Individualism, Collectivism, and War

My working definition for individualism is

  1. The recognition that human action is based on the individual.
  2. A social order based on the independent action of the individual.

Because (1) implicitly assumes that individualism is a fact of nature, this leaves me with defining collectivism in opposition to (2):

A social order based on centralized social and economic control.

Because this social order must be constructed in opposition to human nature (insofar as human action really is independent), the "control" of this definition requires extortion, psychological programming, or elimination of individuals who do not comply with the central plan.

If collectivism runs against human nature, why is it so common? The idea is maintained not only by a ruling class of central organizers, but appears to be accepted by those who do not benefit from centralized control. I believe it is due to the way our minds work to form general concepts.

Individual experience is limited by location, time, and intellectual framework. Through human language, we can share experience with other individuals. But our minds are too limited to hold the totality of the objective world, so we try to extract essential rules by which we can understand our observations and predict future events.

Thus, we will say things like, "The French eat cheese and drink wine," even if we find counter examples of residents of France who do not consume either. We are taking mental and linguistic shortcuts to explain the prevalence of wine and cheese consumption by individuals in France. This is appropriate for casual language only and is not rigorous.

My working definition of crime is

An action intended to harm another individual.

I was given this definition by an Objectivist once in conversation and have stuck with it. If anyone can point me toward a better definition from libertarian literature I would appreciate it; I am not certain that intent plays such a simple role.

But intent is immaterial to the point I am making about crimes. By virtue of them being an action, crimes are committed by an individual. By virtue of being the object of harm, the victim of a crime is an individual.

War is

An armed conflict between collectives.

To stretch the talk of guilt or innocence or victimhood to cover collectives is as sloppy as talking about "the French drinking wine". We should not use such terms when discussing war, unless it is with the caveat that we are discussing, for example, historical wars in intentionally vague terms. If someone identifies a guilty collective who must be punished through war, they are either simply wrong or intentionally trying to manipulate you.

This leaves me with the conclusion that war is never legitimate. Defensive use of force is legitimate, and individuals may coordinate their defense or hire specialists to assist in defense against one or more aggressors. But individuals cannot escape responsibility for their actions simply because they belong to a collective. Likewise, individuals cannot justly be the targets of force simply because they belong to a collective. War is not a legitimate use of force because it is by definition collective.

It points out yet again how Statists can get things exactly backwards. Contrary to their slogans about service being a sign of responsibility, the Statist who supports war is actually claiming that soldiers can escape responsibility for their actions by belonging to a collective. They will maintain that the collective is supported by sufficient force of arms to protect those who serve it from any repercussions for their actions. But though they may provide some physical protection for those who serve, they cannot protect against the moral judgment of others or even the self-judgment of those who serve. Short of killing each individual who perceives reality differently than the sanctioned collective view, the Statist cannot provide escape from the fact that aggression has consequences.

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On Isms.

When I want to discourage people from focusing attention on groups and shift the focus to individuals, I try to steer clear of “isms” such as individualism, collectivism, etc. Rather, I try to focus with as much particularity as I can muster on specific ideas – for example, the idea that each individual bears responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of his or her own actions.

On responsibility and human nature

What relationship do you see between responsibility and “human nature”? (e.g. “Because this [collectivist] social order must be constructed in opposition to human nature (insofar as human nature really is independent)….”)

I sense an IS/OUGHT distinction here. To me, discussions about “human nature” focus on what IS, whereas discussions about responsibility focus on what OUGHT to be.

I use the term “human nature” to refer to some innate tendency of human beings that people can discover imperially. For example:

- Empirically, evidence suggests that humans evolved from apes. In nature apes tend to live collectively according to a variety of social rules and hierarchies. Human habitation has tended to conform to this pattern. Examples of humans living outside of a collective are rare.

- The Milgram experiments demonstrate that the great majority of test subjects are willing to inflict electric shocks on a random person simply because some authority figure told them to. This suggests that “human nature” involves a tendency to conform to directions from authority figures.

- Libertarian candidates rarely prevail in contested elections.

These points of evidence provide some context within which to evaluate claims about individualism and “human nature.”

In contrast, I can’t envision how to create a testable hypothesis about the degree of responsibility an individual bears for his or her actions. Rather, this strikes me as a values statement – a statement of OUGHT, not IS.

Bottom line: I generally believe that I bear moral responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of my own actions, and the fact that I join a group or defer judgment to another individual does not absolve me of responsibility. But I hold this belief as a belief. I don’t see how discussions of human nature really contribute to this analysis.

Individualism and Human Nature

... human action really is independent ...

I mean that:

  • perceptions occur within individual minds,
  • values are judged by individual minds,
  • satisfaction (or lack thereof) is felt within individual minds,
  • goals are chosen within individual minds, and
  • plans to substitute a state of less satisfaction for one of more satisfaction are made within individual minds.

I'm taking cues from the opening discussions of Ludwig von Mises' Human Action.

I do not mean that "humans prefer 'a social order based on the independent action of the individual' to 'a social order based on centralized social and economic control'. I speculated that humans are drawn to centralized social orders because of concept formation.

I realize now that I left out another reason that humans are drawn to centralized social orders: coordinated action (particularly through the division of labor, but also through amassing overwhelming physical force) can sometimes be more effective than uncoordinated action. Duh.

Why war?

Paul, Mike and Sam each eke out a meager living selling flowers from the doorways of their houses. Out of the second story of Joe’s house, Joe begins shooting Paul, Mike and their customers with a BB gun. Business begins to dry up for Paul and Mike, but increase for Joe.

Paul and Mike ask, plead and offer bribes to Joe to stop, but to no avail.

Neither Paul nor Mike can get at Joe without going through the doorway occupied by Sam, and Sam declines to get out of the way. Nor can Paul or Mike return fire to Joe without risking hitting Sam. Sam denies that he bears any responsibility for Joe’s behavior.

Paul and Mike each have a common interest in stopping Joe. But they also have an individual interest in being a free rider while the other guy incurs the cost of stopping Joe.

What remedy?

Accessory to the Crime

By preventing Paul and Mike from stopping Joe, Sam is an accessory to Joe's crime. I tried searching down what the libertarian thinking is on this, but came up empty-handed. I do know that in a libertarian society, there would have to exist punishment for those whose actions allow the commission of a crime to occur.

Collective vs. Individual

There is a 3rd type of aggression, probably the most morally problematic one: an aggression initiated by a Collective against the group of individuals specifically defined by the Collective as not belonging to it. That group of individuals doesn't initially form a Collective in the sense you are implying, but - since no individual has the influence or means to defend itself against large, driven Collectives - it is forced to become a Collective itself (albeit with minimal commonalities between members; Atheists form such a "defensive" Collective in the face of religious aggression) in order to ensure the prosperity of its individual members in the face of aggression. And when people start getting killed by the aggressive Collective, this sometimes leads to indiscriminate retaliation against ALL members of the aggressive Collective, without taking into account their individual contributions to the aggression - since those cannot be easily found using current science and technology. Is it a good thing? Of course not. But it still is a far better strategy to choose (compared to the others) by individual members of the defending Collective, as long as they value their own well-being. Of course, this should also be done in conjunction with pointing out the flaws in the aggressive Collective idea-organism dogma, but it is likely that many members of the Collective are so indoctrinated that they do not subscribe to a world-view based on logic and reason - so, unfortunately, self-defensive violence against the whole Collective remains the only possible strategy in their cases.

The only permanent solution to these kinds of aggression is for the defendant group of individuals to leave and settle themselves into a new frontier. This is precisely the solution advocated by Patri Friedman and the Seasteading Foundation, but I think the Ultimate Frontier to safeguard against such problems will have to be space. This will require plenty of scientific innovation

Individual experience is

Individual experience is limited by location, time, and intellectual framework. Through human language, we can share experience with other individuals. But our minds are too limited to hold the totality of the objective world, so we try to extract essential rules by which we can understand our observations and predict future events.

In a nutshell: we are not Laplace's demon. Laplace's demon is a fictional entity which has an unlimited mind which is able to hold the totality of the objective world.

