Numbers to back claims about “SEAL-mania”?

I am often on the look-out for news stories that relate to data analysis and interpretation that I can then use in my Statistics and Social Research classes. Here is an example of the AP reporting on “SEAL-mania”:

Stumpf is one of a growing number of Americans putting themselves through grueling fitness programs modeled after Navy SEAL workouts as interest in the elite military unit has soared since one of its teams killed Osama bin Laden. Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.

Book publishers say they cannot order the printings of the memoirs of former SEALs fast enough, while people are dialing 1-800-Hooyah! like mad to get their hands on T-shirts emblazoned with the SEAL insignia and sayings like: “When it absolutely, positively must be destroyed overnight! Call in the US Navy SEALs.”

Awe over the covert operation is even putting the city of Fort Pierce, Fla., on the map for vacation destinations. The city’s National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum — the only museum dedicated to the secretive SEALs — has been flooded with calls from people planning to visit.

But nothing short of joining the SEALs offers a more true-to-life taste of their toughness than the workout places run by ex-Navy commandos.

There may actually be an uptick in interest in Navy SEALS (apparently Disney and others are interested) but the story gives us little actual data to support this. We are told about some books, t-shirts, calls to a museum, and an increase in interest in workouts but no hard numbers to go by. In fact, the story seems to revolve around this tentative sentence: “Everyone these days seems to be dreaming of what it’s like to be a SEAL, know a SEAL or at least look like one.” I am skeptical about claims about “everyone.” The story could at least cite Google trend data (a big spike occurs in early May when searching for “SEALs”) or Twitter trend data (another big spike). These may not be ideal data sources but at least they provide some data beyond broad claims. If a media source wants to make a causal claim (Navy SEALs participation in the Bin Laden raid has led to “SEAL-mania” among Americans), then they should provide some better evidence to back up their argument.

(Another odd thing about this story is that the rest of it is about SEALs workouts. It almost seems as if there was some copy about these workouts waiting to be attached to a larger story and this raid presented itself as an opportunity.)

Data on millennials’ life-long take on Osama Bin Laden

In an op-ed, a millennial considers some data regarding how the younger generation viewed Osama Bin Laden throughout their lives. While the media has suggested Bin Laden was a key figure in their young lives, this commentator suggests the data regarding his generation’s view of Bin Laden is more mixed:

Let’s start with the media’s attempts to establish Bin Laden’s impact on millennials. In addition to student sound bites and expert testimony, newspapers turned to sociological evidence to support their theories. To show how 9/11 inspired millennials to pursue public service, USA Today cited the increase in applications for nonprofit jobs. (The week before, this would have been proof of our struggling economy.) To show how 9/11 left millennials in a state of perpetual distress, the newspaper cited a Pew survey claiming that 83% of young people sleep with their cellphones on. (The week before, this would have been proof of our declining attention spans.)

Notice what USA Today didn’t cite: data on millennials’ opinions of Bin Laden from before his death. That’s because these data don’t support the narrative of a generation defining itself in the shadow of the Twin Towers. Not too long ago, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation ran a series of focus groups on college students’ attitudes toward 9/11. The foundation asked students to name the most important social or political event of their lifetime. The most common answer was not 9/11 — in fact, it was one of the least common — but the rise of the Internet.

Even data that support the media’s theories stop well short of suggesting a millennial reboot. In 2000, for example, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reported that the number of freshmen who considered keeping up with political affairs to be “essential” or “very important” hit an election-year low: 28%. After 9/11, that number did bounce back — but only to 39% in 2008, well below the 60%-plus who answered affirmatively in 1966, the first year of the annual poll.

These statistics, I think, capture my generation’s real relationship to Bin Laden. It would be too much to say we had forgotten about him, but it also would be too much to say he haunted or defined us in any real way.

I, too, have heard this media narrative and now that I think about it, the primary data marshaled in support of it were the college student celebrations the night of the announcement of Bin Laden’s death. I would need to see more data on this to be convinced either way but it sounds like an interesting argument. If the media story is incorrect, it seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to put together more data to suggest this is the case. I assume most polling organizations have asked plenty of questions about Bin Laden and terrorism over the last ten years and these organizations could easily break out the data by age. If it turned out that millennials were not terribly impacted by 9/11 or Bin Laden’s death, what would be the reaction of older generations?

The rest of the op-ed contains opinions about the partying reaction of millennials. The public discussion regarding the celebration of and reaction to Bin Laden’s death has been intriguing though it is hard to know exactly what is going on and what it might say, if anything, about the larger American culture. My initial reaction to seeing the college students partying in front of the White House was to think that they were looking for an excuse to party on a Sunday night with school the next day…

Architect discusses Bin Laden’s McMansion

I’ve continued to track the meme of Bin Laden’s Abbottabad house being a McMansion and a new mentions trickle in each day. Here is an explanation of the Bin Laden-McMansion connection from an architect at Architect magazine:

It may be unfair to tar your typical New Jersey Neo-Colonial with the brush of a Pakistani compound, especially since Bin Laden’s crib seemed to be home to a multigeneration community of interest and family. It made better use of sprawling space than most nuclear family–inhabited American homes, and I hate to say that it looks from the photographs to be more honestly modern than most of our fake palazzos and palaces.

