Playing to the terrorists’ strength

July 16, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Condi Rice was on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopolis” talking about how Isreal should “consider the broader consequences” of its current bombing activities in Lebanon, and she specifically urged Isreal to try harder to avoid civilian casualties.

Huh?  As much as I deplore Israel’s bombings, does anyone in the Bush Administration have standing to complain about a nation that bombs another country, kills its civilians, and fails to consider the broader consequences of its actions?

Let me make Rice an example of “people who see in others what they desperately need to see in themselves.”

The problem, of course, that both the Bush Administration and Israel have fallen into is the belief that the best way to fight terrorism is through grossly disproportionate military action — the consequences be damned — despite a complete lack of evidence that such brutality is actually effective in reducing terrorism in the long-term.  Israel has employed this strategy for half a century, apparently to no avail.  Likewise, the Bush Administration has employed this strategy for several years in Iraq, also to no avail.  Why?  Because actions have consequences, often the opposite of what is intended.

Jay Forrester, Professor Emeritus at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, had a lot to say about unintended consequences.  He founded the study of system dynamics:  a theoretical framework that helps explain why so many attempts to fix problem actually yield the opposite result.  In his books, “Urban Dynamics,” and “Industrial Dynamics,” Forrester shows how complex systems (corporations, cities, nations, etc.) don’t respond to environmental changes (i.e., problem-solving efforts) in obvious ways, because feedback loops exist to counteract the changes. 

See, for example, the following from Forrester’s 1991 paper, “System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years”:

To the surprise of those unfamiliar with the devious nature of such dynamic systems, the computer model, based on policies known to people in the company, will usually generate the very difficulties that the company had been experiencing. In short, the policies that were believed to solve the problem are, instead, the cause of the problem. Such a situation creates a serious trap and often a downward spiral. If the policies being followed are believed to alleviate the problem, but, in hidden ways, are causing the problem, then, as the problem gets worse, pressures increase to apply still more strongly the very policies that are causing the problem. 

Often, those feedback loops are very powerful, and can more than swamp simple-minded and brute-force efforts to change the system.  The books, and the field of study, have existed for many decades, but, unfortunately, few people use them.  Certainly not arrogant, ego-centric politicians eager to show the world how tough they are.

In other words, whenever a politician uses the excuse, “no one could have foreseen this unintended adverse outcome,” NEVER, NEVER, NEVER let that politician off the hook with that pathetic excuse.  In fact, many adverse outcomes are easily foreseeable, but only if you use a mental model that accurately represents the system to be fixed.  In many — indeed, most — cases, adverse outcomes are not the result of unforseeable random chance; they are the result of incompetent leadership failing to appreciate the problem’s feedback loops. 

The result is what we see today:  rich, powerful countries playing to the terrorists’ strengths.  Countries that respond to terrorist attacks by killing orders of magnitude more civilians than they sufferred themselves, merely prove they are more heartless and cruel than the terrorists they condemn.  The fact that they do not recognize this in themselves is what produces “unforseeable” consequences.


Tags: , ,

Category: American Culture, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (7)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jake says:

    Just because someone is a hypocrite does not automatically remove their right to say something, and it certainly does not make them necessarily incorrect in pointing it out.

    In fact, who is better qualified to identify disproportionate responses, unnecessarily inflammatory language, and generally “end justifies the means” type politics than the US?

  2. John says:


    Clearly the "War on Terror" is absurd for a variety of reasons and the increased violence simply reinforces the ideologies of those who have hostile ones toward any given group.

    With that being said, how is it that terrorism may be neutralized? My inclination is to say that economic aid / development and education are perhaps the top means for doing so. I should note that so far my perspective is somewhat limited and am very much willing to admit that I may be wrong. I would be interested in comments related to this.

    Thanks for the great writing.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Humans have a severely limited attention capacity. That sets us up for the availability heuristic. We attend to those things that are easily available rather than those things that lurk in the background or in the future. That makes shooting a missile so often seem like the "best option" when it really isn't.  

    With regard to complex situations (most important situations are complex), what people tend to choose is actually only the most available option to human cognition, the other (usually better) options requiring much more effort, often requiring the the sort of dynamic systems analysis discussed by Jay Forrester. Such dynamic comprehensive analyses are often the only ways to make explanations (and often, solutions) salient to limited beings like us.

