2001 : WHAT NOW?

keith_devlin's picture
Mathematician; Executive Director, H-STAR Institute, Stanford; Author, Finding Fibonacci
Senior Researcher at Stanford University

I approach the Edge question as a mathematician who examines logical reasoning within real-life contexts. My research into the influence of context and culture on human action (as described in several of my books) has conditioned me always to seek the logic that guides decisions.

Humans do not act irrationally. When a human acts in a way the rest of us view as irrational, there is inevitably a context or background within which the action makes perfect (if sometimes horrific) sense. To refer to the actions of the September 11 terrorists as "cowardly" or "mindless," as far too many world leaders have, is a massive misunderstanding of the situation. Moreover, it is a misunderstanding that, when perpetrated by those in a position to influence subsequent events, is likely to have dangerous consequences. It is likewise dangerous to say such acts are simply the result of "pure evil." Not because they are not evil; for surely they are. But saying they are "simply the acts of evil-minded men" provides a neat and comforting explanation that avoids those of us on the other side from having to figure out what lies behind the terrorism.

The September 11 terrorists were not carrying out an act of "mindless violence." Nothing, surely, can carry more significance than their choice of targets. They were taking careful aim at one nation, the United States. Nor is the symbolic nature of their specific targets mere happenstance. They chose clearly identifiable symbols both of the America way of life and of American power and influence.

Assuming that the terrorists were not acting alone (which seems a reasonable assumption, but has not as far as I know been ruled out), and that some person or organization lay behind their actions, then we can all speculate as to the overall strategic motive, if any: to provoke a US military response that leads to global warfare; to pressure the US population to force their government to abandon support for Israel; to create a symbol of US vulnerability that will eventually encourage Islamic nations to wage holy war on the West; there are many possibilities.

Leaving possible strategic goals aside, however, we face an important question we would do well to answer. What could possibly persuade 19 human beings to get onto airplanes with the carefully thought out intention of flying them into large buildings at high speed ‹ and to go through with the plan? We are not talking about a heat-of-the-moment "irrationality" here ‹ the kind of circumstance where any one of us can finds ourselves doing something that under normal circumstances we would regard as wrong, foolhardy, dangerous, heroic, or even "evil." These guys planned their actions in great detail and with enormous precision, almost certainly aided by others.

In an article published in the British newspaper The Guardian on September 15, titled Religion's misguided missiles, Edge member Richard Dawkins puts the blame squarely on religious extremism. In doing so, he is surely partly right.

Convincing oneself that one is acting in the name of God for some cosmic purpose far greater than mere human lives is a long standing device whereby humans manage to excuse themselves (in their own minds) the most abominable actions. The decidedly outdated sexual (and sexist) passages in the Koran that the world at large has become familiar with in the past two weeks, which Dawkins also cites in his article, could also play a role. (Literal reading of some parts of the Koran surely debases Islam every bit as much as a literal reading of certain passages in the Bible debases Christianity.) But as others have commented, there has to be more to it than Dawkins says.

I have no way of knowing, and I fear that if our authorities find out they will keep it to themselves, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that each one of the 19 terrorists had suffered personal, tragic loss ‹ of a wife, a son, a daughter, a close friend, an entire family ‹ in a Middle East air attack. An attack for which, rightly or wrongly, they hold the United States responsible, be it in the form of actions in the Iraq War, support for Israel, or simply the supply of arms and funds to various regimes. You don't have to be a trained logician or a psychologist to understand how that could be enough to overcome the normal human desire to remain alive. Few among us can claim that, when faced with a person, persons, or even nation that we can clearly identify as the cause of a horrific loss of our loved ones, perhaps even in front of our own eyes, we would not want to strike back. I think I am a fairly timid, placid individual who bears no one any ill will. But kill my wife, my lover, my sons, or my daughters before my eyes, and I too would want to hit back ‹ hard. Judging by the responses of the majority of Americans to the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, most of whom were surely only symbolically affected by the devastation, I am not alone. Now put me in the "care" of cynically-minded and highly manipulative individuals who want to make use of me for their own ends, and, particularly if I am a young male, I will eagerly become a decidedly dangerous pawn in that person's deadly game.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not seeking to excuse either the September 11 terrorists or terrorism in general. Nor am I saying that the US has acted wrongly or in some way "deserves" to be attacked. Like the vast majority of Americans (and as an Englishman by birth, I am a US citizen by a free choice I made as an adult), I am deeply troubled by what happened on September 11. I feel it on a personal level. To adapt the words John F. Kennedy spoke long ago in, and of, Berlin, "I am a New Yorker." I hope that those who were involved in planning and supporting the attacks are found and brought to justice. The pragmatist in me even makes me concede that the fight will inevitably lead to further loss of innocent lives. But if we are serious about eliminating terrorism ‹ and I hope we are ‹ then we must do more than address the symptoms. We need to understand ‹ and then address ‹ the underlying causes. We have to escape the mindset that says terrorists are "mindless" or "simply evil." Instead, we have to think deeply about the circumstances within which premeditated and carefully executed mass murder and mass suicide make contextually consistent, if ultimately horrific, logical sense.

Human being have evolved to behave rationally in a given context ‹ to follow the logic of the context. Following the survival logic of the given context is how natural selection works. We cannot change the logic in a context any more than we can change the mathematical fact that 1 + 1 = 2. In the case of terrorism, what we can change is the context. Doing so will inevitably require enormous wisdom, knowledge, and resources. Maybe this is where the true future greatness lies for the most powerful nation on Earth.