Mind Games: The War on Terror and the Rise of Brainpower

Amani terrorism

By Amani Carson-Rose.

Although they lack the redeeming adorableness, terrorists are a lot like temper-tantrum-throwing five year olds. They feel powerless in a world dominated by adults (read: nation-states, particularly Western ones) who are definitively much more powerful than they are (look to their collective firepower, financial resources, manpower, control over institutions and even public opinion). This rational fear of powerlessness makes them lash out in any way they can, disrupting the ‘adult’ world and giving them no place within it.

When a child is throwing a temper tantrum, its caretaker has a few options: ignore the child, suppress the child, or address the child’s needs in order to eliminate the child’s rational reason for acting out. As we reflect on the twelfth anniversary of the onset of the War on Terror, it is only prudent that we pause to examine the United States’ choice of disciplinary method and question whether or not the country has selected the most effective course of action for the long-term.

For over a decade, Uncle Sam has attempted to forcibly subdue the child in question. Consider: during the Iraq War, there were somewhere between approximately 115,598 and 126,166 documented Iraqi civilian deaths. How many people died on September 11th?  2,996. The United States can devastate terrorist organizations in a hard power conflict. In any other war, all losses from the September 11th and other terrorist attacks would be accepted as normal consequences of hard power engagements—we’d consider ourselves lucky that the number was so low. But we still feel that we’ve lost. Any casualties at all in a hard power struggle with terrorists are considered unacceptable. When we use hard power, we try to physically force the child into restraint. We’re going to win; terrorists have the comparative strength of a five-year-old. But they’ll still get in the occasional bite, the occasional scratch—and each of those is a couple hundred or a couple thousand casualties. Hence, although the United States would undoubtedly prevail in a hard power battle against terrorists, its inability to accept proportionally minimal casualties that will inevitably result from terrorist backlash and hard power responses makes the United States’ engagement in such an endeavor no longer feasible.

With the unviability of coercive repression, the Global Caretaker has two other choices for disciplinary action: it can ignore them or respond to the child’s needs, reducing his or her reason for violent behavior. Clearly, the United States cannot ignore the mounting threat of terrorism; thus, it must approach the War on Terror from a different power angle. The common alternative to hard power, soft power, frequently takes the form of diplomacy. Diplomacy is a non-provoking, low-risk way to address conflicts otherwise solved with hard power. But terrorists are incompatible with diplomacy by their very nature—the power imbalance in their eyes is so extreme that the only rational option is any and all possible violence.

Consequently, the United States needs another method by which to address the terrorists’ grievances and combat their violent behavior, and that approach should be brain power – a combination of non-coercive psychological power from the hard power domain and ideological power from the soft power domain. The use of brain power would provide a low-risk, non-provocative way for the United States to engage terrorist organizations in something other than a hard power conflict. Combating terrorists with brain power allows the United States to take what once were the terrorists most influential weapons – ideology and psychology – and use them to amplify its existing advantage.

As the name suggests, the use of brain power would turn the War on Terror into a “head game”, in which the United States would exploit the aforementioned forms of power concentrated in the mind – psychology and ideology. Dr. John Horgan explains that individuals turn to terrorism when they “feel angry, alienated or disenfranchised; believe that their current political involvement does not give them the power to affect real change; identify with perceived victims of the social injustice they are fighting; feel the need to take action rather than just talking about the problem; believe that engaging in violence against the state is not immoral; have friends or family sympathetic to the cause; believe that joining a movement offers social and psychological rewards such as adventure, camaraderie, and a heightened sense of identity”. If taken simply as rationale for action, these motivations seem understandable, if not acceptable. Hence, the United States ought to redirect the energies of would-terrorists to realizing the aforementioned goals in a more appropriate manner.

Moreover, on the ideological front, Tori DeAngelis of the American Psychological Association reports that terrorists are acting in defense of their way of life they feel is teetering on the brink of obliteration. This understanding explains the tight link between radical Islamic extremists and acts of terror. In order to combat this false cognition, counterterrorist efforts should focus on “assuaging people’s fear of cultural annihilation, highlighting our common humanity or demonstrating the discrepancy between the dream and reality of terrorist involvement”. In order to accomplish these goals, the United States must stop alienating Muslims through domestic discrimination and international invasion and focus on demonstrating how American democracy’s commitment to pluralism will better protect Islam than terrorist organizations that manipulate the text of the Koran to justify and/or encourage violent atrocities. Furthermore, this approach will allow would-be terrorists to relate more with the American community than with the terrorist organizations trying to recruit them, and if the United States represents a means through which would-be terrorists can affect meaningful change and work towards preserving Islam, the logical motivation for joining a terrorist group disappears because the United States is no longer threatening the Islamic way of life. 

Since the success of “de-radicalization” is contingent on the capacity of terrorists to change, critics have brought up the popular, intuitive notion of terrorists as psychopaths – cold-blooded, purposeless killers, who cannot possibly be rehabilitated. Dr. Randy Borum, Psy.D., member of the United Nations Roster of Experts on Terrorism, argues that this viewpoint is unfounded, as “Terrorists typically have some connection to principles or ideology as well as to other people (including other terrorists) who share them. Psychopaths, however, do not form such connections, nor would they be likely to sacrifice themselves (including dying) for a cause.” The presence of psychopathology in terrorists is less than or equal to that of the general international population, and the very antisocial behavior psychopaths are most known for would prove a detrimental personality trait in a terrorist. Hence, terrorists are rational, passionate individuals with the mental capacity to be reeducated and assimilated into a peaceful society. For further evidence of terrorists’ potential for transformation, one should look to the existing “de-radicalization” programs, some of which include imams and other Islamic leaders explaining the real teachings of Islam to convicted terrorists and separating the actual tenets of the faith from the manipulations they originally believed. Although only a handful of such programs are in operation, they are already yielding what Dr. Arie Kruglanski, PhD calls “authentic successes”. Clearly, there is a viable alternative to the brute force battle the United States ought not perpetuate. It is high time for the United States to get as many people as it can on the bandwagon and head towards the future of counterterrorism.

If the United States adopts a brain power approach, it will eliminate terrorist organizations’ psychological and ideological weaponry, consequently reduce the number of terrorist recruits by meeting their rational needs, and significantly impair the ability of terrorist groups to inflict damage due to a lack of manpower. Thus, the War on Terror will become a process of crushing a declining institution with dwindling recruitment capacities rather than a fight against a rising, antagonistic power. For such an endeavor the United States will not need to exhaust any extra defense resources or engage in additional military interventions. Thus, not only does the aforementioned strategy offer a sustainable option for quelling the cantankerous child, but also the manner in which it accomplishes this goal represents a tremendous improvement on the present method.

Apart from the obvious benefits of a reduced American military presence overseas to war-weary Americans and to the strained United States economy, the use of brain power as opposed to brawn power allows the United States to dispel notions of American hypocrisy currently rampant in regions still reeling from the impacts of United States intervention. America ought to stand by the pluralism democracy requires and act on its words in order for them to ever matter in international relations.

In another century, during an American coming of age, the United States would have accepted losses such as those that occurred on September 11th, 2001 as the price of exerting its influence and proving itself around the world, a scratch from proving it’s the toughest kid on the block. But now, the United States has grown up and embraced a more mature viewpoint: every little injury matters; any casualty is one too many. Because of this, the United States cannot use hard power to squelch terrorism. It must take a more high-minded approach. In this day and age, the United States is literally bigger power in this conflict. It needs to be the bigger power figuratively as well.

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