My fortune-cookie wisdom for the day

On Sunday afternoon, Dana, Lily, and I were in Copley Square in Boston for a brunch with friends, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Boylston Street.  As I now recall, I was complaining bitterly about a number of things.  First, I’d lost my passport (it’s since been found).  Second, we hadn’t correctly timed Lily’s feedings, making us extremely late for the brunch, and causing Lily to scream hysterically the entire car ride.  Third, parking (and later, locating) our car at the Prudential Center was a logistical nightmare.  Fourth, I’d recently received by email a profoundly silly paper, claiming that one of my results was wrong based on a trivial misunderstanding.  Fifth … well, there were other things that were bothering me, but I don’t remember what they were.

Then the next day, maybe 50 feet from where we’d been, the bombs went off, three innocent human beings lost their lives and many more were rendered permanently disabled.

Drawing appropriate morals is left as an exercise for the reader.

Update (Friday, 7AM): Maybe the moral is that you shouldn’t philosophize while the suspects are still on the loose. Last night (as you can read anywhere else on the web) an MIT police officer was tragically shot and killed in the line of duty, right outside the Stata Center, by one of the marathon bombers (who turn out to be brothers from Chechnya). After a busy night—which also included robbing a 7-Eleven (visiting a 7-Eleven that was coincidentally also robbed—no novelist could make this stuff up), carjacking a Mercedes two blocks from my apartment, and randomly throwing some more pressure-cooker bombs—one of the brothers was killed; the other one escaped to Watertown. A massive hunt for him is now underway. MIT is completely closed today, as is Harvard and pretty much every other university in the area—and now, it seems, all stores and businesses in the entire Boston area. The streets are mostly deserted except for police vehicles. As for us, we heard the sirens through much of the night, but didn’t know what they were about until this morning. Here’s hoping they catch the second asshole soon.

Another Update (Friday, 9AM): As the sorry details emerge about these Tsarnaev brothers, it occurs to me that there’s another moral we can draw: namely, we can remind ourselves that the Hollywood image of the evil criminal genius is almost entirely a myth. Yes, evil and genius have occasionally been found in the same person (as with a few of the Nazi scientists), but it’s evil and stupidity that are the far more natural allies. Which is the most optimistic statement I can think to make right now about the future of the human race.

Yet More Updates (Friday, 3PM): The whole Boston area is basically a ghost town now, with the streets empty on a beautiful spring day and the sound of helicopters filling the air.  I was just up on my roofdeck to watch, and never saw anything like it.  I can’t help thinking that it sets a terrible precedent to give a couple doofus amateur terrorists the power to shut down an entire metropolitan area.  Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan points to a spectacularly stupid tweet by one Nate Bell:

I wonder how many Boston liberals spent the night cowering in their homes wishing they had an AR-15 with a hi-capacity magazine?

This sounds like a gun nut projecting his own disturbed psychology onto other people.  I’m not actually scared, but if I was, owning a gun would do nothing whatsoever to make me less scared (quite the contrary).  What would make me think I could win a gunfight against a frothing lunatic—or that I’d want to find out?  When it comes to violence, the only thing that calms my nerves is a democratic state having a near-monopoly on it.

What else?  It was chilling to watch the Tsarnaev brothers’ aunt, the one in Toronto, babble incoherently on TV about how wonderful her nephews were (a striking contrast to the remorseful uncle in Maryland).  If it emerges that anyone else in this family (including the parents, or the older brother’s wife) had any foreknowledge about the killing spree, then I very much hope they’ll face justice as well.

In other news, Lily had an eventful day too: she finally figured out how to squeeze her toy ball with her hands.

76 Responses to “My fortune-cookie wisdom for the day”

  1. Nex Says:

    That life is a pointless chain of random events? That you should be happy cause others have it much worse? That kids suck?

  2. wolfgang Says:

    >> parking (and later, locating) our car at the Prudential Center was a logistical nightmare

    … that memorizing level and row # in a parking garage reduces the difficulty of locating your car later on ?

  3. Scott Says:

    wolfgang: Even better than memorizing the row number, I’d emailed it to myself and taken a photo of where the car was — and it was still a nightmare! If you ever park at the Prudential Center: there’s a “blue level” and a “green level”, which have exactly the same numbers, but are not the same and are very difficult to reach from one another. Take an elevator from the green level, and it won’t even stop at the blue level. After wandering around for an hour, you might finally find an attendant to ask directions.

  4. Vadim Says:

    The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. There is no stopping in the red zone.

  5. John Sidles Says:

    Scott declares “Three innocent human beings lost their lives and many more were rendered permanently disabled.” [emphasis added]

    Surely, all researchers who are sufficiently optimistic to foresee that someday scalable quantum error correction will be feasible, are rationally justified to foresee that someday scalable biological regeneration will be feasible. And so perhaps the word “permanently” is inessential.

    Which capacity will be realized first? Here reasonable assessments may differ … while agreeing that both capacities will press against quantum limits to sensing, estimation, and control … and both capabilities will press too, against the limits of our collective human capacity to create healing and hope, in sufficient abundance and scope, as in the long run — albeit perhaps the very long run — to over-match destruction and despair.

    Conclusion  In the end, the bomb-setters won’t win.

  6. Chris Says:

    sobering stuff. my heart goes out to all the victims. truly awful that this sort of thing goes on in the world. on a more pleasant note my copy of your book arrived this afternoon 🙂

  7. William Hird Says:

    Back in the 70’s there was a very funny comic named Dick Shawn who used to appear occasionally on the Johnny Carson Show. He was a story-teller comedian in the same vein as Bill Cosby or Allan King. One night at the end of one of his humorous diatribes, I forget the jist of the story but the punchline was rather memorable: Who is the greatest entertainer of all time? If you are of spiritual inclination, the answer is of course God. If you are an atheist, you’re stuck with Sammy Davis Jr.

