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New Yorker: Terrorism Studies

Social Scientists Do Counterinsurgency

Author: Nicholas Lemann
April 26, 2010

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Nicholas Lemann reviews several books on terrorism studies that use tools of analysis such as realism, rational choice, game theory and decision theory. "Clinical and bloodless modes of thinking" he calls them, ones that offer important lessons on terrorism and counterinsurgency.

A few days after the September 11th attacks-which killed seven times as many people as any previous act of terrorism-President George W. Bush declared that the United States was engaged in a global war on terror. September 11th seemed to confirm that we were in a clash of civilizations between modernity and radical Islam. We had a worldwide enemy with a cause that was general, not specific ("They hate our freedoms"), and we now had to take on the vast, long-running mission-equal in scope to the Cold War-of defeating all ambitious terrorist groups everywhere, along with the states that harbored them. The war on terror wasn't a hollow rhetorical trope. It led to the American conquest and occupation first of Afghanistan, which had sheltered the leaders of Al Qaeda, and then of Iraq, which had no direct connection to September 11th.

Today, few consider the global war on terror to have been a success, either as a conceptual framing device or as an operation. President Obama has pointedly avoided stringing those fateful words together in public. His foreign-policy speech in Cairo, last June, makes an apt bookend with Bush's war-on-terror speech in Washington, on September 20, 2001. Obama not only didn't talk about a war; he carefully avoided using the word "terrorism," preferring "violent extremism."

But if "global war" isn't the right approach to terror what is? Experts on terrorism have produced shelves' worth of new works on this question. For outsiders, reading this material can be a jarring experience. In the world of terrorism studies, the rhetoric of righteousness gives way to equilibrium equations. Nobody is good and nobody is evil. Terrorists, even suicide bombers, are not psychotics or fanatics; they're rational actors-that is, what they do is explicable in terms of their beliefs and desires-who respond to the set of incentives that they find before them. The tools of analysis are realism, rational choice, game theory, decision theory: clinical and bloodless modes of thinking.

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