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politics, war vs. crime, etc.

This has been floating around the back of my mind for a while, and this post made me write it down.

As David points out, the "war on terror" is a phenomenon somewhere between war and criminal prosecution. Whenever criminal law would require something GWB doesn't want to do (like showing evidence of someone's guilt before punishing him/her), he says it's a war, and whenever war would require something GWB doesn't want to do (like following the Geneva Conventions), he says it's not a traditional kind of war.

But apart from GWB's self-serving interpretations, there really is an interesting legal question. The traditional law-enforcement sequence of events is

  1. crime is committed

  2. police figure out who did it

  3. police find and arrest them

  4. prosecutor charges them

  5. court & prosecutor try them

  6. court convicts them

  7. corrections system punishes them

  8. other prospective perpetrators are deterred, and/or these perpetrators are prevented, from committing similar crimes in the future

If any step in the process fails, you don't go on to the next step.

This sequence doesn't work for acts like suicide bombing in which the perpetrators willingly give their lives in the process. Steps 2-7 are irrelevant, so there's no reason to believe step 8 will happen. (You can still use this model in marginal cases, where somebody has attempted such a crime but not succeeded in killing him/herself. But we need another way to deal with the successful cases.)

On the other hand, the traditional "war" model would say "If you see somebody, armed, wearing such-and-such uniform, in such-and-such geographical location, you can legitimately assume they are the enemy and kill them." This doesn't work either for terrorists, who are presumably not wearing uniforms, are geographically mingled with the non-terrorist 99.9999% of the population, and may not be carrying anything easily recognizable as a weapon.

One could argue that what terrorists really want is publicity, and deny them that by imposing strict secrecy and controlling the news. That approach has obvious drawbacks for a free society: if government is given the power to control the news in one narrow area like terrorist attacks, government will be irresistibly tempted to control the news in other areas, e.g. anything that even remotely embarrasses the current regime. Which, as we know, leads to unchecked corruption and incompetence in government.

Likewise, one could try to detect people who are likely to commit "suicide crimes", and lock them up before they have a chance to do so. And if they didn't care about losing their own lives, being locked up for a few months or years presumably won't "teach them a lesson" and make them less likely to commit the crime, so you'll need to lock them up forever. Again, there's a serious slippery-slope problem: even assuming one could predict accurately which people were "likely to commit suicide crimes", a government once allowed to detain forever people who haven't actually done anything wrong will be irresistibly tempted to use that power more broadly, and detain forever anybody who disagrees with or criticizes the current regime. Again, unchecked corruption and incompetence.

So what can a government do to prevent suicide terrorist attacks? Reduce the number of people who would be willing to trade their lives for "sticking it to the oppressors". In economic terms, that means either increasing the value of their lives, or decreasing the value of "sticking it to the oppressors." If you can persuade people that they are more valuable (to themselves and their cause) alive than dead, they won't commit suicide attacks. If people disagree with you, or dislike you, but don't hate you passionately enough to give their lives hurting you, they won't commit suicide attacks. If you can convince people that they have a realistic chance of having their concerns addressed in this life, they'll be more likely to stick around to see that happen.

But making people not hate you, and making them believe that their own lives are worth living, have the unfortunate side effect of making them happier. If you take these sorts of actions whenever there's a terrorist threat, you are effectively rewarding people (making them happier) for terrorist threats, so they are more likely to make such threats in the future. So we're led to the peculiar conclusion that to avoid suicidal acts of terrorism, we have to make people not hate us, and believe that their own lives are worth living, all the time, not only when there's been a terrorist threat.


I've often wondered if there would've been so many people willing to through away their lives on 2001 if their home countries had governments that allowed them to speak out and make change or at least have the hope they could make change.

When you feel completely powerless, martyrdom becomes more attractive as a desparate way to make change.

On the other hand, the Oklahoma City bombers were in a society where they could be heard... so perhaps I am on the completely wrong tack here...
Thinking about it a little more, both sets of terrorists (9/11/2001 and Oklahoma City) clearly were part of subcultures that re-inforced "victim mentality" in their membership. Within that subculture, they believed they were powerless to make a difference in their worlds.

victim mentality

Yes, I think that's an important part of the puzzle.

Political terrorism is an attempt to bring about some kind of political change that (in the perp's opinion) can't be brought about within the "approved" political process. (And we can all sympathize with that, right? Think campaign-finance reform, ranked voting, third parties, anything that might change the system that put the incumbents where they are....) In particular, it's a violent response to that frustration.

Now, I suspect there will always be a paranoid fringe of survivalists, victims, martyrs, etc. who are convinced that they have no legitimate voice so to be heard they have to step outside approved channels, e.g. resort to terrorism. But there's a bell-curve of paranoia in the population, and a government's behavior can determine how far out the curve one must be before becoming a terrorist. With a really open, transparent, fair-minded, tolerant government, it'll be only the real nut-cases who go this far; under a truly oppressive regime, OTOH, anyone who's not paranoid could be considered insane.

The GWB administration, of course, has responded to terrorism by becoming less open, transparent, fair-minded, and tolerant, thus making it more likely that people in the US will step over the line into terrorism. At the same time, they've killed thousands of innocent people, all of whose friends and relatives now have cause to hate the US, possibly with enough passion to give their lives in a terrorist attack. They've moved two countries that were more-or-less at peace (albeit under oppressive governments) into a state of chaos, with very shaky economies, so their citizens have less to lose by turning terrorist. And they've treated the US's allies like lackeys and servants, so we have fewer friends to guard our backs.