Thus, we will say things like, "The French eat cheese and drink wine," even if we find counter examples of residents of France who do not consume either. We are taking mental and linguistic shortcuts to explain the prevalence of wine and cheese consumption by individuals in France. This is appropriate for casual language only and is not rigorous.

We not only are not Laplace's demon, we can never be Laplace's demon. When you contrast "casual" language with "rigorous" language in the context of our failure to be Laplace's demon, you are fantasizing. Your fantasy is that failure to be Laplace's demon is merely us behaving casually, and that if we were rigorous, then we would be Laplace's demon. But this is not the case. You are holding humanity up to an impossible standard, that of a creature that has an unlimited mind which is able to hold the totality of the objective world. We are not and can never be that creature. For you to classify everything that fails to meet the demonic standard as "casual", is to define rigor out of existence. By the demonic standard, no one was ever rigorous or ever can be rigorous.

We have limited minds and it is not only appropriate, but unavoidable, for us to work within the limits of our minds.

Nor are our shortcuts "collectivist". They are shortcuts, and language is evolved so that the shortcuts work pretty well - better than the alternatives.

You can of course strive to be more like the demon. But you need to do so carefully, because it's not mere laziness that causes us to take our shortcuts. If you aspire to demonhood, you're apt to bump up against the limits of your mind. Specifically, if you bite off more than you can chew, your predictions could easily be worse than the predictions of those using the shortcuts.

Understanding and language as used by limited minds

Yes, reality has greater complexity than the human mind can manage. What to do?

1. Acknowledge that I cannot avoid categorial thinking, heuristics and cognative biases. Speak and think with humility, recognizing that my thought patterns don't reflect realilty as much as they reflect my mind's inability to cope with complexity.

2. Avoid speaking in generalities when I can speak about specific instances. Avoid speaking about the French in general when I can make my point by discussing Pierre in specific.

Yes, reality has greater

Yes, reality has greater complexity than the human mind can manage. What to do?

1. Acknowledge that I cannot avoid categorial thinking, heuristics and cognative biases. Speak and think with humility, recognizing that my thought patterns don't reflect realilty as much as they reflect my mind's inability to cope with complexity.

"My thought patterns don't reflect reality as much as my mind's inability" is overstating the point, since in fact the mind is coping, and this is how it copes.

2. Avoid speaking in generalities when I can speak about specific instances. Avoid speaking about the French in general when I can make my point by discussing Pierre in specific.

Not quite. Rather, avoid speaking in generalities when it is more useful to speak about specific instances.

Moreover, if you're speaking about Pierre as an instance, then you're really speaking about generalities, the ones of which Pierre is an instance. If you speak about Pierre as an instance of the French, then you're really speaking about the French, using Pierre as a stand-in. Not sure what the name is of such a device, maybe synecdoche.

As a matter of fact probably few people are interested in Pierre. If, say, a friend is going to visit France and wants to some travel tips from you, and you talk about some guy named Pierre, then considered as a literal discussion about Pierre, who your friend will probably never run into, your discussion is useless. But if Pierre is taken as an instance of a French person, from which your friend might be able to generalize to category of the French, then your discussion at least stands a chance of being useful to your friend. But taken that way, you are not really discussing Pierre himself - you are discussing Frenchmen, using Pierre as a stand-in. So superficially you seem to be discussing Pierre, but really you're discussing the French.

So the advice to "avoid speaking about the French in general when I can make my point by discussing Pierre in specific" depends on your point, and your point is probably to convey information to your listener about the French, rather than about Pierre. What the advice amounts to in that case is, "speak about the French in general but do so in a way that superficially resembles speaking about a specific French person called Pierre so that Mark, the language Nazi, will leave you alone".

Coping mechanisms

"My thought patterns don't reflect reality as much as my mind's inability [to cope with complexity]" is overstating the point, since in fact the mind is coping, and this is how it copes.

Yes and no. Yes, heuristics help me cope with complexity. A heuristic permits me to focus on some information and draw a conclusion that, hopefully, is more accurate than a simple wild guess. This is adaptive. Yet heuristics may also cause me to draw conclusions, and place greater confidence on my conclusions, than may be justified by the circumstances. This may not be adaptive.

Consider optical illusions. The fact that many people are fooled by the same illusion suggests that many people have adopted a similar mental heuristic. Arguably human’s visual and mental apparatus evolved in a context in which light came primarily from above, casting shadows below. When I observe something that appears to cast a shadow, my mind tries to imagine what type of three-dimensional object would create the shading I’m observing, and I interpret that visual information consistent with my imagination. In this manner, flat illustrations can be made to seem three-dimensional. This heuristic – interpreting shading as evidence of a three-dimensional object -- arguably reflects a kind of coping mechanism, but in the case of optical illusions this coping mechanism predictably leads me to draw sub-optimal conclusions.

More controversially, what accounts for the prevalence of prejudice? How adaptive is a propensity to develop expectations about another person based solely on attributes that are observable at a distance (race, gender, age, physical ability, social class, etc.)? In the context of a violent world where time is short and the consequences of error are large, perhaps it’s adaptive to make snap judgments. In the context of the office, where there’s time and opportunity to read a resume, have an interview and call references, the propensity to rely on variables such as race and gender are less adaptive. Nevertheless, this coping mechanism – a propensity to make snap judgments about people based on easily-observable data -- endures, predictably leading me to draw sub-optimal conclusions.

Empiricism and generalization

2. Avoid speaking in generalities when I can speak about specific instances. Avoid speaking about the French in general when I can make my point by discussing Pierre in specific.

Not quite. Rather, avoid speaking in generalities when it is more useful to speak about specific instances.

Moreover, if you're speaking about Pierre as an instance, then you're really speaking about generalities, the ones of which Pierre is an instance. If you speak about Pierre as an instance of the French, then you're really speaking about the French, using Pierre as a stand-in.

This illustrates the challenge of empiricism: How far can I generalize on the basis of my experience?

What do I know about the French? What does anybody know about the French? There are 60+ million of ‘em; who can credibly claim to have had experience with even a tenth of one percent of these people?

So when people discuss the French, I surmise they –

1. Refer to some survey of a representative sample.

2. Refer to some tautology. (“French people tend to live in France.”)

3. Refer to what they have heard OTHER people say about the French.

4. Refer to their experience with Pierre. And Guillome. And Jean-Luc. And generalize from there.

To the extent that I discuss the French, I try to make clear the source of my insights. And where the source of my insights is Pierre and Guillome and Jean-Luc, I strive to talk about Pierre, Guillome and Jean-Luc, and let the listener decide what generalizations are warranted.

Nevertheless, I still find myself prone to discuss the French as if I could actually say something meaningful about such a large group based on my limited experience. What accounts for this propensity to speak of individuals as a collective?

Whatever its origins, Mark suggests that this propensity may cause people to increase the focus on the collective even at the expense of the individual. I may tend to feel the attack of 9/11 as in some sense an attack on me, because I tend to identify myself with my fellow countrymen. I may tend to regard Muslims as my enemy because I tend to identify the actions of one Muslim with other Muslims. And I may not feel guilt for my actions because I tend to regard actions I perform on behalf of a collective as belonging to the collective, not to me.

Or, at least, that’s my current understanding of Mark’s thesis.

To the extent that I discuss

To the extent that I discuss the French, I try to make clear the source of my insights.

This is part of the scientific method: make your data available. However, it may not be possible to remember the source in the usual case because of limited mental capacity. I don't remember exactly who it was who taught me or on what day I learned most of the things I know, like the capital of Japan or the class of function whose derivative is itself. When doing science we keep detailed records of observations, which is why we can later share them, but if we don't write them down they tend to blur together into general lessons.

And where the source of my insights is Pierre and Guillome and Jean-Luc, I strive to talk about Pierre, Guillome and Jean-Luc, and let the listener decide what generalizations are warranted.

But in this case your listener is generalizing. So somebody is generalizing. And generalization is necessary, because your friend is probably not going to encounter P, G, and J, but rather will encounter other French. You can, if you choose, place the burden of generalization on your listener, but all you have done is shifted the burden on someone else. Have you not merely "washed your hands", as Pilate washed his hands of the death of Jesus, shifting the moral burden on the multitude? The sin - if it is a sin - is still committed. And if it is not a sin, why are you shifting the burden?

