Wednesday , June 19 2024

Social Science vs. Terror

I love, no, I ADORE the title of this story in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “How Social Science Can Reduce Terrorism.”

I can picture ever so vividly a phalanx of tweedy, tastefully mustachioed psych, sociology, history, and poli sci profs locked arm-in-arm, meerschaum pipes perpendicular to resolutely clenched jaws, a weak-chinned Maginot Line against what terror may come. Save us with thine socially scientific might, oh pale knights of academe!

The authors, Scott Plous and Philip Lombardo, bristle gently with passive aggressive indignation:

    social scientists have made substantial progress in understanding and predicting terrorism. Moreover, that progress has accelerated since the attacks of September 11. In psychology, for example, a search of the PsycINFO database (the largest psychology database in the world, with entries dating back to the 1880s) reveals that more research on terrorism has been published since 2001 than in all previous years combined.

    In this season of political campaigns, commissions, and controversies, the results of social-science research should be part of any educated and informed discussion of the war on terror.

“Pardon me, sir – you aren’t sufficiently clinging to our golden drops of hard-won knowledge.”

And what is this culled wisdom?

    Thus far, behavioral research has found only one psychological attribute that reliably differentiates terrorists from nonterrorists: a propensity toward anger.

    In the words of a recent National Research Council report titled “Terrorism: Perspectives From the Behavioral and Social Sciences”: “There is no single or typical mentality — much less a specific pathology — of terrorists. However, terrorists apparently find significant gratification in the expression of generalized rage.”

Really, research has revealed that terrorists are angry? Hence the mass murder and stuff.

And yet while the authors are indignant that their brain-power hasn’t been sufficiently cleaved to, note the flimsiness of this line of reasoning:

    The futility of fighting terrorism with large-scale military strikes is perhaps clear-est in the case of Iraq, where U.S. troop casualties have steadily increased over time. In May through August 2003, after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, an average of 4.9 military personnel were wounded per day. That climbed to 10.3 in September through December 2003, 15.3 in the first four months of 2004, and 21.4 from May through mid-August.

The “large-scale military strike” against Iraq was an invasion and occupation of an entire country to effect regime change, not an operation to subdue specific terrorists.

While regime change in Iraq IS part of the greater war on terror and Saddam has long been linked to, and aided and abetted, terrorists, the invasion of Iraq was a war of liberation to free a nation from the yoke of a tyrant. The terrorist activity that has ensued is a completely predictable result of a post-overthrow power struggle to dictate the future of the country, former Baathists and clansmen of Saddam who resent the removal of privilege, and Islamists from within and without the country.

While the plans for post-invasion Iraq were clearly botched, post-invasion guerilla activity in Iraq has about zero bearing on the efficacy of military activity against terrorists. Notice, the authors didn’t mention the efficacy of “large-scale military strikes” against terrorists in Afghanistan, where military action drove al-Qaeda and its host the Taliban from the perch of power and unmolested training and planning grounds.

The folly continues:

    And despite the fact that 70 percent of Al Qaeda’s core leadership has been caught or killed, the organization has carried out more attacks since September 11, 2001, than it did in the three years before. According to the U.S. State Department’s most authoritative report, “Patterns of Global Terrorism 2003,” there was a 27-percent increase in “significant terrorist incidents” worldwide from 2002 to 2003 — along with a 56-percent increase in casualties — despite unprecedented spending by the United States to wage a war on terror.

Right, when the hornet’s nest is destroyed there is all kinds of scurrying about and striking out, but the struggle is long-term and must be viewed as such. While, obviously, short-term activity will increase when you attack the problem directly and rouse the hornets, the nest will not go away of its own accord – that is the bitter lesson of 9/11. The nest must be attacked and sooner is better than later.

Having proved nothing but their own confusion, the authors then assume they have proved their foregone conclusion:

    If military responses to terrorism are counterproductive, what can be done? In the short run, the United States can fortify measures that promote self-protection, encourage citizens in likely target areas to be vigilant, and improve training and information sharing among intelligence organizations, law-enforcement personnel, branches of government, and our allies.

NO sane person would argue with any of these measures, but they are all strictly defensive, which the authors not only admit, but in fact trumpet:

    Although self-protective measures will never be foolproof, they have the virtue of being nonprovocative and less costly than war.

The virtue of being nonprovocative? Did I really just read that from reputedly sentient beings in 2004? What did we do to provoke 9/11 and a bloody trail of terror against US and Western interests leading back to the ’70s? Nothing – and what did we do about it? Not much.

That “not much,” that perceived weakness and decadence was a specific justification bin Laden gave for attacking: “just a push will topple the paper tiger,” and 9/11 was he supposed push.

Then the social sciences really come to the rescue:

    With respect to the first goal, social-science research suggests that intergroup conflict is reduced when members of each group are equal in status and are mutually dependent on one another. At the level of nations, those conditions can be strengthened by addressing legitimate grievances and developing fair-trade agreements, joint investments of venture capital, cultural-exchange programs, and respect for human rights, sovereignty, and international law.

    In terms of the second goal, the United States can create a sense of shared purpose and incentives for reducing terrorism by increasing its foreign aid, hunger-relief assistance, and medical exports to countries working actively to fight terrorism. Currently, the United States gives a lower percentage of its gross national product to foreign aid than does any other developed nation. Clearly, however, one of the surest ways to win friends and reduce anti-Americanism is by helping those in need.

    Finally, any comprehensive strategy to reduce terrorism must ensure that children are not socialized to embrace violence as a means of problem solving. In the Oslo Interim Agreement of 1995, Israel and the Palestinian Authority pledged that they would “ensure that their respective educational systems contribute to the peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and to peace in the entire region, and will refrain from the introduction of any motifs that could adversely affect the process of reconciliation.”

Well buddies, I wouldn’t argue with a bit of this – it’s all swell. Except now the authors have turned the tables and instead of using short-term stats to attack long-term efforts, they use long-term efforts to attack short-term stats.

In other words, being the best we can be and creating the best possible world we can create is an admirable, worthy, and absolutely unattainable goal, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, but a little more tangible action is required down here on the planet.

Neither we nor the world will ever be perfect, and the Islamist terrorists – whom the authors never quite manage to name – will never stop hating a non-Islamist world and will never stop trying to kill those who oppose them. Those confirmed ideologues of death will never be assuaged by improved balances of trade, they must be killed or captured (preferably killed), and those who might be inclined to follow them must be dissuaded from following them by implacable military resolve.

And social scientists wonder why their suggestions generate a vague smile and glazed eye from those who bear the responsibility of dealing with the actual world.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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