Primary Sources

Keeping tabs on the war on terror; bigger, brainier downtowns; synonyms make you stupid


The Year of Living Dangerously

What’s remarkable these days about Lebanon isn’t (for a change) turmoil, according to a report from the International Crisis Group—it’s that the country has held together after a series of shocks that began in February of last year with the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. That incident was followed by mass protests, the withdrawal of Syrian troops, new elections and a new government, and explosive allegations that Syrian officials were involved in plotting the killing. The authors argue that Lebanon’s relative stability is largely due to memories of the recent civil war, and they warn that deepening divisions threaten the fragile peace. Outside states, they caution, should be mindful of Lebanon’s history as an “arena for proxy struggles” and avoid heavy-handed intervention, focusing instead on helping the new government achieve reform. In particular, Israel and Syria need to be discouraged from meddling in their neighbor’s internal affairs, and the United States should resist the temptation to force a showdown with either Damascus or Hezbollah—Lebanon’s “best organized movement and de facto ‘king-maker.’”

“Lebanon: Managing the Gathering Storm,” International Crisis Group


Risk Management

The next time the Bush administration feels the urge to trumpet the capture or death of a “high-ranking” al-Qaeda operative, it might consider a new Congressional Research Service report on measuring effectiveness in the war on terror. The report warns against an “over-reliance on quantitative indicators,” arguing that such figures as body counts and dollars spent on homeland security may bear little relation to how safe we actually are. Even if the United States eliminated “2/3 of the senior leadership” of a terrorist organization, the group might expand or decentralize, becoming “a more resilient adversary.” The most important measurement isn’t what we have done to terrorists but what they can do to us—and especially how close they are to making a “quantum jump” in capabilities. (The most obvious such jump, of course, would be the acquisition of WMDs.) The report lists possible indications of an imminent jump, including the ability to attract recruits, good intelligence and access to critical technologies, and alliances with other groups. And it warns that because “progress may be defined differently by the terrorists and those who oppose them … both can claim progress, and both can be correct.”

“Combating Terrorism: The Challenge of Measuring Effectiveness,” Raphael Perl, Congressional Research Service


Gentrification Nation
primary sources chart

U.S. downtowns—roughly, the central section of a city—started regaining inhabitants only fifteen years ago, but they’ve been getting younger and better educated for a generation, according to a Brookings Institution study of forty-four cities. The share of downtowners with a bachelor’s degree climbed from 15 to 45 percent between 1970 and 2000, and the proportion of those aged twenty-five to thirty-four rose from 13 to nearly 25 percent. Ethnic diversity and home ownership rates also increased. These trends vary wildly from city to city, however: for example, nearly 65 percent in Boston’s “fully-developed downtown” boast a bachelor’s degree, but in Phoenix’s “slow-growing downtown” just 15 percent have one. And for every “emerging downtown” like Denver’s, where the home ­ownership rate in 2000 was over 35 percent, there’s a “declining downtown” like Cincinnati’s, where only 1 percent of residents own their homes.

“Who Lives Downtown,” Eugenie L. Birch, The Brookings Institution


Strunk and White's Revenge
From the archives:

"Word Imperfect" (May 2005)
Is the name Roget becoming a synonym for intellectually second-rate? By Simon Winchester

Insecure writers tend to reach for the thesaurus, often to replace a simple word with a complex one. Long-suffering English teachers have always said that this ploy never works—and now there’s proof. Researchers asked seventy-one Stanford undergraduates to evaluate various writing samples; the lexicon in the samples was systematically varied, with each judge getting either a “moderately complex” or a “highly complex” version of each sample. (The researchers created the highly complex versions by replacing every noun, verb, and adjective with the longest possible synonym.) The highly complex samples may have made for muddy reading, but the effect they had on readers is clear: as complexity increased, the judges’ estimation of the author’s intelligence declined.

—“Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly,” Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Applied Cognitive Psychology