Following the recent “Batman” massacre in Aurora, a lot of people have made cynical comments such as: “the suspect is white, so it must be insanity rather than terrorism”. By which they mean: our racist double standards prompt us to call him insane rather than a terrorist.
I think that’s rather revealing. Unfortunately, it reveals that terrorism is working just as it’s intended to.
By terrorism, I mean the deliberate targeting of civilians with the intention of frightening them into adopting a political agenda. Such an agenda might have as its goal a united Ireland, or the destruction of Israel, or the removal of military bases in Saudi Arabia, or whatever. The new converts needn’t become out-and-out activists for the cause, but if they are newly inclined to vote for some political measure when before they were against it, say, the terrorists’ work is a success. A newspaper doesn’t have to openly endorse Islamic extremism to yield to terrorists, but if it refuses to publish an offensive cartoon it otherwise would have published, say, it still partially yields.
Please note that although we tend to think of the people terrorists kill as their primary victims, it’s the much larger class of other people who adopt new political views as a result of these violent deaths who are the main targets of terror. The use of terror to instil views like their own distinguishes terrorists from other combatants as much as their deliberate targeting of civilians.
How does terrorism work? How does fear change minds? – I think the quick answer is: it works in much the same way as the “Stockholm syndrome”.
In a little more detail, terrorism works by forcing people to adopt the outward behavioural trappings of commitment to – or at least sympathy for – a political cause. If these behavioural trappings – saying the “right” things, not saying the “wrong” things, and so on – become a matter of fixed habit or “reflex”, in effect they solidify into genuine commitment. Even the “inner feelings” that normally accompany sincere commitment inevitably emerge, rather as smiling has the effect of making people feel cheerful.
How can that be? – This is where things get philosophically interesting. Here’s my answer: there is much truth in the “analytical behaviourist” idea that beliefs and desires are dispositional states. To use an analogy of Quine and Ullian, a person has a belief or desire in the same way as a battery is charged when it’s disposed to send a current through a circuit, when it causes sparks if the circuit is shorted, and so on. Analogously, to have a belief or desire is to be disposed to behave in appropriate ways. We develop a repertoire of habits appropriate to having this or that belief or desire. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter much what causes these dispositions. If it can somehow be arranged – by fear, threats, social ostracism, whatever – for the behaviour to occur in the appropriate circumstances, then the disposition is in place. And if the disposition is in place, the mental state is too.
And it gets worse, because a sort of holism leads to a sort of rationalization. Although we use single, isolated sentences to describe beliefs, we can never have a single belief in isolation from other beliefs. Instead, we have more or less detailed mental representations or “maps” of the world, whose fineness of detail depends on how much we know about the subject matter. The smallest units of description of such a “map” are those we can express in a single true or false sentence. These correspond to simple beliefs. For example, I believe that today is Sunday. But I am only capable of believing that because I have a fairly detailed mental representation of the way humans measure time in seven-day cycles, and the way each day corresponds to a rotation of the Earth, and the way two of those days are treated in a special way, and quite a lot of other facts relevant to the same subject matter.
So although I can pick out a single belief using a single sentence ‘Today is Sunday’, such a belief always has to be part of a larger “area of understanding”. To have a belief you have to have the concepts that the belief harnesses, and for that you need to have a fairly rich range of beliefs, plural, which carve these concepts out.
Something analogous applies with language. Any meaningful sentence has to contain words which themselves have a determinate sense. And to get a determinate sense, they must occur in other meaningful sentences, plural. In general, words get their sense by being used in semantically important sentences. So no sentence of a human language can have meaning in complete isolation from other sentences.
Now consider the acquisition of beliefs. When I am forced to accept a given belief, I cannot simply accept it on its own. I have to accept some “packaging” as well – some other beliefs that help to justify the belief in question, by implying it, or being implied by it. In other words, I rationalize it.
In short, because of the holistic nature of beliefs, being forced to adopt one of them entails adopting some other beliefs as well, which help to justify the “forced” belief. By being “embedded in reasons” like that, it is held sincerely. It is part of a more or less detailed “map” of its subject matter.
I think the Stockholm syndrome is the closest thing we have to “brainwashing”. It can probably be resisted as long as the subject isn’t too suggestible, as long as he constantly reminds himself that he is only “going through the motions”, and as long as he resists the urge to make things psychologically easy for himself. In my opinion, it is correctly termed a “syndrome”, because it is a mildly pathological state of mind. Although the new beliefs are “reasonable” in that they have their own “justification”, they were adopted through an unreliable process. In general, we don’t acquire true beliefs doing what thugs force us to do.
So the victims of terrorism who come to adopt more terrorist-friendly beliefs are, in a weak sense, unwell. They aren’t thinking as they would if they were using their judgement in a truth-conducive way. I think the cynical claim that we only treat “brown” people as terrorists is a symptom of that (mild) illness. The West has had to deal with terrorism from various quarters for decades, and most of the terrorists have if anything been “whiter” than their victims. The Ku Klux Klan, ETA and several organizations on both sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland were all terrorists, and few were tempted to call them anything else simply because they were “white”. Only recently have Islamic extremists come to epitomize terrorism in the public imagination. Many of them – such as the “shoe bomber” – have been “white”. The cynical claim above is akin to the claim that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” – as if the word ‘terrorist’ were a sign of our own cultural insensitivity, our failure to make amends for “our” colonial past, and a more general boorishness and racism. We have “brought it upon ourselves”, the idea goes.
I hope it’s clear how those attitudes are the product of terrorism.
If some of us suffer from a mild form of mental illness as a result of terrorism, terrorists themselves usually suffer from a severe form of mental illness. Only the emotionally backward can adopt a political cause with enough gusto to neglect spouses, children and career – let alone to wreak similar havoc on other people who are evidently not involved in their conflict.
So our original question should not be “Is he insane, or is he a terrorist?” but rather “Is he insane, or is he both insane and a terrorist?” To answer that question, we would have to know more about his intentions and his political agenda (if any).