Friday, December 5, 2008


There are few things we do a shabbier job of than understanding terrorism.

To begin with, there are too many people who pull back altogether from the challenge of understanding it. "Understanding" is a synonym for "condoning," and both are weakness. Terrorism is like fire: you don't analyze the fire, you extinguish the fire. The only thing to be done with terrorists is extinguish them, liquidate them, eradicate them, find them and kill them by any means necessary.

Rarrr, we're tough. Hope nobody notices how terrified we are.

In fact, terrorism is the result of a whole array of breakdowns and failures, and we could do a far better job of reducing its incidence by pouring some serious resources into any one of them. In most parts of the world that yield terrorism, public opinion of the west in general, and the United States in particular, is both very negative and very dysfunctional. The misunderstandings are epic. The potential for smart, relentless work to reach out to other parts of the world, to put our own messages into their media and other cultural channels, is enormous, and largely unrealized. Trying to teach our way out of the root causes of terrorism doesn't feel enough like muscle-flexing. But that muscle-flexing has the same failing as corporal punishment: it may work, temporarily, in limited measure, on very young children, but it's far less likely to work as the children grow older, stronger, more sophisticated, and more willful. Instead, all it accomplishes is to slather on another layer of resentment and determination.

Next semester I'm teaching intercultural communication, and I'm tempted to make terrorism one of my running examples. It really seems to me that if students understood that there are bodies of reasoning, chains of argument, whose output is a considered decision to turn to terrorism, and that those chains draw from cultural premises that aren't familiar to us, but are also not beyond our ability to decipher, then that understanding might dislodge the stubborn determination to view terrorism as the same thing as a stuck jar lid, something that will only respond to muscle.

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