20 January 2006

The US scores an own goal in Pakistan

A reader asked that I comment on the recent bombing in Pakistan, which, we're told, was intended to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideological leader of al-Qaeda. Although he seems not to have been there, 18 others were killed, possibly including al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and two other al-Qaeda leaders.

The rationale for this comes from the "great man" theory of history, which places a great deal of importance on key individuals. The idea is then that, by getting rid of the person, you can stop the history that would have resulted from his life. It's easy to see why the people who made this decision like this theory of history.

There are two major problems with acting on this theory in this way. One is that individuals rarely are as important as all that. If Newton had died as a child, what would the impact have been on, say, calculus? The answer is "very little". Leibniz was developing calculus about the same time, and it's his notation that we use today. The reason that so much credit is given to Newton in this area is that he did it first, not that only he could have done it.

Al-Zawahiri's contributions to al-Qaeda have been primarily ideological. He studied under Sayyid Qutb and took his ideas in a new, more murderous direction, first with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and then with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Even if the theory were correct, by the time a "great man", whose work consists of ideas, can be identified as a target, he has likely already produced his most important work, and martyring him tends to enhance the perceived worth of those ideas. So even if the attack had succeeded in killing al-Zawahiri, his ideas would live on.

The other major problem with the thinking behind this attack is that it presumes that al-Qaeda is controlled by its "leaders", and if those leaders are killed, the organization will fall apart, much as an ant colony deprived of its queens will perish.

Unfortunately for the planners of the attack in Pakistan, al-Qaeda seems to be a much looser organization, if indeed it can be described as an "organization". It seems rather to be a description of adherents to the ideas espoused by al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. Killing them would not kill their ideas, and so al-Qaeda would live on. The only effective way to fight al-Qaeda would seem to be to make the ideas themselves unattractive. Although various countries have tried to battle ideologies by making them illegal—for example, the Falun Gong in China, neo-Naziism in Germany, and Christianity in Rome—many humans rather perversely see the persecution as a validation of their beliefs.

The best way to kill an ideology is is for the general public to stop believing in its importance. Bombs won't make that happen. Neither will dishonest PR campaigns. The best weapon is demonstrably better ideas. And this is where this bombing had its greatest failure. By killing innocents—and they will be seen in the Islamic world as innocents, no matter if they were hosting al-Zawahiri—the case that democracy, and human rights, are a better way than the religious purity of al-Qaeda becomes harder to make.

We have a good story to tell, a story of better governance, of more dignified, more meaningful lives. The noise from bombs like the those in Pakistan last week makes it harder for people to hear it.

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