The Faces of “Collateral Damage” | Robert Pape with the Data on Suicide Terrorism and Why “They” Hate “Us”

Mideast Palestinians Youngest Victims Photo EssayWhether it’s the bumbling crudeness of George W “they hate our freedoms” Bush or the more subtle tribalism-masquerading-as-sophistication of Sam “not all societies have the same degree of moral wealth” Harris: The widespread and even dominant Western perception–across numerous political and religious divides–appears to be that the primary motivation for terroristic violence is abstract ideology. Whether fundamentalist Islam, or extremist “Islam,” or whatever, the problem is thought to be primarily a function of religious or quasi-religious ideology, and terrorists are assumed to be hopelessly deranged (or at least fanatical) lunatics with whom one cannot reason.

It’s far too easy to dismiss at a cool 6000-mile remove *unintended* “war is hell” collateral damage. What’s not so easy is to look directly into the broken faces of the children and civilians caught in the crossfire.

It really is just simple common sense that very basic and universal human concerns lie at the heart of this mess. No one sits dispassionately by as their lands are occupied and their children and neighbors are maimed and killed. And the video above paints that picture far more poignantly than any words I can offer, featuring this precious little one Nema Abu al-Foul and others.

Yet so very many of us have convinced ourselves that esoteric doctrine or ideology is the primary problem. But we can only do so by cherry picking data and fixating on comparatively weak correlations, in order to confuse after-the-fact ideological rationalizations for terroristic violence (eg, Islamic doctrine) with its underlying general motivations (eg, murder, destruction, and occupation). Even many of my fellow so-called free thinkers, led in no small part by the aforementioned Mr. Harris*, appear simply not to care about the empirical data here. They’d rather rail crudely and quite counter-productively at “religion” and especially at Islam, that “mother lode of bad ideas.”

To set the record straight is world class researcher Robert Pape, whose team has compiled the definitive database of incidents of suicide terrorism from around the globe, which have taken place over the course of the past 35 years or so. He’s written several books on the topic, and he delivered the following lecture several years ago which provides a great overview of his teams’ findings. It’s a bit lengthy, and is divided into four parts, but it is absolutely well, well worth your time. First, a few disparate notes to hopefully pique your interest:

  • Suicide attacks are correlated at greater than 95% with foreign occupations of the territories home to or dear to these attackers. In other words, suicide attacks are more likely to be precipitated by foreign occupation than lung cancer is likely to be precipitated by smoking.
  • From 1980-2003, the world leader in suicide attacks was the Tamil Tigers, a secular Marxist group in Sri Lanka, and fewer than 50% of the global suicide attacks during this period were associated with fundamentalist Islam.
  • Before 2001 there were zero recorded instances of suicide attacks in Afghanistan. The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan saw a relatively small advent of suicide attacks in its wake, and in 2006 when US forces expanded their occupation beyond Kabul and into the surrounding areas, the number of suicide attacks increased dramatically. This pattern makes precious little sense as a religious phenomenon (did the Taliban suddenly become more religiously devout in 2001 and then much more so in 2006?) and very much sense as a reaction to a spreading foreign occupation.
  • Suicide attacks cause twelve times more casualties on average than non-suicide attacks, so the strategic logic of suicide is clear to see.
  • “In May 2000 the Israeli army left Lebanon altogether [after American and French forces had left years earlier]. And what’s significant about the withdrawals of those combat forces is that Hezbollah suicide attackers did not follow the Americans to New York, or the French to Paris, or even the Israelis to Tel Aviv. Do you know how many Hezbollah or any Lebanese suicide attacks have occurred since May 2000, when the Israeli army left southern Lebanon? Zero. Not a single one. Not even during the summer of 2006, when you’ll remember, there was a three week air war between Hezbollah and Israel. Now think about that, ladies and gentlemen. If this is just about a bunch of Islamic radicals looking for any old excuse for a quick trip to heaven, we should have seen hundreds of Hezbollah suicide attackers in the summer of 2006. And we didn’t get a single one.”

Without further ado, here are the four parts of Pape’s lecture, and just a note that it takes a few minutes in part one for him to start getting to the meat of his presentation.

* I would certainly agree that fundamentalist ideologies (whether of an Islamic or Marxist or Christian or other variety) are a sizable part of the problem. As Harris points out, fundamentalist Muslims inclined toward violence have a potent ideological resource by which to rationalize such violence that, say, Vajrayana Buddhists do not. And clearly there are despicable acts such as honor killings and the execution of apostates which do appear to be more directly associated with ideology. If fundamentalist Islam were to suddenly dissipate, I have little doubt the world would be a more peaceful place than it currently is. But foreign occupation undeniably is the primary underlying problem when it comes to terroristic activity: Leaving countless innocent victims in its dreadful wake, thus creating this cycle of violence and drumming up support and recruitment for extremist groups. Harris’ insinuation that the main problem is the moral impoverishment of certain societies compared with western society is naive tribalism, and it’s actively harmful in that it excuses all manner of “collateral damage” and undermines any genuine solution.

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