The bin Laden compound was also not like a true McMansion because it was not about flash. There were no fancy cars in evidence, no landscaping that was put in place every spring and ripped up again in the winter, no garish colors. There was, for heaven’s sake, not even an Internet connection–how did they play games? How did they get onto Groupon?

We have made Osama Bin Laden everything we are afraid of. It is fitting that evil turns out not to lurk in caves, which would be so last millennium, or live in a tent, which would be so the millennium before that. It lives in the suburbs. It turns out that our fear of cities and our distaste of others was something he shared while fostering the paranoia that we might be in danger if we leave our cocoon through his and his cohorts’ murderous programs. So we, or at least the government that many of us do not want to pay for, swooped in, surgically extracting the emblem of that fear. I note that, unlike in so many other operations against our enemies, we left the McMansion standing.

A few things stick out:

1. There are a number of jabs here at McMansions. So we don’t like Bin Laden and we don’t like McMansions – why not put the two together? Seriously, the argument here is that McMansions are emblematic of sprawl, have poor architecture/design, are full of tacky people (who use Groupon! and have garish landscaping!), and they are all about flash.

2. There is another story referred to here: Bin Laden was found in the suburbs, the last place Americans would expect and one that goes against all our fears of people who live in caves or cities. I’ve already written about this and still find it a bit strange to claim that Bin Laden was living a suburban lifestyle in a suburban home when this particular community seems somewhat unique as a miltary community.

3. Additionally, it is claimed that Bin Laden, like Americans, was afraid of cities and others, hence, the need to live in a compound/McMansion in a suburb. Americans do have quite an anti-urban bias and occasional fear of others. There is likely some truth to this but I wonder how the average American might respond to being equated to Bin Laden.

4. Is it safe to presume that the last sentence indicates that the author would have preferred that this particular raid have destroyed the Bin Laden McMansion? If so, is it more because it was home to Bin Laden or because it is a McMansion?

Overall, this a good piece for illustrating the common critiques of McMansions.

Finding Bin Laden in the suburbs

There has been a lot of commentary about where Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. On one hand, there has been a lot of interest in his house, including people dubbing the compound a “McMansion.” (However, reports yesterday and today have suggested that the house was less unusual or prominent as was first suggested.) On the other hand, he was found in an unusual military town. Here is one take that suggests that Bin Laden was found in the unlikeliest of places: a suburb.

We now all know that, of course, bin Laden was not in a cave. He was hiding in plain sight in a million-dollar mansion in a posh suburb of Islamabad.

Not only that, the suburb was a military complex described as Pakistan’s West Point. And the mansion apparently was built expressly for him – as though he were some chief executive officer cashing in on his bonus options, so he wasn’t being especially discreet.

He apparently had been living there undisturbed for six years, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He was a suburbanite enjoying the pleasures of a life of leisure – behind 12-foot walls.

This was so far beyond our expectation of how the world’s most wanted terrorist would be living that no one, apparently, bothered to look for him outside the mountains. Terrorists just don’t live in the suburbs.

I’m not so sure this community was a suburb. It was at least an hour outside of Islamabad. It was also a military community, not necessary a resort community. However, there have been reports that a number of wealthier military officials live in this community. And Bin Laden was living a life of leisure when he was possibly in the same room for five years? Bin Laden is comparable to a CEO “cashing in on his bonus options”? In terms of thinking that this community is like a typical American suburb outside of Los Angeles or Chicago and Bin Laden was the typical suburban head of household, this is not quite the case.

The story goes on to cite the sociological idea of “lifestyle enclaves”:

Back in 1985, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his cohort, in their seminal book “Habits of the Mind,” coined the term “lifestyle enclaves” to describe the way Americans had begun to cluster on the basis of “shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities, which often serve to differentiate them sharply from those with other lifestyles.”

These enclaves were self-selected – you gravitated toward others like you. In the sociologists’ view, they were increasingly replacing real community in America with these superficial bonds of similarity.

There are dozens of these enclaves today – from members of the National Rifle Association, to upwardly mobile young married couples, to outdoorsmen, to the very wealthy. Enclaves have become a primary way we define ourselves.

But I doubt that Bellah and the others ever thought of terrorists as a possible enclave back when they were writing the book. Yet the concept of people who choose to live with others who look like them and think like them is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that the idea of a terrorist enclave apparently did cross the mind of the intelligence community today.

The conclusion of the piece is that Bin Laden was found because he didn’t play by the “lifestyle enclave”/suburban rules. So all of the residents of Abbotabad were terrorists?

