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.

Politeness in the photocopier queue is why we’re losing the War on Terror (Times of London)

[…] It is quite common to make this point and to argue that George Bush and Tony Blair are to blame. But I’ve got a rather different culprit in mind. Actually this is a bit embarrassing, because we don’t know each other very well and we’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: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?†Surprisingly 60 per cent of those asked complied and let her push to the front. Then, with other groups, she tried a different tack: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush.†You won’t be surprised to learn that this time 94 per cent let her by. After all, “I’m in a rush†is a decent reason for seeking a favour.

But now get this. Langer also tried asking: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies.†This time 93 per cent complied. In other words, it wasn’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 haven̢۪t given the lie to every one of these propositions.

Few Westerners may subscribe to the “Jews did it†theory (though a vast number of Arabs do) but other, hardly more credible, “reasons†have attracted much greater support. It was Bush’s fault, it was Blair’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. That̢۪s what I mean when I say it̢۪s 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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    So we learn that

    1) It IS okay to “blame the victim.”

    2) Terrorism apparently IS LIKE CRIME after all.

    3) Ignorance is strength.

    This Finkelstein fellow is a genius. But uh, why DO all the police departments employ psychologists and profilers to try to find out why criminals do things, anyway? And is the answer to be found in the copy machine line?

  2. LJD says:

    Similarly, the number of reasons given for the Iraq war must work in favor of the U.S., right?

    This is where the liberal guilt complex and self-hatred overrides. It all started with the Lewinsky, and was set in stone in Florida in 2000.

    We are destined to fail because somewhere around 50% of Americans WANT US TO.

  3. Lurking Observer says:


    The police employ profilers and the like in order to find out who committed a crime.

    But those who argue “Why do they hate us,” are not trying to profile suicide bombers. (Indeed, are we not told that profiling criminals and suicide bombers is wrong, if it means racial profiling or religious profiling?)

    If we were to use the “Why do they hate us” profiling technique in order to ID potential suicide bombers and kill them, that would be fine.

    Using the same said profile, however, in order to justify a policy of withdrawal, alliance abandonment, and appeasement is not, any more than using a police profile in order to provide additional welfare benefits to serial killers.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    LO: Did you ever read the “Hellmouth” series of threads on Slashdot after the Columbine shootings?

  5. herb says:

    Finklestein is right on. Here in the US and in the UK, we molly-coddle these radical Muslims and preach that we must not offend them, We let them run free to spread their hate and preach the murder of Americans. Some day, probably to late, we will learn from the Israelis and go after these radicals with a vengeance.

    Say what you want about this, But Saddam Hussein knew how to take care of those who preached their hate among the population.

    The biggest problem we have here in the US is, We cannot limit our wrath against the Muslim hatemongers, we must go after those like Kennedy, Kerry, Gore, Reed, Durbin, Dean and the rest of the Liberal anti US hatemongers.