Religious terrorism

Most societies have exerted control of individuals they find dangerous by threatening to make the remaining life of a criminal miserable, or to simply confiscate it. This works well enough (with plenty of opportunity to improve existing practices): people with evil intent mostly think they will be caught and punished, or killed in the process of a violent act, and an expected value calculation comes out in favor of not doing the crime.

Sometimes violence isn’t a crime; the civilized world would have applauded the White Rose for blowing Hitler up if they had succeeded, and certainly (if it ever happens) the armed citizen who puts down the lunatic about to shoot up a school or theater is simply doing the right thing. People give up their lives to do good in this world, like the soldier who throws himself on the grenade to save his buddies.

Some very large amount of hideous behavior never occurs because most people have a working moral sense whether or not it derives from religious teaching, and some faiths assert an eternal post-life time during which acts on earth will be punished or rewarded, so doing wrong is discouraged by some combination of just knowing what wrong is, and a selfish benefit-cost calculation.

When religious teaching promises heavenly reward for savagery on earth, we face a distinctive set of challenges (and what seem to be new levels of savagery, like sending a ten-year-old girl into a market with a bomb).   Suicidal murderers are not deterred like bank robbers by the fear that they won’t “get away with it”; oversimplifying only a little, they have been sold the belief that the mayhem they are about is a quick ticket to eternal happiness. If their present life is a dead-end struggle in a segregated banlieue slum, so much the better.  There is no practical sanction society can threaten such a person with to get a good benefit-cost calculation, especially if the society trying to protect itself looks like a bunch of ungodly infidels. Neither armed guards hoping to shoot first, nor a room full of heat-packing citizens going about their business, offer more than modest protection against a suicide bomber at the security desk or door, or in a large heavy vehicle with a running start. Tactics directed at the bombers and shooters, that kept gangster crime in last century down to a dull roar, are toothless here.

Perhaps we are coming to a time when a particular category of religious doctrine, and merchants thereof, are indigestible to a functioning society, just when the “functioning society” has become something more like “humanity” then “Nation X”. The idea of a country’s “internal affairs” has been shredded by the internet and the 747, and isolation of toxic sources is penetrated by prison gangs and cell phones. The doctrine doesn’t have to be religious, as the direct-action anarchists of the turn of the last century showed, but now it almost exclusively is, and the anarchists were (i) motivated by human welfare on earth, not pie in the sky when we die (ii) a lot more concerned to blow up and shoot political leaders, who can be practically protected, than dozens and hundreds of ordinary citizens.

In addition to the invocation of unprovable, unarguable theology to justify savagery, the current breed of terrorists share another brand of villainy with (for example) kidnappers, by turning our best instincts, like due process of law and respect for life, against us.

Back in the day, there was a status of “outlaw” that malefactors could earn by doing a lot of really bad things and refusing to submit themselves to the courts.  An outlaw so designated was denied the protection of the laws and could be legally killed by anyone who got the drop on him.  I am not much troubled by the extremely rare criers of fire in crowded theaters, but the lunatic fringe of radical Islam, that breeds suicidal terrorists by a supernatural reward proposition not susceptible of assessment with facts or evidence, is starting to make a concept of freedom of speech that has served western society well for a long time look oversimple. Egging on lost souls to shoot abortion providers, while staying safe and cozy in front of a computer, is a similar category of criminality, but its death toll and even its total toll of human suffering is manageable (could be better, of course) by our usual criminal justice tools and informal social controls.

ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the lot are a different problem.  The generals very likely believe for themselves the eternal reward story they peddle, and drone strikes on them have not exactly shut down the machine. It would be better if the civilized world didn’t give them Abu Ghreib, Islamophobic bigots on Fox News and talk radio, Marine le Pen and all the other excuses to view us as deserving extermination, but they are not fighting a war for fair treatment by oppressors.  They are fighting a war to reverse thirteen centuries of human development and using every piece of that development they can get their hands on, from gunpowder to electronics to habeas corpus, to do it. They are not a criminal justice problem, nor a military problem, nor a social justice problem; they are something new (at least in the last few centuries), different, and strategically deeply perplexing.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Religious terrorism”

  1. The opening of this sounds perilously close to "their death-spreading nutters are beyond the pale, but our death-spreading nutters are not so bad." The last paragraph, for me, opens the perhaps more interesting question of why their death-spreading nutters have been so successful at recruiting from the heart of their target's camp.

