March 24, 2004

The marginal utility of martyrdom
Posted by Jon Henke

Elliot Fladen writes that we should be much more helpful to people who want to be martyrs....

One key morale point in terror circles is the idea that we Westerners are more afraid of death than they are. Refusing to martyr their "heroes" only confirms this belief to them - while they glory in dying to serve their religion, we remain a bunch of cowards who can't even run the risk of temporary anger. My thoughts are that refusing to martyr their leaders might not raise our security - in fact it could cause terrorists to think we are soft and willing to respond to "pressure". We all know what the effect of our appearing weak during the 1990s was - our present, post 9/11 world.
This much is very true. Our pre-9/11 reticence about dealing with terrorism where it lived was a major contributor to 9/11. It was Osama bin Laden who called us a "paper tiger" after the Somalia pull-out, inspiring confidence that the US would not even put up as much of a fight as the Soviet Union....which bin Laden had helped defeat in Afghanistan.

That apparent lack of "killer instinct" surely helped convince bin Laden of the marginal utility of provoking the US to a fight in the Middle East. Elliot argues that we should reduce their belief in the marginal utility of martyrdom. The "bigger bad-ass" argument - essentially, that we should lower the effectiveness of the act by speeding up and ramping up retribution, even bringing the fight to them on our own terms rather than theirs. After all, it's less glorious to die skulking in a cave than in a ball of fire over the Pentagon.

I think there is a great deal of utilitarian merit to that argument, but is such "total war" plausible? Frankly, I don't think we could carry it off. Both politically, and in the realm of public opinion, the negative consequences could eventually outweigh the positive effects of such action. Of course, a nuclear 9/11 might change that calculation.

Moreover, I think the marginal utility cannot be changed simply by "being more proactive". We have to let them KNOW the marginal utility has changed, and I don't think we can do that unless we loosen the control of information the theocracies and dictators have in the Middle East.

Terrorists won't know how useless and counter-productive their martyrdom is if they are never exposed to anything but fatwa's. This is one reason I think it's so important to create the wedge of democracy and information freedom in the Middle East. Even Al-Jazeera, as anti-American as it is, is an improvement...a step in the right direction.

We need to support the free dissemination of information. Without that, no scorched earth policy against terrorism will be effective. Elliot Fladen brings up good points on the topic, and I largely concure on his suggestion that we be more proactive. Read his post here.

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