  8. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    The moral is that whenever you kvetch, a lot of trouble comes. And good grief, the mayhem just keeps escalating!

    Just keep yourselves and especially Lily safe. She’ll be essential for the post-apocalyptic civilization.

  9. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    I’ve been following the news on the internet. Stay safe.

  10. wolfgang Says:

    >> Here’s hoping they catch the second asshole soon
    Yes! And let’s hope there are not more of them …

  11. Michael Bacon Says:

    There’s no guaranty that goodness and intelligence will ultimately prevail — mistakes can be made and calamities can occur — but evil and stupidity certainly don’t have any natural advantages. Best wishes to everyone in Boston.

  12. Henning Dekant Says:

    Scott, can’t even beging to imagine how distressing this must be, having to be exposed to a situation like this while caring for your baby daughter. I’d probably be besides myself.

    Wolfgang #10, in the larger scheme of things I find the “more of them” is the scariest aspect. These killer kids (and the one at large is hardly more than a kid) lived in the US for a decade, had good education and seemingly great prospects.

    What the heck resulted in them turning into killers? And how can you detect this radicalization, and intervene before people get hurt?

    It’s also not a phenomenon unique to the US. Here in Canada a couple of kids from London, ON travelled to Morocco and took part in a deadly attack on the largest oil refinery there. One of them didn’t even have an Islamic background, but started out greek-orthodox.

    It just doesn’t make any sense.

  13. Andris Says:

    Stay safe. I hope they catch the second brother (and whoever else has been working together with them) very soon, so that this nightmare is over.

  14. rationalist Says:

    I disagree with scott about the utility of having a gun; now that there is an armed killer with very little to lose in your city, it would probably be good to have one.

    I mean you might lose a gunfight against this guy, but you would *definitely* lose a gun-vs-fist fight.

    However, the other 99.9% of the time, the gun would pose more risk than benefit. So, just this once, you should swallow your mood affiliation and agree with the right wing wingnut.

  15. Scott Says:

    rationalist #14: Bell was speculating about the subjective feelings of “Boston liberals” right now. To disagree with him, all I need to do is point out that my own subjective feelings are glaringly different from what he hopes they would be. (And I do think subjective feelings are the issue: even with an evil killer on the loose, in a metropolitan area of ~2 million people, the probability of a gun protecting me from that killer is way too tiny to be worth the risks. So perhaps the only remaining question is whether a gun would make me feel safer. And it wouldn’t—not even a little.)

  16. Henning Dekant Says:

    Scott #14, although the subject is the subjective mood, as far as I know hard data also shows that confrontations with criminals are more likely to become deadly when the victims have a gun as well. I.e. case in point: The terrorists did not kill the unarmed driver of the car they hijacked yesterday.

  17. gasarch Says:

    Ann Coulter:

    Its too bad suspect No. 1 won’t be able to be
    legalize by Mario Rubio now.

    Inappropriate AND stupid (the Immigration bill does not make
    it that easy to be a citizen).

  18. Henning Dekant Says:

    gasarch #17 was just a matter of time until the right wingers made this absurd connection. They will of course run with it. Also expect the line about the “liberals in Boston wishing for a gun” to get played over and over.

    For these water carriers any national tragedy is an opportunity.

  19. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Close call. If rain had washed the blood off of the boat, and if Tsarnaev had then died in the boat, it would have been a PITA for Boston for a much longer period of time.

  20. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    On the other hand, I’m willing to cut his aunt and his other relatives some slack. Imagine that your nephew, perhaps a nephew you knew and thought that you trusted, were accused of a similar terrorist act in Russia. What would you think? Here is what I’d be very tempted to think: “This can’t be happening. He must have been framed somehow. Or maybe he got caught up in some terrible business, but how can it possibly be as bad as it looks?” Which is similar to what their father and aunt have actually said.

    Of course, the US has a much more honest law enforcement system than Russia does. Even so, it’s emotionally extremely difficult to trust any government, especially if you’re a foreigner, to tell you that your close relatives are guilty of some colossal evil.

    Besides, this aunt in Toronto may have liked Tamerlan and/or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but she didn’t live with them. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s American-born wife did live with her husband at least some of the time. She apparently has better intuition about the situation and hasn’t talked to journalists, save for one careful press release. Which makes her better than his hysterical aunt. But while she probably is innocent, she might have neglected some ominous evidence that was not available to other people.

  21. rationalist Says:

    @Scott: It’s good that this is all over and you and your family are safe.

    However, just to play devil’s advocate, I wonder at what level of actual risk a gun makes a person of a given political persuasion feel safer. For example, what if you lived in Watertown? If there were 50 terrorists? If they had shot more random people?
    Conversely, what level of real safety would persuade a die-hard gun lover to give up their guns? (I suspect basically none

  22. Scott Says:

    rationalist #21: If I’d lived in Watertown, I hope I would’ve been somewhat reassured by the hundreds of police officers, FBI, etc. swarming through my neighborhood! I feel confident that even then, I wouldn’t have felt the slightest desire for a gun.

    Now, what if I’d lived in Watertown and there were also 50 terrorists there, and they were all on shooting sprees, and the police were powerless to stop them? Even then, my first instinct would not be to reach for a gun: it would be to get the hell out of Watertown! 🙂

    And what if there were no place to escape to? What if I were in the middle of war-torn Somalia, or Nazi Germany? In those cases, yes, I suppose I would want a gun.

  23. Henning Dekant Says:

    Scott #22, in the middle of Nazi Germany, getting the hell out (while still possible) was also the right idea. On the other hand, if escape was out of the question, taking a last stand, like the brave Warsaw ghetto fighters, is the way to go – although ultimately futile.

    Maybe if NRA nuts knew anything about history, they’d realize that the notion that holding on to guns can somehow keep the government in check, is abjectly absurd. As if small arms stand a chance against a high tech army.

