I’m on record of having suggested that the targeting of the Twin Towers, though not bad, could have been better. This is because much if not most of Main Street sheds only crocodile tears when Wall Street gets its uppance. If Al Qaeda wanted to see America withdraw its support from its Quisling regimes in the Middle East, the more effective target would have been a schoolhouse in Omaha, Nebraska. And not a one-off, but enough of them, in enough cities and towns throughout the country, to make every American mother terrified for the safety of her children. 

When the kids in the back seat are fighting, the stereotypical father wants to know who started it. The stereotypical mother just wants them to stop. 

The beauty of targeting children – if beauty can be used in this context – is that this think-of-the-children mantra is a guarantee of bi-partisan support. It’s true that men – especially macho Republican men – will get their backs up. But I’m guessing it won’t take more than a week for (what might be called) Lysistrata Syndrome to set in, and at most another week for these otherwise macho husbands to cave to their craven wives. Moreover, the risk assessment literature makes it clear that women are prone less to assessing the probabilities than the acceptability of the possible outcomes. So even if the probabilities may be low, it will be the direness that wins the day.

More generally, then, if the object of the exercise is to pressure the government to accede to his demands, the terrorist needs to target those who have the ear of their government. So in the U.S. at least, these schoolhouses should be located in upper middle class white neighbourhoods. Moreover schoolhouses, wherever they might be, are notoriously difficult, not to mention expensive, to protect. 

The difficulty, as noted, is bringing sufficient ordnance to the target. Payload varies with size. Miniaturising nuclear weapons is the stuff of suspense fiction. In the real world it would take a bomb the size of a semitrailer to take down a three-story schoolhouse. And most schoolhouses don’t have a loading bay, let alone one that can accommodate a semitrailer. The 9/11 attackers delivered their two semitrailers by air. But post-9/11 that kind of transport is hard to commandeer.

So it’s (what we might call) the Payload Problem that makes the terrorist battle an uphill one. This is not to say the hill can’t be taken. It’s to say only that even democratic polities like Israel, the UK, and America, can and have absorbed a whole lot of damage without losing their resolve. So it’s a contest of wills. Whose will break first? And that, in turn, is a function, at least in part, of what each side has to lose. The Americans can find their oil elsewhere. But the Jews have nowhere else to go. As neither do the Palestinians. That’s why that particular conflict will never be resolved, neither in my lifetime nor in yours.

Killing each other’s children is not the way to win friends. But it is one way to influence people. If you find the death of your own children not to your liking, you might think about offering an acceptable alternative to those whose threats you’re up against. If not, whining about your losses is at best unseemly and at worst unmanly. Which is not so bad if you don’t mind sleeping alone in the guest room.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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3 replies

  1. You mentioned in an earlier lesson that the suicide bomber is not so much seeking to die in his cause as much as he has reconciled himself to becoming the bomb as the only reliable way of delivering it to the target….and he would much prefer to live to deliver another bomb another day if he could. That he accepts his own certain death as the cost of delivering the ordnance speaks to the intensity of his feelings — hate was one you mentioned — toward the targeted. All this is generally true, I have no doubt, for non-state actors provided the suicide bomber is mentally capable of understanding what he or she is doing. (But if you have a few spare idiots sitting around, this is one way they can be made to serve the cause and still conserve more valuable personnel.)

    What, then, would you make of the kamikaze fliers of 1945 who turned their explosive-laden planes into piloted bombs and sought to crash them into American warships during the defence of Okinawa? (and British, but British aircraft carriers had armored flight decks and embarked fewer airplanes, so constituted tougher but less valuable targets.)

    The first part of your calculus seems to hold: by 1945, Allied fighter aircraft and ship-borne anti-aircraft artillery had developed to where the Japanese naval air arm could no longer hope to carry out successful attacks against warships without being killed (and rendered unable to lay their bombs accurately) in the process. But these weapons could not reliably cause structural disintegration of an aircraft into non-flyable pieces except with a lucky hit. In the tactical setting of 1945, aiming the airplane directly at a ship was more likely to be successful than trying to set up a conventional bomb or torpedo run, provided the aircraft held together well enough to keep flying where it was pointed. Many kamikaze were likely already dead from bullets or AA shell fragments when their planes struck. So a suicide tactic made military sense. Certain loss of a pilot with a good chance of numerous casualties and serious damage to an Allied ship was better odds than the conventional approach could deliver after 1943. Once Allied forces came within striking range of land-based aircraft flying from Okinawa, the Japanese leadership with its dwindling stock of planes and pilots knew what it had to do.