    We don't like to think of ourselves as limited, though. We are impatient and easily mentally fatigued. We like to believe that we already know enough to decide, because we have things to buy, gatherings to attend.  Therefore, we tend to think of only those things on the table immediately in front of us.

    Let's see . . . who has the better possibility of survival, those who employ the mental habits of 2-year olds (jumping only toward options immediately in front of them) or those who take the time to think things through?

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    I received this email reponse to this post:


    Huh? As much as I deplore Israel's bombings??

    Do you deplore Hezbollah shooting rockets into Isreal?

    Come on Erich!!! These islamic facists bastards will never learn with diplomocy, they love death more than life!!

    "grossly disproportionate military action" thats typical response, you have a big right hand, if you threw that big right hand you would hurt your opponent, but you can't throw the big right hand because its not politically correct in the minds of liberals, same thing happened in Viet Nam!!

    Come E! Just because you hate the bush camp does not mean you have to put your blinders on!!! isreal has a right to defend themselves against thugs like syria, iran and all the rest! i say f*** em all up today! send a message to the world, f*** terrorist islamic facists p***s who talk s***!

    later E!

    [My response]

    I agree with Grumppilgrim's post–and I agree with you that I deplore Israel's response. It was visceral at worst and the start of a huge nasty chess game at worst. See Robert Wright's piece today

    and also see this post of Steve Clemons here:

    I don't agree that "THEY" love death more than we love life. I don't believe there is a homogenous middle-east resident, although our brute actions (14 permanent bases in Iraq) are pushing us closer. More and more of them are hating us.

    What do you propose? Nuke the middle east? Do you want to live in THAT world?


  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    In response to my remark about Condi Rice, Jake asks: "In fact, who is better qualified to identify disproportionate responses, unnecessarily inflammatory language, and generally “end justifies the means” type politics than the US?"

    I answer: I never suggested that Rice is unqualified to identify disproportionate responses in others; I said she doesn't have standing to complain about it. Given the gigantic failures of their own disproportionate responses, senior officials in the Bush Administration are obviously in no position to find fault with others who do the same thing. It would be like Tom DeLay complaining about the corruption in Congress — sure, he might identify it correctly, but would anyone pay attention to him? Or, more importantly, could his comments actually worsen the situation, since others who complain about corruption might not want to be seen aligned with DeLay?

    In any case, I was simply dumbfounded that after all the doubletalk and spin we have heard from Rice in her efforts to deflect attention away from the Bush Administration's own massively inept disproportionate policies in Iraq, she would get on TV and, with a straight face, complain about Israel.

    As regards John's question, "…how is it that terrorism may be neutralized?," I submit that this question is too broad. One needs to examine the roots of each *particular* terrorism situation to find the answers about how to neutralize it. Thus, "how can terrorism be eliminated" is like asking, "how can world hunger be eliminated?" or "how can drunk driving be prevented?" We need to ask questions that have finer granularity: why does group X want to blow up group Y? Only by digging into the historical roots of each specific situation can the answers be found.

    Unfortunately, it can be politically embarrassing to ask those historical questions. Consider Israel. The reason why so many Arabs want to wipe Israel off the map is because Israel has, in their view, no legitimate right to occupy Palestine. It was put there by the Allies after WWII in large part because of the Holocaust, and because of the same "separate but equal" thinking that was being applied to racial conflicts in the US in the early 20th-century. Instead of lawfully acquiring the land — say, by purchasing it — the Allies forcibly booted out the Palestinians, who, not surprisingly, didn't appreciated it. Imagine if the Nazis had won WWII and turned, say, California into a new country exclusively for Aryans, after first booting out all the people who live there. Might there be acts of "terrorism" committed against the new residents? I suspect there would. What is the solution? How about putting Israel someplace else… like, someplace where it is welcome?

    Look around the world. Is there even one religious state that is at peace with its neighbors? I submit that the whole concept of a religious state — the idea of a 'separate but equal' country for the people of one religion — is simply unworkable. The only way people of different religions seem to be capable of living together in peace is when they share the same land, go to the same schools, and work together for the same communities; i.e., live in a *secular* state. In other words, religious desegregation.