  24. Scott Says:

    Henning #23: Yes, thanks for correcting that omission! Even in Nazi Germany or war-torn Somalia, my first priority would obviously be to get out (and, if possible, get my friends out). I’d only want a gun as a means of helping me do that (or maybe for going down in a blaze of glory if I couldn’t).

  25. Raoul Ohio Says:

    There are all manner of nuts tweeting and writing letters to the editor, etc. They are mainly @$$holes seeking attention. If you read them and get upset — they win. I try not to even read them unless I am looking for some laughs.

  26. Somebody Says:

    The argument of the gun advoates is clearly idiotic: I could use the same (similar) argument to claim that one should always carry around scuba diving equipments so as to escape falling off into the deep sea. It is however not a bit surprising. A powerful lobby whether it is corporate entity or a religious organisations, makes such absurd claims not because they do not understand the absurdity, but because they think they can get away with it. The unfortunate situation is that the are often
    right on the latter.

  27. Rahul Says:

    It was chilling to watch the Tsarnaev brothers’ aunt, the one in Toronto, babble incoherently on TV about how wonderful her nephews were. If it emerges that anyone else in this family (including the parents, or the older brother’s wife) had any foreknowledge about the killing spree, then I very much hope they’ll face justice as well.

    That’s fine as a emotional response but what’s the legal position on this? Is there a requirement to be a good Samaritan? So long as the aunt didn’t harbor criminals after the crime is there any legal requirement that compels one to report evil plans?

    I doubt so. Again, it’s reprehensible on moral grounds but is it culpable on legal principles? I rather hope the family doesn’t suffer any misfortunate witch hunts or vigilante assaults.

  28. heinera Says:

    Somebody #26:

    Or that we should all own a gorilla…:,30860/?ref=auto

  29. Scott Says:

    Rahul #27: IANAL. If any lawyers are reading this, it would be interesting to get their perspective on what someone who knows about an impending terrorist attack being planned by someone close to them and fails to report it can be charged with: “misprision of felony”?

    I do know that in 1953, Ethel Rosenberg was given the death penalty for basically just being around while her husband Julius was passing atomic secrets to the USSR and quietly supporting him.

    Were I ruler of the world, I’d probably decree life imprisonment for non-reporting of a known, impending terrorist attack. (It occurs to me that a pretty large percentage of my thoughts begin with the clause, “Were I ruler of the world…” 🙂 )

  30. Scott Says:

    OK, here’s one way to think about it. In primitive justice systems, the family of a perpetrator might routinely be punished along with the perpetrator himself. This system is probably brutally effective at deterring crime. Indeed for some kinds of criminals, like jihadis, it might be the only thing that could possibly deter them. When Osama bin Laden planned the murder of 3000 men, women, and children, he did so secure in the knowledge that, regardless of what might eventually happen to him, his four wives and numerous children would be perfectly fine. Does that thought not nauseate you—at least a little?

    Of course, in modern liberal justice systems, we very rightly reject the concept of collective retribution. We ask: on reflection, what sort of culpability could Osama’s children possibly have for their father’s crimes? But it seems to me that, in return for giving up our primitive retributive instincts, the least we can ask is that the family members explicitly condemn their relative’s crime and express remorse to the victims (as the Tsarnaevs’ Maryland uncle did), rather than (let’s say) celebrating the crime, or worse yet, knowing about the crime in advance and failing to alert authorities. To whatever extent they do the latter, I personally—in my hypothetical position as ruler of the world—would be happy to bring back the ancient concept of familial guilt.

  31. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    Scott, I have to disagree. We should only hold people legally responsibility for such crimes if they either had foreknowledge upon which the could reasonably have acted, but didn’t, or who gave support to fugitives. Merely failing to denounce someone isn’t and shouldn’t be a criminal offense. It’s disgusting, but there are lots of people who are not relatives of the bombers who will no doubt celebrate the attacks, but if we allow that in the name of freedom of speech, then familial ties to the bombers should not make any difference. People shouldn’t be guilty merely by association.

    I am absolutely disgusted by the events of the last week, but there is a danger in rushing to attribute blame to others without a proper investigation.

  32. Ilya Shpitser Says:

    Scott that’s a surprisingly reactionary view, given your views on other matters. Does it then follow that you would be prepared to hold Palestinians responsible who danced in the streets after 9/11?

  33. the reader from Istanbul Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Please don’t go that way. That is how principles erode. The one thing that most non-Westerners still admire about the West is the value system; things like presumption of innocence, equality before the law, no punishment without due process, etc. These principles, if they are principles, should be valid for Palestinians, OBL, the Boston brothers, as well as everyone else. If different approaches are taken when the victims are Pakistani children killed by drones, as opposed to Americans or Israelis, that one good thing about the West is lost. It is fading every day.

  34. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – The concept of family punishment for an individual crime makes a small amount of primitive sense, when extended families live together as sub-societies and local government is weak and has no power to investigate specific guilt. But that type of blame is still largely built into the justice system when it makes any sense. For instance, the spouse of a criminal can sometimes be charged as an accomplice for failing to report sufficiently evil activity.

    Beyond that, it is a cheap victory to extract condemnations from a relative. In the Tsarnaev case, one reason that some of their relatives condemn them so easily is that those relatives already saw the bombers and their dad as the black sheep of the family and had no control over them anyway. Some of their spite might not even be completely fair. It looks so far like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was put up to it by his unstable older brother, and that he was a decent guy when he was away from his diseased home environment.

    Just in general, it’s better to recognize that people have a right to their own opinions, and that what you really want from their is their cooperation. For comparison consider the case of Ted and David Kaczynski. David Kaczynski turned his own brother into the police, soon after he realized that the Unabomber manifesto read like his brother had written it. The authorities eventually betrayed their promise to David that they would not seek the death penalty. They took David Kaczynski’s material cooperation for granted, and found contempt for his opinion that his brother deserved sympathy of any kind and that he deserved to live. Fortunately, and to the chagrin of the hangman judge, Ted Kaczynski’s lawyer saved his client’s life with a plea bargain.