Nevertheless, I still find myself prone to discuss the French as if I could actually say something meaningful about such a large group based on my limited experience. What accounts for this propensity to speak of individuals as a collective?

Because to learn is to generalize. In fact, you already generalize even if you speak about the characteristics of P, G, and J, because you are generalizing from past episodic encounters with P, G, and J to general statements about P, G, and J. You can (if you remember) restrict your discussion to narrations of your past encounters with P, G, and J, while avoiding drawing conclusions about these individuals. This shifts the burden of even that generalization to your listener. But the generalization still has to be done, because otherwise nothing is learned about the world.

If you directly tell people what you know about the world, in the present tense, then you are telling them generalizations, because all you remember is the past. You generalize from the past in order to draw conclusions about the present. You are not aware of the present except as a generalization from the past. In fact, even your very ability to perceive the immediate past, for example your ability to see what is right in front of your face (or what was in front of your face mere moments ago when the light rays which your brain has just processed first were at that location) is itself based largely on things you learned over many years and primarily in your childhood, when you first became able to see. Your ability to see is something that you learned over many years, which lessons (i.e. generalizations) you are applying to the immediate situation of identifying what is right in front of you. It does not stop there, because our ability to see is not merely learned but is largely the product of evolution - which is a generalization of sorts from the distant, mostly prehistoric past.

So even when you identify what is right in front of your eyes, right now, since you are using your visual cortex which evolved over a long period of time, to a large degree even then you are generalizing from the encounters of your ancestors with their environment in Africa many tens of thousands of years ago. And that's just counting the recent lessons.

Let me just say that, given this ethic you have stated of shifting the burden of generalization to other people, I am glad for your listeners' sake that you don't have ancestral memory.

I may tend to feel the attack of 9/11 as in some sense an attack on me, because I tend to identify myself with my fellow countrymen.

There is a sense in which it is an attack on Americans generally, indeed on citizens of the West generally. The people who were killed were not specifically targeted. Rather, the attackers were happy to kill whoever happened to be in those buildings at that time. It could easily have been any number of people, if their career choices and the luck of who happened to hire them led them to that building on that morning.

Similarly, if someone enters a classroom and starts shooting people randomly, there is true sense in which he attacked the class even if he only ended up shooting a few of the students. If he was not specifically targeting the people in that class but was upset with the school and picked the class because it was conveniently located, there is a true sense in which the attack was on the school.

The intent of the attack on the WTC targeted me about equally with the people who were actually killed.

I may tend to regard Muslims as my enemy because I tend to identify the actions of one Muslim with other Muslims.

Islam is an ideology. Forget that it is a very old ideology which uses supernatural claims as part of its propaganda. Islam, in my view, in large part an aggressive political ideology, which was spread largely by force, and which continues to be spread largely by force, and spread by force is internal to Islam. Since I am not a Muslim and do not want to become a Muslim, then Islam is a threat to me, and every Muslim is, to a greater or lesser degree, a potential threat to me.

I wish that Islam were denatured, that its violent core were removed, as the violent core of Judaism was removed two thousand years ago. The Old Testament tells tales of a violent people which spread itself and therefore its religion by force, by genocide even. Their God Himself intervened and committed mass murder against whole cities (indeed, against the entire world if the story of the flood is to be believed). The Jews of today are nothing like that. What happened in between the times of the Old Testament and now? The Old Testament might, of course, be a pack of lies. But I think not. I think that what happened was that in the end this people was utterly defeated, maybe by Rome, and that they (that is, those of them who kept the religion alive) altered the religion, making it much more outwardly peaceful, so that Jews didn't make trouble with the wider communities where they lived. The community turned inward, enforcing Jewish law on themselves but not forcing, or even asking, non-Jews to do anything special. Judaism was de-clawed.

It does not appear as though Islam has gone through this process of de-clawing.

More on generalizations

[T]o learn is to generalize. In fact, you already generalize even if you speak about the characteristics of P, G, and J, because you are generalizing from past episodic encounters with P, G, and J to general statements about P, G, and J. You can (if you remember) restrict your discussion to narrations of your past encounters with P, G, and J, while avoiding drawing conclusions about these individuals. This shifts the burden of even that generalization to your listener. But the generalization still has to be done, because otherwise nothing is learned about the world.

And that’s part of my thesis: I strive to promote humility regarding what we know about the world. I want to undermine "learning."

Compare two statements:

1. The only French people I’ve ever known -- Pierre, Guillome and Jean-Luc – all smoked clove cigarettes.

2. The French smoke clove cigarettes.

Statement 1 is (at least potentially) a true statement. True today, true tomorrow, true until I encounter a Frenchman who does not smoke clove cigarettes. What utility could anyone derive from Statement 1? If you encounter a Frenchman, don’t be surprised if he smokes clove cigarettes. When traveling in France, be prepared to encounter clove smoke. If you’re looking for someplace to buy clove cigarettes, you might try France. If you’re looking for a means to strike up a conversation with a Frenchman, you might consider offering him a clove cigarette. If you want to blend into French society, consider smoking clove cigarettes. If you’re looking for a market to export clove cigarettes, consider France. Etc.

Arguably Statement 2 represents a generalization from Statement 1. It’s arguably very useful for making predictions – assuming Pierre, Guillome and Jean-Luc are representative of all French people. Because I don’t know that they are, I prefer to give people Statement 1 rather than Statement 2.

Yes, the audience is less likely to find much in Statement 1 to rely upon – and that’s good. I would rather my audience be ignorant and open-minded than misinformed and biased.

Consider the next pair of sentences.

3. The only people I’ve ever known – X, Y and Z – who asked me to invest in their heavier-than-air flying vehicles all failed, and I lost a bundle.

4. Heavier-than-air flying vehicles don’t work.

Same dynamics as above. Statement 3 might provide useful context when evaluating the Wright Bros.’s investment pitch. Statement 4 would be really misleading, even though it represents a generalization of the data in Statement 3. This is the challenge with generalizations: they may lead you to assume you know more than you do.

That said, I don’t mean to deny the dynamic of trade-offs. You correctly raise the Laplace demon issue: I don’t want to design my communications on the false premise that my audience is a tabula rasa and a perfect information sponge. I don’t want to assume that my sole concern is to avoid making false statements rather than to succeed in offering true information. I don’t want to assume that making information accessible and memorable is irrelevant.

Statement 1 is longer and less memorable than Statement 2. Imagine that 67% of Frenchmen smoke clove cigarettes. As a result of hearing Statement 2, the audience may be deceived 33% of the time. But the audience may find Statement 1 so detailed and unfocused as to render it utterly forgettable, resulting in no teaching occurring. And if the audience then goes to France expecting that the prevalence of clove smokers will be roughly comparable to the prevalence of clove smokers in the US, they may well be even more deceived than if they’d heard Statement 2. In that case, all my quibbles about language niceness would have come to naught.

Language is an art, not a science.

Interesting

When you contrast "casual" language with "rigorous" language in the context of our failure to be Laplace's demon, you are fantasizing.

Perhaps. We could explore the idea of using different frameworks for understanding and making predictions for different situations. Perhaps if we are discussing the mass (as in gravitational attraction) of humans it is appropriate to think on the scale of atoms. If we are discussing medicine, it may be appropriate to think on the scale of cells. If we are discussing human action, it may be appropriate to think of individuals; and if discussing history it may be appropriate to think in terms of cultures.

Nor are our shortcuts "collectivist". They are shortcuts, and language is evolved so that the shortcuts work pretty well - better than the alternatives.

I didn't mean that all linguistic shortcuts were examples of misapplied collectivism--only that referring to collectives when discussing human action was a particular type of shortcut.

You can of course strive to be more like the demon. But you need to do so carefully...

The care I am advocating in this post is to not mix talk of war--by definition a collectivist term--with talk of guilt or innocence of crimes--terms referring to actions undertaken by individuals. This is the primary lack of rigor to which I object.

