Saturday, July 14, 2007


From the July 12, 2007 edition of's "Best of the Web Today", by James Taranto:
Writing at, Bruce Schneier makes a counterintuitive but fascinating argument that draws on an academic paper by Max Abrahms titled "Why Terrorism Does Not Work." As Schneier sums it up, people have a "cognitive bias" that leads them to an erroneous conclusion about the motives of terrorists:

Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end. . . .

[Abrahms] analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of "foreign terrorist organizations" designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time. . . . Terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy. . . .

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism--or Islamic terrorism in general--is "different": that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda's primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again--Abrams [sic] has a page of examples in the paper--and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. . . .

Since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he's just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden's actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

Perversely, Bush's misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals... [Emphasis added]


Blogger erp said...

Terrorism's objective is to terrorize.

July 14, 2007 10:09 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I'd say that the ability of small groups of outsiders to impose their will on large groups of people who despise them 7% of the time is a huge success rate.

Does anybody know of a method that works better in this situation?

July 14, 2007 10:29 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Depends on who the "large groups of people who despise them" are.

The American civil rights movement, Swaraj - Mahatma Gandhi's concept for Indian independence from foreign domination, and the apartheid movement of South Africa all seem to have elements of a despised, oppressed group imposing their will on the superior group.

July 14, 2007 11:41 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I said small groups.

It's true, Gandhi's group was small, but his opponents were even smaller.

And, in the end, Gandhi turned out to be one of the century's Top Five (or Six) murderers.

Same with the US civil rights movement.

Or, as my friend Donald Kaul said, in a democracy, it's hard to feel sympathy for an oppressed majority.

And same, with bells on, for S. Africa.

July 14, 2007 12:26 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I don't understand the bolded quote. How would Bin Laden acheive his goals more readily if Bush understood what they were? Is he suggesting that Bush would comply with Bin Laden's demands for the US to get out of the Middle East he took those demands seriously? LOL indeed! As long as we need oil from the ground we'll be in the Middle East.

I wonder if Bush would get more support for the war if he just admitted that it was about the oil. With oil closing in on $80 a barrel, the average voter that can't see the value of fighting terrorists overseas would at least feel that he is getting something material for the sacrifice of our youth. If we withdraw completely from the Mideast, there isn't a snowball's chance in Hades that we'd be allowed to buy oil for less than $130/barrel.

July 15, 2007 6:36 AM  
Blogger erp said...

The U.S. could easily do without Middle Eastern oil imports, but Middle Eastern oil exports can't do without us.

July 15, 2007 7:07 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Too late now, but I think the electorate could have been gotten on board if Bush had enunciated a campaign based on American principles: independence for the Kurds, safety for Israel, revenge for the Marsh Arabs, defeat for Iran.

Oil would have been lagniappe.

Of course, Bush cannot enunciate anything, so what I really meant was that if America had had a leader who could speak to people, like FDR, then a campaign of principle could have been waged.

July 15, 2007 10:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


The bolded quote means that public perceptions about al Qaeda's goals and motivations are being shaped and framed by Bush, and not by al Qaeda itself.

If, for instance, the American public understood that what al Qaeda wants above all else is to be in charge of Mecca, and secondarily the Kingdom of Arabia, then there might be more public pressure in America to cut loose the House of Saud.

July 15, 2007 12:14 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Going to Mecca through New York is a funny way to do it.

If I'm right about the program of basic Islam (and I wish Ali would finish up and come back and explain how I'm wrong), AQ may have a priority of desires, but it's demands and expectations are all of an equality.

July 15, 2007 4:01 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Since the U.S. have an understanding with the House of Saud, in which they (more or less) provide oil, and we provide some security, (for both the nation and the ruling family), and since we also sell the House of Saud nearly $ 3 billion of arms and weapons systems annually (page 9), including advanced or state-of-the-art tech such as Abrams tanks, F-15s, and TOW missile systems, and given what happened to Iraq when it threatened the Saudis in '90, it's not a stretch to see why al Qaeda might attack America to affect Arabia.

July 15, 2007 5:15 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

Marsh Arabs?

July 15, 2007 5:41 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Not many of them left, thanks to us. It would have been gracious, at least, to do something for the survivors.

July 15, 2007 11:03 PM  

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