Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).
That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:
[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”
[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…
There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.
I got into the business of threat analysis over twenty years ago as a practitioner. It’s almost terrifying for me to think back now how young and clueless I was. I was poorly trained and overly excited and understanding the world around me seemed difficult but hardly impossible. Oh, the benefits of youth, when you think that you know everything, and cannot imagine how much you do not know. I say terrified to think back not simply because I am embarrassed that I was too cocky and not sufficiently aware of people – and my own – limitations and biases, but primarily because the way I performed my job could have been consequential. The privilege of life in the academia is that there is so little at stake. But when you are a practitioner somebody might actually listen to you and take action. There were many reasons for my decision to leave the bureaucracy and seek an academic career, but the growing acknowledgment of my limitations as an analyst and the sense of frustrating helplessness given high stakes was definitely one motivating factor. Looking back, that period was a good lesson in humility and one that put me in a better position to become a scholar of international security.
Fast forward a few years. The 9/11 attacks found me beginning my second year of grad school at Cornell. I heard about al-Qaeda before and was upset how something so big went under my radar. My response was quite productive. I became curious and eager to figure out more about the jihadi movement, and particularly of al Qaeda. As I had known already that my research will deal with security in the Middle East there were little opportunity costs in starting to explore jihadism. And of course I was not unaware that how events unfolded meant that suddenly my region, so ignored by the academia before, is going to have demand. Who knows, I might even be able to find a job after graduation… Continue reading
Christopher Sullivan had an excellent guest blog post over at Political Violence @ a Glance yesterday. It’s a fascinating, rigorously academic look at an important question: does the use of torture actually help a state accomplish its security goals (i.e. reducing violence by terrorists or insurgent movements)? As a side note, it’s interesting that debates on torture inevitably fall back onto the empirical “does it work” side, which says something about the persuasive condition of moral discourse in our society – but that’s a point for another day.
Sullivan tackles the “does torture work” question by examining the conflict in Guatemala in close analytic detail, looking for micro-level correlations between the use of torture and various conflict outcomes (increased or decreased violence). Unsurprisingly (even to him), he found that the use of torture by the government did not have any effect on the level of violence by the insurgents, whom the torture was presumably supposed to help stop. This is an unremarkable finding, although it is good to have it verified in a careful and objective fashion.
What Sullivan did find surprising was that the use of torture was “robustly associated” with an increase in killings by the counter-insurgent forces. That is, the same people (or, at least, people on the same side) who were committing the torture also became more likely to engage in killing in other conflict contexts. He offers no explanation for this finding, at least in his blog piece, but does seem somewhat surprised by it.