Illustration by Open, N.Y.
Illustration by Open, N.Y.

Just shy of 10 years ago, on Sept. 12, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. and its allies would “go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world” and “get it by its branch and root” so that it could “be brought to an end.” Things haven’t worked out that way.

Sure, we’ve had our successes. We’ve killed the No. 3 guy in al-Qaeda at least three times, and we finally even killed the No. 1 guy. Yet al-Qaeda itself seems to be multiplying. There’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and so on, not to mention various off-brand groups (al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria) that are on al-Qaeda’s team. This growing terrorist infrastructure has us mired in far-flung hostilities -- boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia -- and these hostilities, in turn, foster the very hatred of America that keeps the jihadist recruits coming.

So far, these chickens haven’t come home to roost en masse. In the 10 years since 9/11, only 14 Americans have been killed by Muslim terrorists on American soil -- several hundred fewer than have died from lightning strikes. But if we judge by the number of thwarted acts of home-grown terrorism, the ranks of American jihadists, though small, have grown. Obviously, if the terrorists keep multiplying at home and abroad, the terrorism itself is unlikely to stay in check forever.

Where did we go wrong? Much of the answer may lie in evolutionary psychology. The human brain was designed by natural selection to deal with threats effectively, but it was designed to do that in a particular environment -- a small hunter-gatherer society. When we take natural impulses tailor-made for this ancestral environment and deploy them in a modern environment, bad things can happen. Maybe our big mistake in the war on terrorism has been to trust our instincts.

‘Punish Those Responsible’

One of these guiding instincts has been the urge for retribution. A few hours after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush vowed that “the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible.”

Few things feel more naturally appealing than the idea that people who harm us should suffer. The appeal works at two levels. First there’s vengeful rage. Second, there’s something less visceral -- an intuition, felt long after the rage has subsided, and felt by bystanders as well as victims, that wrongdoers deserve punishment, that some sort of balance has been restored when they’ve paid a price. Together, these two feelings form a powerful engine for retribution, and evolutionary psychologists say they’re both in our genes.

The Darwinian logic behind them is simple. In the hunter-gatherer villages where our ancestors lived, people who were habitual victims -- who, say, had their food stolen or their mates stolen -- would be less likely to pass their genes on. So genes that led to feelings that made people discourage this kind of exploitation would be favored by natural selection. And nothing discourages your exploiter from exploiting you again quite like a series of blows to the head, fueled by rage and righteous indignation.

Moreover, nothing discourages other villagers from emulating your exploiter quite like seeing or hearing about this comeuppance. Indeed, the main value of retaliation for our ancestors probably lay in this second-order effect, in deterring lots of would-be transgressors with a single show of force. In a hunter-gatherer village, you’re usually performing before an audience, and news of your performance reaches just about everyone you’ll be dealing with in the future.

So even if retaliation meant sustaining further injury, even if it meant suffering more harm than you inflicted, it could make sense as a way of conveying that attempts to exploit you would carry a cost. In this fact -- that retribution was a useful tool of pre-emptive self-defense in a particular environment long ago -- seem to lie the roots of our intuitive conviction that retribution, in some larger sense, is just.

Moral Intuition

You may wonder where I’m going with this. Am I questioning our obedience to the retributive impulse? Am I saying Osama bin Laden shouldn’t have been punished? That people who commit mass murder should go free? We’ll get to this question in the next paragraph. For now, I’d just point out that the disbelief, even indignation, that typically accompanies such questions illustrates my point. Humans are under the sway of a moral intuition so powerful that questioning it gets them upset. And if you persist in the questioning -- if you ask why wrongdoers should be punished -- people sometimes have trouble answering, because the rightness of retribution is an intuition so widely shared that we’re rarely asked to justify it.

Of course, you might justify the retribution in pragmatic terms: If we don’t punish the bin Ladens of the world, they’ll multiply. Retaliating, in other words, is a good way to protect our long-term interests. That claim, if true, is powerful. My point is just that the intuitive appeal of retribution doesn’t mean the claim is true. It means the claim was true back in the environment in which our ancestors evolved. But if our species had instead evolved in an environment where retaliation usually brought us more harm than good, our moral intuitions would be different. And it’s at least possible that they’d then be better suited to the modern world -- that the costs and benefits of retaliation have changed since the evolution of those intuitions.

