system.
The challenge will only get harder. As Rosa Brooks wrote in Foreign Policy, even modern medicine has become a prime source of lethal technology. "The same breakthroughs that enable personalized cures will also enable personalized afflictions. Picture a rogue scientist crafting a bio-engineered virus that disabled or killed only when it encountered a specific DNA signature — or the DNA signatures of all the close blood relatives of a political leader."
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for this approach would be the emergence of distributed fabrication. The World Economic Forum enthusiastically describes how major Western companies are proliferating advanced fabrication techniques. "In 2012, for example, GE launched its GE Garages initiative, a global program aiming at educating and training the public in the use of additive manufacturing techniques and the industrial internet. The latest, held in March 2015 in Berlin, offered workshops exploring how to 3D print materials with embedded electronics." If entropy depends on controlling things, the State Department is likely to lose the race to GE.
The most promising way to control entropy in complex systems is by exploiting bias. The decision to employ WMDs for most actors is not random but biased, so even a situation involving many countries can be predictable. Civilizational bias reduces the uncertainty to a tolerable level.
if we know the coin is not fair, but comes up heads or tails with probabilities p and q, where p ≠ q, then there is less uncertainty. Every time it is tossed, one side is more likely to come up than the other. The reduced uncertainty is quantified in a lower entropy: on average each toss of the coin delivers less than one full bit of information.
The extreme case is that of a double-headed coin that never comes up tails, or a double-tailed coin that never results in a head. Then there is no uncertainty. The entropy is zero: each toss of the coin delivers no new information as the outcome of each coin toss is always certain.
President Obama got it exactly wrong when he argued in a Washington Post op-ed that "as the only nation ever to use nuclear weapons, the United States has a moral obligation to continue to lead the way in eliminating them." What he should have written instead was "as the only nation ever to refrain from using nuclear weapons gratuitously when it had the monopoly on such weapons, the United States has the moral authority to lead the way in regulating them."
What gives the US moral authority is bias, the improbability of it using nuclear weapons in time of peace. You can be sure the USAF won't nuke Chicago, or Brussels or Kampala tomorrow, even if it physically could, because of civilizational bias. The reason why Obama's unilateral reductions in the American nuclear arsenal as gestures to nuclear disarmament are meaningless is because he's not actually reducing any of the risk. All the danger is on the other side, where the bias goes the other way for aggression, conquest and world domination. That is what he seems unable to reduce.
Despite the large number of combatants involved, the Syrian civil war is quite predictable. (See the chart below showing the perpetrators of civilian deaths in Syria). What drives the system are not the "things" operated by the USAF or the Russian air force but the bias of the Syrian regime for killing people. Bias tells you Assad will kill people tomorrow just as surely as that the USAF won't bomb Paris.
As a practical matter Assad and Saddam, rather than the aluminum tubes, were the WMD programs. If one wants to control the WMD danger, the only chance is to control bias, not things. It is the toxic regimes of MENA and the proliferation of toxic ideologies which most menace the world.
The reason why statements like "Islam is the religion of peace" or "we will never be at war with Islam" are so dangerous is because they ignore bias and reduce the problem to the mere monitoring of things. They put the most important factor of all into the error term. The result is a world of runaway entropy that is more dangerous to everybody, especially to Muslims.
News that Russia has decided to double the number of warheads on its new missiles or that Chinese military wants to put its nukes on hair trigger alert suggest the Obama is losing the fight, that he has gone down the wrong road. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry recently told an interviewer that the chance of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War. A Japanese psychological watershed of sorts may have been crossed yesterday, when the Abe cabinet announced its belief that the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution does not necessarily ban Japan from possessing and using nuclear weapons.
The totalitarian ideologies of MENA, in a deadly synergy with the self-hating nihilism of the West have a created a moment of extraordinary danger. This the problem. The sooner it is recognized the better. Reports of Zoroastrian revival among Kurdish mountain peasants suggests the common folk may have sounder intuition than the Western academic experts. "For the first time in over a thousand years, locals in a rural part of Sulaymaniyah province conducted an ancient ceremony ... The small, ancient religion of Zoroastrianism is being revived in northern Iraq. Followers say locals should join because it’s a truly Kurdish belief. Others say the revival is a reaction to extremist Islam."
These Kurdish peasants instinctively remember what the West has forgotten, that man lives not just in a world of things but of angels and demons. Cultures and belief are not optional extras but the bedrock of survival. They know instinctively that for man to survive he must fight Evil which is real with the aid of the Old Ones, who are also real. Only thus can he change his biases; only thus can he get the better of entropy.
Ironically, information which plays such an important part in modern physics that some scientists think the Cosmos is made of it is unaccountably ignored by Western politicians with their mindless moral equivalences and questionable fund-raising practices. But they will fail just as surely as politicians who lived through the 1940s would have failed if they thought they could maintain peace by controlling the production of Messerschmitts and Heinkels while remaining blind to the spiritual disease of Nazism.
If humanity is to survive the new nuclear age he must rediscover what is worth fighting for and fight for it or else entropy will take it.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
With a whimper and also with a bang.
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