Barry Eisler

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Terrorism: Nature vs Nurture

The recently leaked, and now partly declassified, National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq and global terrorism has served as a kind of inkblot test, offering insight into the worldviews of the public and politicians who are arguing over its contents.

First, there are those of the "nature" persuasion. These people argue that terrorists are born, not made, and so our actions in Iraq or anywhere else do not -- indeed, cannot -- make terrorism worse. With regard to the NIE, the argument expresses itself this way: "It's silly to argue that the war in Iraq is making terrorism worse. After all, we weren't in Iraq on 9/11."

(For a nice illustration of the "nature" point of view, see Tony Blair's Sept 26 speech).

Second, there are those of the "nurture" persuasion. These people argue that terrorism is a response to western policies; that through its policies the west has created terrorism, and that by adjusting those policies we can ameliorate it. With regard to the NIE, the argument expresses itself this way: "Abu Ghraib, foreign soldiers doing house-to-house searches, collateral damage... all are radicalizing Muslims and creating new terrorists."

Both arguments are half right. And both are entirely wrong.

Probably there are individuals who are born to fanaticism. If they're born Muslim in the middle east, they become Islamists. If they're born Catholic in Northern Ireland, they would be IRA. The problem is in their genes, or in some equally irreducible aspect of their environment, and almost no external influence could have diverted them from extremism.

And probably there are individuals who never would have dreamed of carrying out a suicide bombing, but who decide to do so in response to some western policy, for example the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. In other words, individuals who "but for" (as the tort lawyers like to say) western policy would never have become terrorists.

What's misleading about the terrorist nature/nurture argument isn't just its fallacious assumption that all terrorists are either born or made, when a little common sense quickly suggests that both types exist. The real problem is that the argument focuses on cases that are almost certainly exceptional. After all, isn't it likely that the vast majority of people exist somewhere in the middle range of the nature/nurture continuum? They're not born to extremism, but the right combination of events can lead them into extremism's embrace. Some are more susceptible, others less, but for most people, the environment matters. So the appropriate question isn't, "are or are we not creating terrorists," but rather, "How are our actions enabling terrorism? And can we fine-tune to mitigate while still accruing the benefits of the actions in question?"

The language choices in these questions are important. We're always talking about "the terrorists" -- as though terrorist/non-terrorist is a binary category (remember "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"?). But what enables terrorists is much more than just the people who strap on suicide vests. What about financiers? People who provide safe haven or other assistance? People who could have provided a warning or other intelligence, but now decide not to? Asking whether our policies create or don't create terrorists is misleadingly narrow. We need to ask as well whether our policies foster conditions that enable terrorism, as well.

For every suicide bomber, I'll bet there were at least a hundred active or passive accomplices and enablers. Those accomplices and enablers are the marginal cases, the fence sitters, the ones who our policies -- including our blundering in Iraq -- are most likely to tip one way or the other.

In other words, even if no western policy could possibly cause even a single additional Muslim to don a suicide vest, are we confident that no policy could tip others into mindsets and behaviors that enable the suicide bombers to carry out their atrocity?

Another problem in the debate is that nature proponents make their point too strongly. Rather than claiming that Iraq isn't worsening terrorism, they claim that Iraq can't be worsening terrorism. The first point badly needs to be discussed (Robert Kagen's piece in the Washington Post is an excellent start, IMO). The second is just silly. It flies in the face of the lessons of every counterinsurgency campaign ever conducted. If the right tactics can quell an insurgency, how could it be that the wrong ones couldn't create, enflame, and sustain one?

Here's a thought experiment. Should we airdrop pig offal and American flags onto Mecca and Medina? Why not? If our actions can't create terrorism, what difference could it make?

If you're a "nature" proponent, don't try to wriggle out of the experiment by saying "there would be no benefit." Maybe not, but if you believe our actions can't fuel terrorism, you have to accept that there would be no cost, either. In which case, the offal and flags would do no harm, right?

I think part of the reason the nature crowd tends toward a "we can't make terrorism worse" line of argument is because suggesting that we have some influence over terrorism sounds close to suggesting that we're responsible for it. But the two concepts are not the same. Effective policing can reduce the crime rate. That doesn't mean the police are responsible for crime. It does mean they're responsible for effective policing.

