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November 24, 2004

Why they hate us

I have noted before that trite characterizations of why terrorists do what they do, be it "poverty" or a "hatred of freedom" are often inaccurate. ParaPundit points me to this article Understanding Terror Networks. The author focuses on the hardcore transnational terrorists rather than those engaged in national struggles. Highlights (sample of 400):


  • ~3/4 were upper middle class (scratch poverty).
  • 63% had gone to college.
  • Average age 26 (not surprising).
  • 73% were married, often with children.
  • The natural sciences & engineering predominate (few had religous backgrounds).

First, it should be no surprise that transnational terrorists are a well educated sample. They are often fighting for intangible abstract principles, a War of Ideas, and such things are often only salient to those for whom ideas are the bread & butter of daily life. Remember, the European Wars of Religion were sparked by the interests of the propertied elite (ie; lesser princes in the Holy Roman Empire & knights) and intellectuals who motivated the masses toward fanaticism by overheated rhetoric (though the masses often rose up in anti-Reformation rebellions because of their attachment to the "smells & bells" of the Catholic religion in reformed regions).1 Concepts like "Christendom" or the Ummah are words that most people might assent to with varying levels of emotional commitment, but I suspect it takes mobile intellectuals who prioritize the world of ideas over conventional bonds of family, heimat and volk to really preoccupy over these constructs to the point where they become genuine motivating forces in their actions (rather than an excuse to engage in a peasant revolt against economic oppression or a way to repossess the property of religious orders).

Literacy and institutions devoted to intellectual pursuits2 bind together transcommunity information networks and have resulted in the rise of Civilization as we know it, but, these same forces often have an acidic impact on common sense notions of decency and proportionality mediated by insitutions and cognitive states shaped by our EEA. The "intellectual" is profoundly unnatural, and the notion that one would give up one's life so that someone on the other side of the world would eventually profess the same set of axioms about some theological or metaphysical construct likely seems bizarre to most people because it is rather bizarre.

And this is where the natural sciences come in. If you spend much of your adult life focusing on methods and techniques that are highly esoteric and often counterintuitive, but, manage to make predictions that are uncanny in their fidelity to reality, is it surprising that you would take the axioms of your religion to heart, and start constructing a chain of inferences? Additionally, many of these individuals are psychologically distinct from the general population, as training in the natural sciences often selects for an individual who has a specific set of interests and predispositions at variance with the norm (so they are less buffered by "normal" considerations in keeping their ideas in perspective). People who are religiously trained are, in my experience, often great at the double-think that suggests that though religious belief A implies bizarre behavior B ("love thine enemy"), it really doesn't mean you should act weird!. Acting weird is for heaven, or for a religious elite, or some other loophole that allows normalcy free rein. Groups that do act weird, like the Shakers for instance, tend to have an ephemeral existence because their ideas are not that attractive to most people (their ideas often elicit admiration but not conversion). Many people without religious training, and especially those from the sciences where plain & transparent axioms exist to construct testable models, diagnose patients or engineer mechanical devices seem to treat religious commandments in the same fashion.3 Mix this with a relative lack of social fluency & a mobile unrooted lifestyle ((so there are fewer normal constraints on bizarre behavior), and you get a mindset that I think normal people have a hard time comprehending simply through introspection.

(notes below)

1 - I do not mean to imply that people of common intelligence are by their nature tolerant and accepting in their views, rather, a concerted and cohesive mobilization and triggering of the appropriate cognitive biases are generated from above, whether it be through ritualized mantra, shibboleths concocted by religious leaders or emotional oratory. "Primitive" societies are filled with plenty of mayhem, faction and murder, but they lack the focused cohesiveness of mass mobilized agricultural societies where the head (the elite) manipulates a far larger body (the masses).

2 - I include religious institutions in this category.

3 - Many who have haunted talk.origins and alt.atheism have observed that engineers are overrepresented among articulate Creationists, that is, those who have given thought to their beliefs in a reflective fashion. I can also attest that the mosques that my parents attended when I was a child generally had the token engineer-fundamentalist who wanted to re-engineer everyone else's life to be more properly "Islamic," and had a hard time understanding the nuances of the differences between Islamic traditions.

Posted by razib at 12:50 PM