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Don’t assume you know “what the terrorists want”

It’s difficult not to be moved and angered by the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris last night.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.

What should we do about it? Here’s one important point. There are already signs of a rush for everyone to apply their usual narratives about “why we were attacked” or “what the terrorists want.”

Most of it is half-baked nonsense or wishful thinking. One of the most insidious blind spots is mirror imaging. We have a tendency to assume others think in much the same way we do, especially when it is convenient for us to maintain our own preexisting view of things.  We look at others and have a tendency to see a reflection of our selves.

It takes most people microseconds to come up with potential rationales for action, or justification, in the same way the mind leaps to see meaningful patterns in clouds. It is far too easy to produce neat stories about people’s motivations. That leads to self-delusion and ineffectiveness.

It is actually extremely difficult to recognize motivation and rationales, often even when evidence is staring you in the face. One of the better recent analyses of “What ISIS Wants” was in the Atlantic. It says:

In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”

That is actually a note of wisdom. More usually, decision-makers charge ahead with stupendous overconfidence.

The Atlantic author goes on to argue that the religious motive is much more important than western analysts usually believe.  But instead, we try to assimilate their thinking into our own secularized world view with rational pursuit of objectives like money or political influence – to find reasons that make sense in our own terms.

The Atlantic argument may or may not be right, although to its great credit it actually seems to reflect first-hand knowledge. The important point is that this is a situation where evidence should count, actual in-depth knowledge of how they think in private (and not just statements intended for press coverage.)  What we would want in their own shoes, or what the terrorists could want or should want is beside the point. We need to stop the convenient narratives.

Another problem that applies here is facile analogies, including to previous episodes of terrorism or counterinsurgency. Just note that many of the postwar examples of terrorism were in essence decolonial problems, where a major power was attempting to keep some control over a somewhat different population.  Examples include France’s pain in Algeria, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Northern Ireland, Malaya, and many others. In those situations terrorists might gain by provoking the major power into overreacting and alienating the local population. The costs of maintaining occupation would rise so much that they would pack up and go home.

Just be wary of that model, which unconsciously determines so much of the way experts tend to think about terrorism, in this case. It clearly doesn’t necessarily apply when the attacks are in the heart of the major power itself and there is no home to pack up and return to.

Of course, we need to understand only in order to take the most effective action to crush the terrorists. Wishful thinking won’t help prevent the next attack.

2015-11-14T09:24:17+00:00 November 14, 2015|Mirror Imaging, Perception|