Understanding Osama’s human bombs

It is the most supreme of ironies – the world’s lone superpower, armed with the most sophisticated weapons, feels besieged by an enemy who lives and works in complete anonymity in middle class America, ready to attack and die at a signal.  His methods are modern, his beliefs medieval.

For the longest time, Americans have been monitoring any attempt by any country, friend or foe, to build a nuclear capability.  Lately, they have focused their attention on the capacity of some countries to create and deploy chemical and biological weapons.  In their fixation with the technology of aggression, they forgot to pay attention to the psychology of hate that drives it.  They were so busy spying upon rogue states abroad that they failed to give equal attention to the lowtech but highly-motivated individual terrorists operating at home.

Part of the problem perhaps lies in the popular images that American movies have created about terrorists.  In the rationalist vocabulary of American culture, these caricatures conjure images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics whose style of life and methods are as obsolete as the beliefs they espouse.  The turbaned Osama bin Laden has become the stereotypical face of the modern terrorist.  He wears a long beard, is garbed in traditional clothes, quotes from the Koran, and carries an archaic AK-47 rifle.

But one look at the faces of the 19 hijackers, who boarded and commandeered the passenger planes that they then methodically slammed at lethal angles against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, would tell us how differently these suicide terrorists looked from their supposed leader.  They were clean-shaven, they wore wellcut Western clothes, and they rode in either first class or business class, looking like highly paid executives or U.S.-bred Middle Eastern heirs shuttling to some meeting or party.

Documentation of the hijackers’ movements prior to the attacks reveals that they lived like regular, law-abiding, and even thoughtful fellows who by the ordinariness of their daily routines became invisible to the radar screens of the FBI and the CIA.  Some of them were observed to have occasionally enjoyed a few drinks at local bars, maybe to give the impression they were just carefree immigrants who have outgrown the ancient restrictions of their ancestors’ religion.  Nothing in their lifestyle suggested that they were anything but fully Americanized persons of Arabic origin.

Who would have guessed that these same men, who diligently went to flying school, learning how to fly big commercial airliners, were actually terrorists preparing for a grand attack in which they knew they were going to die? It would be fascinating to inquire into how a suicide mission of this scale and ambition which requires faultless timing and extreme precision could have been planned and prepared for over an extended period, without anyone of its individual participants entertaining any second thoughts about it.

It defies all commonsense that anyone could so isolate his premodern beliefs, keep a tight rein on them to avoid detection, and follow the cycle of modern American living in all its individualism and self-indulgence without being affected by it.   Such capacity for psychic and cognitive compartmentalization is rare indeed.  People who swear by the superiority of the American way of life would certainly not think it possible.  To them, it simply does not make any sense.

The German sociologist Max Weber would have been equally hardpressed to classify such behavior.  There are 4 basic types of human conduct, he said. “Rational goal-oriented conduct” characterizes the behavior of the modern person who is results-oriented and instrumentalist in every way.  “Rational value-oriented conduct” is behavior that is controlled by strict personal values; the behavior may appear irrational when not viewed in the light of a person’s belief system.   “Affectual conduct” is governed purely by emotions, whereas “traditional conduct” is dictated by customary rules.

The behavior of the September 11 suicide hijackers seems to contain elements from all four of Weber’s ideal types.  These men were resolutely goal-oriented; they may have been mad, but there was method in their madness.  At the same time, they must clearly have been governed by deeply rooted values, which inoculated them from the Western way of life.  They must also have been filled with an intense hatred for America.  And the heritage of their ancestors, in all its mythical glory, must have supplied the solidarity they felt with one another and with the “higher” cause to which they offered their lives.

To call them “irrational” is to fail to appreciate the complexity of the behavior we are dealing with here.  These were by no means ordinary terrorists.  They planned to inflict the greatest possible injury on a perceived enemy, but they were also willing to die in the effort. A scheme like this requires not only maximum secrecy, but also systematic and long-term preparation, including the acquisition of the technical skills needed to fly and maneuver the planes they used as guided missiles.

No behavior could be more rationally goal-oriented than this.  Yet Weber would have insisted that this form of conduct is to be found only in the thoroughly modern person.  He would have been stunned to see it neatly spliced and murderously attached to a pre-modern mind.


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