Friday, May 27, 2011

This is what happens when you drink too much coffee and your girlfriend has to work late

I'm not really a terrorism guy, as I think most people know. But I've been reading and thinking about both the causes and objectives of terroristic violence lately, particularly the way that governmental authority and state capacity intersect with individual freedom and factional grievance.

Another interesting idea to me is the way that terrorism as we understand it today is a quite recent and short-lived phenomenon: terror was (in the words of Conor Gearty) "hardly ever to be found in any century up to and including the nineteenth" and simply "was not part of the equation of revolt." This was to some extent a matter of the technologies both of violence and of communication, but it was also a factor of the relationship between government and disaffected petitioner: the would-be terrorist lacked the means to inflict sufficient damage or to spread the message of his success, and in most places the state had no qualms about brutally quashing rebellion or dissent. To put it simply, terrorism didn't exist because it wouldn't have worked.

I'm also fascinated by a certain irony implicit in our 21st-century return to a more expansive definition of terrorism. It may sound absurd to state it in this fashion, but until very recently, terror was the fundamental, critical component to any definition of "terrorism"; violence outside of war was only unambiguously classed as terrorism when it was both politically subversive and indiscriminate -- when its intent was to create real public terror at its seeming randomness and insensitivity to the distinction between citizen and government. I'm not interested in having a drawn-out semantic argument about this, but it's curious the way we often refer to the 9/11 hijackers and to an Afghan who emplaces an IED alike as "terrorists." The aforementioned irony is in the fact that "pure terror" -- that is, indiscriminate violence intended to send a political message -- is less comprehensible to us for its apparent disconnection from the expressed objective just as it terrifies us more. The targeted violence most likely to actually influence policy directly tends more toward political subversion and irregular warfare. Terrorism is, in a sense, becoming less terrifying.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about. And then I drew this:
(Click to make it bigger.) No, it doesn't make very much sense. No, I can't really tell you what the hell I was trying to accomplish when I drew it. No, I'm not going to type out all the captions and clarifying remarks. Yes, I want you to examine it and tell me how useless it is, and how very stupid you think I am, and how I ought to just stop trying to make everything into a damn graph already just because I've been reading a lot about Tufte this week.

Just for the record, the two meaningful lines are the straight line slope running from bottom-left to top-right, which is labeled "susceptibility to mitigation by direct government action," and the dipping arc with red trim, labeled "vulnerability of high-functioning state." I guess the idea was to show the way that different purported root causes of terrorism could be mitigated, and to think about how important state strength is to those various forms of mitigation. Terrorist violence that is motivated by an overwhelming desire for substantive policy change, for example, would be insensitive to state strength (just as likely to occur in a strong state as in a weak one) while comparatively "simple" to mitigate or avoid through concrete, direct action by the government (politically unpalatable as that may be). On the other end of the spectrum you have sociopathic or nihilistic terrorism (which, again, is no less likely in a high-functioning state than a failed one), a type of random and truly terror-inspiring violence that the government is virtually powerless to proactively suppress. [Here I think of the Michael Caine character's quote in one of the recent Batman movies: "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."]

Hm, whoa, look at the time! Two questions for you:

1) Is there any chance that this graphic says anything meaningful to you, has any explanatory power, or provides any insight whatsoever (beyond "Gulliver is an asshole with too much time on his hands")?

2) What's wrong with it, from the perspective of conceptual accuracy?


  1. Ok, I'll start:

    1) No.

    2) It's stupid.

    Anyone else?

  2. I think you should drink more and draw less.

  3. Gulliver:

    This is unlikely to be helpful, but to answer your questions:

    1) I think this is something that has potential to be very useful conceptually, put into a more accessible format. Looking at it at first (and squinting), it seems somewhat self-explanatory.

    2) Conceptually most of it seems more or less accurate. I'd have to give it more time than I have this instant to pick through it carefully though.

  4. Gulliver:

    This will sound snarky, but, simply, it's hard to grasp a complicated graph posted on a blog. I'm probably asking too much, especially given there's no guarantee I'd actually comment on it, but that said, is there a way you could make it downloadable (and perhaps in more professional - e.g., Powerpoint - form)?

    Everything you wrote sounded plausible. I'd simply ask, first, that you write a literature review of sorts to show where your argument is new and where it corresponds to what others have written. Second, could you simplify your argument a bit? Again, everything you wrote sounded reasonable, but I had trouble gelling it together. If you had to compress your argument into one abstract-type paragraph, what would it look like? Third, similarly, perhaps you'd want to frame your argument(s) as testable hypotheses - e.g., H1, etc.

    I recognize these comments are more about style than substance, but I think they might be helpful.


  5. Once I got my head around it, it did help me tease out the different kinds of responses that the state might use.

    The problem of course is the fact that while on paper it's easy to put things into neat pigeon holes, but in reality there's never one underlying cause. Therefore different responses would be required, which may well be mutually exclusive. Though that's not really a comment on the drawing..

  6. Definitely works for me, though I'm no expert. Or, maybe because I'm no expert. Anyway, can't figure out super criminality. An example?

  7. I like it, if only because I find it aesthetically pleasing and it reminds me of what happens when I'm drinking wine and thinking about the relationships between human development and post-conflict reconstruction. (That ended in a conceptual model I was able to put in the conclusion of my Master's thesis, LOL.)

    I'm confused about the history, though. What about the French revolution? The Crusades? Colonialism? Pre-19th century wars of conquest? Carthage? It seems there are many instances of what people might consider "terrorism" before the 19th century. Just a thought.

    I'm also in agreement with ADTS that for a blog post the graph could have been simplified, but at the same time I quite like the look of it and the way so much information has been neatly included. You should try that software program Personal Brain-- it allows you to map all kinds of relationships and ideas together and change the way they're oriented with each other with a couple of clicks. Sometimes helps you see relationships you didn't realize were there. :)

  8. Lovelylight -- "Super criminality" was meant to cover things like narco violence in Mexico: fundamentally instrumentalist if non-political, but still (to some greater or lesser degree) indiscriminate. Not sure, but this may be a set of n=1.