A summary of a short debate on Osama Bin Laden – mad or just bad?
I started by stating that Christopher Hitchen’s labelling Bin Laden a ‘madman’ is off the mark. The reasons for this were drawn from another article on the general inappropriateness of the term for the description of terrorists. I wrote that the arguments generally put forward in support of the statement that terrorists are crazy revolve primarily around three contentions: they have no chance of achieving their ends; they are self-defeating; they draw spurious motivation and legitimacy from their own sacred texts. For me, these are all flawed for the following reasons.
Firstly, some objectives are eminently more achievable than others, and those that are not are often forms of self-aggrandisement. Even those which are unfeasible may not be ‘mad’ – we routinely make heroes of those who face certain destruction for what they believe in. We may have focused on his aims of establishing a global Caliphate, but we must remember that many other smaller objectives might not seem so ‘mad’.
Secondly, whilst a terrorist group may lose support or sympathy in ‘the outside world’, it may gain significant goodwill closer to home, and spawn numerous imitations and offshoots. This is not self-defeating.
Thirdly, anyone with a half-way decent understanding of the decentralised nature of Islam and of its holy texts will realise that there is in fact much theological justification for those who wage jihad. It is enough to say that without some basis in the holy texts, on a practical level the terms and concepts would not be used for the purpose of terrorism or armed resistance and on an academic or theological level there would be no debate over interpretation.
As a final point, alluded to above, I highlighted that rationality is a social construction. What is rational to one person, in one social context, is categorically ‘crazy’ to another. Furthermore, and possibly most importantly, a label of ‘mad’ or ‘evil’ means that there is no reason to examine motivation – the motivation is in the fact that the individual is mad or evil. To win the war, the West must understand why anti-Western terrorism and sentiment comes about. Applying ‘madness’ to describe terrorists impedes the successful prosecution of the War on Terrorism.
An initial objection to the argument was that
“there are states of mind which are only possible with a certain cranial development. Whether or not you label someone clinically insane (with a dysfunctional brain), there *are* cultural and religious positions which are, through their lack of rationality, tantamount to insanity; to label such people as “madmen” is perfectly justified…. I do not think you are correct though, because in this case “madman” was obviously not used to denote a clinically diagnosable condition, but rather an ideology, the espousal of which is tantamount to intellectual suicide and self-afflicted debilitation. To call someone insane, who through inappropriate measures wishes to attain nonexistent (let alone non-attainable) goals is highly appropriate”
I replied that although Hitchen’s use of the term was related to the ideology, rather than the clinical condition, this is the position I criticise. My objection is to the ascribing of irrationality to those thinking within a different framework to our own. As Westerners, with the benefit of the enlightenment and all the progress since, to act in the way that OBL did, seemed ‘mad’. For our religious ancestors, it may have seemed rational. Rationality is dependent on your context – for me, it is irrational to undertake much religious practice (such as reciprocal prayer with god), yet people do and we do not call them ‘mad’.
As for his aims: some are non-attainable, some are very attainable (the more local aims). The overthrow of weak states in the Muslim world by extremists is a possibility. Remember, one of OBL’s main local aims was the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. We should wait and see whether the Muslim Brotherhood win the elections before declaring all aims unattainable.
I reiterated my most important point: labelling the enemy ‘mad’ leaves us with no motivation to examine the rationale behind why they act the way they do – there is no rationale because they are ‘mad’. This means we will not win the fight (if we can address certain issues and legitimate grievances we will erode support etc). A good source on this point of view is David Kilcullen, Chief Strategist, Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism in DC, particularly in his articles on ‘Countering Global Insurgency’ and ‘Counterinsurgency Redux’.
Another commentator raised the point that
“Robert Aumann (quoted in The Israel Test) defined “rationality” as the “effective pursuit of ones goals”. By this measure Bin Laden was certainlly irrational and insofar as that relates to a state of mind, mad.
Goals, in and of themselves, cannot be placed in the context of rationality or madness except to the extent that they serve an ultimate purpose or goal. The goal of attacking the United States on 9/11 could have been seen as completely rational if it had served the larger purpose of OBL and Al Qaeda. That being, the removal of American troops from the Arabian Peninsula and cessation of support for Israel (as stated by OBL in his 1996 and 1998 fatwas). The basis for OBLs belief was founded in recent historical examples (perceived American retreat in Somalia and lack of a serious response to the USS Cole attack). The problem of course was that OBL lacked a larger historical perspective (as alluded to by Hitchens) about how Americans would respond to an attack against their very citizenry on their very own soil. The fury of the response to 9/11 clearly indicated The United States was not weak or lacking in will. Once it became clear that neither of his stated goals was in any way being accomplished (in fact they were further undermined in an almost “Screw You” moment from America) a rational mind would have formulated a different approach to achieve the desired outcomes.
Yet OBL doubled down on terrorist attacks against civilians within the U.S and Europe. Perhaps OBL believed that his methods would be effective in the long term or that his example of defiance would spur future generations of Al Qaedists to victory, though once again had OBL been following events and formulating cause and effect he might have considered how attacks against civilians (particularly by Al Qaeda in Iraq against Muslims) continued to degrade his standing in the Muslim world (Al Anbar Awakening) and continued the undermining of his goals.
Pride it would seem was a large factor in the self delusion practiced by OBL. The mighty spiritual warrior was suddenly reduced to hiding in caves and issuing taped messages delivered by lackeys. How could OBL remain the face of Islamist defiance should he lose face with his flock? Pride induced the need for direct conflict and violence against all but the most fervent loyalists to the cause. I would say that pride induced an initially rational man to degrade into a irrational, and yes insane, animal”
This is a good point, and one I hadn’t considered – a rational actor can degrade under certain circumstances to a point of irrationality and indeed madness (by anyone’s yardstick). Although I continue to argue that it is fallacious to label terrorists as ‘mad’ or ’crazy’ in general, I do concede that perhaps, after five years holed up in a single room, Osama Bin Laden may well have descended into insanity.
Many thanks to those involved in the debate.