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When science may not be enough

By Louis René Beres


We live in an age of glittering data analysis and complex information technologies. While there are obvious benefits to such advancement, not all matters of importance are best understood by science. On some vital matters, there is a corollary and sometimes even complementary need for a deeper, more palpably human, kind of understanding. A critical example is the study of terrorism.

Statistics don’t bleed. Often, even the most elegant and persuasive science can illuminate only partial truths. What is missing in these cases is the special sort of insight that philosopher Michael Polanyi calls “personal knowledge,” an unsystematic means of grasping reality often associated with the openly “subjective” epistemologies of phenomenology and existentialism.

Sigmund Freud had already understood that meaningful psychological analysis could not afford to neglect innately private feelings. Therefore, he wisely cautioned, whatever the incontestable limitations of subjective investigation, we must nonetheless pay close attention to the human psyche, or soul. Oddly, Freud’s plainly “unscientific” view is applicable to our present-day investigations of terror-violence. How so? Freud himself probably never imagined the application of this humanistic warning to world politics.

Following terrorist attacks, we routinely learn of the number of fatalities and then the number of those who were “merely wounded,” whether such tragedies occur in Israel, Iraq, the United States, or anywhere else. What we can’t ever really seem to fathom are the infinitely deeper human expressions of victim suffering. As much as we might try to achieve a spontaneous experience of unity with the felt pain of others, these attempts are inevitably in vain. They lie beyond science.

In essence, the most important aspect of any terror attack on civilian populations always lies in what can’t be measured: the inexpressibility of physical pain. No human language can even begin to describe such pain, as the boundaries that separate one person from another are immutable.

Here, everyone will readily understand that bodily anguish must not only defy ordinary language, but must also be language-destroying. This inaccessibility of suffering — or the irremediable privacy of human torment — has notable social and political consequences. For instance, in certain foreign policy venues, it has repeatedly stood in the way of recognizing terror-violence as innately wrong and resolutely inexcusable.Rather than elicit universal cries of condemnation, these crimes have often elicited a chorus of enthusiastic support from those who are most easily captivated by self-justifying labels. Most conspicuous are self-righteous claims of terror-violence as legitimate expressions of “revolution,” “self-determination,” or “armed struggle.”

Photo by Robert Johnson, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.
Photo by Robert Johnson, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr.

But why do certain terrorists continue to inflict grievous pain upon innocent persons (“noncombatants”) without at least expecting some reciprocal gain or benefit? What are the real motives in these irrational cases? Are these particular terrorists narrowly nihilistic, planning and executing distinct patterns of killing for killing’s sake? Have they managed to exchange one murderous playbook for another, now preferring to trade in such classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, and even De Sade?

Why? Terrorism is often a twisted species of theatre. All terrorists, in the same fashion as their intended audiences, are imprisoned by the stark limitations of language. For them, as for all others, the unique pain experienced by one human body can never be shared with another. This is the true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if they are tied together by other tangible measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.

Psychologically, the distance between one’s own body and the body of another is immeasurably great. This distance is always impossible to traverse. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy and compassion, the determinative membranes separating our individual bodies, will always trump every detailed protocol of formal ethical instruction.

This split may allow even the most heinous infliction of harms to be viewed objectively. Especially where a fashionably popular political objective is invoked, terror bombings can conveniently masquerade as justice. Because this masquerade often works, consequent world public opinion can easily come down on the side of the tormentors. Such alignments are made possible by the insurmountable chasms between one person and another.

For terrorists and their supporters the violent death and suffering so “justly” meted out to victims always appears as an abstraction. Whether inflicted by self-sacrificing “martyrs” or by more detached sorts of attackers, these harms are very casually rationalized in the name of “political necessity,” “citizen rights,” “self-determination,” or “national liberation.” Nothing else must ever be said for further moral justification.

Physical pain can do more than destroy ordinary language. It can also bring about a grotesque reversion to pre-language human sounds; that is, to those guttural moans and primal whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the victims of terror bombings may writhe agonizingly, from the burns, nails, razor blades and screws, neither the world public who are expected to bear witness, nor the mass murderers themselves, can ever truly understand the deeper meanings of inflicted harms. For the victims, there exists no anesthesia strong enough to dull the relentless pain of terrorism. For the observers, no matter how well-intentioned, the victims’ pain will always remain anesthetized.

Because of the limits of science in studying such matters, terrorist bombers — whether in Boston, Barcelona, or Beer Sheva — are almost always much worse than they might appear. Whatever their stated or unstated motives, and wherever they might choose to discharge their carefully rehearsed torments, these murderers commit to an orchestrated sequence of evils from which there is never any expressed hope of release. Whatever their solemn assurances of tactical necessity, terrorists terrorize because they garner personal benefit from the community-celebrated killings. The terrorists terrorize because they take authentically great delight in executions.

It is not enough to study terrorism with reams of carefully-gathered data and meticulously analyzed statistics. Rather, from the start, it is essential to acknowledge the substantial limitations of science in such critical investigations, and also the deeply human meanings of terrorist-created harms. Although sometimes still not possible to fully appreciate, due to literally immeasurable victim pain and suffering, these complex meanings can ultimately be apprehended by more intensely subjective efforts at “personal knowledge.”

Louis René Beres is a professor of Political Science at Purdue who lectures and publishes widely on terrorism, national security matters, and international law. He is the author of some of the very earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, including Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (1980) and Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (1979).  He is a regular contributor to OUPblog.

If you are interested in this subject, you may be interested in Psychology of Terrorism, edited by Bruce Bongar, Lisa M. Brown, Larry E. Beutler, James N. Breckenridge, and Philip G. Zimbardo. The first comprehensive book on the psychology of terrorism, it is particularly relevant to those interested in current events, and appeals broadly to many different professionals involved in medicine, public health, research, government, and non-profit fields.

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