Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Are Terrorists Rational?

In this paper, Bryan Caplan argues that majority of terrorists are mostly rational. He disaggregates terrorists into three discrete categories: sympathizers, active terrorists, and suicidal terrorists.

He further distinguishes three different types of rationality, but mostly concludes that under all three forms, sympathizers are completely rational, active terrorists are mostly rational, and suicidal terrorists are mostly irrational.

We can understand why sympathizers are rational. Generally terrorism is the means used by the weaker power in a conflict. The costs of actively participating in a war against a stronger enemy are high and since the chance of success is likely low, majority of people have an incentive to free-ride. Terrorists try to minimize freeriding by rewarding friends and punishing enemies, thereby increasing the benefits for actively helping and the costs for opposing them.

Active terrorists are fairly rational as well. The costs of being in a conflict at high, but often the opportunity costs are low because not fighting isn't really beneficial (for example the GDP in the territories is so low that forgoing the amount of wages they could earn is not costly). Often the psychological benefits are high as well, because the extremist doctrine that spawns terrorist groups usually gives the holder of that belief a sense of security (and even if those beliefs themselves are irrational, there is a sense of rational irrationality, which Caplan posits, where the costs of believing an irrational belief is low since believing, for example, that Allah will destroy the infidels is costless).

Suicidal terrorists are generally irrational. But they are a small number. If 1% of the Muslims worldwide believed the Islamist idea that killing infidels would lead to eternal bliss, we'd have over a million suicide bombers. But we don't. The reason is not necessarily because they truly don't believe it. They might. But if we assume that a such a belief is irrational, the costs of that belief are low until the time when the terrorist leader asks for volunteers. Then the costs shoot up. Rational irrationality would predict most active terrorists would not turn suicidal and the ones who do are irrational. And that's generally what happens.

The problem is that a single suicide bomber can cause a lot of damage. Is there any way to deter him? Probably not. But in my mind since the active terrorists, who are the ones who are in charge and the ones who are rational, can be deterred a method of attacking the leaders of terrorist groups would seem the most apt. We probably cannot deter the suicidal maniacs who blow up buses but we sure can increase the costs for the people who send them.

10 Comments:

Blogger Charlie Hall said...

'If 1% of the Muslims worldwide believed the Islamist idea that killing infidels would lead to eternal bliss, we'd have over a million suicide bombers.'

Probably more like ten million.

In any case, suicide terrorism is not part of mainstream Islam. Armed conflict against countries ruled by non-Muslims, however, *IS* arguably supported by Islam, and therein lies the problem for any Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.

8/22/2006 5:06 PM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

Whoops, see this is why I'm in law school. 1% of a billion is ten million, not a million.

But for something to be believed by only 1% of the adherers to a religion, it need not be mainstream. Caplan's point is even if a very small number of people believe it, we should have a far greater number of suicide bombings. But we don't.

8/23/2006 8:54 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Is that really true when it comes to something such as suicide? Furthermore, a nice % of Muslims simply aren't closely involved with terror or Israel etc.

While many people may support suicide bombings, it is quite another matter to be willing to carry one out. You also have the idea that each person - even if they back suicide bombings - may tell themselves "Well, I'm more valuable to 'the cause' alive than dead." I'm not sure Caplan's point applies in this type of case.

8/23/2006 9:38 AM  
Blogger Nephtuli said...

While many people may support suicide bombings, it is quite another matter to be willing to carry one out. You also have the idea that each person - even if they back suicide bombings - may tell themselves "Well, I'm more valuable to 'the cause' alive than dead." I'm not sure Caplan's point applies in this type of case.

Well think about it: if dying to kill an infidel will grant someone eternal bliss, what are they waiting for? Sure some might just say that they are worth more to the cause alive, but even if that is true, shouldn't we have a much higher number of people killing themselves. There have probably been less than 100 suicide bombings in the world over the last 5 years. Why so few? Are almost 10 million people really convincing themselves that they are worth more to the cause alive than dead?

I think Caplan is right that people believe irrational beliefs as long as the costs are low. But once they shoot up, most people become rational and choose to stay alive.

8/23/2006 11:09 AM  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Not really. Remember: All Muslims know that suicide is normally a terrible act. The question for them is whether this case is different; in this, there are different opinions. It's almost like a halachic argument: The really 'frum' aren't quite sure what to think - is it allowed, or is it not? Better to be 'machmir' and support the cause, fight in regular battles, etc. than to actually carry out a suicide attack... especially when suicide is not exactly the most enjoyable action.

8/23/2006 10:53 PM  
Blogger Scraps said...

It has been noted, as well, that suicide bombers tend to be young hot-headed idealists; the older a person gets, the more obligations and responsibilities that person has, and s/he is less willing to die and leave those responsibilities unfulfilled. For instance, you rarely (if ever) see fifty-year-old men with seven wives and thirty-nine children going out and blowing themselves up, because even if their families get some sort of monetary compensation for their actions, they see the suffering it will cause the family not to have a father. The cost of suicide bombing becomes higher with the birth of each child.

However, one tactic that has seen some use recently to forcibly recruit female suicide bombers is to offer the "opportunity" to be a suicide bomber as an alternative to dying by honor-killing. Thus, they die with honor, rather than with dishonor; they're going to die anyway, so why not go out in style? [/tongue-in-cheek]

8/24/2006 9:03 AM  
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Blogger Fowl Ideas said...

Think of terrorism as a profession. The competence and mental stability of the practitioners covers the spectrum.

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11/30/2010 9:29 AM  

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