Terrorism and the evolution of technology

12 January 2009


Yesterday I finally got the time to go to the library and stock up on books on terrorism, as I intend to apply myself to the problems posed by this threat. Certainly terrorism is one of the most pressing problems of our time, and like many of the problems facing our complicated world, terrorism is also a complicated problem. Because terrorism is a complicated problem, notwithstanding the simplicity of the images and rhetoric encountered on the evening news, we can expect that a study that pays attention to careful conceptual distinctions will reward us with a clarity of thought not to be derived from shrill denunciations or sneaking admiration (and we must not equivocate on the latter point; even many who explicitly eschew violence have a certain sympathy for terrorist motives and for their ability to put a superpower on the defensive).

the rescue of the hostages in Colombia was only possible because the military mimicked the appearance of an NGO known to be sympathetic to FARC.

Another evolutionary example: the rescue of the hostages in Colombia was only possible because the military mimicked the appearance of an NGO known to be sympathetic to FARC. Think of it as aposematic Müllerian mimicry, i.e., sharing an anti-predation defense.

This morning when I was skimming one of the books on terrorism that I checked out yesterday, I was at the same time musing on the extent to which terrorism is a classically rational human undertaking. It is all-too-easy to consign acts of terror to irrational passion (often in the form of religion, itself seen as an expression of irrationality) and strong emotion. Certainly the confluence of anger, resentment, frustration, and fear constitute a powerful cocktail of emotions that sometimes culminate in the inspiration of terrorists (and I intend to discuss this at some point), but we would make it impossible to come to an understanding of terrorism to view it in purely emotional terms. Also, emotions are deeply integrated into our rational life (and vice versa), so that it is difficult at times to make a clearcut distinction between emotional and rational justifications. This is mostly obviously, and most relevantly, the case with the feeling of having suffered an injustice, which is equal parts reason and emotion.

Terrorist rationality is clearly revealed in the long-term planning cycle of the most sophisticated attacks, as well as by the innovative use of technologies for purposes other than intended. It is on the latter that I will focus for the moment.

What I previously identified as “high concept / low tech terrorism” is a perfect example of technological evolution. Specifically, it is an example of what is called exaptation (as well as cooption and preevolution). This term is associated most closely with S. J. Gould, who pointed out that the evolution of both bodily structure and behavior can produce results that can be used for different functions than those for which they evolved. In the case of 11 September 2001, jetliners produced for the purposes of transportation were exapted by terrorists and used as missiles. more recently, the extensive use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in Iraq has extensively exapted conventional munitions for the purposes of ambush (often of civilian targets), and has also extensively employed motor vehicles as delivery devices.

The Berkeley evolution site defines exaptation as, “a feature that performs a function but that was not produced by natural selection for its current use.” As when we were recently considering a generalization of the species concept from evolution in order to apply non-teleological thought to non-biological species, the same applies here. But little imagination is required to see the applicability of exaptation to technology. In fact, it happens all the time. Items produced by technology for one reason are adapted to ends other than that for which they were conceived.

The diagram illustrates separate gene duplications in different parts of the phylogeny for platypus venom defensin-like peptides (vDLPs), for lizard venom crotamine-like peptides (vCLPs) and for snake venom crotamines. These venom proteins have thus been co-opted from pre-existing non-toxin homologues independently in platypus and in lizards and snakes.

A technical example of exaptation: The diagram illustrates separate gene duplications in different parts of the phylogeny for platypus venom defensin-like peptides (vDLPs), for lizard venom crotamine-like peptides (vCLPs) and for snake venom crotamines. These venom proteins have thus been co-opted from pre-existing non-toxin homologues independently in platypus and in lizards and snakes.