    If that is how the system treats relatives, then what it will get from them in the long term is neither apologies — except insincere ones — nor cooperation.

  35. John Sidles Says:

    Please allow me to commend the remarks of “reader from Instanbul” (#33), and to extend them as follows.

    A great many of the trauma surgeons that I work with have served multiple tours-of-duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these surgeons have become all-too-practiced in treating violent trauma in its most horrendous forms.

    Their medical conduct is strictly governed by a code of ethics that is starkly simple: there is only one standard of medical care, which encompasses all patients, and that is to provide the very best medical care feasible.

    Around the world, and not just for many centuries, but for many millennia, this unbending code of medical ethics has been embraced — passionately and whole-heartedly — by the greatest physicians of every culture and religion.

    From humanity’s long-cherished code of universal medical justice, what other forms of justice follow naturally? As it seems to me, nearly all of forms of justice can grow from medical justice in principle (the practice often falling short, needless to say). None-the-less, history shows us plainly that medical justice provides an enduring fertile soil from which other forms of justice have perennially grown.

    In this regard, please allow me to commend to Shtetl Optimized readers both this summer’s QStart Conference in Jerusalem (which I hope to attend), and the mission statement of that city’s outstanding Hadassah Teaching Hospital of Jerusalem:

    Hadassah Medical Organization is also a bridge to peace. It forges links between patients of all nationalities, races and religion who come to its doors for healing.

    We may similarly hope, that the STEM research catalyzed by QSTART, will in coming years similarly help build bridges to an enduring peace for coming generations.

    Because absent this bridge-building, what’s the point? The sole alternative (in the long run) is terror wins. Fortunately (as it seems to me) we do not have to let that happen.


    PS  Posts regarding Hadassah Hospital’s ongoing budgetary woes (woes that are shared by teaching-and-research hospitals around the world) will be blithely ignored, because as readers of Shtetl Optimized appreciate, neither teaching nor research nor medical care — nor any of the elemental constituents of human progress and justice — come cheaply or easily!

  36. Scott Says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your interesting comments!

    Joe #31: I do think there’s one fact about close relatives that differentiates them from random people exercising their free-speech rights. Namely, it very often happens that the welfare of family is the only thing a potential perpetrator cares about more than his own welfare, and that negative consequences to his family are the only thing that could possibly deter him from crime. Having said that, I agree on reflection that it would be extremely hard to design a reasonable legal system that punished parents, for example, “merely” for gloating about their son the suicide bomber—if the parents didn’t have foreknowledge about the crime. On the other hand, if the parents (or other relatives) did have foreknowledge, and failed to act, then I would support punishing them even more severely than some random person who had foreknowledge and failed to act.

    Ilya #32: I’d say that the Palestinians who danced in the streets on 9/11 accrued a great deal of moral guilt, and the large percentage of Palestinians who say in surveys that they favor terrorism might be relevant to various political questions. But no, consistent with my answer above, I can’t think of any practicable legal system under which they could be charged with anything “merely” for dancing in the streets.

    Reader from Istanbul #33: I don’t see a shadow of a hint in what I said that Americans or Israelis should be treated differently by justice systems than Pakistanis, Palestinians, or anyone else! That seems like an orthogonal question to the question of familial responsibility, and my answer to it is an unequivocal “no”.

    Greg #34: The question about the Unabomber is an interesting but very different one. I completely agree with you that, in return for David Kaczynski’s cooperation, the government should have honored its deal with him not to give his brother the death penalty—as, I guess, it ultimately did.

    From what I’ve read about the Tsarnaev case, I’m skeptical of the idea that Dzhokhar was a mere puppet of his brother and a normal, reasonable kid otherwise. After he’d helped his brother kill and maim a bunch of innocent people, Dzhokhar doesn’t seem to have experienced any of the regrets a “mere dupe” would have. Instead, he went back to his dorm at UMass Dartmouth, partied, and left callous Twitter posts. And after his brother was killed, Dzhokhar didn’t turn himself in, but rather (with breathtaking stupidity) tried to run away, and shot at the police when they tried to apprehend him. I fully support the death penalty for Dzhokhar.

  37. Rahul Says:

    Scott #29 #30:

    I have to totally disagree with your opinion. Joe Fitzsimons, Greg Kuperberg etc. have given good arguments.

    I can only quote Franklin:

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    Your view is a scary thought and a slippery slope and I’d rather not slide down it. Overall, I’m glad your ruling us is only hypothetical. 🙂

  38. Rahul Says:


    Another question would be whether you’d penalize foreknowledge and lack of action only for terrorism? What about more run of the mill crimes. If I know my brother plans on murdering someone am I obligated to report it?

    What if it wasn’t murder; merely assault? Or a burglary. How far would you go at mandating vicarious legal responsibility?

  39. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – No, I don’t think that Dzhokhar was anything like a puppet of his older brother. That’s not really what I meant when I said that his brother had put him up to it. What I meant was that his brother corrupted him. 19-year-olds often do fall under the spell of live-in relatives, for good or bad. Besides, without the possibility that relatives might corrupt each other, the whole concept of collectively blaming a family would make a lot less sense. On the other hand, now that the brother is both reviled and killed, the condition is probably reversible. I don’t see that Dzhokhar has any long-term basis to justify any of his crimes.

    As for the death penalty, it’s very possible that the first person to endorse that outcome is Dzhokhar himself. He has a bullet wound in his upper throat, and one conjecture is that he tried to kill himself and climbed into the boat to die. I do not see any real moral or practical value in killing criminals who have already tried to kill themselves. I don’t even see the moral value in the case of war criminals, although in that case there could be some practical value; in any case Dzhokhar Tsarnaev isn’t really a war criminal.

  40. Scott Says:

    Rahul #38: Yes, absolutely, 200%! If your brother was planning on murder, assault, or burglary, and you knew about it but failed to report it, then I would want to charge you with a crime as well (as, indeed, some but not all legal systems do today).