    Similar thinking, but acknowledging a different history, would apply to neutralizing the terrorism against America.

    Iraq, however, is a different situation. I submit that the fighting in Iraq IS NOT terrorism. The Bush Administration likes to call it terrorism because that's what plays best with American voters, but in fact it is an insurgency, which is something wholly different. The people in Iraq who are blowing up Americans (and Iraqis) are not Al Qaeda terrorists from outside Iraq. Mostly, they are remnants of the Iraqi military that melted back into the population following the U.S. invasion, and which the U.S. reconstruction effort has utterly failed to co-opt. Iraq has long been a hotbed of religious tensions, and, arguably, the only thing that kept the different sides from killing each other was the brutal dictatorship of Saddam. With that dictatorship gone, the two sides have been much more free to go at each other. Believe it or not, there are situations in which a dictatorship really can keep the peace better than can a democracy, and Iraq clearly was one such situation. Of course, a dictatorship rarely creates a stable, long-term peace, but it is a peace nonetheless.

    Finally, as regards the email that Erich received: the person who wrote that email — and who says, "…f*** terrorist islamic facists…," is an example of the simple-minded, brute-force thinking that has proven itself to fail time and time again. Indeed, Israel has been using this same failed policy for half a century, yet they have made no significant progress toward peace. Why? Because Israel's idea of "defending itself" has included all sorts of military actions that play directly to the terrorists' strengths: every time Israel shows itself to be a murderous, uncaring nation, its enemies grow stronger.

    That's the whole reason for my post. The problem with "fighting terrorism" is that brutal counter-attacks are probably not the best to neutralize it. My own view is that giving your enemies even more reasons to hate you is inherently counter-productive, because it plays directly to the terrorists' strength. The best way to fight terrorism is to refuse to play their game and, instead, to play by your own (fair, humane) rules. When Jesus said, "Love our enemies," he probably didn't mean, "blow them up and, while you're at it, kill lots of civilians along with them." Israel's brutal counter-attack, just like George Bush's, merely creates more enemies who are eager to kill us back.

  6. Erika Price says:


    Economic aid and improved education sound like practical (if expensive), peaceable ways to battle environments that breed a terrorist mindset. Unfortunately, some research seems to <a rel="nofollow" href=""&gt; indicate that poverty and poor education don't breed terrorism as previously thought. However, such sociological factors do breed crime, and every authority on the subject agrees that a lack of political freedom does breed terrorism. I think that improved economic and educational conditions therefore would still help in countries that seem to spawn the most terrorists. Economic stability and educational access go hand-in-hand with political freedom and ability to express that freedom in a thoughful, peaceful way. I think Grumpy's suggestion to look at the specific causes of specific incidents of terrorism makes a lot of sense too.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I'd like to share another good quote from Forrester's "System Dynamics and the Lessons of 35 Years":

    We discovered surprising things in our early work with corporations that we now realize carry over to all social systems. First, most difficulties are internally caused, even though there is an overwhelming and misleading tendency to blame troubles on outside forces. Second, the actions that people know they are taking, usually in the belief that the actions are a solution to difficulties, are often the cause of the problems being experienced. Third, the very nature of the dynamic feed-back structure of a social system tends to mislead people into taking ineffective and even counterproductive action. Fourth, people are sufficiently clear and correct about the reasons for local decision making—they know what information is available and how that information is used in deciding on action. But, people often do not understand correctly what overall behavior will result from the complex interconnections of known local actions.

    Forrester's formulation ties in nicely with the well-known working memory/attentional limitations of human animals and their susceptibility to the confirmation bias. Unless people are prepared to be self-critical, open to evidence that conflicts with their pet models and generally humble with regard to their ability to tease out feedback loops, they are doomed to be incompetent decision-makers.

    Political leaders who lack the commitment to recognizing and addressing these well known cognitive frailties (in themselves and in the people with whom they work) are risking that actions they take will cause more harm than good.   Squelching dissent is an especially good way to blind oneself to critical feedback loops.

Leave a Reply