Once seen in the context of exaptation, we need to ask what other forms of technology, never intended for military purposes, could be turned to account as improvised weapons. It would also be in the interest of military planners to themselves exapt the terrorists in order to pursue “a style of war more imaginative, more decisive, and yet more humane than anything terrorists can contrive” as Caleb Carr suggests is needed (pp 13-14; see below). One can imagine making use the the social technologies of terrorists, as well as their principle of the exaptation of hardware technologies, against the terrorists themselves. Surveillance that mastered and made use of terrorist techniques and terrorist thinking would be far more likely to be successful than conventional military thinking. That is to say, we need to recognize the evolution of technology (including social technologies) as a part of our strategic response to terrorism.

In the passage just quoted, Carr seems to be suggesting exactly such unconventional means to address terrorism, but his emphasis on the military nature of terrorism, and the need for a military strategy to defeat terrorism, suggests the difficulty of breaking out of the conventional paradigms of military thinking. The military apparatus of large nation-states is an enormous bureaucracy coupled to a fighting force. Change comes slowly. Evolution here is incremental and gradual. The military forces of terrorist organizations are small and highly adaptable. They exemplify punctuated evolutionary leaps, “hopeful monsters” as some theorists of evolution have called them. Conventional military forces would do well to monitor this military speciation and adapt themselves accordingly, at the risk of being out-completed.

lessons_of_terror1

I currently have Caleb Carr’s well-received book The Lessons of Terror checked out from the library in both print and audio formats, so I can give this text the attention that it deserves. I hesitate to comment before making my way entirely through it once, but I am struck by the way Carr repeats received treatments of certain historical events, and his readiness to say that terror never succeeds without considering the crucial question of what exactly is to be called terror and what exactly constitutes success. For example, Carr writes of the settlement of World War I that, “Germany would be so brutalized by the terms of the peace that it would seek violent redress as soon as it was able” (p. 167). While this is the commonly accepted estimate of the Treaty of Versailles, the fascinating book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World argues against this, and I think makes the case convincingly. Carr also seems to accept the South’s account of Sherman’s March to the Sea, though Sherman’s own account, while readily admitting to a devastation of infrastructure, comes nowhere near admitting acts of terrorism as the term is usually understood. It can’t even be compared to Germany’s occupation of Belgium during World War I, with the Germany policy of reprisals against civilians that was pursued at the time. Carr also has a throw-away line on Roman “overall decadence” (p. 29) without bothering to explain what he means by this. Some are tolerant of history that plays to our facile assumptions; I would much rather have a history that challenges my assumptions. As for what constitutes the “success” of a campaign of terror, the philosophy of history demonstrates to us that new outcomes of contemporary history are always revising our interpretation of earlier historical events.

Was the coup against Mossadeq a "success"? Was it "terrorism"? Was the Shah's regime "terrorism"? Is the current regime in Iran "terrorist"? Is it "successful"?

Was the coup against Mossadeq a "success"? Was it "terrorism"? Was the Shah's regime "terrorism"? Is the current regime in Iran "terrorist"? Is the latter "successful"?

For an example of how later developments shape revised perceptions of historical success, the CIA-sponsored coup against Mossadeq in Iran was considered a “success” until the Iranian revolution of 1979 showed how the Shah’s “terror” (were the Shah’s secret police “terrorists”, or were they legitimately pursuing “terrorists”?) inspired elements in Iranian society to overturn that “success” and install a government more hostile to US interests than ever before (also, by the way, creating the vanguard of revolutionary Islam). Thus in the ancient world, it was thought necessary to call no man happy until he had died (the subject of many ancient legends, and an indication of the wisdom achieved by the Classical world). Similarly, we can account no civilization as “successful” until it has come to its natural end (in which case its “success” must not include its continuing historical viability). More generally, we must count no action and its consequences a success until the historical context of which it is a part has come to its natural end. This latter formulation is a less exacting and universal than the immediately previous formulation in terms of civilizations, but it is of much greater complexity and cannot be counted a practical guide to action (even in terms of historical illustration) without significant expansion, elucidation, and clarification (and of this, more at some later date).

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