The Power of Negative Thinking

The Power of Negative Thinking

The Power of Negative Thinking

How you look at things.
Oct. 19 2001 7:02 PM

The Power of Negative Thinking


There will never be another Sept. 11. A few more days of bombing, and the Taliban will collapse. We'll hunt down Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice. We'll tear his network out by the roots. The world is rallying to the banner of the United States and its ideals. We're building a global alliance for peace and freedom. No villain can defeat or escape us. Our children will live in a world free of terror.


Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? The more we read about collateral damage, Pakistani mobs, invisible al-Qaida cells, and anthrax, the further we retreat toward the opposite outlook: We'll never be safe. We'll never catch Bin Laden. If we do, others will take his place. Afghanistan is a quagmire. Our bombs are useless. We can't hide, but the enemy can. We can't scare fanatics. We'll lose soldiers. We'll kill civilians. The Muslim world is turning against us. Nobody trusts us. We have no real friends. We can't win.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Today, the second outlook is gaining currency because the first strains credulity. That's a shame and a fallacy. Just because the rosiest picture is false doesn't mean the gloomiest is true. There's a third way to think about terrorism, a middle ground between idealism and skepticism. It starts with this postulate: Everything the optimists say about the war is true, but only in the negative.

Negativism differs from the skepticism that pervades criticism of the war. Skepticism doubts anything is true or right. Negativism says that even if we don't know exactly what's true or right, we know that some things are false or wrong. This makes negativism a belief system with teeth. When somebody lies, you have to call him on it. When somebody commits grave wrongs, you have to stop him.

Start with the morality of the war. President Bush represents the naive view. He says we're fighting for "progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom." Critics of U.S. foreign policy point out that this can't be true: We're cutting wink-wink deals with dictatorships, theocracies, and human rights violators from Iran to Pakistan to Uzbekistan to Russia. Does this mean the war is immoral? No. Even if we're not leading our allies toward progress, pluralism, and freedom, we're leading them to war against the most urgent threat to those principles, and that's good enough.


This kind of thinking isn't always appropriate, but it's well suited to grim situations like the present one. It clears your head of moral and practical aspirations that exceed what you can reasonably do. Your job right now isn't to make the world better but to limit the ability of others to make it worse. The first rule of negativism is that things can always get worse. The second rule is that if you act as though they can't get worse, they will. From a negativist standpoint, the constant whining about negativity in American politics over the past two decades underscores how easy we've had it. The world is full of very bad things and very bad people. Fighting them is both noble and necessary.

As you're fighting the good fight (or, as a negativist would put it, fighting the people who are fighting the bad fight), negativism narrows your tasks to manageable proportions. You don't have to destroy the enemy, though that would be nice. You just have to negate its ability to hurt you and your people. In the days after Sept. 11, Bush talked brashly about rooting out and rounding up all the terrorists. Critics pointed out that he'd never be able to fulfill those promises. From this, many concluded that it was pointless to go after the enemy militarily. Gradually, Bush retreated to the negativist case for military action. Operation Infinite Justice became Operation Enduring Freedom. Yes, the terrorists can lie low. Yes, they can move their training camps, hideouts, and financial supply lines. Yes, if we kill some, others will replace them. But we don't have to wipe them out. We just have to keep them on the run and disrupt their ability to organize attacks on us.

We don't have to make such attacks impossible. Naming a price we can't bear to pay—50 children in an American elementary school, 5,000 workers in the World Trade Center, 50,000 casualties in an anthrax attack, 5 million deaths in a nuclear catastrophe—puts the power of blackmail in the enemy's hands. Until you can negate the enemy's ability to inflict these horrors, you have to negate his ability to get what he wants from them. You have to endure them, as Londoners did during the Nazi blitz, while your government works to make the war more horrible for the enemy and his protectors than it is for you.

