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NORAD wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice.


This article from The Atlantic is too good not to share.

In 1955, Sears ran a ‘call Santa on the phone’ newspaper promotion. Due to a (frankly wonderful) typo, however, it listed NORAD’s top-secret, “the-Russians-are-attacking” telephone number by mistake. (Actually NORAD’s predecessor, CONAD, but whatever.)

But wait, it gets better. After some initial confusion, the officer on duty, Colonel Stroud (a name that should be immortalized by Hollywood immediately), played along.

Bemused by the first caller — a lachrymose girl who wanted to know if he was one of Santa’s elves — the good Colonel couldn’t bring himself to deny it. The steely-eyed missile men of CONAD soon found themselves roped into quizzing children on whether they’d been naughty or nice. And so began an endearingly incongruous holiday tradition; NORAD offers a ‘Santa tracking’ service to this day.

The fifties really was a simpler time.

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That: Hyper-Rationality in Cleveland

The discovery that three women, all of whom had gone missing a decade ago from their neighborhoods in Cleveland, had spent that time enslaved to a seemingly average middle-aged man has dominated the news cycle since Amanda Berry’s brave escape with her six year old child on Monday. Her first act of freedom was to borrow a phone from a neighbor to call the police, ending their imprisonment and leading to the arrest of the suspected perpetrator.

The man who imprisoned Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight ruled his house like a tyrant, but appeared to be an average guy. If he had the intelligence and opportunity to control a country he would have been the equivalent of today’s most most malevolent dictators, characters like Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Kim Jong Il. All of these men were socially adept–charasmatic even. They also all routinely committed atrocities.

Knowing that these men could or do control nuclear arsenals provokes a heightened level of threat perception because they might actually be crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack. As a result there has been a healthy debate about whether or not they are “rational” or “irrational” actors. However, there is another possibility: We perceive them as irrational precisely because they actually approximate the rational ideal. They are hyper-rational because they lack the capacity for empathy. There is something about their rational pursuit of self-interest that is actually inhuman.

He Had to Have Two Personalities
The 24 hour news cycle has picked up this story and is providing a constant stream of information and commentary, which is no surprise because the narrative is transfixing. It has all the elements of a procedural crime drama like Law & Order, Cold Case or CSI. It involves everyday people caught up in an extraordinary series of events, at the center of which is an unthinkable act carried out by an evil-doer masquerading as “one of us.”

Neighbors reported that the perpetrator appeared to be a “regular joe.” He played bass in local Latin bands and made small talk with them. He drove a school bus and was known to offer kids rides to the park on his bike. He had a Facebook page where he thanked god for the beautiful day.

Even though Grimalda Figueroa divorced him back in 1996 after he beat her repeatedly, no one suspected the extent of what he was capable of when there wasn’t anyone looking. Learning his secret came as a shock. How could someone other’s expereinced as normal turn out to be such a monster? It just didn’t make sense.

Trying to reconcile this kind of extreme asocial behavior with the image of someone who appears to understand basic social norms and rules is not easy. We want to think of these people as different from us in a fundemtal sense. As the perp’s uncle put it, “He had to have two personalities.” There had to be something more about him that makes him irrational, unpredictable, and crazy.

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That
The details of this crime are horrific, the product of a deranged mind, and yet we don’t look away in disgust. Why is that? In her coverage of the story, Rachel Maddow repeatedly reassured her audience that “If you are completely transfixed by this story, if you are glued to the TV on this one, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that, there are good reasons for it. This is a genuinely transfixing and dramatic human story. The reason it is genuinely transfixing and dramtic is because it is objectively so rare.” As she explained just prior to making this statement, only 2% of the people in the US who go missing each year are kidnapped by someone unrealted to them.

Maddow’s message is reassuring on multple levels. First, she alleviates worry that there is something wrong with feeling obsessed with the details of the crime. She tells her audience that the feelings they are expereincing are normal. Second, she explains to them why they feel transfixed by the event. She says that they are interested because it is so rare. This explaination has the has the added benefit of reassuring her audience that this kind of atrocity is unlkely to happen to them.