All of this seems like a stretch in order to connect to the average American suburban reader. The basic premise could be interesting: the suburbs (or more rural/military town suburbs) are supposed to be the land of safety, not the place where terrorists (or any people who commit violent crimes) actually live next door. But to suggest that Bin Laden was similar to a typical suburbanite and was caught because he didn’t fit in seems kind of silly. Projecting the image of the American suburbs on Abbotabad, Pakistan may not be the best way to understand a complex situation.

Assassination, Gaddafi, and Bin Laden

Instapundit recently posted about how there has been general support for the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Being involved in assassinations is a tricky area for the United States, particularly since we were implicated in some nefarious activity back in the 1950s through the 1970s (see the Church Committee report of 1975). Here how this has played out in recent days:

1. The recent attack on Gaddafi was intended to kill the Libyan leader. This is not the first time the US has attempted this with the earlier efforts coming in a bombing attack in 1986. This would seem to fit the classic definition of assassination: the killing of a foreign leader when his actions against the United States were not part of a larger war.

2. The recent killing of Bin Laden is being called an assassination by some but doesn’t seem to be in the same category. Bin Laden was not a political leader and I’m sure he had been named something like an “enemy combatant” by the United States. Because he was killed as part of a war effort (the “war on terror”) and he wasn’t a politician, this isn’t really an assassination. The problem comes in here when the media talks about assassinations as any attack on a prominent person. Not all such attacks are assassinations.

In both of these cases, people have made the argument that killing “the head” of the organization (al Qaeda or Libya) would be better than fighting a more traditional war. Perhaps so – but such actions might be against international law (see a quick discussion of the ambiguities here). And whether the killing of one person actually gets rid of larger, structural problems is another matter (witness the case of Iraq and the death of Saddam Hussein).

I recently thought of an example that illustrates some of the problems with assassinations or “targeted killings”: imagine that a foreign leader called for the killing of President Obama because of US actions around the world. I imagine that we would be fairly outraged: how dare another country threaten our voted-in leader. But is this much different than NATO leaders openly discussing killing Gaddafi?

Bin Laden and his McMansion

As the details of Osama bin Laden’s death have become public, some attention has been paid to the house in Pakistan in which he was staying. Here is an extended description from Politico:

The White House says the compound that housed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was “extraordinarily unique” and had many signs that indicated he was hiding there.

The structure, which has been described as a mansion, was on a “large plot of land” in a “relatively secluded” area, a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call. The residence itself was “eight times larger” than other homes in the area, said the official, who refused to be identified.

“We were shocked by what we saw,” the official said after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed at the compound in Abbottabad.

The security measures at the compound were “extraordinary,” the official said, describing walls that were 12 to 18 feet high and topped with barbed wire, in addition to walls on the inside. Access to the mansion was restricted with two security gates, officials said.

Another sign was that the residents of the mansion burned their trash, unlike their neighbors, who simply put their garbage outside, they said.

The property, valued at $1 million, had no telephone or Internet access, the White House said. It was “custom built to hide someone of significance,” the official said.

When I first heard about this house in a Pakistani community, I wondered if anyone would tie this kind of unusual house to the idea of a McMansion. I found three examples. First, a columnist links bin Laden’s house to McMansion complaints in an Austin neighborhood:

And so much for the legend that bin Laden was a really big camper who survived in caves. Bin Laden was found in a huge house, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, eight times larger than any other house in the area. So if he had been hiding in the Bouldin Creek neighborhood, they would have found him years ago because people would have called the city to complain about his McMansion.

They must have a lot of complaints about McMansions in this neighborhood.

Second, a Brooklyn-based publication links bin Laden to McMansions and Martha Stewart:

As for the details, we’ll find out over time (we’re expecting a big spread in Martha Stewart Living about how you can make your house look like Osama’s Abottobad Dream McMansion).

I don’t think we’ll be seeing that particular spread soon.

Third, the blog SpyTalk has this headline for a blog post: “Mystery: Who Financed Bin Laden’s McMansion?

Why exactly would people say bin Laden was living in a McMansion? Perhaps a few reasons: the house was quite large. The house was larger than anything nearby (the relative size argument). The home was quite private with its walls, gate, and barbed wire. But this seems kind of ridiculous: the typical suburban McMansion looks nothing like this nor are its typical residents dangerous terrorists (regardless of what the movie Arlington Road might lead you to believe). But if you don’t like McMansions and you don’t like bin Laden, perhaps this makes sense…

(A Time piece suggests the house was not even a mansion:

The compound doesn’t quite fit the descriptions of a mansion, as some have labeled it. The walls are 12 feet high walls and about 13 inches thick – enough to shield the tall terrorist leader from public view. The property itself is spread over an area slightly smaller than an acre. The house is a great deal smaller, rising over two-storeys. In other ways, it was unremarkable but sometimes noticed.

So there are some differing opinions on this.)