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Holy war

First, read this post.

OK. So, yeah, blogfight. I don’t really want to get into the question of who’s a Democrat and who’s not, since I’m not a Democrat — y’all can have your own arguments. I will say, tangentially, that I do not think Kevin’s comment regarding liberal qualifications is any more divisive or damaging than the belief that criticizing Bush is traitorous. And that’s all I wanna say about that.

What I really wanna talk about is the whole “war of civilizations” thing. Bluntly, it’s hyperaggressive mouthbreathing. There is a relatively small Muslim population that would like to see the West wiped out. This does not constitute a war of civilizations any more than the existence of the Patriot movement constitutes a war of civilizations. It’s terrorism driven by ideological motivations. That’s all.

By calling this a war of civilizations, you imply that the entire Islamic civilization is at war with us. That’s not true. It is, in fact, a lie.

The flip side of that question — whether or not we’re at war with Islamic civilization — is murkier. To rephrase: who’s the aggressor? More on this later.


  1. anonymous anonymous

    I suspect that the clash of civilization line of argument–which strikes me as the kind of grandiose theory beloved by academics, more suited to writing books and getting tenure than answering questions–is taken seriously by some, but masks a more subtle concern.

    So-called WMDs have become almost a running joke in debates this year, which I think tends to obscure the way they really do tend to change the rules of the game. The potential exists for small gangs of psychotics to cause damage on a scale previously only available to nation-states. Nobody really has a fucking clue what to do about this, and a lot of people in the government are plain terrified at this.

    From the perspective of risk management, what matters is not whether the so-called ‘Islamic world’ is at war with the ‘West’, in the sense that there’s a coherent ‘They’ at war with ‘Us’; what matters, objectively, is whether threats on a civilizational scale (i.e. megadeaths, trillion-dollar damages) are emerging from the box marked ‘Islamic world’. As noted above, such threats can emerge from very small and profoundly aberrant groups.

    Such groups can’t be seen as representative of the societies from which they emerge in any way, but at the same time they aren’t disconnected from those societies, either.

    For example: 9/11 was a deliberate attack from al-Qaeda (we assume), a smallish group of somewhere between 10^2 and 10^4 agents. The actual attack was carried out by between 10^1 and 10^2 actors. There doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between al-Qaeda and USG; the US government never funded bin Laden directly, and while its intelligence services were aware that the group existed they seem to have had really crappy data on what al-Qaeda was actually doing. It also does not seem likely that al-Qaeda was acting as an extension or agency of any Arab government.

    On the other hand, al-Qaeda is hardly disconnected from the contexts of Arab nationalism and politicized fundamentalist Islam; al-Qaeda’s funding derives from bin Laden’s inheritance, supplemented by (it seems) donations and/or blackmail from Saudi Arabia. (And essentially all of that money comes from petroleum sales, of course. This is ironic, but suggests that ‘Western’ hegemony is rather less effective than it is usually accused of being.)

    How do you detect threats coming from such groups? How do you react?

    Nobody has a goddamn clue.


    We don’t have cognitive frameworks in which to analyze these problems; the vocabulary hasn’t been developed and the principles haven’t been reality-tested. Any person or faction claiming to understand the causes, to know how to assign the blame, or to have the correct solution, is utterly deluded.

    And at the same time, against all these mental constructs, you have a smoking hole in New York.

    Not that I need to point any of this out to you, Bryant. This was really mostly an excuse to continue to puzzle out what I think.

  2. t.rev t.rev

    Er, I think I forgot to actually make my point in all that.

    In this conflict (and I’m not going to play the game of who started it right now), there is a somewhat coherent ‘we’ in the sense of the US government. You can scale that down and talk about the actions and agendas of different factions and agencies in the government, or scale it up and talk about alliances, coalitions, whatever, but one side exists within the understood framework for war between nation-states. The other side, however, does not.

    My first point is that we don’t have much in the way of tools for thinking about conflicts like this, individually or collectively. (There have been attempts to work out the consequences of increasingly damaging weapons in the hands of increasingly small groups, down to such disreputable texts as ‘Basement Nukes: the Consequences of Cheap Weapons of Mass Destruction’ by Erwin S. Strauss, published by Loompanics in 1984, but very, very little reality-checking and less consensus.)

    My second point is that it is very easy to make semantic category errors by applying existing models. Put crudely, ‘we’ are a nation-state, ‘we’ are fighting Islamist groups, nation-states only fight other nation-states, thus the Islamist groups must really be nation-states. I don’t claim that this fallacy is anything like the reasoning supporting the Clash of Nations hypothesis, but I suspect that it is part of why people are inclined to accept the hypothesis.

    OK, I’ll shut up now.

  3. Yes! I completely agree. One of my big complaints about the way we’ve been handling this issue is the focus on Islamic terrorists, when South American terrorism is also a big problem. I wrote a lot here early on about the dangers of non-state terrorism. You don’t need to be state-sponsored to be dangerous.

    The march of technology means that destruction inevitably gets cheaper. We have no good way to deal with this.

    I believe, quite seriously, that the only sane response is to move rapidly towards decentralized government. It’s not that nation-states are obsolete — it’s that nation-states present too large and too easy a target. Your point about the semantic category errors is very much on target, and note in particular that “they” are making the same semantic errors “we” make.

    I.e., Osama bin Laden’s argument is not with the United States as an entity, it’s with certain specific policies that specific administrations have implemented. But since there’s a convenient nation-state model, he picks it up and decides that his complaint is in fact with each and every American. And boom — the WTC goes down. Because it is part of this entity known as “America.”

    I don’t particularly want to die for Washington’s sins. I’d rather make my own mistakes.

  4. I think your comment about the “entity known as ‘America'” is important, but you have to recognize that McDonalds and Hollywood and Wal*Mart and Microsoft are part of that entity, as well. (It used to include Ford, but I think they live in Atlantis, now?)

    My gut feeling is that at some point along the decentralization spectrum, Wal*Mart realizes it needs an army. Is my gut wrong, or is that not such a bad thing after all?

  5. Yep. Microsoft does its own foreign policy work these days.

    As to armies — see also Wackenhut. Or Executive Outcomes. There is a fairly significant business in providing armed services to corporations, particularly in the third world.

    I think that Wal*Mart gets an army in the United States at the point at which it believes that the United States can no longer protect its interests. That’s a consideration in any decentralization scheme. California, as a political entity, could probably protect Wal*Mart. San Francisco? Maybe not.

  6. T.Rev, email me sometime and say hi. I haven’t ‘seen’ you in years.


  7. t.rev t.rev

    Hey, I’ve owed people email longer than that.

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