Disclaimer: This is not a post contrary to the nature of this blog. This is not a political post as some might think. My blog is basically about science and I mention I have an interest in people and minds, and this is what this particular post is about. No politics or political opinions in this post at all.
I think my job and aim (one of them) in life is to do good science and I think politics should be kept out of science. Scientists though entitled to have strong opinions on these matters should focus on their primary work and not take their opinions (unless very necessary) beyond general coffee break discussions.
Edit(1 Dec 2008): I realize that there could be a confusion by what I meant by the above paragraph, a clarification is issued in the comments here.
Terrorism invokes a wide range of responses depending on the crowd one is looking at. One that is common from most societies goes along these lines – “Outrageous”, “Cowards”, “Retards”, “Beasts”, and one could add to that a lot of censored words also. Which is almost immediately followed by diatribes on societies and religions either out in the open or in hushed tones.
There has been a major terrorist strike in the Indian city of Mumbai today morning, killing scores and more importantly aimed to destabilize a country growing in clout rapidly (eyewitness account on the attacks). Ofcourse the terrorists would never succeed in that for a multiplicity of reasons, however this is not the objective of my post. India has been under attack by terror for more than one and a half decade now, more than what any other country has faced in the world.
After such strikes there are a number of animated discussions with people thumping their desks and asking angrily: Where is security for the citizen? Where are the security forces? Where are the Intelligence and spy agencies? Where is the government? Is it sleeping? And a number of other totally understandable questions which are expected from and SHOULD come from any citizen who would get angry or upset after such incidences. A lot of people say: destroy terrorist hideouts, destroy terror networks, kill all terrorists etc. Fair enough. But the basic question that most people duck is what actually makes terrorists? What prompts a young man to hold a gun and indulge in suicidal behavior and kill innocent people indiscriminately, almost heartlessly?
I had been reading on this for some time now, for almost three four years, and also I have some gifts in terms of sound observational powers to do some people watching to understand and make sense of things. Over the past couple of years, books that have resonated with my own understanding of the situation which i don’t claim to be above that of a novice, but nonetheless that of a concerned world citizen have been:
1. A review by Freeman Dyson of Dan Dennett’s book “Breaking The Spell”. Dyson has become one writer on science and human nature whose opinions I greatly respect. Though I don’t agree with a considerable chunk of his ideas, they are most thought provoking anyway. And in my opinion thought provoking ideas are the most important.
2. Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell;
3. Marc Sageman: Understanding Terror Networks;
4. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney : Kamikaze Diaries – Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers;
A Memetics Based Social Prespective:
Daniel Dennett’s thesis is interesting, thought provoking and to a large extent true. I have written on this on a previous post. Since then there has been considerable refinement in my thoughts on it. And though I lost my patience in the post that time, I would largely still agree with Dennett’s idea. Taking some parts from that post with considerable editing (the quote below has also been taken from my previous post, this is a part of a presentation that Dan Dennett made at TED):
So you are out in the woods or this pasture, and you see this Ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it climbs and it falls and it climbs and it falls and it climbs, trying to stay at the very top of this blade of grass. What is this Ant doing? What is it in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant?
And the answer is NOTHING! There is nothing in it for the Ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah it is just a fluke.
It is a Lancet Fluke, it’s a little parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. So salmons, you know swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds and Lancet Flukes commandeer this passing Ant, crawl into its brain and drive it up a blade of grass like an all terrain vehicle. So there is nothing in it for the Ant, the Ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain inducing suicidal behavior.
An analogy to the above is seen in humans, For example terrorists can be seen in parallel to the “Ant” I mentioned above with their brain been hijacked by “virulent ideas” (parallel to the lancet fluke) inducing suicidal behavior. Such “ideas” are more or less embedded in their brains and removing these toxic ideas is rather difficult if not impossible. This “embedding” of “virulent” ideas is caused by a number of socio-economic factors like anger towards other cultures, trauma, ignorance, anger over repression, social injustice and probably also hate. Such embedding takes place culturally over a long period of time, after which it becomes a part and parcel of the vector (human) carrying it. If one hears stories of how the world has been cruel and unjust and how the world is out to destroy your own world from childhood, that person will definitely be filled of hate. There are many other “ideas to die for”, like a lot of people have laid down their lives for Communism, Capitalism, Love can be said to be another brain parasite that can induce “abnormal” behavior. Others may be freedom, religion, etc.
Please Note: “Parasite” and “abnormal” are used in a neutral context. Let us say that an idea that alters behavior considerably is a “parasite” (treat it just as a word than a harmful word) and the resulting altered behavior is “abnormal”. Please do not take the literal meanings of these words used. I don’t mean to say that love is a “parasite” in the literal sense. ;-) . (Note ends).