    On the other hand, I’d let you off if you merely had foreknowledge that your brother was planning to smoke some pot, or exceed a posted speed limit. 🙂 (Indeed for the first of those, I wouldn’t prosecute your brother either.)

  41. wolfgang Says:

    @reader from Istanbul

    >> that one good thing about the West

    You are obviously using the internet and I assume a lot of other inventions as well. So I guess on 2nd thought you would agree that there is more than one good thing about ‘the West’.


    >> it’s evil and stupidity that are the far more natural allies

    there was an article about that a while ago

  42. Scott Says:

    wolfgang #41: That’s a phenomenal article—thanks for pointing me to it!

    It reminds me of the story of the failed suicide bomber who, when he recovered consciousness, had to be slowly convinced that he was in a hospital room in Israel, rather than in heaven awaiting his 72 virgins. (“If this were really heaven, would we be speaking Hebrew?”) Apparently some suicide bombers have also worn special flame-retardant coverings over their penises, expecting the latter to be needed shortly.

  43. the reader from Istanbul Says:

    wolfgang #41:

    Yes, I have access to the Internet and many other inventions in my country. What (for instance) my country lacks is the kind of supposedly Western stuff like presumption of innocence, etc. that I mentioned in my earlier post.

  44. Scott Says:

    Greg #39: If Dzhokhar had been trying to kill himself, then why wouldn’t he have succeeded, given how much firepower he apparently had? More to the point, why would he have taken such pains to run away and hide? And why would he have shot at the police from the “safety” of the boat, rather than running toward them with guns blazing in a suicide operation?

    It seems to me that everything about these brothers’ behavior becomes fully explicable if we adopt three simple hypotheses: that they were
    (a) evil,
    (b) cowardly (in wanting to face no consequences for their actions), and
    (c) phenomenally stupid (in expecting to face no consequences).

  45. the reader from Istanbul Says:

    BTW, having read the article shared by wolfgang #41, one would hope that that sophisticated technology allowing the US to see those al Qaeda morons having sex with donkeys would help avert those drones massacring great numbers of children by mistake.

  46. Scott Says:

    Ilya Shpitser #32:

      Scott that’s a surprisingly reactionary view, given your views on other matters.

    I suppose the truth is that I’m not “really” a liberal! Basically, I like individual liberty and democracy and freedom of speech, math and science and technology and the other glories of civilization, protecting the environment and biodiversity, and justice (including the punishing of evildoers as an intrinsic good). I dislike crime, anarchy, magical thinking, fanaticism and pseudoscience, people who want to impose theocracies on the world, people who want to kill as many innocents as possible, people who consider the destruction of the world an unimportant “externality,” people who agree that the former types of people are bad but don’t want to do anything to stop them, and people who say that everything is relative so the so-called “bad” people are neither better nor worse than anyone else. And these preferences cause me to form alliances of convenience with the left on many or most issues, but alliances with the right on a few issues.

  47. Scott Says:

    reader from Istanbul #45: I’m glad we completely agree about something!

  48. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Scott – Sure, it was all evil, cowardly, crazy, and stupid. No quarrel there. But the fact is that Dzhokhar has a serious gunshot wound in his throat, and it looks like it was a suicide attempt. Actually they don’t know when he was shot in the throat; it may have been when the police had found him there. But even without that step, he was already slowly bleeding to death from his leg wounds. He had no particular escape plan at that point other than to die of his injuries.

    One way or another death became his final means of escape, if you like his final avenue of cowardice. It stands to reason that it would be both morally and practically meaningless (at best) to execute him.

  49. John Sidles Says:

    Scott claims “Everything about these brothers’ behavior becomes fully explicable if we adopt three simple hypotheses: that they were (a) evil, (b) cowardly (in wanting to face no consequences for their actions), and (c) phenomenally stupid (in expecting to face no consequences).”

    Readers of Shtetl Optimized desirous of a broader contextual understanding may wish to consult the readable account of Afsar, Samples, and Wood in The Taliban: an Organizational Analysis (Military Review, May-June 2008).

    The USMC Commandant’s Professional Reading List (2013) is a constantly-updated distillation of works that the Corps considers to be timely and valuable.

    New on this year’s Commandant’s List — and much-read at all USMC ranks — is Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: A Novel Of The Vietnam War, which is an extended retrospective meditation upon the giving and receiving of violence, in an harrowing account that places particular analytic emphasis upon principles that are universal across cultures, decades, and wars.

    For some purposes (which ones?) the simple worldview of Scott’s #39 suffices: “Our enemies are (a) evil, (b) cowardly, and (c) phenomenally stupid.” And yet, it is notable that the same young men and women whom we ask to fight (and sometimes die) on our behalf, are carefully helped to a more sophisticated and integrative understanding, before we send them forth.

    Perhaps if more citizens (around the world) took the trouble to acquire a comparably enriched appreciation, a lesser fraction of the world’s young people would be asked to fight and die?

    This possibility is worth thinking about.

  50. Scott Says:

    John Sidles #49: I didn’t say that all enemies of the United States are evil, stupid, and cowardly—only that these two were!

    Mohammed Atta was thoroughly evil, but not cowardly, and stupid only in certain respects (e.g. wrong estimate of E[# of virgins|martyrdom]). Osama bin Laden was evil and cowardly but not stupid.

  51. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I have to agree Scott’s comment #46, even though I don’t agree with him about the death penalty. Just like Scott, I am not liberal just for the sake of being liberal. I’m liberal when I think that it makes sense, conservative when I think that it makes sense, and neither when I think that neither make sense. It just so happens that the political center has been destroyed in national American politics lately. I can’t rationally straddle both sides, and the liberal side *in national American politics specifically and not in all contexts*, looks more correct.

    That said, I have slowly, with exceptions, gotten more liberal over time. It’s partly a reaction to national American politics, but I concede that it may be the natural direction of my moral compass.

