Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Reply to Sandefur

In a post over at Positive Liberty, Timothy Sandefur writes:
I’ve never been sympathetic to the argument that our occupation of Iraq is bad because it “aids in the radicalization” of locals. This would seem to suggest that if we just ignored them, they wouldn’t want to kill us and their own people, which I find very doubtful. These people are “radicalized” by political and religious leaders who lie to them. It is no more our fault for “radicalizing” them than it is our fault for “radicalizing” criminals when we send a SWAT team in after a bank robber.
Sandefur is not alone, I think, in doubting that those who are already terrorists would immediately stop being terrorists if we brought an immediate end to our occupation of Iraq. But Sandefur, like some others, seems to go a step farther. He doubts that those who have become terrorists since our occupation of Iraq started have been influenced at all in their decision by our occupation. In other words, he thinks, or seems to me to think, that whatever the processes are that turn non-terrorists into terrorists, those processes have no causal relationship whatsoever to our actions. The only event that has any causal relationship to the making of terrorists is that their "political and religious leaders ... lie to them."

Implicit in this view is an extremely cynical view of human behavior that I do not think Sandefur accepts. On his view, a certain group of people--he uses the unspecific "them," and the antecedent is not clear--are so captive to the lies that are told them that they are powerless to resist their own deception, incapable of discovering that something is an untruth. That, at least, seems to be the grounds on which Sandefur assumes that nothing we do can change what they do, because so long as they are told lies, they will be radicalized.

This theory of terrorism, though, is far too underdetermined. Other "locals" in Iraq heard lies from their political and religious leaders and yet have not become terrorists. So as a causal explanation for the radicalization of "locals" into insurgents, the fact that terrorists were lied to has an extremely modest amount of explanatory power. Yet Sandefur gives it so much explanatory power that it justifies dismissing any suggestion that our own occupation has had any role at all in radicalizing "locals." Indeed, these unspecific "lies," told to an unspecific "them," are such a powerful cause of what makes terrorists become terrorists that we can be "doubtful" that anything we do--even if we did nothing at all--would stop the chain reaction: Leaders tell the locals lies; locals believe lies; locals become terrorists.

Can Sandefur really mean that this is what the "radicalization" of terrorists boils down to? Does he think that the "locals" affected either directly or indirectly by our occupation of Iraq are so subservient to social structures, so credulous that their only motive for action is obedience to a command? For someone as committed to the classical liberal view of human nature as I know Sandefur is, that seems an odd thing to believe about any rational human person, much less an entire group of people.

Collective Improvisation:

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