The problem with this explanation is that it misidentifies what is so transfixing about this kind of crime. Maddow is correct that this specific kind of abduction is statistically rare, but there are lots of uncommon events that do not call our interest, much less glue us to our computers and TVs wanting to know more. Rather than telling her viewers the uncomfortable truth, Maddow, like any good performer, tells them what they want to hear: They are safe and there is no need to worry.

We are transfixed by what happened in Cleveland not because what happened is rare (although it is), but rather because the desire to do harm is a forbidden pleasure. We all have dark drives that arise unbidden from the depth of our subconscious. We also all live in a culture in which acknowledging that we have these drives (even to ourselves) is taboo–a taboo that is constantly reinforced by procedural crime dramas in which someone with those drives is exposed, hunted down and punished–so we develop the ability to behave as if these drives do not exist. We all act as though we never have asocial thoughts of agression, control and domination (directed at ourselves or others).

The brave escape of Amanda Berry revealed to the world the forbidden fantasies that existed in one man’s head. We are fascinated by revelation, which provides us with an opportunity to reassure ourselves that even in our darkest corners we are not that depraved. This crime is so absorbing for the same reason that procedural crime dramas that run in sindication 24 hours a day on TV–not because the perp is so different from all of “us,” but rather because he is so much the same.

Thus, a more satisfying (if less reassuring) way to explain our fascination with what happened in Cleveland is to answer a slightly different question. Rather than asking what the perp has that we do not (i.e. a second personality), the most fruitful way of approaching the discomfort this crime evokes is to accept that we all have dark drives and ask “What is it that I have, but that he is lacking?” or “Why do I choose not to act on these types of asocial drives, while he does?” There is something that stops us, which this man this lacking.

The answer to what stops us is different for different people. Sometimes it is simply fear of the consequences, but more often than not it is empathy. Most people are prevented from acting out violent fantasies by connecting with it might be like to be on the other end of their actions. For instance, you may fantasize about revenge killing, but ultimately you are stopped by the thought of the pain it will cause. This is why soldiers dehumanize the enemy. The same is true of engaging in torture. Americans were so shocked by the pictures that came out of Abu Grahib, yet that dehumanizing behavior that was put on display is exactly what “enhanced interrogation techniques” require of the perpetrators (at least as it was portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty).

Many people can tap into their dark side in order to carry out acts of domination and violence–and even enjoy it–if these behaviors are made socially acceptable in the name of the greater good. Far fewer people have the volition to act out these fantasies on their own. What makes a man like the perp in Cleveland different from others is that he is always motivated by narcisstic self-interest, regardless of whether his behavior is socially acceptable or not. Even when he is behaving “well,” he is never motivated by the kind of shared experience that would require him to be able to empathize with others.

The Rationality of Irrationality
The success of nuclear deterrence requires us to be able both to make a rational threat of nuclear attack, while at the same time knowing that actually carrying out that attack would be irrational. Although Schelling does not actually endorse a policy of appearing irrational to enhance the credibility of a deterrent threat, he does make the observation that appearing crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack may offer a tactical advantage. If my conjectures are correct, the reason to fear these individuals is not that they are irrational, but rather that they are hyper-rational. Unlike the rest of us who allow human emotions, like empathy, to interfere with our ability to maximize our individual goals, these men may actually be capable of a level of rationality that is the very definition of psychopathic, asocial behavior. They will be better at deterrence that the rest of us (not withstanding imperfect information and strategic mistakes) because their threats will always be more credible, precisely because we interpret their hyper-rationality as irrationality. There is a reason to fear these individuals, but it is not because they are irrational, but rather because they are so inhumanly rational that they just may be able to beat us at our own game.

Deterrence Works?


Vasili Arkhipov might be the most important human being who ever lived.