I go so far as to suggest that defense against aggression is only defined in terms of individual action, so to even speak of a "defensive war" is a sloppy mix of individualist language and collectivist language.

You really need to do more

You really need to do more work to establish that collectivism is contrary to human nature. Libertarians like Daniel Klein don't think so.

If I stab a voodoo doll with the intent of causing you harm, is that a crime?

War is collectivist, and it only takes one side to make a war.

The question is: Is Islam at war with us? The answer is obvious, and denial is madness.

Now there are doubtless lots of Muslims who wish they were not at war with us, just as there were lots of Germans during World War II who wished they were not at war with us, but if one sticks his head up and says so, his head will be very likely be lopped off, and the reaction of westerners to any Muslim silly enough to do that will be unsympathetic. We tended to think that Germans that were not at war with us were cowards, rather than honorable men, and despite all the pious words we utter about Islam being the religion of peace, our reaction to those few Muslims that stick their necks out for peace shows we do not believe it.

Judaism was once an Islam like religion. Moses was as bloody as Mohamed. They got hammered hard, and after a repeated brutal reprisals reinvented Judaism as more peaceable, civilized, and tolerant system. I hope Islam can be reformed by measures short of those that were applied against the Jews - indeed, reforming Islam by gentle and civilized means is our program in Afghanistan, though we are reluctant to say so out loud. This program does not appear to be succeeding.

Wars must be fought, or lost. To win a war, must kill people and break things on the basis of collective identity, rather an individually. If a group makes war on us, we must destroy members of that group, or harm them so dreadfully that they stop, even though many, probably most, members of that group are doubtless perfectly nice people. and pretty much everything done to harm members of that group would be dreadful crimes if done in peacetime.

But is a collective response required?

In your last paragraph, you seem resigned to the position that, once attacked by a group of individuals claiming to act on behalf of a collective, the victims (or their heirs or sympathizers) must promote the idea of collective victimhood and (worse) endorse the idea that those attacking individuals were indeed acting on behalf of the collective and that the collective is a valid target for retribution.

If we develop a more careful understanding of the situation, doesn't this give us scope for more effective action? For instance, if the response to 9/11 had been law enforcement action that investigated, apprehended, and sought reparation from the individuals responsible for the attack, the results could have been:

  • Greater compensation for the actual victims of the attack, rather than a diffuse collective victimhood.
  • Apprehending the approximate 100-200 members of Al-Qaeda responsible for the attack (many of whom already had connections to US intelligence agencies), rather than starting wars against religions ("Islam"), regions ("the Middle East"), or tactics ("terrorism").
  • Directly saving hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars spent on warfare.
  • Indirectly saving through greater productivity in air travel, communications, medicine, and any other field that had resources diverted to serving the ends of the government collective.
  • Trade with a great number of individuals who are now dead or alienated by collective US government aggression.

Using Criminal Law to Deal with Terrorists

Shayana Kadidal makes a similar point at 16:23 in this interview on AntiWar Radio:

There's a whole very complicated debate over whether or not one ought to be authorizing the broad use of military force. There is a lot of international law out there that governs the use of armed force, and the bottom line on it is that the best approach to dealing with these groups is the criminal law. They are essentially vast criminal conspiracies--people engaging in terrorist acts are criminals, not warriors--and the best way to deal with them, in fact to de-legitimate them (to use the government's own term) is to treat them as criminals and not as people engaged in some legitimate military conflict with you. I mean, that's the grand irony in trying people like Khalid Sheik Mohammad in a military commission: it plays right up his alley. It's very clear he wants to be seen as a warrior in a political struggle, and not as a criminal who murdered 3,000 civilians.

"Islam is at war with us"?

Mark beats me to the punch again. But I've already gone through the trouble of writing these thoughts down, so I'm posting them anyway, dammit.

In initiating this thread, I sense Mark intended to lay a framework for discussing tensions between people’s individual actions (and responsibility) contrasted with their tendency to speak and understand the world as if collectives made decisions and bear responsibility. I don’t regard this as a discussion of truth or error, but as a discussion of which type of intellectual framework will prove most adaptive to a given situation.

What to make of statements such as “Islam is at war with us”>? I find such statements may be fun to say, pithy to quote. War talk lends drama to my life; there’s nothing like a good ol’ us-vs.-them morality tale to get my blood pumping. But I fear this kind of statement may impede critical analysis and strategic thinking.

First, the statement seems prone to misinterpretation. As James A. Donald acknowledges, available evidence suggests that the vast majority of people who profess the Islamic faith are not engaged in violence against anyone. But moreover, the vast majority of victims of violence by people who profess the Islamic faith are other people who profess the Islamic faith. I can imagine some Tunisian in the 1940s, watching as Allied and Axis forces fought for control of his front yard, concluding “Christianity is at war with us.” The sentence may convey some useful information, but would seem to obscure a lot more.

In addition, statements such as “Islam is at war with us” place a myopic focus on the plight of us (Westerners?) while exhibiting a dismissive disregard toward the suffering of everyone else – including people who, by any objective standard, are suffering more than Westerners. I suppose it’s possible to interpret the bloody conflicts between the Shite and the Sunni as some kind of contrivance created to inconvenience the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. But I can’t imagine what utility such an interpretation would provide me. Mostly it would suggest an appalling indifference to the plights of the individuals living through these sectarian squabbles.

Given these dynamics, I can’t help but conclude that seeing the world through an Islamic vs. Not Islamic lens will lead to distorted conclusions. I have to suspect that other lenses, even if collectivist (al Quida vs. not al Quida?), might better explain current events.

Moreover, Mark’s focus on the role of the individual is not mere semantic gamesmanship; it may lend itself to useful thinking. Can I identify the individuals that are leading violent plots? Can I identify people who might influence those leaders? Can I influence those individuals? Perhaps not; perhaps the leaders are single-minded and incorruptible. Or perhaps they’re corruptible, but I lack access to the things that could corrupt them. The point is, I won’t know until I try. And I won’t try if I regard ISLAM as some kind of monolithic entity bearing no relationship to the ordinary dynamics that influence mere humans.

First, the statement seems

First, the statement seems prone to misinterpretation. As James A. Donald acknowledges, available evidence suggests that the vast majority of people who profess the Islamic faith are not engaged in violence against anyone.

Hypothesis: "Islam" is a religion, and a political ideology - a very old one, which incorporates supernatural claims. This ideology tells Muslims to convert the world to Islam, and sanctions and requires the use of force.

If the hypothesis is true, then Islam - the ideology - is at war with non-Muslims. It is the ideology itself, and not a specific organization, which is at war with the non-Muslim world.

It is perfectly understandable that some Muslims don't want to wage war. Who would? This doesn't mean that Islam is a peaceful religion. It means that people are reluctant to wage war even if their religion commands it. Come on, surely you can think of Christian commandments which Christians are often reluctant to obey.

But moreover, the vast majority of victims of violence by people who profess the Islamic faith are other people who profess the Islamic faith.

But (assuming the hypothesis) Islam requires that Muslims wage war against non-Muslims. So what do you think happens when Islam separates into two or more factions each of which believes that the other is a corruption of Islam? They make war on each other, of course. Each faction views the other faction as insufficiently Muslim, and therefore believes that God commands that war be waged against the other faction.

That Islam's factions make war on each other confirms the hypothesis that Islam commands that Muslims spread Islam by force.

I can imagine some Tunisian in the 1940s, watching as Allied and Axis forces fought for control of his front yard, concluding “Christianity is at war with us.” The sentence may convey some useful information, but would seem to obscure a lot more.

Christianity did not command Hitler to invade Poland, starting WWII. Islam does command Muslims to spread Islam by force.

In addition, statements such as “Islam is at war with us” place a myopic focus on the plight of us (Westerners?) while exhibiting a dismissive disregard toward the suffering of everyone else – including people who, by any objective standard, are suffering more than Westerners.

When you ate lunch earlier today, were you myopically focusing on your own hunger while dismissively disregarding the hunger of every other person who is by objective standards more hungry than you are? What would you have to do to avoid the charge of dismissively disregarding the hunger of those people? Must you avoid eating until every other stomach on the planet is full? If you do that, you will die within days.

