Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When Men Have Lost Their Reason: Is the War on Terrorism Working? A Scientific Analysis Suggests That It Is Not and That It Has Succeeded Only in Keeping Us Scared and Compliant

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

When Men Have Lost Their Reason: Is the War on Terrorism Working? A Scientific Analysis Suggests That It Is Not and That It Has Succeeded Only in Keeping Us Scared and Compliant

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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