    The young military men recruited for those missions were doing it for the Emperor (although some were conscripted Korean prisoners.) A miserable life does not seem to explain it — many kamikaze were university graduates, nor does blind hate. Quoted in “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” (Rhodes), Gen. Curtis LeMay, the architect of the USAAF fire-bombing of Tokyo and most of Japan’s other cities, describes flying a B-29 bomber into Japan shortly after the surrender to plan the relief and reconstruction efforts. His team was accommodated at a Japanese naval base with a runway long enough to land such a large aircraft, where 5000 sailors and what was left of the naval aviators treated them with courtesy and deference. They had of course laid down their arms on the order of the Emperor and remained under military discipline but LeMay and his handful of staff were acutely aware that the Japanese could have overwhelmed and murdered them with their bare hands had they had a mind to….which is, of course, what the entire Japanese population was pledged to do if the Allies had undertaken the planned invasion of the Home Islands. LeMay says he slept soundly.

    So when the suicide bomber accepts an order from his sovereign to deliver the ordnance on pain of eternal shame if he returns empty-handed as it were, yet is not so consumed with hate as to be unable to follow an order to cease hostilities, what is motivating him do you think? Is it the warrior’s promise of reward in the hereafter, which, crucially, he will not forfeit if he obeys his sovereign’s order to call off his mission? Or is it just that war is Hell. If a militaristic culture produces people conditioned to accept suicide if it has a favourable rate of exchange against the enemy, then commanders will regard suicide missions as a tactic available to them, and order them?


    • Leslie’s discussion of the Japanese kamikaze pilots is very much isomorphic with the 19 martyrs of 9/11. Like those Japanese, those 19 young man had by no means miserable lives ahead of them. So what’s their story? We’ll never know whether they were just biddable idiots or, in much the way Leslie supposes the Japanese were loyal to the Emperor, they were loyal to THEIR cause. These are very hard answers to come by. I was in a firefight once – I could tell you about it but then I’d have to kill you – in which someone took a grenade. He had, I’m guessing, less than second to think about it. What went on in his head during that less than a second? How are any of us qualified to know? The kamikaze and 9/11 cases are different vis a vis the time to consider. So let’s suppose we interviewed them before the fact. What makes us think they know their reasons any better than would the interviewer? So I’m as agnostic as Leslie is on this score. Speaking of agnosticism, I tend to discount promises about 70 virgins awaiting the martyr, but that’s because I’m an atheist and so I have difficulty taking seriously that anyone would take these promises seriously. (I’m also terrified by the thought of having to service one virgin let alone 70!) But I might very well be wrong on this score.


  2. “Cowardly” is certainly the wrong word for the 9/11 bombers. I was surprised that the epithet took hold, being an absurd characterization of what obviously took incredible courage. I’m not sure I’d go with “martyrs”, though. As an atheist myself, I’m off soundings here but from my Christian heritage I think of the term as fitting only someone who (incomprehensibly in my world view) accepts execution solely for some religious belief, in which death without renouncing faith in exchange for clemency is the desired end, and not just a means to an earthly end like inflicting damage on a secular enemy. (Yes I know the French refer to les martyrs de la Resistance.) I can certainly see the cell of 9/11 as isomorphic with the kamikaze of 1945 in terms of your tactical analysis. Kamikaze who have survived to modern times do not approve of the comparison with Islamist suicide bombers, though. Their targets were, after all, uniformed military combatants who were seeking the defeat of Imperial Japan, and who could shoot back, and did, very effectively. Only 1 in 5 planes reaching the fleet managed to hit a ship. The differences matter to them.

    As to motivation, If I had had a chance to interview the 9/11 men, I would want to ask them, “What, if anything (other than getting caught because I’m going to rat you out), would cause you to abort your mission at any point between now and impact?” I’m thinking here of some sudden shift in American foreign policy that they were maybe trying to bring about, which would have made their mission now unnecessary. Would they have obeyed an “Abort” order from Al-Qaeda Central? (Was there such a thing, which vets proposals for violence? Was Bin Laden a commander and controller or just an inspiration?) Or were they seeking to avenge past actions that no action in the present or future could possibly atone for? Or was it just “Death to the Jews” and they figured there were more Jews in the Twin Towers than in all the schoolhouses in Omaha? It is on this question that they might diverge from the kamikaze. After the fall of Okinawa, kamikaze attacks slackened as the Japanese army and navy husbanded the aircraft and pilots they had left for the defence of the Home Islands against the expected invasion. So whatever the seat of their motivation, the pilots remained under state tactical command. And with the surrender, all hostilities ceased, much to the relief of those trained-up pilots who had not yet been tapped for that final flight.

    It was actually possible to interview kamikaze after the fact and their stories have been widely told recently now that their shame in having dishonoured themselves by surviving has softened with the years and a more mature understanding of the militarism that led to Japan’s undoing. Planes suffered mechanical problems that forced return to base and pilots did lose their nerve, some repeatedly. A few survived because their damaged planes crashed into the sea and the humiliated pilots were plucked out of the water by American ships. Some attempted suicide or lived in obscurity for many decades to hide their shame. But there is a literature on what made them tick. My sources say that Shintoism does not promise an afterlife, so their motivation seems to have been, even among the successful ones who died in action, a mixture of family honour, the call of the Emperor as the divine embodiment of the Japanese state, and squadron peer pressure. Alcohol helped too. Hatred not so much. Not on their side, anyway.


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