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12 April 2004updated 27 Sep 2015 3:00am

When men have lost their reason

Is the war on terrorism working? A scientific analysis suggests that it is not and that it has succe

By Colin Tudge

Science is no good at telling us how we ought to behave, but it is very good at helping us to analyse problems. So it is odd, and in many ways shameful, that our government marches so abjectly to the drum of science if there is wool to be pulled over our eyes – when it wants us to eat Monsanto’s genetically modified organisms – but ignores it when it could be telling us something useful: such as whether the “war on terrorism” is being “won”.

Italics are necessary because the idea of war in this context is so obviously fatuous. The government, for its own convenience, is confusing terrorists with freedom fighters or resistance workers. Freedom fighters, at their best, have a cause that they pursue as decorously as possible. They take care to target only their enemies. I had a friend in the French Resistance who set out one night to blow up a factory that the Germans found useful. At extreme personal risk, he set everything up and then found that the caretakers were still on the premises. So he dismantled all the gear and went home. A terrorist qua terrorist would have waited until everyone was at their benches. The idea of terrorism is, as its name implies, to strike terror; and the slaughter of innocents is an important part of the stunt.

The two can, needless to say, overlap: freedom fighters may sometimes behave as terrorists, and terrorists may be fighting for a respectable cause. But “freedom fighting” alludes to the ultimate goal. “Terrorist” describes the modus operandi. It is either muddled or cynical to conflate the two (with George Bush and Tony Blair, it is often hard to tell): if al-Qaeda is the target, or indeed Palestine, then say so. At least that would be honest. But to launch a general war against anybody who behaves in a particular way is very strange. But then, by declaring war, Bush and Blair give themselves carte blanche to do anything to anybody and to nibble at the rights of all of us.

The idea that terrorism can be “defeated” by killing terrorists reveals a truly frightening poverty of thought. As a scientist would say, the “model” is inappropriate. It was possible to eliminate smallpox because smallpox was caused by a finite number of viruses; and by depriving the viruses of their hosts, through vaccination, the entire (wild) infection was wiped out. But terrorists are not discrete entities. They are human beings who, for some reason, adopt the terrorist mode. In principle, let alone in practice, no elimination is possible (short of eliminating the entire human species). All one can hope for is to create conditions in which people are less likely to opt for the terrorist mode.

But let’s apply some science to the question of whether this “war” is working or not. The appropriate method is the “null hypothesis”. The null hypothesis would acknowledge that terrorism tends to happen in waves – a lot in some decades or centuries and less frequently in others. But it would posit that, within any one wave, terrorist acts occur randomly and that whatever governments do to reduce their frequency makes not the slightest difference. The onus then falls on those who want to argue differently to prove their case.

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In fact, the case against the null hypothesis is very difficult to make, because there can be no proper “controls” – which science also insists upon wherever this is possible. Truly to abnegate the null hypothesis you would need to set up two worlds, one in which nothing was done about terrorism and one in which “war” was declared, and see which version suffered more.

Still, the null hypothesis enables us to think more clearly about the “war” and whether it is working. For the null hypothesis predicts that within any one wave of terrorism, the particular terrorist acts occur at random intervals, irrespective of what is done to stop them. Random events can produce “clustering”: two or three outbreaks on the trot, followed by, say, a six-month lapse.

With such a pattern, governments which claim to be winning the war can indulge in wishful thinking and wondrous self-publicity. During the (random) periods of quiet they can claim that the “war” is being won. When the outbreaks begin again they can use this as an excuse to “tighten up” their controls still further. Even if we cannot prove that governments do not alter the random pattern (and they cannot prove that they do), the idea that they might not be having any effect at all must be taken seriously. This may lead to scepticism – but scepticism is better than compliance.

Although the point cannot be proved, I submit that there is no compelling reason at all to assume that the Bush/Blair “war” has made the slightest difference to the frequency or ferocity of terrorist attacks. However, it has demonstrably eroded the freedoms for which the “war” is ostensibly being fought.

We must do something to reduce the attacks. Yet if it is stupid to declare “war” on terrorism, what might be done instead? Science cannot tell us but, again, it can help to refine the thought process.

First, albeit on the basis of common sense rather than of science, we can propose three general courses of action.

The first is simply to impose reasonable security by various ad hoc interventions. X-raying luggage, for instance, really has an effect. It does seem difficult to smuggle a gun on to a plane these days. But security measures of this kind are scaled-up versions of what librarians do. Such regulation is low key and perfectly acceptable. It has nothing to do with “war”. The librarian doesn’t dress up in a flak jacket and arrest passing shoppers on suspicion.

Second, it seems worthwhile to identify and if possible to track down the perceived leaders of terrorist campaigns. This is done, too – with as much razzmatazz as is compatible with secretive operations. To be sure, it has been said that the US has had many chances to catch Osama Bin Laden, but has deliberately avoided doing so because so long as he is on the loose the “war” can be continued; and for a government short of ideas the war is convenient. Cool thinking (not quite science, but in the same spirit) suggests that such rumours should not be dismissed a priori. It is reasonable to predict that Bin Laden will be pulled out of a hole like a rabbit from a hat about a week before the presidential election.

Finally, sensible governments could ask why terrorism happens and see what can be done to undermine the reasons behind it. Here, again invoking a trick of science, we could frame another null hypothesis.

This second null hypothesis begins with the observation that terrorism is not a 21st-century phenomenon. Crops, villages and towns have been set on fire and wells have been poisoned since Old Testament times. Troops of fired-up cavalrymen slaughtered many a town full of men, women and children all over the ancient and medieval worlds. By pretending that terrorism is new, Bush and Blair are able to justify novel approaches to government as a whole – notably, putting the entire western world on to a permanent war footing.

Terrorism as a general phenomenon seems to go in waves: there are long periods when there are outbreaks and other periods when it is infrequent; and it is certainly reasonable to ask why this is so. What in general causes these waves? Why are we in one now?

The Bush/Blair thesis has it that Islamic “fanatics” won’t rest until they have imposed their ideas on the whole world. (The US neo-cons have exactly the same ambition, clearly spelt out, but that is not considered pertinent.) The null hypothesis says, however, that the proportion of “fanatics” is no higher now than before. Again, the Bible (which as literal history may be hit-and-miss but is none the less full of insight) tells us that extremists have always been with us. “Zealot” is the common biblical term.

But “zeal” is not commended in either New or Old Testament. In the first centuries after Christ, many a proto-Christian zealot took himself off to the desert, where he (usually he) would starve himself. But serious theologians looked down on this. Although several zealous nuns have lately been canonised, they were often condemned in their day as “enthusiasts”. In similar vein, both Lenin and Mao Zedong condemned “the extreme left”.

In short, all serious religious and political movements have had their share of “zealots” and, most of the time, have given them short shrift. History suggests that zealots depend on support from society (to hide in cellars and suchlike) and that, in normal times, this support is simply not forthcoming. The fanatics come to the fore only when the society to which they belong is desperate. But those who suggest that the way ahead is to identify the causes of desperation and tackle them are accused of being woolly-headed liberals; and this, in these pumped-up times, is perceived as a sin comparable with terrorism itself.

Science is about reason and improving judgements. But judgement, as Mark Antony once put the matter, has “fled to brutish beasts,/And men have lost their reason”. And the “men” we have to worry about in this context are the ones who are on our side.

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