The MADness Of Protest
Another half-baked, ill-advised, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to steel-man an argument and behavior I have difficulty wrapping my head around: violent destructive protest.
MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, is a deterrent style Nash equilibrium where neither party has an incentive to create conflict. For this to work one needs the promise of escalation and the demonstration of capability. This models a tit-for-tat strategy on something like a Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Can protests be seen through this lens? Sure they’re potentially not primarily retaliatory but reconciliatory like a community coming together, maybe symbolic of the true nature of a democracy, maybe objectively looking to achieve specific ends like the arrest of an errant policeman. I think these are unambitious motivations for protest, if they’re really aiming for what they say they’re aiming for, immediate and lasting change. While it’s a frustratingly 20th-century solution for a 21st century problem, MAD is still a strategy for immediate and lasting change, and one that I don’t come across anywhere as the true reason for protest.
The Minneapolis protests have followed the same script they always do. Yes yes police brutality is bad, murder is bad, but hey that’s no reason for loot’n’plunder. Yes yes loot’n’plunder is bad, but it isn’t as bad as murder. Yes yes loot’n’plunder isn’t as bad as murder but since nobody said it was why resort to loot’n’plunder. Yes yes nobody said it was but nobody didn’t say it wasn’t either. Yes yes nobody didn’t say it wasn’t but that’s because nobody thought it needed to be said etc etc. And then nothing happens. Everyone gets stuck in the loop of arguing whose crime is worse. Here’s a pro-protest stance I haven’t seen though. Loot’n’plunder of an entire city is worse than the murder of 1 man, much worse, and that’s the whole point, mutually assured destruction. Under the conditions of this cold-war philosophy, many of the irrational elements of protests, especially violent protests, attain an uncomfortable sort of logic.
- Disproportionate Responses: The cold war had the concept of massive retaliation. Aggravated tit for tat. Capital T Tit for small t tat. At this point it’s come to my attention I’m just doing this to say tit many times. As long as retaliation is in the ballpark of the initial aggressive act, there are always specific conditions under which it pays to aggress, especially if the perceived probability of retaliation is not 1. There is a level of promised retaliation under which the payoff for conflict is inevitably, grossly, and unthinkably negative.
There is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty landpower of the Communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power. A potential aggressor must know that he cannot always prescribe battle conditions that suit him
- John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State
How effective can protest be as a deterrent if the response is proportionate?
2. Shoot First, Ask Questions Later: How does one deal with the inconvenient police side of things? They have dangerous jobs. They deal disproportionately with dangerous people, and see more criminals in a week than we do in our lives. There’s a huge availability and selection bias. The person they just murdered does indeed have a criminal record. Of the multiple people this same cop has killed, at least 2 were wholly un-newsworthy killings in the midst of violent crimes. Should protesters wait for the facts to come out, giving them due justification for outrage? Should they wait to find out an innocent man had been killed?
Fail-deadly is a concept in nuclear military strategy that encourages deterrence by guaranteeing an immediate, automatic, and overwhelming response to an attack, even if there is no one to trigger such retaliation. The term fail-deadly was coined as a contrast to fail-safe.
By cold-war philosophy, no. MAD doesn’t work unless it’s guaranteed, automated, and immediate. It’s irrelevant whether such reactions are unjustified, irrational, or even evil. Deterrents aren’t meant to be moral, they’re meant to deter. The unfortunate breakdown of this analogy is that it’s not at all clear when the promise of such a deterrent is sufficiently established. How much proof of deterrent is proof enough? The Soviets had the well-documented system of The Dead Hand, that assured MAD even if the USSR was wiped out. That’s proof enough that when there came a time to actually use it, they had the luxury to not use it. Stanislav Petrov might have saved the history of mankind in 1983 by choosing to register his early defense warning of an American nuke as a false alarm. If he had not, the Soviets were bound by a compulsory nuclear counter-attack. Petrov made a rational decision based on the fact that a nuclear attack by the USA wouldn’t consist of a single missile, and that the system had thrown up errors before. But the point is that within a well-established promise of deterrence, there is room for rationality. The deterrence of protest against government excess is not known to anyone as guaranteed, immediate, automatic, or overwhelming, so where is there wiggle room for people using judgment and discretion to treat every incident as unique?
3. Irrationality: A strange consequence of rationality is that it works when the stakes are low. It pays off. When the stakes are high, all bets are off. In a game of chicken, two cars race towards each other waiting for the other driver to blink first and turn away. In this game, the winning strategy is to visibly rip out your steering wheel and throw it out the window so the other driver sees. The madman always wins. Twice in the space of a 100 years, the 2 greatest conquering armies of the modern age went to Russia and were annihilated. Napoleon and Hitler both had shiny blitzkrieg armies with fancy cars, amazing drivers, and too much pride to ever blink in a game of chicken. Then Russia rolls down her window, throws burning crops and serfs out the window along with the steering wheel while playing loud music. Playing rational predictable opponents is simple. What hope is there for deterrence if retaliation is irrational and counterproductive the way it is for a community against its government. Those who liken this to an autoimmune disease, the body attacking its own healthy cells, clearly haven’t heard of cancer.