  52. A Conservative TCSer Says:

    The remark against gun control is obviously silly. But not more than the conscious attempt of many liberal media outlets to minimize and even hide the fact that the terrorists are Muslim and were driven by Jihadist motivations.

  53. John Sidles Says:

    A Conservative TCSer deplores  “The conscious attempt of many liberal media outlets to minimize and even hide the fact that the terrorists are Muslim and were driven by Jihadist motivations.”

    Conservative TCSer, few features of our modern era are more deplorably ubiquitous — or more harmful to the polity upon which democracies depend — than the sustainment of informatic “bubbles,” which afford a protected habitat for every kind of irrational and/or violent and/or authoritarian jihadist cognition (in both the real and figurative senses of the word “jihad”). Already it is becoming evident that the Marathon Bombing terrorists received indoctrination within precisely such an ideology-first “bubble.”

    What is the proper reaction of the scientific community? In this regard, please allow me to commend the work of Martin McKee and Pascal Diethelm, and in particular their survey articles “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” (European Journal of Public Health, 2010) and “How the growth of denialism undermines public health” (British Medical Journal, 2010). From the latter work the following summary table has been excerpted:


    (1) Identification of conspiracies   Denialists argue that scientific consensus arises not as a result of independent researchers converging on the same view but instead because researchers have engaged in a complex and secretive conspiracy. They are depicted as using the peer review process to suppress dissent rather than fulfil its legitimate role of excluding work that is devoid of evidence or logical thought.

    (2) Use of fake experts   It is rarely difficult to find individuals who purport to be experts on some topic but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge. The tobacco industry coined the term “Whitecoats” for those scientists who were willing to advance its policies regardless of the growing scientific evidence on the harms of smoking.

    (3) Selectivity of citation   Any paper, no matter how methodologically flawed, that challenges the dominant consensus is promoted extensively by denialists, whereas any minor weaknesses in papers that support the dominant position are highlighted and used to discredit their messages.

    (4) Creation of impossible expectations of research   This may involve corporate bodies sponsoring methodological workshops that espouse standards in research that are so high as to be unattainable in practice.

    (5) Misrepresentation and logical fallacies   An extreme example of this characteristic is the phenomenon of reductio ad hitlerum, in which anything that Hitler supported (especially restrictions on tobacco) is tainted by association. Other methods of misrepresentation include using “red herrings” (deliberate attempts to divert attention from what is important), “straw men” (misrepresentation of an opposing view so as to make it easier to attack), false analogies (for example, because both a watch and the universe are extremely complex, the universe must have been made by some cosmic watchmaker), and excluded middle fallacies (in which the “correct” answer is presented as one of two extremes, with no middle way. Thus, passive smoking causes either all forms of cancer or none, and as it can be shown not to cause some it must, it is argued, cause none).

    (6) Manufacture of doubt   Denialists highlight any scientific disagreement (whether real or imagined) as evidence that the entire topic is contested, and argue that it is thus premature to take action.

    In themselves, the cognitive practices of denialism serve the eminently useful political objectives of unifying insular communities, and distilling dogmatic ideologies, by inducing the (seductively attractive!) mob thinking that the scientific community has deplored since the beginning of the Enlightenment.

    Yet in recent decades, as scientists learn more-and-more about the cognitive processes of mass murderers of every ideological persuation, it has become more-and-more strikingly evident, that the practices of denialism provide essential foundations in self-justifying ignorance, within which humanity’s most murderous impulses (both individual and collective) gain strength unimpeded.

    Conclusion  By recognizing, analyzing, rejecting, and publicly denouncing the distinctive cognitive practices of denialism, individual scientists — and thereby the scientific community as a whole — can concretely help to deny terrorism its most fertile breeding-grounds.

  54. ramsey Says:

    Rahul #27, and related questions about charging family members:

    I believe that someone with knowledge of an imminent crime who fails to report it can be charged as an accessory to the crime. However, this is difficult to prove, since the person needs to have concrete knowledge of the crime. Harboring suspicions would not suffice.

  55. Rahul Says:

    What’s this further idea being spouted in the media of declaring him as enemy combatant to deny him due process? This really is turning out to be a slippery slope. First circumventing his Miranda rights and now this? For whatever it’s worth they are citizens! (even if evil citizens)

    I hope these underhand tactics get the condemnation they deserve. The safeguards of the criminal justice edifice shouldn’t be sidelined at will.

    I hope, Scott you don’t support these strategies as well in the quest for safety and retribution?

  56. Rahul Says:

    @A Conservative TCSer #52

    “They grew up in the USA, their views and convictions were formed there. The roots should be looked for in America.”

    I will leave the source anonymous so as not to bias the message.

  57. Scott Says:

    Rahul and conservative TCSer:

    It seems obvious, from what we know, that the Tsarnaevs were motivated by Jihadist ideology (some of which came to them in the form of YouTube videos by radical imams). I don’t have the slightest hesitation in saying that. No doubt the ideology got mixed with their own private alienation and rage and sense of loserdom, but that’s probably the case for most if not all Jihadist terrorists.

    No, I don’t see any reason why Dzhokhar should be tried as an enemy combatant. Our domestic court system seems perfectly sufficient.

  58. Rahul Says:

    Scott #57

    No arguments about that! I’m no fan of the Jihadists either.

    Though what could be done to constructively change anything I don’t know….

  59. Faibsz Says:

    Harvard historian Richard Pipes has some interesting and relevant insights about the mind of a terrorist in his fascinating little book “The Degaev Affair: Terror and Treason in Tsarist Russia”.
    In case someone decides to buy and read it, I won’t tell you what Sergei Degaev’s job was after he escaped to the US.

  60. Ilya Shpitser Says:


    “But no, consistent with my answer above, I can’t think of any practicable legal system under which they could be charged with anything “merely” for dancing in the streets.”

