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Thursday, 8 January 2015

Maybe The Terrorists Wanted Me To Write This?

All Good People know that giving in to terrorism is wrong. By definition, terrorists want us to give in. Don’t give in to blackmail. Don’t give them what they want. Don’t pay the danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the dane.

Underlying this is a classic prisoners dilemma. The best outcome is cooperation, no players giving in. To do so creates a moral hazard, encouraging further escalation, and is a net loss on the whole. In any single case, however, an individual may see personal benefit in giving in to the intimidation. The value of a ransom will usually be less than the value of saving a human life. Admittedly this is an easy thing to say from a position of safety, and likely not something I would stick to were I personally involved, but it’s still true. Instilling the social norm that We Do Not Give In To Terrorists is therefore important. This is borne out in the numbers of westerners taken hostage in the middle east. France is well known for paying ransom money to terrorist groups, both funding future activity, and directing it disproportionately at their own citizens.

In the situation of ransoms, it is easy to work out What They Want, and thus avoid doing it. But in the case of more abstract acts of terrorism, how do we work this out? We therefore shift the discussion up one level. Rather than argue about whether to give in or not, we argue about what ‘giving in’ means in this particular case. The particular things everyone is proposing don’t vary at all between the two discussions, only the framing.

We can imagine almost any number of layers of complexity when speculating about motives. On the surface, the Paris attackers wanted to silence cartoonists insulting their beliefs.

But maybe that’s what they want us to think? Maybe they want to provoke us into sharing racist cartoons, and sow division in our society.

But maybe that’s what they want us to think? Maybe they want us to continue with liberal, pro-diversity policies that allow them to flourish?

But maybe that’s what they want us to think? Maybe they want us to aggressively intervene again in the middle east, therefore maintaining the raison d’etre for angry young men such as them across the region?

But maybe that’s what they want us to think? Maybe they want us to elect Marine Le Pen, and pull out of international engagements altogether?

As you can hopefully see, playing with the dogma that we don’t negotiate with terrorists can lead to any outcome we want, and the particular recommendations often seem to neatly line up with whatever line we were pushing in the first place. If anything, proposing ever more complicated motivations makes the proposer seem smarter, creating incentives that way that don't necessarily align with truth. Even if we were able to ask them why they did it, this wouldn’t be helpful or convince anyone. The killers would likely claim they are motivated by their religious ideology, but of course this is actually about thing I dislike more.

We can attempt to sidestep this altogether, perhaps it is safer to pretend there is absolutely no motivation at all. If our opponents are nihilists, there is no risk of getting it wrong and accidentally giving them what they want. This has the added benefit of signalling virtue by seeming more condemnatory. We easily conflate any motive at all with a valid one, and any person suggesting the former as suggesting the latter. 

I don’t know what the best response is. I tend towards to the simplest explanation of any event, but Occam’s razor doesn’t always hold. If anything, it seems that the arguments here are really about showing what side you’re on, rather than defying or preventing terrorism. The Bloods get to show how fearless they are, and call the Crips spineless pansies. The Crips get to show how pious and critical they are, and call the Bloods racist.

In the absense of a conclusion, a story. I know one person at school who managed to ‘beat the bullies’. He did so by taking the smallest and weakest of them and absolutely beating the shit out of him, in exactly the right location that a sympathetic teacher arrived before any larger kids. I’m not sure how this can be generalised into advice for children, or how to deal with terrorists for that matter. Sorry. Maybe that was what the bullies wanted him to do?

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