Books Reviews

Book Review: Talking to the Enemy

When Scott Atran is asked to summarize his book Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to Be Human in one sentence, he answers: “People, including terrorists, don’t simply die for a cause; they die for each other, especially their friends” (p.478). Of the many millions “who express support for violence … there are only thousands willing to actually commit violence“ (p.58). And those few who are “willing to commit to extremist violence usually emerge in small groups of action-oriented friends” (p.268). Scott Atran presents studies showing that “people who are humiliated generally don’t take the path of violence” (p.55), but that those who do “seek to avenge the humiliation of others for whom they care” (p. 55).
What I particularly like about the book is that Scott Atran challenges us to “dream of something more to do with our enemies” than just killing them in war, for “wars are truly won when enemies become friends” (p.489). His message is that we need to get “out of the house, with whatever protection we need, and talk” (p.489). He asks, “who knows what a world could be made if we listen and learn” (p.489)?

Scott Atran’s intention with the book is to provide (1) “practical considerations of how to face terrorism and to deal with seemingly intractable political conflicts” (p.xii), and (2) “more general insights into the origins and evolution of religion, the epidemics of war, the rise of civilizations, the creation of the concept of humanity, and the limits of reason” (p.xii). Atran gathers two lines of evidence which converge in the book. (1) The first is from his “fieldwork and psychological studies … particularly [of] suicide bombers” (p.35). (2) The second is from his “reading of evolutionary biology and human history” (p.35). Scott Atran emphasizes that he does this not “to relativize violent extremism, but to understand its moral appeal as well as its usualness in the sweep of human evolution and history, so that we may better compete against it” (p.42).

People, according to Atran, have two preoccupations in life: “health and social relations” (p.32). And they are often the same: “socialize to survive” (pp.32—33). A common theme throughout the book, which goes back to his one sentence summary, is that “friendship and other aspects of small group dynamics … trump most anything else in moving people through life” (p.33). Atran thinks that “without groups … our species probably wouldn’t have survived” (pp.34—35). In the “smaller … intimate world of early humans, one’s social group was everything, and other groups were often far and few” (p.62). Rising populations led to bigger “social brains” and “more varied and productive networks of people” (p.64).
Because humans evolved in “small groups whose members where closely related, evolution favored a kin psychology designed to help out members of their groups” (p.303). Mere belief in “the group’s essential unity creates a looping effect, whereby people to strive (or force others) to conform to group norms and stereotypes” (p.308). Once people “build up a sufficiently strong group of preferred cooperators, they cultivate and maintain this small set of relationships” (p.312). “Friendship has always been critical to human survival, ever since our big-brain but weak-body ancestors became human by forming strongly coordinated teams to forage and fight” (p.309). The basic psychology of “us versus them” is the same whether “etnic, national, or religious groups compete for territory, vital resources, or membership” (p.297).

Even if imagined “kinship and friendship … benefit group survival and success by helping to foster teams” (p.313), teamwork is not “merely cooperative” but “highly coordinated” (p.314). It “demands and favors special kinds of communication and cognitive skills” (p.314). Team members must be “ready to respond in an instant and as a unit, recalculating everything on the fly, in the face of sudden changes in a situation, unexpected threats, and each other’s unforeseen failings or successes” (p.314). “Teammates must be able to clearly signal to one another what course of action to take, at any moment, in whatever situation” (p.314).

History, like evolution, is largerly [a] contingent affair based on opportunistic responses to chance and happenstance” (p.92). But one constant is war. ”War between human groups is as much or more a constant part of the evolution of society and civilization as peace” (p.323). In the past, “spectacular killings were common both to small tribes and great empires” (p.274). And humans have practiced “genocide” as “conflict resolution” since prehistoric times (p.297).
Modern suicide bombing as a political tool” stems from the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 (p.93). Anarchism represents “the first wave of the modern tide of terrorism” beginning around 1870 (p.93). Anarchist attacks were usually “carried out by peer groups … who self-organized in operations of relatively few people” (p.97).