But why loot’n’plunder? Why descend to Lord Of The Flies? Why cut off the nose to spite the face? Is it like me as a child throwing a tantrum by holding my breath and hoping my parents care more about my life than my bedtime getting a 1hr extension? (This obviously never happened, all Indian children innocent/dumb enough to believe this is a feasible strategy have been long eliminated from the gene pool) For MAD to work, Russia can’t turn its nukes on itself and threaten to blow itself up. Guy Fawkes didn’t set up a gunpowder plot to blow up his own house. It takes considerable cerebral contortion to arrive at the logic that in a democracy, power is with the people, so fighting the power is fighting the people, after all who is going to reelect officials who presided over a city that destroyed itself?
4. 4. MIRVs vs ABMs: When Anti-Ballistic-Missiles were developed as effective defenses against nukes, the MAD strategy was compromised. MIRVs, Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles, reestablished MAD. Each missile had multiple warheads that made it difficult for ABMs to neutralize. This is a really tortured metaphor for what is essentially guerrilla warfare vs open battle against a strong organized army, but I’ve already chosen this cold war hill to die on. Why torch 1000 department stores when all of us can march on City Hall and actually link our objectives in time (get the government to make changes) with our behavior in space (get the government to make changes)? Because City Hall can be defended by ABMs. It doesn’t matter that 1000 burning stores don’t get us closer to our objective, they’re MIRVs and in the presence of ABMs, deterrence comes from MIRVs.
5. Necessary Evil: Lastly, I consider the possibility that protest and violent protest are two parallel sets of actors who have nothing to do with each other. The fundamental issue of illegal antisocial behavior is it’s fun and it’s profitable, and we spent all of human history figuring out a system of religion and law where it’s neither of these things. The inconvenient truth of loot’n’plunder is, it’s more fun for some people, sadists, arsonists, than others. It’s more profitable to some people, legally protected, nothing to lose, powerful, than others. The average protester isn’t looting. The average looter isn’t protesting. If there’s very little overlap between these 2 groups of people, what should the reaction of the protest movement be towards loot’n’plunder? If they don’t condone it, can they condemn it?
Without condoning or condemning, I understand
Loot’n’plunder has raised the stakes of the game, that’s good. It’s also opened up the movement to the liability of criticism of antisocial behavior, that’s bad. It’s getting officials to take this more seriously than a candlelight vigil, that’s good. It’s also giving them the justification to forcefully suppress all protest, that’s bad. At this point condemning looting is a difficult decision, it makes the overall protest lose steam by seemingly siding with the government against a common enemy (the criminal), it gives the government an easy get-out-of-jail-free solution every time there’s legitimate protest, after all how hard is it to rabble-rouse external elements into opportunistic or targeted antisocial behavior, and it starts gatekeeping what acceptable and unacceptable righteousness of anger looks like. My anger is good, yours is stupid. Educate yourself. That’s not an easy stance. Without condoning or condemning, the protester must understand.
6. Countervailing Strategy: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan changed MAD to a countervailing strategy that hoped at actually winning a nuclear war without total destruction, while maintaining the thread of MAD. This involved retaliating by targeting leadership rather than cities and populations. What does war have to do with people? What does systematic injustice have to do with the people within the system? If this was simply retributive justice, the crowds would go after the cops in question and not protest. This is about the leadership.
The Rust On The Steel Man: There are 100 common sense reasons MAD is stupid, false positives are easy and deadly, good cops some times kill bad guys, it’s escalation without a ceiling, more disorder needs more cops and order which spawns more disorder, false negatives are perversely incentivized, accountability and transparency are actually punished, true negatives are difficult to stand up for, decentralized protests don’t have the focused judgement of a Vasily Arkhopov risking court martial and gulag by refusing to launch nuclear torpedoes.
Further, there’s one reason that’s even more fundamental than common sense, MAD wasn’t even true during the cold war. It was true for the US, and even that wasn’t entirely clear across all military arms, but not for USSR who maintained they would build civil defense (the magnificent Moscow bunkers for instance) and generally plan to win a nuclear (and following conventional) war. MAD works for the US because they’re a 250lb prizefighter in a ring with, well, me. MAD doesn’t work for me. Protesters have geography and population on their side, if they can organize, like USSR. The government has all the money, nukes, and think tanks. Under the best (worst) circumstances, maybe MAD has enjoyed some unearned success, but these aren’t those circumstances so my attempt at steel-manning protest movements will need to be deferred to another day and a better idea.