No: if you think, "I am hungry", and then you eat, you are doing what you need to do to stay alive and there is nothing immoral or shameful or in any way disgraceful about it. And similarly, if you think, "Islam is at war with us" and you move to defend yourself, there is nothing disgraceful about that.

Mostly it would suggest an appalling indifference to the plights of the individuals living through these sectarian squabbles.

Does feeding yourself and, therefore, surviving, suggest an appalling indifference to the plight of the hungry?

On cognitive bias

When you ate lunch earlier today, were you myopically focusing on your own hunger while dismissively disregarding the hunger of every other person who is by objective standards more hungry than you are?

Kinda. I was admittedly self-absorbed.

See, I’m trying to lose weight. I got caught in traffic on the way to work, which made me anxious and bored. Consequently I ended up eating more breakfast bars in the car than usual – even though I was no more hungry than usual. So I aspired to skip lunch and make up time on my overdue work. Yet when lunch came around I felt hungry. Or did I? I knew from experience that I often experience hunger when I’m anxious or bored, or simply looking for an escape from my work. These mind games, although entirely predictable, make dieting damn near impossible.

In short, I regard motivation to be a complex phenomenon, even when I’m only considering myself. And I find efforts to assess other people’s motives to be vastly more complex.

Psychologists recognize a number of cognitive biases, or patterns of thought that help explain why people tend to perceive the world differently from each other, and even from objective fact. For example, people tend to focus on phenomena that trigger feelings of hope/greed and fear/shame, and regard these phenomena as more pervasive, and more explanatory, then evidence would suggest. People tend to regard members of outgroups as more heterogeneous, and more distinctive, than evidence would suggest. People tend to grant the benefit of a doubt to themselves and to those with whom they identify, and to render harsher judgments regarding others. People tend to recall extraordinary events more than ordinary events, and then recall those extraordinary events as being more representative than they were. Etc.

I don’t mean to preclude the possibility that the Islamic faith provides some important variable for explaining people’s behavior. But my awareness of cognitive biases, combined with my ignorance of Islam, causes me to receive these claims skeptically. I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s skepticism about accounts of UFOs. He didn’t deny they could exist. But the odds that a sighting could be attributed to some unknown alien intelligence always seemed less than the odds that it could be attributed to well-known human foibles.

In short, I regard motivation

In short, I regard motivation to be a complex phenomenon, even when I’m only considering myself. And I find efforts to assess other people’s motives to be vastly more complex.

Doubtless each soldier in a war has complex motivation. However, they end up more or less obeying the orders of their generals, so if you know what those orders are, you can more or less predict what the soldiers will do. Each soldier is, as you say, vastly complex, a universe unto himself even, with a lengthy biography that would not fit into a hundred novels. And yet, the Allied generals planned the invasion of Normandy, they ordered it, and it was carried out, more or less as planned, by a million of these vastly complex universes unto themselves.

So the point that individuals are universes unto themselves, while true, need not stop us from making fairly straightforward predictions without necessarily attending in detail to the vast complexity of each universe unto itself. If the leader orders that his followers attack a certain target, then vastly complex though each follower may be, you are well advised to stay away from that target, if you happen to know what it is.

Comedy Central understands this, and for this reason, Comedy Central will not permit South Park to represent Mohammed, representation of Mohammed being the target that Comedy Central chooses to stay away from.

I don’t know if Islam is more prone to promote violence than, say, Greek and Norse ideology, or early Jewish ideology, or the ideology of “manifest destiny,” or Nazi ideology. One easy point of distinction, however, is the idea that few PEOPLE today seem to be motivated by adherence to Greek or Norse mythology, or early Jewish ideology, or Nazisim -- and given the US’s recent adventures in Iraq, even manifest destiny seems to be in hiatus these days. Thus, I perceive a threat not from certain ideologies, but from certain PEOPLE.

And similarly, a person living in Poland in the thirties doesn't know if Hitler, or Bob down the street, is more prone to promote violence. One easy point of distinction, however, is the observation that Hitler has many followers and Bob down the street does not.

Nevertheless, Hitler waged war on Poland. True, Hitler could not have waged war without his followers. But Hitler had followers and did wage war. To say that you perceive a threat not from Hitler, but merely the Germans, would be foolish. The Germans didn't spontaneously invade Poland and then use Hitler after the fact as a rationalization of the invasion. Hitler commanded it, and the Germans obeyed. Therefore if you lived in Poland, you would have been right to fear Hitler, Hitler's intentions and Hitler's plans. The Germans without Hitler would probably not have invaded Poland.

Similarly with Islam.

Admittedly, I’m largely ignorant of the details of any of these ideologies. Perhaps as a result -- or perhaps as a cause -- I’m generally skeptical that people’s claims about their own motivations provide much explanation for their behavior.

You are ignorant. How convenient it is, then, for you to be skeptical of whether these things that you are ignorant of are important. You know who else thinks that way? A know-it-all teenager who doesn't actually know very much but who is convinced that the stuff that he doesn't know doesn't matter.

The guy who stabbed Theo van Gogh didn't stab a random person. He stabbed Theo van Gogh, someone who had made a movie critical of Islam. If Islam had not been his motivation but had been a mere after-the-fact rationalization of the stabber's behavior, then why was the target Theo van Gogh and not some other random person?

In this context, what testable hypothesis could we devise to evaluate the “war against Islam” thesis? After all, the Islamic faith has been around for a while now, so we should have some data regarding patterns of assaults over time. Do the numbers of assaults correlate with the numbers of adherents to the Islamic faith, for example? Or do we find better explanatory variables?

That is a poor test because it unnecessarily asks for data which is difficult to gather and which, even if it were gathered, would not answer the key question. Consider the application of your test to Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs. It is undeniable that Cortez waged war against the Aztecs and conquered them. But do we know whether "the numbers of assaults correlated with" the presence of Cortez? Probably not, because we have limited knowledge of the time before the arrival of Cortez. In fact, among the things we do know, is that the Aztecs were frequently at war with their neighbors. So maybe "the numbers of assaults" remained unchanged with the arrival of Cortez. Maybe they even went down. We don't know. But we don't have to know! We know that Cortez waged war against the Aztecs because we have a record of that war, and we can see the results for ourselves. Go to the site of the capital of the Aztecs and see whether the buildings remain, whether the language spoken is the language of the Aztecs or the language of Cortez. And if even then you insist that perhaps Cortez achieved all this peacefully, we can of course dip more deeply into the historical record.

And similarly for Islam. As with Cortez we may not have statistics, but we have historical knowledge about Islam similar to the historical knowledge we have about Cortez.

Agency revisited

Hitler waged war on Poland. True, Hitler could not have waged war without his followers. But Hitler had followers and did wage war. To say that you perceive a threat not from Hitler, but merely the Germans, would be foolish. The Germans didn't spontaneously invade Poland and then use Hitler after the fact as a rationalization of the invasion. Hitler commanded it, and the Germans obeyed. Therefore if you lived in Poland, you would have been right to fear Hitler, Hitler's intentions and Hitler's plans. The Germans without Hitler would probably not have invaded Poland.
Similarly with Islam.

Wait a minute here – who is arguing for what here?

For purposes of this discussion, I’ve been arguing that focusing attention on the agency of individual actors, rather than on some amorphous “ism,” may lend itself to useful information. Last I checked, Hitler was an individual. Taking my thesis to heart, the Allies spent countless hours exploring Hitler’s psychology, trying to anticipate how he might respond to appeasement, etc.

Last I checked, Islam was not a person. (Unless you’re referring to Cat Stevens. I understand he has a new album, so I guess his concert tour might invade Poland; the Sudetenland show is already sold out.)

That is, I understood you to be arguing that it’s useful to think of an IDEOLOGY as making war on the West. This would be analogous to saying, “Naziism invaded Poland; there’s really no point in focusing on specific individuals because Germany is full of Nazis, and invading Poland is what Nazis do.” While there may be some useful information in that statement, it certainly obscures useful notions such as the Germans without Hitler would probably not have invaded Poland.

