Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Case of Tranquil Blindness at APSA

Yesterday I attended a panel at the APSA convention, chaired by Robert A. Pape, with the grandiose title: Suicide Bombing, Counter Terrorism and Mobilizing a New Generation of Bombers. From the title one might be forgiven for thinking the authors were sponsored by Al Qaeda or Hamas, but of course they meant to be ironic. And what, you might ask, does irony really contribute to such a serious topic? Nothing, I should think. But it probably makes the researchers feel better about their rather thin analysis. As one might expect (and with a couple of exceptions) it was a Bush-bashing party.

And it was "a party." The panelists spent most of their time gathered in front of the stage, before the session actually got rolling, in a party atmosphere of facial expressions and gestures reminiscent of nothing so much as haughty self-righteousness, complete with winks, inside jokes, and self-congratulatory asides slyly delivered across the backs of their hands into a companion's ear.

In addition to the Chair, Robert A. Pape (Chicago) and discussant Mohammed Hafez (Kansas), the panel included Nichole Argo (MIT), Assaf Moghadam (Harvard), Ami Pedahzur, et al (Haifa), and the inscrutable comedy stylings of Mia Bloom, with a small gum chewing entourage (Cincinnati). One can hardly blame Mia for feeling festive, since she's been assured by The Daily Show (her preferred source of news) that things are currently going very badly for the Americans in Iraq. Somebody pop a cork!

Now, the reason I went to this panel is that I think this topic critically important, so I really didn't think all the elbow-in-the-ribs cocktail party stuff was appropriate. It's unseemly, to say the least. No matter what their views of our current policies, they owe the topic some respect. But apparently these people spend their lives huddled around a small pile of kindling that represents "the data," and they have personal bonds reminiscent of those held by paleolithic anthropologists, so maybe I'm too harsh. With exceptions (the Haifa group and Mohammed Hafez) their demeanor, while delivering their findings, was something close to a caricature of the 18th Century French High Court of Louis XVI. Their noses were parked at the North Pole while their heads seemed to revolve around a polar axis. How do they manage that without putting a crick in their necks? I've seen people adopt this affectation because of bifocals, but as far as I could tell none of these people were wearing such devices, and since they weren't reading there'd have been no reason for the head tilt anyway. So, one simply has to conclude that it was an affected superiority that compelled them to look down their noses at most of their audience, even if they happened to be at the same physical level. They needed the elevation, for some reason.

But what puzzled me the most wasn't these dramaturgical embellishments, or the clubbishness and lack of respect for the topic or their audience, but the fact that they so consistently missed the point of their own observations and findings.

For instance, one of the things upon which they seem to agree was the notion that a culture like that of Arabia creates a kind or "resonance chamber," within which extremism builds. That sounds pretty reasonable to me. It's exactly what I've been thinking for about three years now. But none of the panelists seemed to grasp the obvious implication of this observation: that unless the resonance dynamic is broken by some outside intervention extremism will simply mount inexorably, as it has since the seeds of Islamism were planted by the Nazis during the 1940s and were watered and fed by additional infusions from the European Counter-enlightenment, including the ideas of Hegel, Heidegger, and the far more stylish deconstructionists from whom Qutb ripped off so much, without attribution. So given such a pervasive dynamic, why did they not see that an interruption in the feedback resonance was the only way to keep the wave from rising? Well, they weren't looking, that's why.

Because in spite of what they say, their overall approach is to view the current conflict as a war against terrorism, rather than a war against a totalitarian ideology or movement. In other words it's a war on a tactic, like a war on frontal assaults or flanking movements. Naturally, if you're just fighting a tactic all you really need to do is use your superior logic to appeal to the practitioners, or make some crafty concession, and the whole damned headache will just evaporate. How "French" is that?

In spite of the implications of the resonance chamber Jihadists are just people with... grievances. So naturally all the Iraq War did was provoke some of these grieving people. Instead of hearing out their tale of woe and offering the proper magic carrot we blew it by regarding them as (ghasp)... enemies! Mia Bloom actually claimed that going so far as to kill terrorists won't work because it only pisses off their relatives. So the threat isn't the specific danger posed by human bombs, but getting their kith and kin more P-Oed than they already are.

Imagine what your career would look like if everyone you met had, as their highest priority, the need to avoid making you angry! Would any blank check be large enough?

Dear counter-terrorism researchers: Wake the phuque up!

Now, there were some exceptions to this general preference for fantasy. Mohammed Hafez seemed pretty level-headed. Even though he admitted to voting for Kerry he didn't seem to think it a stellar idea to just leave Iraq in the hands of the "insurgents." And the Haifa team, headed by Ami Pedhazur, had some really substantial analysis of terrorist networks. Their research seems to point to the same conclusion reached by Ronald Wintrobe (through a much different route) that the suicide bombers are, themselves, just a resource. They're like bullets. They're peripheral to the "hubs" of the network, so controlling them isn't really the key to anything much. But this insight seemed lost on everyone else, including Pape.

So deep is the conviction that the source of conflict lies in grievance rather than a strategic plan for power that these folks can't even draw the proper conclusions from their own findings and insights. Yet they're high-fiving as though they've found the motherload of understanding in the Terror War.

And not a single person on the panel seemed to notice that it was the first anniversary of Beslan.

(Cross-posted by Demosophist to Demosophia, Anticipatory Retaliation and The Jawa Report)