    But I wasn’t asking about a practicable legal system, I was asking what you would do if you were king of the world.

  61. Scott Says:

    Ilya: Even if I were king of the world, I’d still presumably need to institute some more-or-less consistent legal system for my subjects. And as I said, I can’t think of any system I’d want where people who’d never even met a particular terrorist could be charged with a crime “merely” for cheering that terrorist in the streets. If I were God, on the other hand, I wouldn’t hesitate to condemn those people to hell. 🙂

  62. Jay Says:

    Good God, Old Testament can not lie.

    But what if these dancers were already living in hell?

  63. Cody Says:

    Scott said, “…it very often happens that the welfare of family is the only thing a potential perpetrator cares about more than his own welfare, and that negative consequences to his family are the only thing that could possibly deter him from crime.”

    This won me over briefly, though I still agreed with Greg that “if that is how the system treats relatives, then what it will get from them in the long term is neither apologies — except insincere ones — nor cooperation.”

    And I also started thinking, if it were well known that retribution would be served to family members with foreknowledge they could always take precautions to distance themselves from anyone unwilling to risk it.

    More importantly, Scott, if you were king of the world, or I suppose more master of the universe, how would you resolve P v. NP or the Riemann hypothesis (assuming a master of the universe had the power to shape the universe such that those questions could be resolved one way or the other). Or is there a similar question from physics or science that you’d want a say in…

  64. Scott Says:

    Cody #63: Even if I were master of the universe, I’d be every bit as powerless as I am now to alter the truth of P≠NP or the Riemann hypothesis. And no less a theological authority than St. Augustine backs me up here—he famously argued that not even God could make a triangle where the sum of the angles was anything other than 180 degrees. (In modern terms, of course, he meant a triangle in the Euclidean plane. 😉 )

    Sure, I could tamper with the laws of physics. But before I had fun adjusting the muon mass, the number of spacetime dimensions, etc. to see what happened, I suppose my first priority would be to get rid of human suffering…

  65. wolfgang Says:

    >> my first priority would be to get rid of human suffering…

    He already did that …

  66. John Sidles Says:

    Scott affirms: “If I were master of the universe … I suppose my first priority would be to get rid of human suffering …”

    Historically speaking, the reduction in human suffering that is the first priority of Scott’s imagined “master of the universe” has been a primary objective of the STEM community’s Enlightenment Roadmap for the past 243 years and more, as we read in the following passage:

    “Si l’erreur et l’ignorance ont forgé les chaînes des peuples, si le préjugé les perpétue, la science, la raison, la vérité pourront un jour les briser. L’esprit humain, engourdi pendant une longue suite de siècles, de superstitions et de crédulité, s’est enfin réveillé.”

    [If error and ignorance have forged the chains which bind peoples in oppression, if it is prejudice which perpetuates those chains, then science, reason and truth will one day be able to break them. The human spirit, numbed by centuries of superstition and credulity, has finally awakened.”]

         Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1770)

    As with innumerably many subsequent STEM roadmaps, the milestones of d’Holbach 1770 roadmap have been taking longer to achieve and have been achieved more incompletely, than was envisioned by the optimistic new enterprises that d’Holbach’s roadmap catalyzed.

    What roles will fundamental QIS/CT/CSE research play — directly or indirectly — in sustaining 21st century progress toward these objectives? The (intended) thrust of comments #5 and #35, is that fundamental QIS/CT/CSE research — together with the transformational capabilities that this research provides, and the transformational enterprises that these capabilities enable — surely is destined for a center-stage role throughout the coming century.

    Good! That will be FUN! 🙂

  67. Jud Says:

    – Re calls for arming people for eventualities such as attacks by terrorists or mass murderers: Way short sighted and ultimately self-contradictory. The conditions for arming people in *response* to such eventualities inevitably lead to *more* such eventualities, i.e., more nuts/idiots with weapons (the supply of nuts/idiots ranging in various estimates from consistently reliable all the way up to inexhaustible). It would be like recommending everyone own powerboats with gasoline engines as a response to flooding caused by global warming.

    – Surprised to see you supporting the death penalty. Two biggest problems I see with it (as a lawyer and former law clerk to a federal judge): (1) Sometimes judges and/or juries get it wrong. To paraphrase “Love Story,” death means never being able to say you’re sorry. (2) IMO, not a bad idea to try to get some actual data and science-y type stuff into the discussion: All the research I’ve seen tends to support the idea that many mass murderers are suicidal. If the potential murderer/suicide must look forward to rotting away the rest of what may be a long life in prison, that is a much less romantic and attractive notion than shooting up the town/school/theater and going out in a blaze of “glory.”

  68. Scott Says:

    Jud #67: For mass-murderers, in situations like this one where there’s no real doubt about guilt, I’d want to give them whichever they least prefer between death or life imprisonment. (Though one might need to ask the question in a tricky way in order to find out which it is… 🙂 )

  69. A Conservative TCSer Says:

    “They grew up in the USA, their views and convictions were formed there. The roots should be looked for in America.”

    Let me get it straight. Is it your claim that the terrorists were not radical Islamists, or that the roots of radical Islam should be looked for in America (and not, for instance, in Saudi Arabia)?

  70. John Sidles Says:

    A Conservative TCSer asks (#69) “Let me get it straight …”

    The trope Let Me Get This Straight commonly is associated to cognition that is farcical. Yet sometimes this same trope is pathognomonic of demagoguery, in which cases the associated cognition is malign.

    Summary  For good reason, ultra-simple “Let Me Get This Straight” posts like #69 make us laugh and cry.

  71. Michael Bacon Says:

    I think it’s safe to say that the terrorists were very strongly influenced by radical Islam and that the roots of radical Islam are not located in America. I think it’s also safe to say that this ideological view was clearly the primary motivation for their actions. However, I think a generous reading of Rahul’s point would be that other contributing factors such as young male alienation can be traced to things like socialization, economics and biology. And, at least with respect to socialization and economics, it is fair to look to their lives in America as well for causative factors. Having said this, I suspect that this type of analysis is not what Rahul intended, and that his statement unfortunately tends toward muddled-head apologetics.