  2. Fanaticism and martyrdom are novelties? I'm not sure the kamikaze pilots of WWII or the dutiful Soviets marching through minefields for the Motherland or the various martyred apostles of the New Testament would agree — they all were sold their various mythologies that suggested sacrificing one's life for a principle — good or bad — was worthwhile.

    Secondly, I'm not sure their war is 1300 years old. It smells very au courant to me. Perhaps they've just become better at recruiting remote soldiers.

    Just as we've become superbly adept at perpetuating our own much broader butcheries with the civilized veneer of drones and smart bombs, so that only "animals" get killed. We've gotten so much better at making massive civilian death tolls abroad appeal to housewives whose sons no longer need be killed to effect them. Our twelve educated white journalists are so much less blameworthy than the half million brown children of a savage creed.

    The Charlie Hebdo shootings are a neo-con's wet dream, Mossad couldn't have asked for a better narrative. But to cast ISIL and Boko Haram as primitive and "perplexing" smacks of xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism, and classism. Plus it's breezily facile. These are modern enemies, tuning up their game to match the much-improved killing and pillaging game of the petro-colonial Finance Machine.

    I don't find it perplexing at all. They're tweaking the rules of OUR game to give them a better chance of competing.

  3. It is very hard to convince someone willing to die for a belief that the belief is false. Perhaps we need more imams who preach that suicide bombing is fundamentally un-Islamic. Potential suicide bombers are not going to listen to you or me, but they just might listen to them. Of course, they might not, but if even one suicide bomber is deterred, it's worth it.

    What we shouldn't do is change our societies and make them less open and free because of the fear of suicide bombers. Statistically, suicide bombings kill very few people, and in rich countries, fewer still. So far. Obviously this can change, and it's not irrational to harbor some small fear that it might, while attempting to live our lives without being psychologically crippled by such concerns. Closed, fearful societies are what our enemies want. Let's not give it to them.

  4. "They are something new (at least in the last few centuries).."
    – Thugs (Hindu), suppressed in the 1830s by the Raj in cooperation with Indian princes.
    – Taiping (Confucian/Buddhist/Taoist/Christian syncretism), 1860s.
    – Bhindranwale (Sikh), 1970s.
    – Aum Shinro Kyo (Asian syncretism). Japan, heyday 1970s.
    I have a few old notes on these on my personal website. I left out the Branch Dravidians and Jonestown. The main takeaway: read Norman Cohn.

    It's true that before the 21st century, the heydays of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious terrorists were much earlier. Still, the dataset is quite large, and suggests that this particular perversion of religion is quite common. Still less common, I hasten to add, than cooptation by the powerful for repression and conquest (Crusades, the Inquisitions, Spanish fascism, WWI, etc.)

    The ten-year-old with a bomb was prefigured by Saki in his terrifying little tale The Easter Egg, from 1911. He was writing about the secular Balkan terrorists of his own day, one of whom sparked the war that in the end did for him and millions of others. SFIK they didn't actually use the method: not because they weren't callous enough, but because it's unreliable.

  5. I will have to think about this, as I am a bit more cynical as to whether the leaders of these groups are as sincere as you say. I rather think not. I also suspect that they are forcing some of these "suicide" bombings, which is even more sick, if that's even possible. If a woman is worth nothing, why would a girl be worth anything?

    Plus, I still think most of this is an inter-ethnic struggle with a religious layer put on top of it to make it look, well, holy. But you raise good points, and I will think about them. It would be handy if I could read Arabic, I suppose. But then again, were I to hang around on these sites, wouldn't the NSA get a very wrong idea about me? Yes, it would be wrong. I wonder though if the supervision is that good? Interesting. And for the record, I am against the drone strikes. Why the bleep are we even in Yemen? Can't Yemenis figure it out themselves? I still think the ***legal*** approach was the correct path, and it is not too late for us to correct our error and go back and choose that path.

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