Negativism also solves the problem of asymmetry. Terrorists, unlike states, don't convey precise collective responsibility for their acts of war and don't offer obvious targets against which to retaliate. This confounds traditional doctrines of war and deterrence. Idealists expect us to prove the guilt of each terrorist, track him down, and bring him to justice without harming others. Skeptics argue that this can't be done, and therefore a war against terrorists can't be won. Negativism says we don't have to throw out the old rules of state warfare; we just have to negate the deviation terrorists have taken from it. How? By declaring, as Bush did on Sept. 11, that states will be held responsible for terrorists who operate within them. If we can't make an example of Bin Laden, we can make an example of the regime that harbors him. It's not exactly fair, but it's effective.


This is just one of many moral compromises we're making. Strictly speaking, governments aren't necessarily responsible for what terrorists within their borders do. Likewise, before we bomb a country for harboring a fugitive, we really ought to hand over enough evidence to warrant an indictment. In this case, we've withheld evidence on the grounds that it would expose our intelligence sources and methods. Idealism says such compromises are unacceptable. Skeptical realism says no principle is absolute, and therefore any compromise in pursuit of our interests is acceptable. Negativism says that while no principle is absolute, one relative standard must limit all of our compromises: Negating the enemy makes no sense unless your goals and methods remain better than his.

This standard is hardly meaningless. Bin Laden killed about 200 people in the Pentagon and about 5,000 in the World Trade Center. If we kill 5,000 Taliban soldiers and 200 Afghan civilians, there shouldn't be any doubt as to which of us is the bad guy, particularly if the civilian deaths we cause, unlike those he caused, are accidental. Is it wrong to kill Taliban soldiers for the deeds of al-Qaida? Not when they protect an organization that, according to its own boasts, kills American janitors and secretaries for the deeds of Israeli soldiers. Our standard of culpability is vastly more precise than the enemy's. As for the Taliban's refusal to give up Bin Laden without clearer proof of his guilt, imagine how many executed Afghans would be alive today if the Taliban had been required to supply as much evidence against them as we've supplied against Bin Laden.

The core postulate of this philosophy—that everything the optimists say is true, but only in the negative—pertains most acutely to theories about necessary and sufficient conditions. Optimists believe that if you follow certain steps or principles, you'll succeed. Skeptics argue that people who follow these steps often fail, and therefore they're a waste of time. Negativists take the middle view: Such steps, while insufficient, are necessary. This insight applies to left-wing pacifism as well as right-wing unilateralism. Doves say violence alone can't win the war. Yes, says the negativist, but the renunciation of violence will lose the war. Hawks say multilateralism makes victory difficult. Yes, says the negativist, but unilateralism makes victory impossible.

The upside-down relativist logic also applies to human nature. Idealists posit that we're strong and brave and that these virtues will lead us to victory. Cynics posit that we're weak and cowardly and that these vices will lead us to defeat. Negativists posit that we're weak and cowardly, but so is the enemy. We don't have to be stronger or braver than the Taliban. We just have to subject them to more pain and stress than we could withstand if we were in their shoes.

If the Taliban surrenders and Bin Laden is killed or captured, idealists will declare victory. Negativists won't. Negativists don't believe in happy endings. There is always a new threat. That's why we haven't bombed the Taliban troops who stand between the Northern Alliance rebels and the Afghan capital. We don't want another tribal militia full of shady characters reigning over multiethnic Afghanistan. We want a balance of power, even if that means keeping the old villains around to hold the new ones in check.

The same cold calculus applies to us. As long as we're at war, negativism countenances compromises of our civil liberties. Lower standards for deportation? Sure. Broader surveillance of phone calls and e-mail? Fine. Detaining people who have associated with terrorists, on the chance that this will disrupt imminent strikes? OK. But no expansions of government authority without limits or a sunset clause. Because once this war is over—or rather, once terrorists are no longer the worst threat out there—there's a good chance that the new worst threat will be the people to whom we gave the power to win the war. Maybe virtue will keep them from abusing that power. But don't count on it.