  72. John Sidles Says:

    Michael Bacon reluctantly concludes  “Rahul’s statement[s] unfortunately tends toward muddled-head apologetics.”

    Michael Bacon, perhaps further efforts toward a broader and more generous appreciation of the origins and consequences of terrorist actions might pay substantial creative dividends?

    In this regard, contemporary analyses (of #49, for example) receive an illuminating historical context from Michael LeBuffe’s (wonderfully fun, and free-as-in-freedom) scholarly survey in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron) d’Holbach“, which aptly concludes:

    “Holbach’s right to revolution, then, is less an advocacy of revolution than a warning to avoid the conditions that lead to it.”

    Michael Bacon, is it not a truth universally acknowledged, that a planet possessed of two billion young people in need of family-supporting jobs, must be in urgent want of great enterprises to supply these jobs?

    And will the incidence of terrorist actions not be diminished in proportion to the prospering of these great enterprises, far more effectively than any police apparatus, or any regime of imprisonment and/or capital punishment, could credibly achieve?

    And are the 21st century habitués of the modest salon that is Shtetl Optimized (that is to say, ourselves!) substantially less ingenious in the conception of the required great enterprises, than the 18th century habitués of d’Holbach’s coterie in the Rue Royale?

    Duhhhhh … perhaps we needn’t answer that last question! 🙂

  73. Michael Bacon Says:


    As usual, in trying to fashion a response to your one of your comments it’s hard to know exactly where to focus. To begin at the end, I think your comment tends more toward the loquacious than the apologetic. 😉

    Where did you disagree with anything in particular that I said? That the terrorists were very strongly influenced by radical Islam and that the roots of radical Islam are not located in America? That this ideological view was the primary motivation for their actions? That other contributing factors such as young male alienation can be traced to things like socialization, economics and biology. And, at least with respect to socialization and economics, it is fair to look to their lives in America as well for causative factors?

    I guess your beef is that I didn’t make sufficient efforts toward a broader and more generous appreciation of the origins and consequences of terrorist actions? In this regard you specifically mention the truth universally acknowledged, that a planet possessed of two billion young people in need of family-supporting jobs, must be in urgent want of great enterprises to supply these jobs. But I then I did highlight socialization and the economy — I submit that a reasonable person reading my comment as generously as the read given to Rahul’s comment would have certainly concluded that I had that base covered — only with fewer (too few?) words. 😉

    As for your comment that the incidence of terrorist actions would be diminished in proportion to the prospering of great enterprises, far more effectively than any police apparatus, or any regime of imprisonment and/or capital punishment, could credibly achieve, all I can say is whoever said or even implied this not to be the case? Well duhhhh …perhaps we needn’t answer that question. 🙂

    As for your final paragraph, I’m furiously researching to see if I can precisely understand the point prior to offering up an answer.

  74. Rahul Says:

    Having said this, I suspect that this type of analysis is not what Rahul intended, and that his statement unfortunately tends toward muddled-head apologetics.

    @Michael Bacon: Out of curiosity, you thought I was attempting an apologetic of what? Islam?

  75. Michael Bacon Says:


    Not Islam directly, but perhaps indirectly by attributing the terrorist actions primarily to non-Islamic motivations. I’ll admit that was my take away from that one brief (and a little mysterious) comment of yours. Having read your other comments now I suspect that I was wrong. Please accept my apologies if this is the case.

    In any event, the view that I perhaps mistakenly attributed to you seems to have inspired John’s comment. Note that I’m NOT saying that John agrees or is defending the substance of my incorrect conclusion, only that it evidently inspired him to give my comment a very narrow and ungenerous reading — perhaps as I did with you.

  76. Rahul Says:

    @Michael Bacon:

    Ok, let’s focus on the point about them being Muslim and having Jihadist ideologies. Fine. What are we going to do about it? Is it even faintly practical to make a dent in the cohort of evil Jihadist demagouges? Even if there was, the casualties in that project will far outweigh the loss of lives in the Boston Marathon Bombing.

    Ok, second option: Maybe we hang him now. Deterrence! Looking at the ranks of willing suicide bombers, it’s questionable how effective that will be. Yes. we can gloat in the retributive justice but that’s about it.

    Media asks: Why couldn’t we prevent this? I say, how could we? Any attempts usually lead to draconian and mostly ineffectual lawmaking. We mandate a license for buying pressure cookers? Outlaw nails and BB pellets? These fellows didn’t even collaborate much outside of themselves. How shall we snoop on what goes within the walls of a home? Similar silly knee-jerk attempts based on post hoc solutions to terrorism attempts have given us those amazing solutions like (1) no-liquid on flights (2) shoe scanning (3) no fly lists etc.

    To put it another way: I think we are at an optimally low level of terrorism already (in the US) and any attempts to lower will be unjustifiable expensive especially factoring in opportunity costs.

    Some people might say: Make naturalization procedures more stringent. I ask, what percent of naturalizations lead to terrorists?

    I shy away from even the liberal position of attributing terrorism to “other contributing factors such as young male alienation, socialization, economics and biology”. In a nation of 300 million we are statistically always going to end up with some misfits try hard as you can.

    In short, most anti-terrorism initiatives (in the US context) at least are either ineffective or their cost is very hard to justify. Terrorism inherently breeds on the importance we give it. The more the media covers and sensationalizes these events the more attractive they are to wannabe terrorists. No offence intended to the unlucky victims, but from a policy perspective 3 civilians died and ~15 suffered injuries critical enough to need amputations. Of course, that’s sad. Deaths and injuries are always sad. But let’s keep things in perspective (Sigh. No matter how I put this it will be misconstrued as insensitive….).

    Is the cost of a life lost to terrorism really more than casualties from other preventable causes?

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