Let's stipulate that our actions can worsen terrorism. Let's stipulate too that we are not responsible for terrorism. Now we can get down to the hard work of asking what "worsening" terrorism really means, of examining how we might be worsening it, of weighing costs and benefits, of taking informed risks and making difficult choices.
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13 Comments:

Anonymous Judge said...

Nice job, well said.

Thursday, September 28, 2006 3:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Patrick Pricken said...

I think the police analogy is a good and yet a wrong one. People accept police and ciminal justice because they live where police and criminal justice have a say.

But the middle east is not for the west to police, at least in the eyes of middle easterners. A lot of "enablers" will be simple people standing by, people who notice how radical the imam at their local church is, people who notice how little Hassan always spits on the US American flag when he passes the embassy, but who don't do anything about it.

If we somehow manage to provide an image of a friendly nation or set of nations, an image of someone who wants (e.g.) Afghanistan do flourish for its own good (even if the chosen course would not benefit ourselves), an image of someone who wants the people of (e.g.) Afghanistan to become independent, educated, better-off, then perhaps these enables would tell the Imam to shut up, or take their kids to a different mosque, or inform authorities, and perhaps they'd child Hassan for his ignorance of US American ideals.

On the other hand, if soldiers come unbidden to police where they originally have no right to police, if the west pretends (e.g.) Afghanis are nothing more than children who need to be taken by the hand, and that their country is free to be invaded, bombed, perhaps even put down, then these enables will continue to enable, look away, or even applaud the fanatics.

I strongly feel that we need to be firm and resolute when dealing with countries or people who are set against us, but equally strongly I don't think military intervention will ever be a permanent solution, killing will never be a permanent solution. We need to look at what they want, how reasonable that is, and work on compromises that make it impossible to see us as the devils come to abuse our power.

Of course, that takes empathy with these people and countries, and honesty regarding our past behaviour. Concerning Germany, I can only say despite all the generosity we so gladly present, we have failed at developing such empathy, and miserably at that, concerning Afrika and the Middle East (not counting Israel).

Thursday, September 28, 2006 4:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Mary R said...

Your post reminds me of a study I read about recently. Basically, the trick to controlling bullying problems in schools isn't getting the bullies to stop their behaviors, or the victims to change their behaviors. The solution is for the "neutral" observers to voice their disapproval of the bully's actions.

Terrorists (and bullies) believe they are acting out the secret wishes of the community. As long as the community is silent about the actions of the terrorists, they will go on. The IRA was forced to a solution only when the Catholic population saw the possibility of peace and no longer supported them.

Thursday, September 28, 2006 7:47:00 PM  
Blogger PBI said...

patrick and mary r,

Sounds like you two are in agreement on the concept of enablers, and I think that idea makes a good degree of sense as well. It seems reminiscent of other types of human behavior - for instance the control of prisons by guards. As any guard will tell you, the inmates can establish control of most prisons if they want to do so and act accordingly in concert; it is esentially the convicts' acceptance of the situation as defined by the guards (and society) that allows the guards to maintain control.

In fairness to some points made in a previous thread however, I believe that there is a certain percentage of the terrorist population who will never stand down in the face of even universal approbation from international and domestic society. (Just as there are always those prisoners who end up in solitary. Or maybe I've watched too much Oz.) I suppose this speaks to Barry's point of it being a combination of both nature and nurture, with which I also agree.

Best,
Paul
Sensen No Sen

Friday, September 29, 2006 3:08:00 PM  
Blogger PBI said...

Barry said: Here's a thought experiment. Should we airdrop pig offal and American flags onto Mecca and Medina? Why not? If our actions can't create terrorism, what difference could it make?

Excellent! I'll have to remember that one! : )

Best,
Paul
Sensen No Sen

Friday, September 29, 2006 3:10:00 PM  
Blogger spy scribbler said...

Ohmigod, I love this post, Barry. I'm drooling over your choice of the word, 'enabling.' It hits upon one of my key pet peeves with our (American) culture.

I'm totally generalizing here (sorry, but sometimes we have to when we study a whole society), but I think America would be a lot better off it stopped obsessing with blame and started considering the word, "enabling." From the government straight on down to parenting.

People will do what works, no matter what their age or level of maturity or intelligence. The terrorists can't fight fair; that would be ineffective for their cause. I know I'm prone to idealism and oversimplification, but I think the key to 'fighting' terrorism is providing a way for them to be heard and to effectively achieve some of their more realistic goals without violence.

Mary R, I like your IRA point.