On ignorance and burden of proof

You are ignorant. How convenient it is, then, for you to be skeptical of whether these things that you are ignorant of are important. You know who else thinks that way? A know-it-all teenager who doesn't actually know very much but who is convinced that the stuff that he doesn't know doesn't matter.

“How clever of you, my dear Miss Bingley, to know something of which you are ignorant!” Elizabeth Bennett, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. [Edited to add: Apparently this quote is from a film adaptation from the book, not from the book itself. Too bad; I love this quote!]

Alas, we are all ignorant of various things to varying degrees, and must muddle through as best we can. In the absence of adequate evidence, I tend to refrain from adopting new conclusions. This heuristic creates its own biases, I admit, but it has proven reasonably serviceable so far.

I don’t mean to suggest that, because I am ignorant of some matter, I conclude that the matter is unimportant. To my theologically-minded friends I acknowledge the importance of the question of God’s existence; but that importance does not, by itself, constitute evidence of God’s existence. To my feminist friends I acknowledge that gang rape is a really, really bad thing; but that fact does not, by itself, constitute evidence of misconduct by the Duke Lacrosse team. To my neocon friends I concede that weapons of mass destruction could inflict really, really, really bad damage; but that fact does not, by itself, constitute evidence of weapons of mass destruction. For most purposes, salience is a poor substitute for evidence; fear a poor substitute for reason; “I feel threatened; DO SOMETHING!” a poor way to make decisions.

And if in the face of my own ignorance I’m reduced to employing reasoning skills that are no better than Richard Feynman’s, I guess I’ll have to live with that.

But here’s another thing that I mention to my theologically-inclined friends: Don’t let my ignorance impede your knowledge. If you have information that I don’t, then it makes perfect sense for you to draw conclusions that I don’t. Just as it makes perfect sense for me to refrain from drawing conclusions that you do. Absent more evidence, we suspect we have come to an impasse.

The quest for the testable hypothesis

[W]hat testable hypothesis could we devise to evaluate the “war against Islam” thesis? After all, the Islamic faith has been around for a while now, so we should have some data regarding patterns of assaults over time. Do the numbers of assaults correlate with the numbers of adherents to the Islamic faith, for example? Or do we find better explanatory variables?

That is a poor test because it unnecessarily asks for data which is difficult to gather and which, even if it were gathered, would not answer the key question. Consider the application of your test to Cortez's conquest of the Aztecs. It is undeniable that Cortez waged war against the Aztecs and conquered them. But do we know whether "the numbers of assaults correlated with" the presence of Cortez? Probably not, because we have limited knowledge of the time before the arrival of Cortez. In fact, among the things we do know, is that the Aztecs were frequently at war with their neighbors. So maybe "the numbers of assaults" remained unchanged with the arrival of Cortez. Maybe they even went down. We don't know. But we don't have to know! We know that Cortez waged war against the Aztecs because we have a record of that war, and we can see the results for ourselves. Go to the site of the capital of the Aztecs and see whether the buildings remain, whether the language spoken is the language of the Aztecs or the language of Cortez. And if even then you insist that perhaps Cortez achieved all this peacefully, we can of course dip more deeply into the historical record.

And similarly for Islam. As with Cortez we may not have statistics, but we have historical knowledge about Islam similar to the historical knowledge we have about Cortez.

I concede that some people of Islamic faith have engaged in acts of violence against – well, for simplicity’s sake, let’s say against the West. But I suspect you would concede that some people of Christian faith engaged in acts of violence against, let’s say, the people of the New World. Many of these Christians spoke with great fervor about their motive to bring the salvation of Christ to these poor savages. I even expect that many of them were sincere. Does it therefore follow that, in the absence of a Christian faith, there would have been no European conquest of the New World?

In sum, no one disputes that Christians invaded the New World. And no one disputes that people invaded the New World -- people who just happened to come from nations in which people tended to identify themselves as Christians. Indeed, these are identical statements. But they reflect different mental frameworks, and lead to different conclusions.

That said, I fear I've failed to make my larger point. I suggested seeking a testable hypothesis for two purposes. First, when discussing conclusions that seem fraught with potential cognitive biases, I find it useful to seek some kind of objective confirmation. And conversely, lacking objective confirmation, I find it prudent to exercise skepticism about conclusions that are fraught with potential for cognitive biases.

Second, I meant to provoke reflection that Islam’s alleged war on the West seems to be a fairly recent phenomenon, whereas Islam itself is NOT a recent phenomenon. If I were to pick a variable to explain a decades-old phenomenon, a 1400-yr-old religion would not be my first choice.

I wouldn’t expect the correlation to be perfect, but honestly, how much worse could it be? Yes, Joe the Rooster crows. Yes, the sun rises. At a superficial level you might find grounds to ascribe the sun rise to Joe. But a review of the past 500 years of data – even if it’s very, very sketchy data – will almost certainly lead to a different conclusion. I just find the contrary result inconceivable. Either I completely fail to grasp the phenomenon called “Islam’s war on us,” or there HAS to be a better explanation for its rise.

What causes suicide bombings?

This question is addressed in the new book Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It by Robert A. Pape and James K. Feldman, published by the University of Chicago Press.

The authors analyzed 2100 suicide attacks to find the causal patterns. They conclude that the cause of 85-90% of suicide attacks is -- resistance to foreign occupation. When Israel withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza, for example, suicide attacks plummeted.

What about religion? Plenty of secular/atheist people engage in suicide bombings: consider the Marxist Tamil Tigers or the Marxist Turkish separatists. But religion is not quite irrelevant. To the extent that the occupying forces seem especially alien to the occupied population – including having an alien religion – then terrorist leaders can play on this fact to recruit potential suicide bombers. To promote recruitment, for example, the Tamils emphasized the threat that the Sri Lankan Buddhists posed to their Hindu way of life.

The WTC bombing (mostly by

The WTC bombing (mostly by Saudis) was not in response to occupation, because our presence in Saudi Arabia was as guests of the government, not as occupiers. What do the authors say about it? If they acknowledge that it is not in response to occupation and therefore is a major exception to their thesis, that increases their trustworthiness. But if they classify it as in response to occupation, then that exposes them as pseudoscientists.

AntiWar Radio fills in the blanks

Scott Horton of AntiWar Radio interviewed Robert Pape last Thursday where they address your question. But then, Scott sums it up more succinctly 14m28s into his conversation with Andrew Cockburn that same day:

Scott Horton: Well isn't it interesting that none of the 9-11 hijackers were Iraqis. No matter how hard Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby and those guys, and Israeli Mossad--I mean they quoted them by name in the Sunday Times--and Mossad says they saw Iraqi intelligence give anthrax to Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker...

Andrew Cockburn: Yeah, in Prague. What a load of crap.

Scott Horton: But, the hijackers were all actually from countries that are occupied by the United States, particularly Saudi Arabia, which was occupied in order to do these sanctions. So, it seems that suicide terrorism, even under the worst kind of genocidal economic program and no-fly zone bombings on a regular basis, that still won't provoke suicide terrorism. But basing troops in a country in order to do that to the country next door, that will.

Andrew Cockburn: Yeah, that's right. Fifteen of the hijackers--fifteen of the nineteen--were from Saudi Arabia. Exactly so...

Robert, Scott, and Andrew seem to reject your assumption that American troops were guests, rather than occupiers, in Saudi Arabia. If the suicide bombings were ordered by the Saudi leaders, then their opinion that the troops were guests may have given you a counter-example. But the stated opinion of Osama bin Laden, and presumably the suicide bombers also, was that the troops were occupiers.

I would conjecture that occupying troops help put a face on oppression that can focus anger and a desire for revenge in a way that bombs falling from the sky cannot.

But the stated opinion of

But the stated opinion of Osama bin Laden, and presumably the suicide bombers also, was that the troops were occupiers.

But that makes a big difference. Now it depends on what terrorists believe, and what they assert, rather than on what is real. So the implied recommendation, do not occupy, becomes, do not do anything that bin laden claims is occupation, even when it plainly is not occupation (as it plainly was not). A very different recommendation.

