The War on Terror: A Cycle of Stupidity

by Brian Kogelmann:

Continuing to fight the war on terror in the way it has been fought will only lead to more terrorism, more death, and more destruction. Instead of continuing this “cycle of stupidity,” we ought to radically alter how we address terrorism and stop double downing on policies that incite hatred.

In his APSR article entitled “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” political scientist Robert Pape tries to find an adequate explanation for the rise of suicide terrorism in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Rejecting the appeal to religious fanaticism (due to the fact that the secular Marxist-Leninist Tamil Tigers are the world leaders in suicide terrorism) as well as psychological explanations contingent upon socio-economic factors, Pape ends up concluding that “terrorism follows a strategic logic, one specifically designed to coerce modern liberal democracies to make significant territorial concessions.”  This thesis is further developed in Pape’s book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism.

War on Terror

Max Abrahms is another political scientist who studies terrorism. In his essay “Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11” Abrahms tries to find out why terrorism is so unsuccessful at achieving its political goals – which, if we are to believe Pape, entails territorial concessions by western liberal democracies. Michael Huemer, in his latest book The Problem of Political Authority, describes Abrahms’ thesis as follows: “Why is terrorism so ineffectual? When terrorists attack civilians, populations tend to increase their support for right-wring political candidates proposing aggressive responses.” That is, terrorism causes the targeted polity to elect hardliners on terrorism that will essentially double-down on the very policies that provoked the terrorists in the first place. This, obviously, is problematic.

Suppose we have country A enacting policy x on other country B, where policy x involves some form of military occupation of B, or perhaps a regulation on the way in which B desires to operate. Upset with x, some radicals from B decide to carry out an act of terrorism on A, as Pape predicts. According to Abrahms’ thesis, A will respond by electing hardliners on terrorism that will respond aggressively. This could mean, among other things, an increase in the severity of policy x, or possibly instituting policies similar to x that treat country B in a similar manner. In response to A’s actions, it stands to reason that the denizens of country B will respond with even greater fervor than before, assuming a proportional relation between the severity of x and x-like policies and the response of those in the occupied country.

As a result, we are left with a spiraling cycle of violence and more violence. Terrorists respond to policies they deem to be unacceptably meddlesome. Countries targeted by terrorists respond by electing those who will double-down on the very same problematic policies. An increase in the severity of these policies will likely result in an increase in terrorism, or at least attempted acts of terrorism. In response to the increase in terrorist activity we will have, once again, the election of hardliners who will, once again, double-down on the very same policies we started with. Thus the cycle repeats itself though more severe than before: the policies are more aggressive and meddlesome, the hatred and violence more pronounced.

How do we break the cycle? There seems to be two variables that we – a western liberal democracy target by terrorists – can control. First, we can avoid enacting meddlesome policies that might cause citizens of other countries to respond with violence. Unfortunately, this ship has sailed for us. Second – and it is not too late for this – we can change the way we respond to terrorism. Instead of doubling-down on problematic policies – instead of leveling entire villages full of otherwise-apathetic civilians in hopes of killing one alleged terrorist – we can respond by doing nothing. Better yet, we can respond by repealing the policies that cause the hatred in the first place.

If we are to do this then we need to do so carefully and definitively. Here is why: suppose we are country A and impose policy x on country B. As a result, terrorists from B attack us. In response, we decide, instead of doubling-down on the original problematic policies, to repeal x. Also suppose, though, that we have policies very similar to x, call them w, y, and z, enacted on countries C, D, and E respectively. In such a scenario, the repeal of x in response to terrorist actions from B might signal to potential terrorists from C, D, and E that acts of terrorism might help repeal policies w, y, and z. That is, responding to terrorism with acquiescence might encourage terrorism from different, disenfranchised groups.

This problem is only a problem if we address the current problems with our foreign policy brick by brick. But if we respond more uncompromisingly – if we tear down the whole wall at once, to continue the metaphor – then we might be able to avoid the signaling problem posed in the above paragraph. Regardless of how we go about addressing the problem, though, what we need to do is clear: responding with aggression to terrorism will only result in more terrorism, and thus will only continue a cycle of violence and stupidity, resulting in needless death and destruction. It is the generations ahead of ours that instituted and continue such policies; as such, it will be our job to fix them. In George Orwell’s words: “A generation of the unteachable is hanging upon us like a necklace of corpses.” It’s time we take off the necklace.


Brian Kogelmann is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Arizona where he is a Charles G. Koch fellow at the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom as well as a Humane Studies Fellow with the Institute for Humane Studies.

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