As for nature vs. nurture, I think the majority is nurture. There are always some people who are just born with some sort of make-up that no amount of nurturing can combat, but it's the responsibility of a society to create an environment that neutralizes that which is a threat to its safety and well-being.

Perhaps instead of offal (grins), we should be bombarding them with propoganda of hope and visions of a better life. I'm not saying that terrorists are like children, but the innate qualities and behavioral responses of the human race are sometimes more clearly seen in children.

Negative reinforcement and reactions are sometimes needed and somewhat effective, but in the end, positive reinforcement and outcomes are needed for a true and lasting behavioral shift.

Saturday, September 30, 2006 8:11:00 PM  
Blogger law dawg fed said...

Part of the answer of your question, Barry, would seem to lie in what some of these terrorists say would satisfy them"

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,845725,00.html

These are the actions that al Qaeda (via OBL) says cause their attacks and those actions we can take to stop said attacks. It is debatable that this list is all-inclusive in that 1) al Qaeda doesn't speak for all terrorists and 2) there may be dissention in al Qaeda itself. But that said, it does offer at least one blueprint from the leader of the best known terrorist organization in the world.

Anyone up for this prescription?

Sunday, October 01, 2006 4:12:00 PM  
Blogger cwellins said...

Respectfully, to the comment:
“I know I'm prone to idealism and oversimplification, but I think the key to 'fighting' terrorism is providing a way for them to be heard and to effectively achieve some of their more realistic goals without violence. “


There are many that feel this way and it shows that that is what makes sense in your belief system. It is a good one, BUT, we are dealing with something entirely different here.
Check out any one of the following links to see what I mean.
These are not misunderstood teenagers that need to be understood or heard.
I am extremely concerned that so many people do not get that the Islamofacist’s agenda is to destroy Infidels (that would be us) and for all to follow Islam and Sharia law.

http://ws.giyus.org/points/point?id=139
http://www.science.co.il/Arab-Israeli-conflict/What-do-Palestinians-want.ppt
http://www.shoebat.com/comments.php
click on “click here to view full broadcast”
(This is the web page of Walid Shoebat who wrote “Why I left Jihad” He was a card carrying, infidel murdering, PLO Jihadist who racked up points for each death and then left and now speaks out about Jihad and his journey in and out of it)

That he left Jihad says there was something in his nature that wanted out..
To me, an interesting component is that, in nature vs nurture, perhaps the most significant quality of ones nature that makes it supercede nurture is the concept of free will or empowerment.
This is one of the most aggressively suppressed or underdeveloped parts of Islam, which means “Submission”.

I also can not help but think that a part of the “swamp” Barry referred to a few weeks back is the dramatic separation of the sexes.
Could Abdul bring flowers and dates to Fatima on Saturday’s romantic date and so easily blow up a village on Sunday?
What effect would it have on the men of Jihad if women were to remove their burkas and be in the mix of day to day life. Some of them would surely shift their focus.

Barry likened Islamofacism to Malaria in a previous blog, I feel it is much more like cancer or rabies, which transforms friendly fido into “ Foaming at the mouth Fido from hell” and you have to put him down.
Cancer’s mission is to take over and destroy all healthy cells and then you die.
How do you treat it? Old School treatment is to nuke it or cut it out or both. It is easy to see the analogies here.
The big problem with that is that you need to destroy normal cells as well, which means civilians or innocent people. The body can regenerate cells but humans can not be replaced.
This is perhaps the largest challenge in fighting terrorists, as they are impossible to separate from the general population and are not limited to a specific location.


The holistic approach to fighting cancer, which more and more people are using recently consists of cleansing impurities from the body, reducing toxic factors of all kinds and restoring the immune system to health so that it can do the job it was intended to do. We are all regularly exposed to carcinogens and fight them off.
I can not come up with even the beginnings of a holistic approach for the cancer of Islamofacism myself, any ideas?

Sunday, October 01, 2006 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger spy scribbler said...

law dog fed: Thanks for the link. How quickly I forget. How depressing. Their rhetoric sounds like a reasoning for revenge and an excuse for continued violence.

cwellins: You're right, I am looking it through the glasses of my own belief system. I tend to do that a lot. *grins*

The cancer analogy is a good one. The problem is that their driving force is their interpretation of their religion. To ask them to stop terrorism is like asking them to change their religion, isn't it?

