Polite West May Lose War on Terror
Daniel Finkelstein has a rather provocative thesis: The West may lose the war on terror because we’re too willing to seek understanding of the motives of others.
[…] It is quite common to make this point and to argue that George Bush and Tony Blair are to blame. But IÃ¢€™ve got a rather different culprit in mind. Actually this is a bit embarrassing, because we donÃ¢€™t know each other very well and weÃ¢€™ve always rubbed along fine until now, but I think the real culprit is . . . well, I think it is you.
Let me start in the queue for the photocopier. Ellen Langer, the distinguished Harvard social psychologist, conducted a fascinating experiment in just such a queue. Addressing her fellow queuers in the library, she said: Ã¢€œExcuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?Ã¢€ Surprisingly 60 per cent of those asked complied and let her push to the front. Then, with other groups, she tried a different tack: Ã¢€œExcuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because IÃ¢€™m in a rush.Ã¢€ You wonÃ¢€™t be surprised to learn that this time 94 per cent let her by. After all, Ã¢€œIÃ¢€™m in a rushÃ¢€ is a decent reason for seeking a favour.
But now get this. Langer also tried asking: Ã¢€œExcuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies.Ã¢€ This time 93 per cent complied. In other words, it wasnÃ¢€™t the quality of the reason she gave that led people to agree to her request, but the mere fact that she provided a reason at all.
We are desperate to understand why things happen and to make sense of whatever reason we are given, even when there is no reason worth making sense of. And ever since 9/11 this hunger for understanding has let us down. This week we have all talked about how life goes on unchanged and how nobody can push us around and how we must never give in to terrorism, as if the events of the past four years havenÃ¢€™t given the lie to every one of these propositions.
Few Westerners may subscribe to the Ã¢€œJews did itÃ¢€ theory (though a vast number of Arabs do) but other, hardly more credible, Ã¢€œreasonsÃ¢€ have attracted much greater support. It was BushÃ¢€™s fault, it was BlairÃ¢€™s fault, it was the fault of American policy in the Middle East, it was the fault of all of us who have done nothing about the desperation of alienated Muslims. So many seem incapable of accepting that these things happen just because criminals do criminal things. It is no more interesting to understand their reasoning than to find out what the Yorkshire Ripper thinks about prostitutes.
And the more we search for reasons, the more we have aided the terrorists. For our political collapse, the collapse in public resolve since 9/11, has been quite astonishing. ThatÃ¢€™s what I mean when I say itÃ¢€™s all your fault.
Norm Geras gives Finkelstein’s thesis a mixed review, but agrees that “the reasons reached for are nearly always speculative, disputable and blame-shifting, an attempt to divert attention from the immediate agency of a gross human crime.”
Personally, I’m not sure whether being too polite is leading us down the path to defeat but I’m not taking any chances. Next time someone wants to cut in line at the copy machine, they’ll get a firm “Eff off” and the back of my hand.
Updaate (1040): Josh Trevino provides anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon in effect among the Brits.