Mice, Men, and Why Firefighting and Fighting Terror Are the Same



“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” President George W. Bush said during an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 20, 2001: “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” It sounds a laudable goal—until Bush’s word every is taken into account. The word places U.S. policy toward terrorism on a historical continuum with federal policy in another, seemingly far-removed context: environmental policy. In 1914 and 1915, the government had made exterminating wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and raptors federal policy—in line with various state-level policies, such as California’s decision in 1907 to pay a twenty-dollar bounty on mountain lions. In 1930, with words that with only a few tweaks could be dropped into an anti-terrorism speech like Bush’s, a Senior Biologist at the Bureau of Biological Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, E.A. Goldman, could say to an academic conference that “Large predatory mammals destructive to livestock and game no longer have a place in our advancing civilization.” But even as Goldman was speaking his words, perhaps the most famous “experiment” in what happens when predators are removed was already unfolding on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps Bush’s words will not have the same result.

After 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt established a national game preserve at the Kaibab, hunters employed by the government essentially destroyed all predators within the park’s boundaries: 674 mountain lions, 3000 wolves, and 120 bobcats. As a result, a deer herd that was estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 deer grew tenfold. By 1924, there were estimated to be 100,000 deer inside the reserve. The following winter, however, the population crashed: in the next two years over half the herd died. The same mistake might be considered similar to the U.S. Forest Service’s “total fire suppression” policy during the same decades.

By 1935 it was the policy of the United States Forest Service to suppress all fires by ten a.m. the morning after a wildfire was first spotted. Just as on the Kaibab, that policy had unintended consequences. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it became noticeable that no Giant Sequoia tree had grown in the state of California since the nineteenth century. That was due to the Forest Service’s total fire supression policy: giant Sequoias are not merely tolerant of fire, but actively require it to release their seed. Sequoias, like other evergreen trees, produce cones of seeds; unlike other evergreens, these cones only release their seed after being dried out by fire. Also, sequoia saplings require direct sunlight to grow, the sort of direct sunlight that can only be found in a forest directly after a wildfire. Since the Forest Service actively prevented forest fires in their parks—the only places where sequoias survived—the result was inevitable: no sequoia saplings.

Such consequences might appear to be minor, at least from a human standpoint. Other enactments of the policy, however, were not quite so benign, such as what happened in Taft, California on the night of the 24th of November in 1926, as told by Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. On that night, an estimated 100 million field mice overran the town, as noted by a local history: “The mice invaded beds and nibbled the hair of horrified sleepers, chewed through the sides of wooden storehouses to get at food supplies, and crawled boldly into children’s desks at Conley School.” The siege of the town lasted three months, yet despite the best efforts of the Bureau of Biological Survey to poison the mice en masse, the mice onslaught ended not because of chemical warfare, but by the hand of a plague, a septicemia bacillus.

The reason for the invasion became the subject of controversy, says Davis, when E. Raymond Hall, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, “attributed the Taft event to the efficiency of the Biological Survey’s predator control campaign in Kern County during 1924-25, which had eradicated natural mouse enemies like coyotes, skunks, and red-tailed hawks.” The Bureau of Biological Survey doughtily defended itself and attacked Hall, who was himself defended, however, by fellow biologists. In 1931, the American Society of Mammalogists  issued a report decrying the Bureau’s war on predators and “the propaganda of the Survey.” Gradually, biologists learned of the importance of predators within a total ecosystem, just as they learned of the importance of fire. Today most, if not all, top predators are protected to one degree or another by law, particularly the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The wisdom gained in relation to the environment, however, has not transferred to other aspects of U.S. policy. Since 2001 the United States has been engaged in a “total suppression” strategy when it comes to terrorism. Such has been the philosophy behind not merely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the policy behind security checkpoints at airports, such as the frankly embarrassing concern of the Transportation Security Administration for footwear—an embarrassment not because of the hassle of removing shoes, but that the TSA would regard it as an adequate safeguard against terror, as described by such observers as Patrick Smith, a working airline pilot who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column at Salon magazine. Smith decries anti-terror policy by asking:

For example, how is it that our sworn protectors manage to spend tens of billions of dollars each year, yet failed to stop an extremist saboteur whose own father had contacted officials to alert them to his son’s behavior and potential violence?

Well, it’s partly because the government’s list of known or suspected terrorists—the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE—contains more than half a million names.

Because, in other words, the government is determined to eliminate every possibility of terrorist acts—because the net is cast so widely and indiscriminately—the possibility of the success of such an act is actually increased, not decreased. “Our overzealous obsession with terrorism,” says Smith, “together with bureaucratic bungling, has, predictably, bit us in the rear end.” It’s possible to make similar sorts of arguments regarding many other aspects of U.S. policy, including both South Asian wars.

Such a view will of course be dismissed as a kind of “category mistake,” a term introduced by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. Ryle gave an example of a “category mistake” as being made by the foreign visitor to Oxford or Cambridge who asked, after being shown the colleges and libraries and museums and so on, “But where is the university?” The visitor, that is, has made a fundamental midjudgment: she took the university to be something other than the mere sum of its parts.

In the same way, some might argue that a terrorist is not a mountain lion, a wolf, a grizzly bear, or an eagle—not, in fact, an animal at all—and so to think of counterterrorism policy in terms of counterpredatory policy is to make a similarly fundamental mistake. Human beings are not animals; to think of one in terms of the other is the most base kind of conceptual error possible. Conservatives will accuse such a perspective of draining the evil—only humans are capable of evil, goes this line—out of terror acts; liberals will make similar accusations though for opposite reasons—how can we hope to solve terror without understanding the human motives of the terrorists? But both are merely opposite versions of the same problem.

The right, in other words, sees terrorism as requiring a military answer, while the left sees it as another opportunity for social services. But neither might be the most effective response: when it comes to our adventures abroad, the best course might be to thin out predator population—as biologists might put it, proper gamekeeping—while for the most part leaving the larger ecosystem alone. When it comes to terrorist acts conducted in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized countries, the best course might just be solid police work: the routine application of standard procedure, itself a kind of gamekeeping. Security measures should be handled similarly: instead of indiscriminately scattering resources, they should be marshaled into focused and disciplined hunts. As the editors of The Nation have put it, “the best antidote to terrorism is not military action but good intelligence, police work and appropriate security measures.” We ought to be hunting with rifles, not shotguns. Such a course of action might be denounced as treating terrorists as somehow “better” or “worse,” depending on perspective, because it does not treat terrorism as a “human” problem.

The distinction between the human and the non-human was precisely Ryle’s target. He addressed those people who, faced with the human brain, asked “But where’s the Mind?” as if the mind could somehow be separated from the brain—as if human beings were somehow separate from the rest of nature. Whatever anyone says, though, human beings are not so separate: human beings are themselves a “top predator,” with many similarities to other top predators like wolves or eagles. Handling terrorism should not be different, in principle, from coping with an excess of mountain lions or sharks. Making a mistake about terrorism is a much bigger error than, say, invading mice. But it is the same mistake to treat the two as belonging to different categories.


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Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at djmedinah@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

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