Steven Pinker Sees Peace, I See Dead People

The author responds to his critics.

I would really like to believe that the world is getting safer, but seen even in light of the thoughtful critiques of my article, war still seems a terrible human scourge. Even more dangerous than in the past.

Here's why: There are significantly more wars going on in the world today than there were 60 years ago -- per the Human Security Project's own listing -- and more people are getting killed in or dying directly from them. All too many of the victims are noncombatants.

Professor Pinker's use of numbers killed per 100,000 people as a key measure over the past half century is a very good one. For me, though, it is the absolute numbers that remain a principal concern. In a world whose population has risen from 3 to 7 billion since 1960, the same percentage killed per 100,000 means more carnage.

And all too often the victims of war are concentrated in the poorest parts of the planet, with the least amount of relief infrastructure available. This leads to very large proportions of national populations dying -- even in wars that see "just" a quarter- or half-million dead -- a percentage far higher and seen far more often than in most other wars. Those Tutsi living inside Rwanda, for example, were basically wiped out in 1994 --to our shame, as this catastrophe could have been prevented with even a modest military intervention. President Bill Clinton refers to his failure to act there as his "greatest regret." It should be.

I include Rwanda, Cambodia, and other "big kills" because they do indeed represent wars -- albeit internal wars, the sort that the Human Security Project has rightly noted have come to dominate conflict. I simply cannot leave them -- and other conflicts like them -- out, especially because of the genocidal war aims all too often on display.

Which brings me to the point about civilians becoming more and more targeted for killing over the past century -- a point that both critiques of my article contest. Here's how I came to my conclusion (drawn from a range of official tabulations that most scholars agree upon): In World War I, about 10 million soldiers died in battle, while just under a million deaths were "military caused." This is the 10 percent I was referring to: those who were killed when armed men pointed their guns and fired.

Yes, base-line death rates rose in many countries during World War I, due to disease and starvation, reaching a number calculated to be about 6 million. If these deaths are added in, so should the 2 million soldiers who eventually died of their wounds, and the 6 million who went missing in battle -- which meant, in most cases, that they had been blown to atoms. By this expansive measure (i.e., beyond deaths in battle and from direct military causes, the categories I compare), just under 30 percent of total deaths were civilians -- a percentage that is still much lower than in the next great conflict.

In World War II, the percentage of military-caused deaths skyrocketed. Battle deaths in the 20-25 million range were dwarfed by the 35-55 million military-caused deaths of civilians -- precise estimates remain beyond our reach -- many by execution in concentration camps and other charnel houses. In Burundi, Rwanda, Darfur and other lands torn by war today, armed men kill the innocent at even higher rates. The noncombatant is without question more in the crosshairs today than a century ago.

Let me close by thanking Steven Pinker, Andrew Mack, and Sebastian Merz for their wonderful bodies of work, which I deeply respect and fervently hope have it right. Or will at least be right one day. For now, though, I continue to worry about, and in my work for the military try to cope with, a world with a rising number of wars, mostly internal and irregular, in which innocent civilians are ever more targeted for killing. My heart is with those who see a world where war is already on the wane, but not my head. Not yet.


National Security

Access Denied

The United Nations couldn't control the Internet even if it wanted to.

The International Telecommunication Union, a special U.N. organization that is "committed to connecting all the world's people," is in the middle of 10 days of largely closed-doors meetings in Dubai, where the agenda seems more aimed at controlling global communications. In opening remarks to the 2,000 delegates from 193 countries, ITU Secretary General Hamadan Touré emphasized that cybersecurity should come first and, implicitly, that it should come under his purview. For all the commitments to openness that he and others profess, this conference is about the national security interests of states.

For starters, Dr. Touré would like to see some form of U.N. control of Internet domain names and numbers, something currently administered by the private, nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But this would hardly improve security by itself. There is a kind of naïve faith that if nation-states exert greater control over cyberspace-based communications, security will improve. China, Russia, and a host of other nations -- most of them authoritarian -- love the idea of more control, as this would enable greater censorship and erode individual privacy. Sadly, many liberal democratic states, out of a mix of economic and security concerns, go along with the idea of giving nations more authority to regulate cyber-communications.

Among the matters that are feared to be under discussion is the imposition of cyber tolls -- charges levied to allow entry into a country's cybersphere, or "virtual territory." Another effort lies in the realm of fighting pedophiles and curtailing the worst sorts of pornography. Surely this is a noble undertaking, but some worry that authoritarians might really be aiming to further undermine their peoples' freedom of speech, privacy, and civil liberties -- all in the name of this good cause.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of increasing national-level control of cyberspace is the idea being bruited about that anonymity should be banned. Again, there are logical reasons to think about this: making life harder for terrorists, tracking criminals, and deterring social predators. But many of these malicious actors have sufficient expertise to slip the bonds of such a ban, while the rest of us will have lost our privacy. The fact that "deep packet" inspection -- giving nations the right and power to read encrypted cybertraffic -- is also on the table for discussion is troubling too.

Several protests have arisen to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. One of the most articulate opposing voices is that of Vint Cerf of Google, an Internet pioneer. His critique has two parts: first, that voices other than those of nation-states need to be heard; second, that it is the very lack of governmental controls and sheer openness of the Internet that creates value and drives the information age forward.

Protest has also taken the form of insurgency. It seems that the hacktivist organization Anonymous may be involved in disruptive cyber acts that have slowed, and at one point stopped, the operations of the conference's official website. This group and many people of like mind around the world see much to worry about when it comes to closed-door meetings of government representatives.

There is also deep irony in the desire of nations to seek more control over cyberspace. Dictators have abused their existing abilities to restrict access in efforts to chill dissent. Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in just such an attempt. But he failed, because the Egyptian masses had been using cyberspace to share their anger and gather their courage for many months before the regime struck at the Net. Indeed, the shutdown was the signal to the people that it was time to go to Tahrir Square. Bashar al-Assad seems to have tried something similar over a week ago, when the Net went down briefly in Syria. He too will fail.

In the end, U.N. efforts to control cyberspace, aided and abetted by all too many nations, will fail as well. The virtual world is a vast wilderness - artificial, but beautiful and complex, and growing in size and direction in ways that almost surely lie beyond the ability of governments to control. The sooner this is realized, the better. It will save the world from a costly global struggle between balky nations and nimble insurgent networks.

There are better things for the United Nations to focus on if it wishes to play a productive role in the information age. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, whose video address at the opening of the Dubai conference spoke of a desire to foster openness and Internet freedom, should act on his own words and reject the role of regulator. Instead, he should lead his organization as a negotiator, fostering behavior-based forms of cyber arms control -- as there is still time to head off an age of "mass disruptive" cyberwars.

Almost all IT is dual-use. Any laptop can be used to wage cyberwar. But it is possible to craft agreements not to use such weaponry first, not to use it against civilian infrastructure or in acts of "cybotage," as in the case of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran. Many of the nations that have signed the chemical and biological weapons conventions can still make these terrible weapons, but promise not to do so, or to use them. If the United Nations wants a role, it should seek a similar behavioral approach to arms control in cyberspace. Russia first proposed something like this at the United Nations back in the ‘90s. The United States opposed it. Now the Russians are among the best cyberwarriors in the world, and American cybersecurity is in a parlous state.

What is to be done? Let me make a modest suggestion to Dr. Touré: Stream the remainder of the Dubai conference to the world in a live webcast. Allow a global discourse to commence, one in which nations and networks together will find the right way ahead. If you are for openness, then be open.