I don't know about most people, but that goes against a whole strew of my beliefs, first of which is freedom of religion. It's a very uncomfortable thought and discussion, but they've linked their violence and politicking with their interpretation of their religion. So we have to look at one when we analyze the other.

How did the Christians stop crusading? The witch hunts? Their motives were religious. How did their violence get separated from their religion so that they could move on to peace without compromising their spiritual identity?

I think your holistic argument fits in with Barry's point about nurture and environment. What we can control, is our influence on their environment.

I'm curious. Their stated objectives are simply impossible and unreasonable. They're fighting a losing battle. Why aren't they demoralized? What kind of propoganda are they being fed, that they think CAN achieve these objectives? What successes are they seeing, that reinforce their motivation to keep fighting this battle?

Monday, October 02, 2006 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger PBI said...

spy scribbler said: I'm curious. Their stated objectives are simply impossible and unreasonable. They're fighting a losing battle. Why aren't they demoralized? What kind of propoganda are they being fed, that they think CAN achieve these objectives? What successes are they seeing, that reinforce their motivation to keep fighting this battle?

That part's easy: fervent religious belief. It's been historically demonstrated to have the power to get people to do things they wouldn't otherwise.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous sardonic said...

For every suicide bomber, I'll bet there were at least a hundred active or passive accomplices and enablers. Those accomplices and enablers are the marginal cases, the fence sitters, the ones who our policies -- including our blundering in Iraq -- are most likely to tip one way or the other.

I agree on the hundred to one, though it could be far smaller in the case of cells, but I'm not convinced that the "fense sitters" as you call them would be persuaded by US policy either way. If this were the case then why would not some of them have turned in terrorists along the way, for example, after 9/11 (when sympathy was at its maximum) and before Iraq? But we didn't see the "fense sitters" come out and divulge anything about anyone. In fact they were very largely silent. So this tends to suggest to my mind that they are not swayed by US policy. I submit rather that they may be persuaded much more by their Mullahs and what they say, which may or may not have anything to do with actual American Policy at all. If the Mullahs have a plan (which I believe they do) to conquer the West and bring Islamic law to the entire world then they will say whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. I would point out that America has been the leading contributor to global assistance in catastrophies and famines and wars for quite some time, and yet since that information does not fit in with the "great satan" meme the Mullahs never mention it - instead they rage incessantly against the West. The Mullah's concern is to persuade their people to rise up in violent rage against the West. This is what they are aiming for. They will, and do, fabricate any kind of rumor or lie (what we like to call propaganda) to bring about their cause. So policy may not have as much an effect on the "fense sitters" as we might hope.

Other than that I think it a fine article. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 6:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to whether Muslim anger is directed to our country by policy, I would propose that evidence absolutely counters that claim. My father worked for an oil company, and we lived in Tripoli shortly before Qadafi took over. At that time (1969) we did not hear the hyperbole of mideast hate towards Western policy we did today, and daily life for my mother and my brother and I was pleasant, notwithstanding the traditional mideast disrespect and downright animosity (yes that't the right word) towards women. My father and other oil company managers actually had maps in their desks of good escape routes through the desert should 'things suddenly change for no reason'. A Libyan neighbor told my father on arriving that their slogan was 'me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousin, me, my brother and my cousin against the world' Today's take that the Muslim world's violence is born of Western policy is remarkably naive, or dishonest, take your pick - hate and violence have always been a part of that world - their recent horrific successes at carrying out that rage are simply a function of better focus, financing and organization.
dunross@hotmail.com

Sunday, October 08, 2006 9:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to whether Muslim anger is directed to our country by policy, I would propose that evidence absolutely counters that claim. My father worked for an oil company, and we lived in Tripoli shortly before Qadafi took over. At that time (1969) we did not hear the hyperbole of mideast hate towards Western policy we did today, and daily life for my mother and my brother and I was pleasant, notwithstanding the traditional mideast disrespect and downright animosity (yes that't the right word) towards women. My father and other oil company managers actually had maps in their desks of good escape routes through the desert should 'things suddenly change for no reason'. A Libyan neighbor told my father on arriving that their slogan was 'me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousin, me, my brother and my cousin against the world' Today's take that the Muslim world's violence is born of Western policy is remarkably naive, or dishonest, take your pick - hate and violence have always been a part of that world - their recent horrific successes at carrying out that rage are simply a function of better focus, financing and organization.
jdavidcasto@hotmail.com

Sunday, October 08, 2006 9:19:00 AM  

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