From: Karl Sabbagh
Date: 9.20.01

Edge question: What next?

I assume that 'What Next?" means: how can we avoid this sort of thing in the future? There are two approaches. One is to do with preventing terrorism at the site of action; the other to preventing it at its origin.

The first is easy. Here's what we do:

The job of any useful anti-terrorist organization should be to find opportunities for terrorist acts before they happen and close any loopholes. The best way to do this is to set up an autonomous government — or even world — agency to use teams of 'terrorists' to devise, in secret, schemes for mayhem which stop short at the final fatal deed. It could be called World Agency Resisting Terrorism (WART).

Their activities would be unknown to the CIA or the FBI, they would go undercover, they would infiltrate, they would do all the things terrorists do — stopping just short of killing the pilot, dropping real anthrax, setting off the bomb, or whatever. If they reach that final point without being detected, they declare themselves and the next phase begins. An official commission of inquiry will investigate the 'disaster', calculate likely casualties, point the finger at the culprits who failed to prevent it and order new measures to be taken to increase security. They will also determine massive fines to be paid by whoever has failed to prevent the 'attack' (usually large companies) — through lax security procedures, errors of detection, etc, with the fine related to the projected loss of life. Also, the CIA, the FBI, and anyone else whose job it was to detect them and who failed will be punished in some way — sackings, penalties, etc. The fines (of which there will be many in the early days of the system) will go towards the costs of the Agency, and pay for an exhaustive investigation of the sort that is usually carried after a real disaster. Conversely, if the 'terrorists' fail, there will be an inquiry to determine where credit lies for the terrorism being thwarted and rewards will be given, again in proportion to the likely lives saved.

The same principle can be applied to man-made disaster prevention. Power station design and operation, chemical factories, aircraft and other transportation technology, bridge design, all have the possibility to cause massive loss of human life. In this case, a different agency, Action To Avoid Catastrophe (ATAC), will carry out its activities openly along the following lines: it will identify some major public project or technology and investigate its operations exhaustively. It will then attempt to devise a scenario, however unlikely, that could result in disaster. (The Three Mile Island Disaster Inquiry is a model of such an investigation — the problem is it should have been carried out before the event.) If such a scenario is impossible to devise, the company or organization is rewarded for good practice. If a remotely plausible sequence of events is spelt out that could result in disaster the company is fined, massively.

Now the second, more difficult, approach:

Violence of the sort we are trying to avoid is not, in the end, caused only by American power and oppression, Israeli occupation, religious antagonism, the evils of capitalism. Such grievances are necessary but not sufficient. After all there are many people who endure these without strapping explosives to themselves or bombing buildings. There is always an additional factor, almost too trite to mention — the willingness of a person to use physical violence against other people with whom he disagrees. To reduce violence we need to understand this. And, in various ways, we do already. There almost certainly exist important and useful research findings from different academic disciplines that might not be generally known to other academics or to the world at large. In particular, there may be practical measures, as yet untried, that could be taken to reduce violent behaviour at every level from the individual to the state, starting in childhood.

It may well be that violent behaviour — man against man, man against woman, man and woman against child, men against other men within their society, one race against another, one nation against another — has common roots at whichever level it operates. Those roots may well lie in the way individuals react to threat or perceived threat either from the object of their violence or elsewhere. Thus, even international conflict may have its roots in the personal responses of statesmen and the interaction of those responses with the psychological makeup of the individual members of the state. If such common factors exist, they will more easily become apparent through the exchange of views of a wide range of academics, the wider the better.

The insights we need do not necessarily require new research findings. Neuroanatomy and physiology, sociobiology, experimental psychology and psychiatry, anthropology and sociology, political science, and analytical psychology — all of these disciplines have traditionally looked at the roots of violent behaviour and there are research findings which can enlighten us.

There are many questions whose answers might help:

Neuroanatomy and neurophysiology — where are aggressive impulses located in the brain? Are there differences in anatomy and physiology between normal and abnormally violent people? What do we know of the mediators of anger and violent behaviour in the brain? Are there ethically justified ways of reducing violent behaviour, both pathological and non-pathological, using this knowledge? Is it significant that the sexes differ in aggression?

Sociobiology — does inappropriate violence against members of the same species exist in other animals? What can we tell about violent behaviour from animal studies? What is the evolutionary history of aggressive behaviour? Has it evolved because it has a function?

Psychology and Psychiatry — are there "criminal types" or only criminal behaviour? What makes a violent criminal and how can it be prevented? What are the origins of intrafamily violence, a major contributor to the toll of murder in developed societies? What are the mechanisms that operate in the case of child-batterers, rapists and wife-beaters that are absent in the rest of us when faced with similar temptations? What links are there between childhood circumstances and subsequent violent behaviour? Is there an innate tendency in humans not to harm others? If so, what circumstances lead to a reduction or elimination of this tendency? If not, is it only the law that stops everyone killing everyone else who stands in their way? Are there experiments that suggest ways of modifying violent behavior?

Anthropology and Sociology — is inappropriate violence against fellow-humans present in every society at a similar level? What can we learn from those societies that are less violence-prone than ours? What are the mechanisms that operate to allow representatives of one group (race, religion, political party) to exhibit and express hostility to another, often resulting in extremes of violent behaviour? What role does the ability or inability to identify with the objects of our hostility play in enabling violent behaviour towards others? Are there useful ways of resolving or preventing disputes?

Political science — is there such a thing as a "national character'? Are some nations more aggressive than others? If so why? Do some nations deal more successfully with the resolution of conflict than others? Is there any correlation between the nature of different governing systems and the belligerence of the state?

Analytical psychology — are there links between the behaviour and personalities of statesmen and the aggressiveness and violence of the countries they run? Does differential perception of threat play a part in people's threshold of violence?

Out of the answers to such questions, some known already, can emerge a consensus for action. It would be too much to hope that what scientists say is likely to be true will automatically be accepted by politicians and the public. It hasn't often in the past. But perhaps a new mood born of need will operate to make that acceptance happen in this case, and lead to knowledge-based actions rather than knee-jerk responses. It will be a slow but important process and won't lead to an immediate violence-free society. But we might get a reduced violence generation and eventually a low violence society.


John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
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