Even though I live in a low crime area of the rural American South, I still lock the doors of my home. I also never leave my keys inside my car. That’s because while the likelihood of someone burglarizing my home or stealing my car may be small, they are not zero and such things as locking doors and not leaving ones keys in a vehicle are prudent. Similarly this year there have been numerous tornadoes around the state that have killed scores of people, but having grown up in the Midwest I was sure to buy a home with deep basement. I have also stocked it with a few days of emergency supplies “just in case.” Like many here I also do more to protect my home and family from unlikely events because where we live there is no one else to rely on if these events occur. As a fan of the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I recognize that it is impossible to prepare in detail for every possible contingency, so instead I have followed general principles for home protection and disaster preparedness that work across the board.
I’ve been thinking about this topic as I watched the horror in Norway unfold and as the European contingent of NATO has struggled this Summer with trying to remove a despot from power in Libya. To continue the metaphor, Europe has lost the ability to act prudently to defend itself. It has forgotten to lock its doors and to take its keys with it.
Both Taleb and Dietrich Dorner, author of The Logic of Failure, recognize that humans are terrible at assessing risk. Dorner believes that humans often continue risky behavior because the likelihood of bearing the consequences of the behavior is small. Take speeding, for example. The first time a driver drives over the speed limit, the chance of being caught and ticketed by the police is almost nothing; that it encourages him to continue to break the law. He enjoys the benefits of speeding (shaving a few minutes off his commute) while not fully appreciating the risk because it is so small. So he continues to speed and forgets that he is engaging in a risky – and illegal – behavior. The more he speeds, the more likely the odds are that he will attract the attention of the cops. That day eventually comes and he ends up holding a speeding ticket in his hands while contemplating a bump in his insurance premium. Even though he has been engaging in a risky behavior, he will doubtlessly think that he has been picked on by the police. Because the risk was so small for speeding, the driver had come to believe that it was in fact a risk-free behavior when in fact it wasn’t.
World War 2 was of such an epic scale that it devastated Europe both physically and psychologically. The war had so weakened the continent that it had no choice but to rely upon the United States for its defense. But an odd thing happened over the years. The defense was so complete that threats became invisible. Professional militaries cost money to equip and maintain, and the likelihood of needing them is small. So European governments cut them to the point where today, NATO is struggling to provide logistical support to a group of rebels in a small country in North Africa. Without the United States providing most of the equipment and personnel the effort to overthrow Mohammar Khadafi would collapse. European governments outsourced their defense to an outside power, and for sixty-five years have enjoyed the benefits of protection provided by the United States, while ignoring the risk of their behavior.
It’s easy to forget that for most of its history the United States has been an isolationist power; it has only been the last seventy-odd years that it has acted as an international one. The country was founded and later populated by people who fled from other places, particularly Europe, and weren’t particularly keen on getting involved with the politics of the places they left. Add in the buffers provided by two large oceans and Isolationism becomes the default state for America; internationalism is the outlier.
The risk of the United States turning isolationist and withdrawing from Europe seemed remote to Europeans, but it was not zero. Europe reaped the benefits of not having to provide for its own defense, so it was easy to devalue the risk further. Plus an odd thing happened through the years. The continent of Europe, so steeped in blood that it makes the entire known history of the Middle East and other regions of the world seem bloodless by comparison, forgot it’s history. Instead of appreciating the American presence in Europe for providing for its defense, the Americans became viewed by some quarters as a cause of War, not a force for preventing it. It was the equivalent of viewing the police as the cause of crime. This attitude was transferred to the national militaries that worked closely with Americans in NATO and even the local police forces (who are often more closely allied with the national military than in the US) as well. Their budgets were slashed even further and those who served became denigrated by the very societies they had sworn to protect. Any inner city cop in America could relate.
Europe finds itself today paying the price for the amnesia of its past. America is slowly returning to its isolationist nature, leaving the Europeans to fend for themselves. But wars in the former state of Yugoslavia and now in Libya show that Europe is in no condition to protect itself, let alone the people at risk of genocide in the region. The fact that Norwegian authorities had to beg for guns from their supervisors and took 90 minutes to respond to a single gunman on a rampage proves that Europe’s police forces are in no condition to act to protect its citizenry. Some may console themselves that the attack executed by a single madman is a rare event, but so is having one’s house burglarized or one’s car stolen. Sensible people still lock their doors and don’t leave their keys in the car.
It is time for Europe to come to terms with its past and become “normal.” This means losing the pacifism that infantilized it during the Cold War and recognizing that threats to it exist from within and without – that is, if it survives the coming collapse of the Eurozone. Europe needs to prepare for rare events by creating a better trained and equipped police force matched by a similarly trained and equipped military. Europe also needs to accept that it has not “evolved beyond war” as some have come to believe. Only then will it be able to prevent mass murders from happening in Norway or in countries like Libya.