Truth or Consequences

How you look at things.
Sept. 20 2001 3:00 AM

Truth or Consequences

Why do they hate us?

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That's the question many people are asking about the terrorists who struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center last week. At first, the question was raised simply to make sense of the tragedy. Then it was posed for investigative reasons, to understand who was involved in the crime and what they might do next. Now the purpose of the question is changing again. Commentators are wondering how we made the terrorists angry enough to hurt us and how we might change our behavior to avoid further attacks.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

These writers don't exactly fault the United States. They simply argue that the attacks were a consequence of American behavior. "The suicide attacks in Israel—and now in the United States—are reactions to specific actions and policies," writes The Nation's David Corn. In The New Yorker, Susan Sontag says the terrorist strikes were "undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions." Salon Executive Editor Gary Kamiya concludes that "our only real defense will be winning the hearts and minds of those who hate us. … We must pressure Israel to take the concrete steps necessary to provide justice for the Palestinian people."

The practical point made by these consequentialists is that we can't stop terrorism without addressing its causes. A diagnostic approach, they argue, is wiser than simply lashing out in anger. They're right about that. But their wisdom falls short of the next insight: Consequentialism is a two-way street. It's true that terrorists can impose consequences on us. But it's just as true that we can impose consequences on terrorists.

Superficially, it's empowering to analyze every situation in terms of the consequences of our own acts. Understanding how we can change the enemy's behavior by changing our own appears to put control in our hands. It also gratifies our egos by preserving our sense of free will while interpreting the enemy's conduct as causally determined. We're the subjects; they're the objects. But the empowerment and the ego gratification are illusory. By accepting as a mechanical fact the enemy's aggressive response to our offending behavior, we surrender control of the most important part of the sequence.

Imagine yourself as a rat in a behavioral experiment. You're put in a cage with three levers. When you press the first lever, you get food. When you press the second, you get water. When you press the third, you get an electric shock. You quickly learn to press the first two levers and not the third. You think you're in control because you're choosing the levers that get you what you want. But the real power belongs to the scientists who built the cage and run the experiment, because they determine which acts produce which consequences.

Now imagine yourself as a battered wife. Every so often, your husband gets angry and hits you. Why? You struggle to understand the connection between your behavior and his response. What are you doing that causes him to react this way? You hope that by identifying and avoiding the offending behavior, you can regain domestic peace and a sense of control. You're deluding yourself. As long as your husband decides which of your acts will earn you a beating, he's the master, and you're the slave.

This is the problem with the consequentialist argument for revising U.S. policy in the Middle East. Maybe it's true, for other reasons, that we should rethink our position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, withdraw our troops from Saudi Arabia, or ease sanctions on Iraq. But if we do these things to avoid further attacks on our cities, we're granting terrorists the power to dictate our acts by dictating the consequences.

The consequentialists present themselves as humanitarians and idealists. They purport to speak up for the plights, principles, and aspirations of people who are driven to commit acts of terror. But their mechanistic analysis dehumanizes these people. Terrorists aren't animals. No law of nature compels them to blow up buildings when they're angry. We don't have to accept their violent reactions to our policies. We can break that causal chain.

How? By turning consequentialism on its head. We can dictate what happens to people who attack us. Suicidal terrorists may be impervious to this logic, but their commanders and sponsors aren't. Launder money for a man who destroys the World Trade Center, and your assets will be confiscated. Shelter an organization that crashes a plane into the Pentagon, and your government buildings will be leveled. Expel terrorists from your country, freeze their bank accounts, and you'll be liberated from sanctions and debt.

Will this approach succeed? We don't know how each would-be terrorist or sponsor will respond. It's an open question. But that's the point. As long as we view it the other way around—ourselves as the actors, and our enemies as the imposers of consequences—the question is closed. Our enemies' reactions, and therefore our options, are rigidly defined. We can have troops in Saudi Arabia, or we can have peace at home, but we can't have both.

Challenging the false objectivity of these dilemmas doesn't require us to ignore the potential consequences of our acts. Some of our Middle East policies do anger many Arabs or Muslims. We ought to worry when others don't like our behavior. But just as surely, they ought to worry when we don't like theirs.

Two years ago, when President Clinton waged war against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, consequentialists on the American right blamed him for the bloodshed. His aggression, they argued, had provoked the Serbs to violence. Now that President Bush is girding for war, consequentialism has broken out on the left. To his credit, Bush is defying it with equal vigor. The terrorists who struck the Pentagon and the World Trade Center "are clearly determined to try to force the United States of America and our values to withdraw from the world," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed yesterday. "We have a choice: either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable; or to change the way that they live. And we chose the latter." Amen.