WHEN SCIENCE MAY NOT BE ENOUGH
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article was originally published
at Oxford University Press, OUPblog.
live in an age of glittering data analysis and complex information
technologies. While there are obvious benefits to such advancement,
not all matters of importance are best understood by science.
On some vital matters, there is a corollary and sometimes even
complementary need for a deeper, more palpably human, kind of
understanding. A critical example is the study of terrorism.
don’t bleed. Often, even the most elegant and persuasive
science can illuminate only partial truths. What is missing
in these cases is the special sort of insight that philosopher
Michael Polanyi calls “personal knowledge,” an unsystematic
means of grasping reality often associated with the openly “subjective”
epistemologies of phenomenology and existentialism.
Freud had already understood that meaningful psychological analysis
could not afford to neglect innately private feelings. Therefore,
he wisely cautioned, whatever the incontestable limitations
of subjective investigation, we must nonetheless pay close attention
to the human psyche, or soul. Oddly, Freud’s plainly “unscientific”
view is applicable to our present-day investigations of terror-violence.
How so? Freud himself probably never imagined the application
of this humanistic warning to world politics.
terrorist attacks, we routinely learn of the number of fatalities
and then the number of those who were “merely wounded,”
whether such tragedies occur in Israel, Iraq, the United States,
or anywhere else. What we can’t ever really seem to fathom
are the infinitely deeper human expressions of victim suffering.
As much as we might try to achieve a spontaneous experience
of unity with the felt pain of others, these attempts are inevitably
in vain. They lie beyond science.
essence, the most important aspect of any terror attack on civilian
populations always lies in what can’t be measured: the
inexpressibility of physical pain. No human language can even
begin to describe such pain, as the boundaries that separate
one person from another are immutable.
everyone will readily understand that bodily anguish must not
only defy ordinary language, but must also be language-destroying.
This inaccessibility of suffering — or the irremediable
privacy of human torment — has notable social and political
consequences. For instance, in certain foreign policy venues,
it has repeatedly stood in the way of recognizing terror-violence
as innately wrong and resolutely inexcusable. Rather than elicit
universal cries of condemnation, these crimes have often elicited
a chorus of enthusiastic support from those who are most easily
captivated by self-justifying labels. Most conspicuous are self-righteous
claims of terror-violence as legitimate expressions of ”revolution,”
“self-determination,” or “armed struggle.”
why do certain terrorists continue to inflict grievous pain
upon innocent persons (noncombatants) without at least expecting
some reciprocal gain or benefit? What are the real motives in
these irrational cases? Are these particular terrorists narrowly
nihilistic, planning and executing distinct patterns of killing
for killing’s sake? Have they managed to exchange one
murderous playbook for another, now preferring to trade in such
classical military strategists as Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for
Bakunin, Fanon, and even De Sade?
Terrorism is often a twisted species of theatre. All terrorists,
in the same fashion as their intended audiences, are imprisoned
by the stark limitations of language. For them, as for all others,
the unique pain experienced by one human body can never be shared
with another. This is the true even if these bodies are closely
related by blood, and even if they are tied together by other
tangible measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.
the distance between one’s own body and the body of another
is immeasurably great. This distance is always impossible to
traverse. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy
and compassion, the determinative membranes separating our individual
bodies, will always trump every detailed protocol of formal
split may allow even the most heinous infliction of harms to
be viewed objectively. Especially where a fashionably popular
political objective is invoked, terror bombings can conveniently
masquerade as justice. Because this masquerade often works,
consequent world public opinion can easily come down on the
side of the tormentors. Such alignments are made possible by
the insurmountable chasms between one person and another.
terrorists and their supporters the violent death and suffering
so “justly” meted out to victims always appears
as an abstraction. Whether inflicted by self-sacrificing martyrs
or by more detached sorts of attackers, these harms are very
casually rationalized in the name of “political necessity,”
“citizen rights,” “self-determination,”
or “national liberation.” Nothing else must ever
be said for further moral justification.
pain can do more than destroy ordinary language. It can also
bring about a grotesque reversion to pre-language human sounds;
that is, to those guttural moans and primal whispers that are
anterior to learned speech. While the victims of terror bombings
may writhe agonizingly, from the burns, nails, razor blades
and screws, neither the world public who are expected to bear
witness, nor the mass murderers themselves, can ever truly understand
the deeper meanings of inflicted harms. For the victims, there
exists no anesthesia strong enough to dull the relentless pain
of terrorism. For the observers, no matter how well-intentioned,
the victims’ pain will always remain anesthetized.
of the limits of science in studying such matters, terrorist
bombers — whether in Boston, Barcelona, or Beer Sheva
— are almost always much worse than they might appear.
Whatever their stated or unstated motives, and wherever they
might choose to discharge their carefully rehearsed torments,
these murderers commit to an orchestrated sequence of evils
from which there is never any expressed hope of release. Whatever
their solemn assurances of tactical necessity, terrorists terrorize
because they garner personal benefit from the community-celebrated
killings. The terrorists terrorize because they take authentically
great delight in executions.
is not enough to study terrorism with reams of carefully-gathered
data and meticulously analyzed statistics. Rather, from the
start, it is essential to acknowledge the substantial limitations
of science in such critical investigations, and also the deeply
human meanings of terrorist-created harms. Although sometimes
still not possible to fully appreciate, due to literally immeasurable
victim pain and suffering, these complex meanings can ultimately
be apprehended by more intensely subjective efforts at “personal