The mosque killings are why we have game theory. It’s confusing how to respond. No matter what we do, it seems we’re forced into some sin, some morally repugnant action. If we respond aggressively, we seem to be killing as inhumanely as the terrorists. But if we sit back passively, we seem to be giving in to their manipulation, and letting our loved ones get killed.
Game theory gives us a structured method to analyze the dynamics of these decisions.
STATIC V. DYNAMIC
The first lesson game theory teaches is that we must stop thinking one-dimensionally. We have to stop thinking statically. Here’s what I mean. We’re accustomed to considering morality as “Should I do X?” and then we consider whether X is either “good” or “bad.” That works on the idea that actions themselves are good or bad in themselves, and that we consider them in isolation.
Game theory shows that most moral decisions are really strategic (i.e., dynamic). Your action is only good or bad depending on how it interacts with what others are doing.
- If a stranger demands money, giving it to him is a bad decision. But if the stranger holds a gun to your head and giving money is the only way to save your life, the normal circumstances no longer apply. Giving money suddenly becomes the best possible decision.
- If you have a murderer in custody, it would be immoral to release him. But if the murderer’s henchmen take hostages, that changes the good v. bad equation, and it may be the only way to save the hostages. When normal circumstances apply, we wouldn’t do a lot of things. But when normal circumstances no longer apply, we need to adjust what we’re willing to do, to fit the circumstances.
Game theory also teaches that there’s a difference between a one-shot and an iterated series of situations. It’s not enough to consider how to resolve one situation if that resolution affects subsequent situations. In short, if you give in to one kidnapper, you can guarantee that more will follow.
Retaliation can be an emotional response, but it can also be rational. When it’s rational, it tries to deter any future misbehavior by promising damage in return. The hope is that anyone considering misbehavior in the future would have to also include the damage they’d receive in retaliation.
MOVES IN THE GAME
Games are strategic situations in which players have priorities. Each player decides what his highest priority is, and tries to obtain it. But because the results are fixed by what the players do in tandem, you can’t just pursue your highest priority blithely. You have to account for what the other guy is likely to do, by examining his priorities (where you can). Then, instead of pursuing your highest priority, you pursue the highest priority you can expect under the circumstances.
Obviously, if you don’t want the opponent to do X, you make X costly.
Making moves in the game is usually done by attaching consequences to actions you don’t like, and rewards to actions you want to encourage.
The mosque argues that the nutty preacher started it. To try to prevent any future Koran-burnings, the mosque decided to attack and kill UN workers. What’s ridiculous is that the mosque connects the UN to the nutty preacher. Apparently, the mosque treats the entire western world as one single entity. They attacked the UN workers because they considered them as part of the same entity as the nutty preacher. That’s a generalized delusion.
Second, they feel that they acted rationally. The only way to prevent Florida preachers from committing religious atrocities against them is to inflict damage to the west, so that we in the west will think twice before committing any atrocities again. The delusion is that the preacher is part of The West, and that everyone in The West is responsible for him.
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND?
Well, we all know how the Russians would respond. We all know the famous story of terrorists who took a Russian hostage, only to find their family members murdered immediately. The Russians showed no remorse, and the terrorists knew they would do it again at the drop of a hat. The terrorists returned the hostage, and attempted no more games against the Russians again.
From a strictly rational point of view, the Russian response was perfect. They made the action costly.
It offends our American sensibilities to do anything like that. We take it for granted that the family members of criminals are innocent of the crime, so we’d feel immoral to kill them for crimes they weren’t responsible for – even if it would resolve the hostage situation.
However, it does contain the kernel of what we should do. We must make it costly to do what the mosque did. Based on the lesson of iteration, we can’t afford to let this pass. We must respond.
We wouldn't attack the mosque because of our own sensibilities, and because some would fear how the Muslims would react.
- As for our own sensibilities, I believe that morality transcends cultural sensibilities. Morality is rational. This attack by the mosque is a rationally calculated act to "send a message" to the West. We ought to be at least as calculated, if not more, in our reply.
- As for worrying about how the Muslim world would react, it's more important that they worry about how we will react to these atrocities. If cautiousness allows them to get away with murder, what good is caution?
WHAT I WOULD DO
Following Claire, we don’t treat the Muslim world as animals. We assume that they’re rational.
So, I would be very rational about what I’d do. If I was the president, I’d send the planes to bomb the mosque. But I would also notify the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan why we’re doing it, giving a speech the moment the bombs land – so that they can’t prevent it. We are very clearly restricting our response to that mosque, because unlike them, we don’t blame the entire Muslim world for the actions of a selected few. We also don’t condone Koran-burning, and we will do what we can to prevent this from happening again.
But we cannot allow our people to be wantonly murdered. We must respond.
Privately, I’d tell Pakistan and Karzai that I don’t want it to escalate any further. But at the same time, I’d make it clear that if they wanted to escalate it, we’re prepared to respond accordingly. Then I’d give them a little time to blow off steam. Let them issue condemnations at the UN, and feel the irony of telling the UN why they support killing UN workers.
It will likely blow over in a couple weeks. If it doesn’t blow over, then that merely means that the “working relationship” with Karzai and Pakistan isn’t working anyway. But however this plays out, we need to establish that we won’t ignore our people being killed.