Re: I Don't Know, What Do You Wanna Do?


I think this goes back to the perennial discussion (Paul Berman, among others, touches on this) of whether modern liberalism and civil society coupled with technocratic bureaucracy and some form of capitalism is a "cold" form of society that serves some social groups and constituencies pretty well, serves others poorly, but leaves almost everyone with weak bonds or loyalties to the social architecture of their world. Nation or ethnicity or religion or community becomes the thing which people substitute as the "warm" or satisfying focus of their loyalties and social emotions, even though the real substance of their everyday sociality and material comfort comes from something besides nation, religion or community.

If you look at it this way, it might help to explain not just why some of the militants involved in attacks since (and before) 9/11 were from relatively comfortable social backgrounds and actually quite well integrated into or familiar with the societies they attacked. It's the same reason that middle-class college students are the people in my experience most likely to fervently practice identity politics of some form. The social glue is as weak for them as for anyone else, but they've got an even greater sense of anomie and more time and material comfort to do something about it.

The important thing about this, contrary to some of the arguments I've made elsewhere in the last week, is that it really does undercut the "us-them" thing in some important ways--that bureaucratic liberal capitalism's crisis of spirit is a global problem, and sparks some parallel responses in a lot of parts of the world, that some of those most inclined to fundamentalism (or to join cults, etc.) are not those made most abject by the global society but those who are actually reasonably well accomodated by it.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 8:28 AM
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Bureaucratic liberal capitalism, as you put it, materially accomodates most people reasonably well, but it is sorely lacking in spiritual accomodation.

People need to feel a sense of purpose. Some people need to feel they are doing something important and meaningful, and that is the hook that scientology and fundie religions use to bring people in and keep them in.

What can our society offer that satisfies this need in a way that is generally benign (if not outright beneficial) to society?

Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 8:45 AM
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A number of people I've chatted with have been upset with Britain for not 'stopping this Muslim problem' by restricting freedoms, deporting Muslims, etc, and are hoping the U.S. will do the same 'before it happens here.'

If your speculation is right, and I suspect it is (theories about every one just needing a job and lay notwithstanding), not only would taking such action be unethical/anti-Western/etc, but totally counterproductive . Because the more people are isolated, the more welcoming a group that says, here, no one here is isolated seems to become....

But what the hell do we do about it?

Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 9:06 AM
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Umm, suck it up and accept that there are risks inherent in a free society? Realize that there is zero chance that radical Muslims (or whatever) will destroy our society? We've had populations that (reasonably) felt oppressed and that spawned radical groups willing to use violence to make their points. Isn't the difference here really that the new guys have better techniques?

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 9:12 AM
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Well, that was an easy solution.

Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 9:21 AM
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I was just watching one of the documentaries on one of the bonus discs for The Battle of Algiers and they make a similar point about Ali La Pointe. He wasn't one of the main leaders of the FLN but had been a small-time criminal and pimp before becoming radicalized while in prison.

Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 9:46 AM
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OK, seriousness is allowed on this thread, right?

I agree with SCMTim that almost everyone is exaggerating the threat. The Hitler analogy is ridiculous. (No tanks, no industry, no economy, no technological infrastructure, no centralized political organization, no territory. Nothing but a share of the oil rents, a pool of potential kamikazes, and a strategic location in the Middle East.)

Reading about the 9-11 terrorists, especially the Hamburg group, I ended up thinking that many of them had been sent to Europe to make their family's fortunes, and had let their families down by not doing well at school and/or failing to establish themselves in a lucrative career. Perhaps they also pissed around with booze, loose women (ethnodescription), and decadence like every other college student does.

At a certain point they realized that they couldn't face their families again and also that their families, who had invested a big, irreplacable chunk of the family fortune in their educations, would curse them forever.

But by becoming martyrs, they could restore their good name. (Both Jihad and Crusade recruit from people who need redemption; as far as that goes, the US Army used to be an option to escape jail time).

This is fairly speculative, based only on what I knew of some of the foreign students I knew here in the US and a few things I read about the 9-11 guys, but I'd love to see someone develop the idea in more detail.

Hitler's failure as an artist is a potential comparison here. I claim that it is Godwin-exempt. (Wittgenstein's schoolmate, you know.)

Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 10:25 AM
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Ignoring the problem or writing it off as a cost of living in a modernized world doesn't strike me as a very appealing approach. Yes, various mundane threats kill more people than terrorism, but technological advances aren't likely to make highway accidents or toppling soda machines significantly more deadly anytime soon. However, the weapons available to terrorists are going to continue to improve as biotech advances, new technologies pack more energy into smaller spaces, and we increase our reliance on automated systems.

It seems inevitable that eventually any person so-inclined will be able to kill thousands of other people. We're going to need to figure out how to make such inclinations much rarer before we reach that point.

Posted by: tom | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:03 AM
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On a related note, I recommend you rent My Son the Fanatic, which deals with a Pakistani immigrant who loses his British-born son to fundamentalism. It's heartbreaking. Oh, and Rachel Griffiths plays a hooker so there's something for the whole family. (Remember when Brenda was a gas and not a sad, overanalytical prude? Those were the days, my friends.)

Posted by: moira | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:14 AM
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Yeah, I probably sounded overly glib and dismissive. Sorry about that. The truth is that I worry that any proposed cure is likely to be much worse than what I take to be a very, very small threat to me and mine from the disease. I would not have believed we would have blithely yanked the right to trial and counsel prior to seeing it done; that scared me a hell of a lot more than 9/11.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:26 AM
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Brenda was always a sad, overanalytical something, though, right?