Presumption

I presumed that since we were talking about the motives of a criminal, that the self-reported subjective opinion of the criminal was sufficient to determine motive.

It is a secondary issue whether the opinion that Americans have occupied the Middle East is a reasonable belief, based on the historical record. My original post was an attempt to sidestep this issue by criticizing the trap of thinking of "Americans" and "the Middle East" as collective actors and victims, rather than as individuals largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives. I would much prefer it if victims of a criminal attack put their resources into stopping or gaining restitution from the attacker, rather than attacking bystanders in turn--the whole issue of whether 'we' provoked 'them', or whether 'we' deserve 'their' response disappears if you don't buy into collectivism.

I think it is doubly criminal to take money from you and to spend it on destroying the lives and properties of innocent individuals. That gives me enough reason to oppose occupation.

I presumed that since we were

I presumed that since we were talking about the motives of a criminal, that the self-reported subjective opinion of the criminal was sufficient to determine motive.

But by the plain definition it is so undeniable that the US did not occupy Saudi Arabia that I have trouble believing that Bin Laden actually claims that it has. Bin Laden is not a master of English I presume - I seem to recall that his videos are in Arabic, not English, and even if I misremember and they are in English, it must be as a second language. Therefore "occupation" could well be somebody's translation of Bin Laden. In fact, these people on the radio - were they actually quoting translated Bin Laden, or just talking in their own words about what Bin Laden supposedly claims? I think it's very likely that they've substituted superficially (very superficially) similar ideas - specifically, mere presence, versus occupation. The latter involves conquest and control.

I do remember Bin Laden complaining about the presence of Americans in Saudi Arabia. Let's see if I can look up one of his speeches.

Well, here's a surprise. Here's a 2004 speech by Bin Laden about 9/11. I notice that he bitches about Israel attacking Lebanon (which I'm sure they did out of the blue without provocation - sarcasm).

From the summary:

Admitting for the first time that he ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden said he did so because of injustices against the Lebanese and Palestinians by Israel and the United States.

and some of his actual statements (translated I presume):

"While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women," he said.

"God knows that it had not occurred to our mind to attack the towers, but after our patience ran out and we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon, this came to my mind," he said.

So, because Israel, which is allied with the United States, attacks Lebanon, therefore a bunch of Saudis led by a Saudi ex-aristocrat (Bin Laden) attacked New Yorkers. So Bin Laden says.

Does this really fit the claim I have been discussing? I'll quote the original comment that I was replying to:

The authors analyzed 2100 suicide attacks to find the causal patterns. They conclude that the cause of 85-90% of suicide attacks is -- resistance to foreign occupation.

Is a bunch of Saudis attacking Manhattan because Israel attacked Lebanon (out of the blue/sarcasm) really "resistance to foreign occupation"? It's a stretch. You just wrote now:

My original post was an attempt to sidestep this issue by criticizing the trap of thinking of "Americans" and "the Middle East" as collective actors and victims, rather than as individuals largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives.

But does that really describe what Bin Laden describes? Is Saudies attacking Manhattanites in retaliation for Israel attacking Lebanon them being "largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives?" Really? Israel attacking Lebanon is the United States intruding upon the lives of a bunch of Saudis? On the contrary, if anything it looks like these individuals are engaged in collective thinking, since they (Saudis) retaliate against the US for Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

Do you really think that is staying uninvolved until it intrudes upon my life? If you think so, then the following is me staying uninvolved until something intrudes upon my life: I read in the paper that somebody from Texas mugs somebody in Oklahoma, and I retaliate by going to New Hampshire and mugging somebody. This is your idea of me remaining uninvolved until the violence intrudes upon my life? It's a stretch.

Of course we know what the connection is: it's religious. There are a lot of Muslims in Lebanon, Muslims are in fact attacking Israel from Lebanon periodically. These Saudis are Muslims. The US has proven that it can influence Israel. So as part of religious jihad, the Saudis attack the US in an attempt to influence American policy and thereby influence Israel.

So the enemy attacked the US for reasons of religious jihad. It would be a gross error to think of the enemy as anything other than a quite significant and quite persistent group of Muslims who attacked the US because they believe their religion commands it. Saudis, after all, came to the aid of people in Lebanon, and there are a lot of Muslims in Lebanon. The Saudis did not come to the aid of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

I just checked the relationship of the Tigers to Islam. I find this:

The LTTE is responsible for forcibly removing, or "ethnically cleansing", Sinhalese and Muslim inhabitants from areas under its control, and using violence against those who refuse to leave. The evictions happened in the north in 1990, and the east in 1992.

That by the way looks more like a religiously-based act (with the Muslims as victims) than "individuals largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives."

I failed, by the way, to find any mention in that Bin Laden speech of an alleged American occupation of Saudi Arabia. I did only read an article about it (from the hated Fox news I notice - I actually just googled it, Fox news wasn't intentional, I realize that people get uptight about Fox news but it would be a lot of work for me to rewrite the section with a different source).

I think it is doubly criminal to take money from you and to spend it on destroying the lives and properties of innocent individuals. That gives me enough reason to oppose occupation

I wasn't arguing in favor of occupation. It's actually a really old discussion (2010-05-14 for one of my comments), so I'm not even sure what we were talking about. But I wrote:

Doubtless each soldier in a war has complex motivation. However, they end up more or less obeying the orders of their generals, so if you know what those orders are, you can more or less predict what the soldiers will do. Each soldier is, as you say, vastly complex, a universe unto himself even, with a lengthy biography that would not fit into a hundred novels. And yet, the Allied generals planned the invasion of Normandy, they ordered it, and it was carried out, more or less as planned, by a million of these vastly complex universes unto themselves.

So I seem to be talking there about whether it's reasonable to talk about war in terms of the motivations of leaders, a way of thinking which appears to have been under attack as supposedly "collectivist".

Misinterpretation

Mark:

My original post was an attempt to sidestep this issue by criticizing the trap of thinking of "Americans" and "the Middle East" as collective actors and victims, rather than as individuals largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives.

Constant:

Is Saudies attacking Manhattanites in retaliation for Israel attacking Lebanon them being "largely uninvolved with the conflict until it intrudes upon their lives?" Really?

No. I meant the class of "Americans" or "the Middle East" are each composed of individuals largely uninvolved in a conflict with each other. Those who decide to follow some leader and commit a crime create consequences that they often must deal with directly, in spite of the leader implicitly or explicitly promising complete exoneration.

What is occupation is not a

What is occupation is not a matter of assumption or opinion but a matter of definition. Here is the relevant definition, from American Heritage.

Invasion, conquest, and control of a nation or territory by foreign armed forces.

The US did not invade conquer and control Saudi Arabia. That country remained under the control of the Saudi royal family. Had the US really conquered and controlled Saudi Arabia, then the brutal imposition of Sharia by the Saudi government would in fact have been the brutal imposition of Sharia by the US military. I do not recall even the most demented leftists claiming that the US began imposing Sharia in Saudi Arabia when they entered and ceased when they left.

If someone calls the US an occupier of Saudi Arabia, either they are lying, or they are using the word with a special meaning which they have defined for the occasion. Let us consider the latter possibility. In that case, "occupation" is not occupation but is in fact a code word for something else. What?

I offer this possibility: "occupation" is code for "a non-Muslim presence in Muslim holy land". In other words, it is code for violation of Muslim religious law. It is in this way the same as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed. Which did indeed trigger a violent response from Muslims worldwide.

So let us summarize. Violating Muslim religious law causes terrorism.

The best argument – and perhaps the worst

The guy who stabbed Theo van Gogh didn't stab a random person. He stabbed Theo van Gogh, someone who had made a movie critical of Islam. If Islam had not been his motivation but had been a mere after-the-fact rationalization of the stabber's behavior, then why was the target Theo van Gogh and not some other random person?

* * *

Comedy Central understands this, and for this reason, Comedy Central will not permit South Park to represent Mohammed, representation of Mohammed being the target that Comedy Central chooses to stay away from.