Scott Atran’s research suggests that “the growth and development of terrorist networks is largely a decentralized and evolutionary process, based on contingent adaptations to unpredictably events and improbable opportunities” (p. 267). Furthermore, the “real-world triggers that move things along one path rather than another are often inherently unpredictable” (p.285). In a rapidly changing world, “large management structures … cannot compete with smaller, self-motivated, and self-correcting systems” (p.209). Under “uncertain … conditions, relatively fluid and flat networks that are self-organizing, decentralized, and overlapping … tend to outperform relatively rigid, centralized, and hierarchical competitors” (p.209). The “interlocking relations of trust … inherent in the organic bonds of friendship, kinship, and neighborhood make … networks highly resilient to local failures and to … attacks from the outside” (p.210). It’s also the “networking among members that distributes thoughts and tasks that no one part may completely control or even understand” (p.222).
As in any natural evolutionary process, “individual variation and environmental context are the creative and critical determinants of future directions and paths” (p.267). To ignore this “variation and context is to entirely miss the character of natural group formation and development, along with better chances for intervention and prevention enemy attacks from the bottom up rather than from the top down” (pp.267—268). A leaderless network “rejects traditional pyramidal organizations in favor of a collectivity of self-organized groups with no apparent leader” (p.473). Leadership is “distributed over a social network in ways that are fairly fluid and flat” (p.50).

War is never wholly a product of reason and rational calculation” (p.332). “Rational factor models have always had serious deficiencies as general models of human reasoning and decision making because human behavior cannot be reduced purely to rational calculation” (p.393). People make choices in “violent intergroup conflicts, from whether to accept a compromise to whether individuals commit themselves to violent collective action,” based on collective interests and “sacred values” (p.344). “People hold sacred values to be absolute and inviolable” (p.382). This means that sacred values will often trump “economic thinking … or considerations of realpolitik” (p.344). People may choose to “act now for a remote end” based on these values (p.345). Matters of principle, or “sacred honor,” are enforced far out of proportion (p.345). “Appeals to sacred values, then, can be powerful motivation for making both war and peace” (p.346).
Scott Atran’s research implies that “using standard approaches of business-style negotiations in … seemingly intractable conflicts will only backfire” (p.377). People will “reject any type of material compensation for dropping their commitment to their values and will defend their sacred values regardless of the costs” (p.375). An additional challenge is that “while people often recognize their own side’s sacred values, they often ignore or downplay the importance of the other side’s values” (p.381).

The present policy of focusing on “troop strength and drones …only continues a long history of … failure“ (p.262). “Antiterrorism efforts are fixated on technology … and there is no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries’ motivation, intent, will, and … dreams” (p.284). Scott Atran has “often tried, unsuccessfully, to get people in … [the US] government to at least listen and talk to terrorists and wannabies instead of just trying to capture and kill them” (p.287). His argument is that “if someone wants to kill you, it’s better to know why they want to kill so as to improve your chances of stopping them” (p.287).
Scott Atran thinks that “independent, publicly transparent, science-based field research in conflict zones can help policymakers, the military, and potential adversaries avoid mistakes that lead to conflict and violence” (p.289). This work has to be done with “the input and insight of local communities, and chiefly peer-to-peer, or it won’t work” (p.291). “Deradicalization, like radicalization itself, engages mainly from the bottom up, not from the top down.” (p.291). “This, of course, is not how you stop terrorism today, but how you could do it tomorrow” (p.291).

As mentioned previously, I particularly like Scott Atran’s idea that we should listen and talk to the enemy. I think that the part of the book which is based on Scott Atran’s own fieldwork is insightful. However, I also think that the part of the book which is based on Atran’s reading of history sometimes is misleading. Oversimplifications easily lead to misunderstandings. An example is Scott Atran’s description of “von Clausewitz” (pp.332—333) and the “Prussian tradition” (p.335—337). It wasn’t comradeship or commitment to National Socialism, as Scott Atran says (p.336), that made the German army successful, but Auftragstaktik (the doctrine within which formal rules can be selectively suspended). Auftragstaktik encourages initiative, flexibility and improvisation. This is very much related to the self-motivation and self-correction which Scott Atran mentions elsewhere in the book.
The book is definitely worth reading, but Scott Atran is an anthropologist and not a historian!

Related post:
Book Review: The Art of Action – Stephen Bungay covers the story of the Prussian Army in this book.

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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