Fwd: [Reader-list] Richard Dawkins on Suicide Bombers
rehanhasanansari at yahoo.com
Mon Sep 17 20:05:26 IST 2001
these men were not young...do not fit the suicide-bomber profile in that sense...
when reporters looked to see what impression mohammed ata and pals may have left iin the community the only thing that stood out, for a bar tender, their barroom vodka shots (after days of flight training)...
and dawkins has cleansed away all politics, transformation of self from politcal impulses from his analysis of their motivation...
simple minded they were not, in fact extremely high concept and extremely low tech...
so unfortunate that such a man as Dawkins has a job like he does... but thats oxford
Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha at sarai.net> wrote: From: Shuddhabrata Sengupta
To: reader-list at sarai.net
Subject: [Reader-list] Richard Dawkins on Suicide Bombers
Date: Mon, 17 Sep 2001 18:17:16 +0530
What Makes a Suicide Bomber a Suicide Bomber ?
Richard Dawkins attempts an answer. Please read and reflect.
Richard Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science,
University of Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker,
and Unweaving the Rainbow.
Saturday September 15, 2001
A guided missile corrects its trajectory as it flies, homing in, say, on the
heat of a jet plane's exhaust. A great improvement on a simple ballistic
shell, it still cannot discriminate particular targets. It could not zero in
on a designated New York skyscraper if launched from as far away as Boston.
That is precisely what a modern "smart missile" can do. Computer
miniaturisation has advanced to the point where one of today's smart missiles
could be programmed with an image of the Manhattan skyline together with
instructions to home in on the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Smart
missiles of this sophistication are possessed by the United States, as we
learned in the Gulf war, but they are economically beyond ordinary terrorists
and scientifically beyond theocratic governments. Might there be a cheaper
and easier alternative?
In the second world war, before electronics became cheap and miniature, the
psychologist BF Skinner did some research on pigeon-guided missiles. The
pigeon was to sit in a tiny cockpit, having previously been trained to peck
keys in such a way as to keep a designated target in the centre of a screen.
In the missile, the target would be for real.
The principle worked, although it was never put into practice by the US
authorities. Even factoring in the costs of training them, pigeons are
cheaper and lighter than computers of comparable effectiveness. Their feats
in Skinner's boxes suggest that a pigeon, after a regimen of training with
colour slides, really could guide a missile to a distinctive landmark at the
southern end of Manhattan island. The pigeon has no idea that it is guiding a
missile. It just keeps on pecking at those two tall rectangles on the screen,
from time to time a food reward drops out of the dispenser, and this goes on
Pigeons may be cheap and disposable as on-board guidance systems, but there's
no escaping the cost of the missile itself. And no such missile large enough
to do much damage could penetrate US air space without being intercepted.
What is needed is a missile that is not recognised for what it is until too
late. Something like a large civilian airliner, carrying the innocuous
markings of a well-known carrier and a great deal of fuel. That's the easy
part. But how do you smuggle on board the necessary guidance system? You can
hardly expect the pilots to surrender the left-hand seat to a pigeon or a
How about using humans as on-board guidance systems, instead of pigeons?
Humans are at least as numerous as pigeons, their brains are not
significantly costlier than pigeon brains, and for many tasks they are
actually superior. Humans have a proven track record in taking over planes by
the use of threats, which work because the legitimate pilots value their own
lives and those of their passengers.
The natural assumption that the hijacker ultimately values his own life too,
and will act rationally to preserve it, leads air crews and ground staff to
make calculated decisions that would not work with guidance modules lacking a
sense of self-preservation. If your plane is being hijacked by an armed man
who, though prepared to take risks, presumably wants to go on living, there
is room for bargaining. A rational pilot complies with the hijacker's wishes,
gets the plane down on the ground, has hot food sent in for the passengers
and leaves the negotiations to people trained to negotiate.
The problem with the human guidance system is precisely this. Unlike the
pigeon version, it knows that a successful mission culminates in its own
destruction. Could we develop a biological guidance system with the
compliance and dispensability of a pigeon but with a man's resourcefulness
and ability to infiltrate plausibly? What we need, in a nutshell, is a human
who doesn't mind being blown up. He'd make the perfect on-board guidance
system. But suicide enthusiasts are hard to find. Even terminal cancer
patients might lose their nerve when the crash was actually looming.
Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they
are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a
skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long
shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die,
couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life
again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast
track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and
wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's
a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and
Would they fall for it? Yes, testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive
to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private
virgins in the next.
It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though.
Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big
lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn
it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have
it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control which
has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of
people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons
which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so
than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed). Now all we need is
to round up a few of these faith-heads and give them flying lessons.
Facetious? Trivialising an unspeakable evil? That is the exact opposite of my
intention, which is deadly serious and prompted by deep grief and fierce
anger. I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that
everybody is too polite - or too devout - to notice: religion, and
specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don't
mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing
one's own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the
If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly
and be reluctant to risk it. This makes the world a safer place, just as a
plane is safer if its hijacker wants to survive. At the other extreme, if a
significant number of people convince themselves, or are convinced by their
priests, that a martyr's death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace
button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the
world a very dangerous place. Especially if they also believe that that other
universe is a paradisical escape from the tribulations of the real world. Top
it off with sincerely believed, if ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual
promises, and is it any wonder that naive and frustrated young men are
clamouring to be selected for suicide missions?
There is no doubt that the afterlife-obsessed suicidal brain really is a
weapon of immense power and danger. It is comparable to a smart missile, and
its guidance system is in many respects superior to the most sophisticated
electronic brain that money can buy. Yet to a cynical government,
organisation, or priesthood, it is very very cheap.
Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche:
mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of
a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on
September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not
cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with
an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that
courage came from.
It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of
the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly
weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here.
My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or
religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded
guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.
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