Posted by: Joe Drymala | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:28 AM
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I guess a solution is to try and make them OUR fanatics. A draft and a gung-ho military might do it.

They do say the army will make a man out of you.

OTOH, Timothy McVeigh.

Posted by: md20/400 | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:29 AM
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Many of the specific tasks relating to minimizing the scope of terrorism, notably working on nuclear proliferation, are not being given a high priority.

Occasionally it will be mentioned, but it hasn't been highlighted: Valerie Plame's operation which Rove burned was mostly dirested toward nuclear proliferation.

As I suggested at the TPM place today, everything is domestic politics for Rove. Everything. And he's probably the single most important policy guy in the administration. Including foreign policy.

Posted by: John Emerson | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:33 AM
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Musing: the danger to the free society isn't so much the terrorist blowing up subways, but how that terror can be used/abused by the government to further other ends. I worry not so much that terrorists will grind things to a halt -- heart disease kills magnitudes more people than terror ever will, but it's unlikely to result in a military response-- but more that we'll end up doing all sorts of counter-productive things that themselves are a danger to a free society.

And if one group is saying "suck it up, there's nothing we can do" and the other is saying "they hate our freedom, and see, it's even middle class Muslims you can't trust ANYONE, let's do XYZ", and the fear level is high enough...


Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:35 AM
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14 before reading 10. I think we're agreeing.

Posted by: Cala | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 11:40 AM
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I'm not totally convinced that terrorists will have better (or worse, depending on how you look at it) weapons now. Didn't the anarchists use bombs?

Limiting access to the true WMDs is job one. Catching the criminals is job two. Job three is draining the terrorist breeding grounds by addressing the legitimate concerns. We must stop supporting despotic rulers for starters.

Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 12:27 PM
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Didn't the anarchists use bombs?

Sure, but they didn't have bombs that were as small and stable, or have electronic timing circuits, or cellular networks that make remote detonation easy. But I agree, the terrorist arsenal hasn't fundamentally changed -- yet. We're on the cusp of it changing, though. Biotech seems like it has the biggest potential for easy production and disastrous results, but it's already possible to make a radiological weapon using material that can be found in any hospital, and many college research labs.

Improving security around such facilities is a great idea, but technological advances are inherently about increasing our ability to alter the world; it's very hard to restrict those increases in ability such that they don't also include an increased ability to end life.

Posted by: tom | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 12:41 PM
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I wonder if the emotion is like an extreme form of the suburban white kid who listens to rap, dreaming of being bad. That is, if it's a first-order personal sense of grievance, or a second-order borrowed one.

Posted by: ac | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 12:44 PM
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I'm still a little unconvinced. It seems to me that we have always been on the cusp of change ever since Og picked up the first rock and bonked Unf with it.

Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 12:47 PM
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biotech seems like it has the biggest potential for easy production and disastrous results

I'm suspicious of claims about biotech weapons. The one article in the WP that addressed it indicated that they didn't pose much of a threat (IIRC, harder to weaponize than you think, disfavored because essentially uncontrolled, and dispersal methods are tricky).

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 12:49 PM
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It is startling to think how destructive in a civilization like ours would be such fierce conflicts as fill the history of the past. The wars of highly civilized countries, since the opening of the era of steam and machinery, have been duels of armies rather than conflicts of peoples or classes. Our only glimpse of what might happen, were passion fully aroused, was in the struggle of the Paris Commune. And, since 1870, to the knowledge of petroleum has been added that of even more destructive agents. The explosion of a little nitro-glycerin under a few water-mains would make a great city uninhabitable; the blowing up of a few railroad bridges and tunnels would bring famine quicker than the wall of circumvallation that Titus drew around Jerusalem; the pumping of atmospheric air into the gas-mains, and the application of a match, would tear up every street and level every house. The Thirty Years' War set back civilization in Germany; so fierce a war now would all but destroy it. Not merely have destructive powers vastly increased, but the whole social organization has become vastly more delicate. ...
Let jar or shock dislocate the complex and delicate organization, let the policeman's club be thrown down or wrested from him, and the fountains of the great deep are opened, and quicker than ever before chaos comes again. Strong as it may seem, our civilization is evolving destructive forces. Not desert and forest, but city slums and country roadsides are nursing the barbarians who may be to the new what Hun and Vandal were to the old.

From this, written back before I realized that blog posts should be, um, readable.

Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 1:13 PM
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I'm still a little unconvinced. It seems to me that we have always been on the cusp of change ever since Og picked up the first rock and bonked Unf with it.

I'll admit that it would be a remarkable coincidence for my generation to both have invented sex and be witness to the end of history. But still: there's no denying that destructive technologies are relatively young, and many of them become more accessible all the time. Bombs have been around forever, but I could download the anarchist's cookbook when I was fourteen -- that's certainly a new development. I remain worried.

Posted by: tom | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 1:28 PM
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"destructive technologies" should probably have a "these sorts of" in front of it. obviously we've had sticks and rocks for a while now.

Posted by: tom | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 1:31 PM
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This is disturbing.

Posted by: eb | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 1:58 PM
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Before the internet there was photocopies of photocopies. Before that dittos (does anyone else remember the smell?) and carbon paper.

Information flies faster and farther then it used to but the end result is not that different.

Worry if you must, but I'm still not convinced things are worse now.

Posted by: Tripp | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 2:45 PM
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The pattern you describe certainly matches well-known extremist GW Bush.

Posted by: Maynard Handley | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 3:00 PM
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There is one Goat and Muhammad is it's herder.

Bend over for Allah.

Posted by: w | Link to this comment | 07-13-05 7:25 PM
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