Basically “Ideas” are like lancet flukes, entering the brains of their hosts and encouraging them to work for the continuance of the idea rather than the host or his/her progeny. On the other hand, some ideas (say like love) doubtless make their hosts more fit to survive and propagate, at least through this one mechanism, in a way they are similar to genes (that is why i mentioned that the basic scheme here is to apply evolutionary principles to how we think and behave). And ofcourse ideas mutate – this leads to what is called the misinterpretation of the original idea by the masses.
This memetics based synthesis explains to some extent why terrorists are generally from poor, uneducated and sometimes extremely orthodox and fundamentalist backgrounds and societies. But Dennett’s treatment which speaks of virus like ideas propagating, getting mutated and propagating further, though nice and reasonable has some problems. It could be one part of the various reasons to what makes terrorists and terror networks, it (social unrest, brainwashing etc what I have covered above) though a necessary condition might not be a sufficient condition. One more reason could be what is explored and reviewed in the next part.
I was reading the review of Dennett’s book by Dyson which introduced me to two books, both extremely interesting. In most of the west and elsewhere too, the idea of looking at terrorists is looking at them as mad zombies, who are totally dehumanized, with their thought process driven by hate alone.
This view is challenged by the two books Dyson’s review introduced me to.
Kinship Amongst Cell Members:
Marc Sageman is a professor of psychiatry and ethnopolitical conflict at the University of Pennsylvania. Sageman was a foreign service and CIA officer and was posted in Pakistan in the late 80s at the time of the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan and had worked closely with the Mujahideen which made him intimately familiar with the working and structure of such networks. He in the book writes that as contrary to popular belief the bonds holding the people together in terror groups are more personal than political. Citing good evidence Sageman asserts that economic backwardness, ignorance, religious zealotry and the likes are not enough to attract the youth to terror organizations (as I mentioned at the end of the previous part), one of the prime reasons is to escape alienation. Quoting him:
Despite popular accounts of the 9/11 perpetrators in the press, in-group love rather than out group hate seems to be a better explanation for their behavior.
Such kinship gives rise to semi-independent cells and dispells the notion that recruitment in terror organizations is top-down as believed. Such comradeship also makes it difficult for intelligence agencies to track or find out information about secret operations. I will now talk about another interesting piece and then will return to Sageman’s work.
The image of the Kamikaze pilots at the end of the second world war in America was similar to what terrorists have today. The Kamikaze pilots were Japanese aviators involved in suicide missions against the allied shipping towards the end of the war, their aim being to destroy as many ships as possible.
The book by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Kamikaze Diaries:Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers, contains extracts from diaries of Kamikaze pilots who knew they were going to die in suicide missions. As opposed to western ideas about the Kamikaze pilots, their diaries were absolutely clear in thought, free from illusions and astonishingly lucid. Some of the pilots who had had western education wrote down their tragic views of life in clear poetry. These were simple young men, neither brainwashed nor nationalistic bigots. Their diaries give a poignant point of view of the war from their frame of reference.
Now the connection that Dyson drew from the two books was extremely interesting and made perfect sense to me once it was mentioned, something of the sort: oh! why didn’t this occur to me! He goes on to elaborate, that though we don’t have first hand testimonies from many terrorists involved in suicide missions, and most probably these terrorists were not even hardly educated as well as the Kamikaze pilots, and were probably more influenced by religion and hate. However it can’t be said that they are zombies, but are fighters in a secret brotherhood that gives meaning and purpose to their lives. they are like good soldiers enlisted for an evil cause. Like the Kamikaze pilots they are motivated mostly by kinship to their comrades than by hate towards the enemy. Once the operation has been decided on by the ideologues (Dennett applies to these people very well. Not so much to the common person), it would have been unthinkable not to carry it out.
Though there are considerable differences between 1945 and 2001-08, both Sageman and Dyson write and I almost totally agree that there are a lot of similarities. The minds of the Kamikaze pilots could give clues to what goes on in the minds of terrorists on suicide missions. Thus to really prevent youth from being lured to such organizations we need to understand first what our enemies stand for and how they work.
I think the three probably unrelated references make a good case on what drives a young lad to become a terrorist. How can we prevent this from happening? This I think readers would have a better view. Also I am not trying to suggest that intelligence and other policing is to be reduced in any way.
Recommended Reads and References:
1. Review of “Breaking the Spell (link below)” By Freeman Dyson on NYRB.
2. Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon – Daniel Dennett.
3. Understanding Terror Networks – Marc Sageman.
4. Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Japanese Student Soldiers – Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney.