The Casual Blog

Tag: Osama bin Laden

Butterflies, and constructing terror narratives

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On Saturday morning I ran 5 miles, up Hillsborough Street and back. It was humid. I went slower than usual, and struggled to finish. That afternoon I went out to Cary for my monthly haircut with Ann, and we talked about our families and cars. Then I drove west to Jordan Lake. I stopped at Horton Pond and took some pictures of a spicebush swallowtail (above). (The other butterflies here were taken this week at Raulston Arboretum.) Afterwards, I put Clara in sport mode and had a lively drive on the winding country roads.
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It’s so interesting how intensely we insist on fitting disasters into familiar narratives. After the horrible Bastille Day truck massacre in Nice this week, leading politicians immediately dubbed the act “terrorist,” despite knowing nothing of the driver’s motivations. Now, three days later, there is still no evidence that the driver had any particular ideology, and there’s some evidence that he was just a sad, mentally disturbed, violent loner. Yet the press, including the NY Times, continues to characterize the mayhem as “terrorism” and to raise the alarm on the need to escalate the war on it.

Narratives are our way of making sense of the world. We create meaning by imposing a cause-and-effect ordering on events. But our compulsive drive for understandable narratives can also cause us to see things that aren’t there. When acts of deranged individuals or small, not-very-powerful groups are attributed to a single powerful force of evil, our fear level rises. Strong emotions make us less capable of careful analysis, more susceptible to demagogues, and more liable to overreact and do harm to others and ourselves.
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This is, in fact, what the real terrorists, like Osama bin Laden, hope: that we’ll react to their crimes by killing innocent people, whose relatives will swear vengeance on us and join the radical cause. Al Qaeda had remarkable success in provoking us this way. Our endless war in the Middle East allowed them to extend their influence and spawned even more bloody-minded imitators.
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In the face of a heinous mass killing, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by grief and fear, and hard not to grab at a handy possible explanation. But more times than not, we can’t really know all the causes of such crimes, and sometimes we can’t pin down any of them. As much as we like stories, we need to accept that some things don’t fit into our familiar narratives. Fear narratives may feel satisfying, but by not exaggerating fear and avoiding overreacting, we are less likely to cause harm, and ultimately safer.
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Bin Laden is dead, so let’s end the War on Terror

So Osama bin Laden is dead. I can’t get as excited and happy about this as some people . He inspired murderous activity on a large scale, but it isn’t self evident to me that the U.S. government is entitled to execute him without trial. However, I recognize I’m in a minority in questioning this, and I could be wrong.

How do you know if a belief that feels good, that lines up with your predilections and hopes, is wrong? You can’t, really. There’s no measuring device that infallibly separates truth from fantasy. But you can stress test ideas to some extent. You can ask yourself, could this idea be wrong, even though it is appealing? Could the pleasantness of an idea make it difficult to see its weaknesses? If the idea is popular and widespread, could it be that fear of unpopularity, of separation from the group, quiets critical thinking about it? You can also ask yourself, is there any evidence supporting this idea, or supporting the opposite of this idea? What is the evidence on both sides?

Given that Osama bin Laden was one of the people responsible for the murderous activities of September 11, 2001, how do we determine whether killing him without trial is the right thing to do? On the one hand, it accords with the idea of fair retribution, of an eye for an eye. And revenge is undeniably satisfying. But we could consider other values and issues. Killing humans is, in general, wrong, right? Due process is, in general, a good thing, right? Viewed in instrumental terms, we could ask, is the net effect of killing him likelier to be to reduce terrorist activity, or increase it? Does killing him without trial confer on him martyr status and amplify his message, or does it discourage those inclined to follow him so that they give up?

It’s hard to resolve these questions. But it’s verifiable that the War on Terror that the US declared in response to bin Laden’s crime has caused enormous misery. Persons killed: more than a million. Dollars spent in foreign military operations: $1.2 trillion and counting. Total pain from wounds and post-traumatic stress: unknown, but clearly enormous. Total productivity lost and indignities and annoyance caused by airport searches: don’t ask. Terrorism plots thwarted in the US: a tiny number. Lives saved in the US that would otherwise have been lost: not many.

The War on Terror has achieved very little in terms of making us safer, and wasted many lives and much wealth. One product, of course, is that we killed Osama bin Laden. OK, I say. Let’s make the best of things, and declare victory in the War on Terror. Let’s just say we won. Now the War can end. Let’s bring the troops home, and redeploy our resources.