Thomas Friedman’s popular notion that nations don’t go to war if they share financial concerns (and a taste for McDonald’s french fries) failed to take something awfully important into account: Not everyone is rational and places material welfare above ideology. Some, in fact, are complete loons who want to blow those Golden Arches to kingdom come.
Thomas Nagel writes on a related topic for the London Review of Books, critiquing Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? Immoral as it is, politically motivated violence certainly can be used effectively by powerful states (though it sometimes backfires), but the philosopher wonders if terror can secure victory for non-government groups (Al Qaeda, ISIS. etc.). He concludes such actions almost never succeed, except in rare cases where there are extenuating circumstances. Why then the continued improvisation of explosive devices? Nagel argues that delusion takes hold over groups that realize non-violent measures won’t triumph but don’t comprehend that neither will violent ones. An except:
English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.
And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results.•