Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rational suicides amid intellectual rot

People die unexpectedly in large numbers all over the world every day. The current flooding in Pakistan has killed at least 1600 people so far; Moscow's heat and smoke emergency is killing an excess of 350 people a day this summer; nearly 1500 people have been killed by landslides and flooding in China recently. Deaths in war are more expected: at least 318 US and NATO soldiers died in Afghanistan in the first six months of this year; some 1300 Afghan civilians also died, mostly in bombings. All these awful, untimely, frequently unnecessary deaths don't turn our world upside down unless we happen to find ourselves in direct proximity to them. But the 3000 killed in the 9/11 attacks did, as the cliche goes, "change everything."

Obviously the attacks on New York and Washington shocked us because we were stunned to be hit so dramatically, as if we'd stumbled into a made-for-TV movie, right in our own country. But an additional element of our stunned shock arose from the tactics of the terrorists: they were willing to kill not only a lot of other people, but also themselves, by flying those planes into buildings.

I remember struggling to imagine what could motivate a person to be willing to die in this gruesome fashion. Soldiers risk death but hope to survive; suicide terrorists use their own death as a weapon. That's very different. In the years since we've seen more suicide terrorism (mixed in with lots of more conventional guerilla "insurgencies" in the arenas where we've gone to war) so the practice has lost some of its shock. But that initial shock in 2001 was appropriate -- there was something happening that needed unpacking. Instead, as journalist Saul Friedman wisely reminded us the other day:

...the U.S. reaction was like an irrational spasm, a great temper tantrum. Instead of treating [the attacks] as an horrible crime, the U.S. declared war on a nation. Instead of using our intelligence sources to go after the criminal perpetrators, the richest nation on earth sent bombs and missiles against the poorest of nations and its innocents. We and they are still dying ...

Saul adds "for no reason." I concur but that is not my subject today.

In 2004, Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, tried to provide a data-driven answer to the conundrum of suicide terrorism in his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Pape asked some sensible questions:

First, what is the strategic logic of suicide terrorism? That is, why does suicide attack make political sense from the perspective of a terrorist organization? If terrorist organizations did not believe that suicide attack would advance their political goals, they would not do it.

Second, what is the social logic of suicide terrorism? Why does suicide attack receive mass support in some societies and not others? Without social support from the terrorists' national community, suicide terrorist campaigns could not be sustained.

Third, what is the individual logic of suicide terrorism? What makes particular people willing to give up their lives to carry out terrorist attacks? Without a ready supply of willing attackers, suicide terrorist campaigns would be much more limited in scope than they are. ...

There's little evidence that Washington, under Republicans or later Democrats, ever asked these sensible questions. The Bush-Cheney set treated understanding what we were up against as symptom of weakness -- and sadly, President Obama seems trapped by the logic of their war.

Pape's study of 315 incidents of suicide terrorism between 1980 and 2003 convinced him that we have to understand that those who use the tactic are pursuing, from their point of view, a rational course:

Suicide terrorism is an extreme strategy for national liberation.

But we might object, the U.S. is not a colonial power ... Pape says that's taking the wrong angle of vision:

For the purpose of understanding suicide terrorism, it is imperative to view occupation from the perspective of the resistance movement (e.g., terrorists, revolutionaries), because it is the behavior of the local actors, not the foreign power, that determines whether suicide terrorism occurs. Whether the foreign power regards itself as a "stabilizing" ally rather than an "occupying" power is not relevant.

It may seem wacky to us that troops based in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War should create such a sense of insult, but many local people do see U.S. troops based anywhere in the Middle East as occupiers. Since 9/11, we've massively magnified the insult.

Pape argues that a religious difference between occupied and occupier is not a sufficient condition for suicide terrorism to attract adherents -- but the difference does serve as a sort of recruiting multiplier:

Religious difference lends greater credibility to extremist groups who seek to use the language of martyrdom to legitimate their violence. ... It reduces the degree of manipulation necessary to re-define acts of suicide and murder as acts of martyrdom for the defense of the community....

Pape insists that al-Qaeda's successes have come from nimbly exploiting a mix of warped religion with nationalism:

Overall, analysis of al-Qaeda's suicide terrorists shows that its most lethal forces are best understood as a coalition of nationalist groups seeking to achieve a local change in their home countries, not as a truly transnational movement seeking to spread Islam or any other ideology to non-Islamic populations. Religion matters, but mainly in the context of national resistance. ...

...bin Laden's principal organizational innovation has been to reorient various local resistance movements away from their local grievances in the short term so as to bring an accumulation of violence against their common enemy, the United States. Because there is a religious difference between the United States and all these groups, and because none are militarily strong enough to stand up to American power on their own, al-Qaeda leaders can portray the United States as a religiously motivated aggressor, posing a common threat to occupy and transform their societies, and can appeal for collective martyrdom operations as the only means of protecting the self-determination of the threatened communities. ...

Establishing that the United States is on a Christian crusade to remake the Muslim world enables bin Laden to claim that American foreign and military policies in a variety of countries are part of a coherent plan, that American behavior will become aggressive over time, that national groups in those target countries have a common basis to work together, and that those who die can easily be defined as martyrs for Islam.

Because in our society we think of suicide as evidence of individual instability (even when it is recent war vets who are doing the dying), we look for individual pathologies to understand recruits who join suicide terrorism campaigns. But as many have marveled, many suicide terrorists seem very ordinary. Pape takes this observation further:

Suicide Terrorism Is Not Overwhelmingly Egoistic:
... Altruistic motives are significant in the individual logic of suicide terrorism. Many suicide attackers may also wish to escape personal problems, but the egoistic motives that account for ordinary suicides are insufficient, on their own, to explain why many individuals voluntarily carry out suicide terrorist attacks. ... Suicide terrorist organizations are not socially isolated groups with socially unacceptable goals, but go to great lengths to embed themselves in their surrounding communities and to pursue socially acceptable political objectives. Although this social construction of altruistic martyrdom does not create altruistic individuals, it does produce the circumstances under which an individual who wishes to sacrifice for the community can be confident that the act is understood in this way. As a result, the altruistic motive is often a necessary if not sufficient condition for suicide terrorism.

...In general, suicide attackers are rarely socially isolated, clinically insane, or economically destitute individuals, but are most often educated socially integrated, and highly capable people who could be expected to have a good future.

Pape shows the information is there for a far smarter, more effective response to the reality that there are people around the world who would like to kill people in the United States. But no -- we get airport security theater, protests about mosques, and wars aplenty. Something is rotten in this empire ...

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