THESE examples, more than Hitler and Cortez, arguably illustrate the threat posed by an ideology. Do you imagine the guy who stabbed van Gogh was a soldier dispatched by some leader? Do you imagine Comedy Central is seeking to guard against an organized hit squad?

Perhaps; I don’t know. But I imagine that people’s posture is more like that of a black man in the American South: You know that some portion of the public is prone to violence against you for the slightest provocation, so you learn to take pains not to give any provocation. Part of what makes this terrifying is not that it’s organized; it’s terrifying because it’s NOT organized, and therefore can’t be controlled. There is no Hitler to negotiate with (or intimidate, or assassinate).

Of course, we always live with this dynamic to some extent. Lone wolves such as Timothy McVeigh and the Unibomber are almost impossible to prevent; they can only be caught after the fact. We therefore confront the question: How large a police state do we wish to build to guard against these threats? At what point is the remedy worse than the disease?

Perhaps Islam – understood as a group of people prone, on their own initiative, to take violent retribution for symbolic slights -- is a newly pervasive kind of threat. Perhaps it now alters the freedom/security balance, tipping it toward justifying more security measures even at the expense of freedom.

Recall the dramatic steps taken to secure the life, liberty and property of black people in America. The Civil War and subsequent occupation of Reconstruction. The death of federalism. The court administration of local schools. The rise of civil rights in employment, housing, public accommodation, education and voting, and the corresponding decline of property/autonomy/association rights. The rise of Affirmative Action and race-based remedies. A population of people bent on violence can be managed, but the measures are not likely to please libertarians.

I’m not yet persuaded that the threat of Islam warrants these kinds of responses, but I acknowledge the possibility.

Cognitive bias, the song

This is fun:

Dude!

Here we have a song that is better than all of the songs on Glee put together and multiplied by ten.

Sweet!

(seriously)

On agency

I subscribe to the view that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. The statement “Guns kill people” leads to the conclusion that the only means to control killing is by controlling guns. The statement “People kill people” does not preclude a policy of controlling guns as a means to control people, but it also invites consideration of other alternatives as well. In short, I find a clear understanding of agency helps my thinking.

I don’t know if Islam is more prone to promote violence than, say, Greek and Norse ideology, or early Jewish ideology, or the ideology of “manifest destiny,” or Nazi ideology. One easy point of distinction, however, is the idea that few PEOPLE today seem to be motivated by adherence to Greek or Norse mythology, or early Jewish ideology, or Nazisim -- and given the US’s recent adventures in Iraq, even manifest destiny seems to be in hiatus these days. Thus, I perceive a threat not from certain ideologies, but from certain PEOPLE.

Admittedly, I’m largely ignorant of the details of any of these ideologies. Perhaps as a result -- or perhaps as a cause -- I’m generally skeptical that people’s claims about their own motivations provide much explanation for their behavior.

In this context, what testable hypothesis could we devise to evaluate the “war against Islam” thesis? After all, the Islamic faith has been around for a while now, so we should have some data regarding patterns of assaults over time. Do the numbers of assaults correlate with the numbers of adherents to the Islamic faith, for example? Or do we find better explanatory variables?

On Profiling

Is the West justified in taking protective measures against people who are attacking it? Perhaps. But I’d prefer to analyze the diagnosis first.

Assuming we can agree that the West is a relevant entity for attack and defense, what common attributes do the assailants have? The answer's obvious: they’re all human!

While this is true (as far as I know, anyway), that may not be the most useful observation; designing policies to guard us against all humans may prove to be needlessly burdensome. The people we seek to guard against represent a tiny fraction of the total number of people, resulting in many false positive identifications.

Any other common attributes? They all identified themselves with the practice of Islam! (For the sake of discussion, let’s ignore the various terrorists that didn’t.)

Ok, that observation may be an order of magnitude more useful than the observation “They’re all human!” But we still face the dynamic that the people who we need to guard against represent a tiny fraction of the total number of people who identify themselves as Islamic. Are there no narrower attributes shared by the assailants?

Basically we’re engaging in profiling here. The more narrow and focused the profile, the stronger the policy we can be justified in adopting. The broader the profile, the less intrusive the policy we can justify. If the police receive a report that the suspect is driving a lime-green rusting Gremlin with a crushed left fender, the police might be inclined to pull over everyone that meets the description. If the police receive a report that the suspect left in a car, it’s unlikely the police would pull over everyone meeting that description.

And that’s the system the US is implementing, however imperfectly. To the extent the US can profile someone sufficiently narrowly as to be able to identify specific individuals, for example, the US places them on a no-fly list. But the US continues to permit planes from predominantly Islamic nations to land within its borders, and for people to leave the planes. For better or worse, the profile suggested by the statement “We’re at war with Islam” has not found expression in the no-fly list.

On motive

Hypothesis: "Islam" is a religion, and a political ideology - a very old one, which incorporates supernatural claims. This ideology tells Muslims to convert the world to Islam, and sanctions and requires the use of force.

Finally, most relevantly to the issue of current events, and least relevantly to the broad philosophical issues of this discussion: How accurate is this hypothesis? Are people really attacking the West in an effort to spread the Islamic faith?

I’ve generally understood the Taliban to object to the US interfering in Afghanistan and perhaps Pakistan (the boarders are kinda vague, I guess). I’ve understood al Quida to attack the US for having offended the faith by stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps for having propped up corrupt (and thoroughly unrepresentative) regimes. I’ve understood a few fatwas to be motivated by artists that did things that offended Islamic sensibilities. Even that army psychologist seemed to be peeved about an impending deployment or something. That is, I understand each terrorist incident to be motivated by a desire to avenge some alleged grievance. I have not understood anyone to be attacking the West as an effort at proselytizing and conversion.

Again, this distinction may not amount to much, given my skepticism that the motives people profess actually explain their behavior. But if you were able to design a policy that effectively stopped Islamic efforts at proselytizing, I wouldn’t be surprised if this did little to stop attacks on the West. Effective treatment requires an accurate diagnosis.

Analyzing war: Dichotomous win/lose? Or continuous more/less?

Wars must be fought, or lost. To win a war, must kill people and break things on the basis of collective identity, rather an individually. If a group makes war on us, we must destroy members of that group, or harm them so dreadfully that they stop, even though many, probably most, members of that group are doubtless perfectly nice people. and pretty much everything done to harm members of that group would be dreadful crimes if done in peacetime.

I struggle with how to think about war. Does it make sense to interpret war in a dichotomous win/lose manner? Or should I evaluate war as just another kind of policy choice, imposing an array of costs and providing an array of benefits?

For much of history, war has consisted of the nobles of each nation telling the farmers of their respective nations to go kill each other. From the perspective of most of the participants, it was far from clear that the war must be fought, or that a swift defeat would be worse than a drawn-out victory. The Soviets defeated the Nazis, but it’s far from clear to me that this produced a net benefit to the people of the Soviet Union.

Again, I regard the choice of intellectual framework in strategic terms. Once I choose to go to war, I can imagine that there are psycho-social benefits to depicting that choice in black-and-white, unambiguous terms. There’s lots of research regarding the human tendency for self-justification – that is, for exaggerating the benefits and minimizing the costs of any choice you make AFTER you’ve made the choice.

But the AFTER part is important. I try to maintain an open mind, refrain from drawing conclusions, until the latest possible moment. I find the seduction of reducing all policy questions to simple us-vs.-them morality tales to be so strong that I’ve come to reflexively treat morality tales with skepticism.

And who knows? I see costs and benefits to any perspective. Someday my studious efforts to suppress my own fight-or-flight reflex may get me killed. But there are no shortages of people who have died due to an undue haste to go to war, as current events reveal. Whether my perspective is more constructive than destructive, only time will tell.

War - Nukes have solved the problem of scale

God created all of us but Col. Colt actualized that proposition for the individual.

Before WW2, as Hitler noted, God was on the side with the most cannon. Baby nukes and cruise missiles have extended the Col. Colt principle to small national groups. So far, small nations with nukes are safe from serious invasion. Same with large nations. The US has yet to mount a large scale invasion of any nation with nukes.