Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Neocons and Communism

There are a couple of revealing lines in this post from Calpundit, in which Kevin Drum argues that neoconservatives erred during the Cold War by focusing on Communism so singlemindedly that they occasionally supported Islamic fundamentalists who were (so it was thought) helpful in fighting Communism. Here are the two lines:
The very single-mindedness that neocons are famous for blinded them to the fact that they were contributing to the rise of an even bigger problem, one that had nothing at all to do with communism. * * * [W]ouldn't it be better, instead, to try a cure that hasn't already been proven worse than the disease?
Drum is saying, in short, that Islamic fundamentalism is an "even bigger problem" than Communism.

Hmm. Let's see.

Number of people killed by Communism: Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million people.

Number of people killed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorism: This is a difficult question. It all depends on how broadly you define "terrorism," and how willing you are to blame Islamic fundamentalism for deaths arising from regional/ethnic conflicts or from totalitarian governments in the Middle East. Figure A-1 of the article Measuring Terrorism, by Bruno Frey and Simon Luechinger, plots out data collected by the U.S. Dept. of State (whose latest report on world terrorism you can find here) and by RAND. A liberal estimate would be an average of 500 deaths worldwide per year for the past 20 years -- from all forms of terrorism. Even if you attribute all of these deaths to Islamic terrorists, and then add in another 5,000 deaths for post-2000 years, the total is only 15,000 at most. The bottom line is, you'd have to do some very creative calculating to come up with a figure that was even a thousandth of the death toll from Communism.

So: What makes Kevin Drum think that Islamic fundamentalism is an "even bigger problem" than Communism? Does he simply mean a bigger problem for us Americans? (Communists never killed anyone on American soil, after all.)[1] Or is it that he thinks Islamic fundamentalism will kill many more people in the future before it is played out?

1. One is reminded of the following passage from Chapter 3 of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, in which he suggests that the typical European would be more distraught by the loss of his pinky finger than from the death of 100 million Chinese people:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.


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