On October 27, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak. An American destroyer was trying to force a Soviet submarine to surface by harrying it with depth charges. The submarine’s sleep-deprived captain – cut off from radio contact and unable to know if war had broken out – ordered the launch of a nuclear weapon. The sub’s political officer, on board to provide an external check on the captain’s actions, seconded the decision.

Arkhipov, the second in command, was the last of three officers who were required to consent to a launch. He refused. He talked his comrades down from the brink and persuaded them to surface the sub, thereby narrowly averting The End Of Days.

Hardly anybody knew this until an academic conference in 2002, when the director of the National Security Archive unveiled some newly declassified documents and announced that ‘a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’

Arkhipov is not the only person with such a claim, however.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet missile warning systems indicated that a US first strike was underway. It was at another point of extreme tension between the US and USSR, with a large US military exercise being widely perceived in the Kremlin as a cover for war preparations.

The mechanics of Deterrence meant the Soviets had to respond within fifteen minutes if they were to respond at all, and had the politburo been informed of the incoming strike they would probably have ordered a nuclear response. Institutional doctrine and bureaucratic momentum would have almost dictated it. There would have been almost no time for cool reflection.

Fortunately for humanity, nobody reported the launch to the Soviet hierarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the early warning center that night, correctly dismissed the warning as a bizarre computer error and defied protocol by declining to report it.

Petrov – who was subsequently reassigned, took early retirement, and suffered a nervous breakdown – might also have saved the world. Yet hardly anybody knew about him either until the 1990s, when a Russian general published his memoirs.

Who knows how many other such brushes with Armageddon there have been. The secrecy around nuclear security is intense.


The logic of Deterrence – the idea that baroque infrastructures for launching thousands of nuclear weapons at our enemies on very short notice should make us safer – has been orthodoxy in security discourse for so long that its absurdity has become invisible to insiders. It is an axiom of nuclear discourse that deterrence works. Of course it works. The principle is so elegant and logical on paper, and the proof is in the metaphorical pudding: the world is still here. Academics can debate the minutiae of why it works, but only those with their heads in the sand can question the fact that it works.

Yet there is almost no evidence for this.

Consider this question: how much time must pass without a nuclear exchange before we can say there is evidence that Deterrence has kept us safe?

Reliability engineers would not conclude that a lightbulb had worked as designed until it had performed satisfactorily for several years. And they would be reluctant to conclude that a bridge was successful until it had stood for decades. We expect bridges to perform for much longer than lightbulbs, in part, because bridge failures are so much more consequential. If Deterrence fails the consequences would be biblical. Relative to that, the half century that it has been US doctrine is all but immaterial.

It is certainly arguable that there have been no great-power conflicts during the fifty-plus years of Deterrence’s tenure, but what does this prove? Throughout the Nineteenth Century the world enjoyed almost a hundred years without a clash between the world’s powers, but the Pax Britannica was not evidence that war had become obsolete. It collapsed in 1914 with the terrible carnage of the Great War: a conflict so traumatic that it was thought to have rendered all future wars ‘unimaginable.’ (Little were we to know). The Pax Romana lasted even longer – almost two hundred years. The world entered the second half of the Twentieth Century in ruins, and has been characterized since then by ever-increasing economic interdependence and the radical decoupling of territory from power and prosperity. In this context, the relatively brief ‘Pax Atomica’ – fifty years in which we declined to commit planetary suicide – hardly seems like compelling evidence of our strategic brilliance.

We spent many billions of dollars on the paraphernalia of Deterrence. We did so on the solemn advice of our nuclear shamans, who concluded – pardon me, calculated – that it was the optimal way of keeping us secure. What we accidentally wrought with our billions was a generation that owes everything – every walk in the park; every Monday morning; every chicken nugget; everything – to two middle-ranking, enemy military officers, who made difficult decisions under enormous duress and spared us all.

Eat your heart out, Doctor Frankenstein.

Time Between Failures