The classic example of our retributive instincts misfiring in the modern world is road rage. It consists of risking your life to teach a lesson to a driver you’ll never see again in front of an audience of drivers you’ll never see again. Not a lot of upside there.

To President Bush’s credit, his response to 9/11 wasn’t as assuredly unproductive as road rage. After all, bin Laden wasn’t going to drive off into the sunset, never to bother us again. And all possible future attackers of the U.S. were in the audience, waiting to see how we’d respond. So delivering negative reinforcement at an acceptable cost would have made sense. But that didn’t happen.

Attack on Afghanistan

We began by invading Afghanistan. The move had overwhelming popular support -- not just because bin Laden was there, but because the Afghanistan government had knowingly harbored al-Qaeda and thus naturally evoked our retributive instinct. There was, as well, a plausible reason for attacking the Afghanistan government: Punishing Afghanistan’s leaders would discourage other leaders from letting terrorists build high-profile training camps in their countries.

The value of delivering this message is debatable; 9/11 was orchestrated largely from apartments in Germany, with little need for high-profile camps. But such fine distinctions are exactly the kind of thing that the retributive urge overwhelms.

Nor, in our national indignation, did we give a lot of thought to the possible costs of the war. We now know that, to a terrorist recruiter, an American invasion of a Muslim nation is good news, for it feeds the narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam. And if American troops get bogged down and wind up killing innocent civilians every so often -- well, so much the better. In the new age of transparency, where every mourning mother can be videotaped and then seen from any country on YouTube, the value to a terrorist recruiter of a U.S. invasion and occupation has increased. The retributive instinct, built to reflect a cost-benefit ratio that prevailed 200,000 years ago, has in this sense undergone significant obsolescence even within the last 20 years.

There are people who say the Afghanistan war could have been wrapped up nicely, without becoming a fiasco, if only we hadn’t gotten distracted by the Iraq war. I’m not so sure. I don’t recall a moment when a graceful exit from Afghanistan seemed near. Besides, driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan was bound to exert a destabilizing effect on Pakistan, and that destabilization -- in a nation with nuclear weapons -- is in retrospect one of the biggest costs of the war. But, anyway, let’s grant the premise that the Iraq war was the bigger blunder. How did human nature draw us into that particular quagmire?

Once again, our retributive instincts came into play. This may seem odd, since Saddam Hussein played no role in the 9/11 attacks. But supporters of the invasion, apparently determined not to let any instinct go to waste, strained to argue that the Hussein regime had “links to al-Qaeda.” So attacking him was a kind of retributive justice; he deserved to be deposed.

Terrorists in Iraq

It didn’t take long for the costs of this adventure to become apparent. Iraq turned into a playground and a spawning ground for jihadists. A whole new al-Qaeda affiliate -- “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” -- sprang up and the presence of U.S. troops in yet another Muslim country was a blessing for terrorist recruiters everywhere.

And, alarmingly, this narrative started to take hold with some American Muslims. Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood, Texas, perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was, his colleagues said, enraged by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, was incensed by the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Both men had been inspired by, and in Internet contact with, Anwar al-Awlaki, the infamous jihadist cleric thought to be in Yemen. This growing contagiousness of jihadism is just a special case of the growing contagiousness of sentiment in general, as the Internet makes it easier for people of like mind to find one another and rev each other up. That’s one reason people wondered, after the U.S. finally killed bin Laden, whether the death of any single terrorist leader really matters much anymore. Thanks to the Internet, there will always be an Anwar al-Awlaki within reach of aspiring jihadists, and the question is how much of that sort of aspiration there will be.

So maybe our biggest enemy is the source of the aspiration -- hatred of the U.S. In which case focusing on killing terrorist leaders, and in the process creating more hatred of the U.S., just may not be a winning strategy, regardless of what our retributive impulses say.

As homegrown terrorism becomes a real prospect, a whole new self-defeating dynamic can kick in. When frightened Americans mobilize to stop the building of mosques, and to fight the imagined threat of Shariah law, more American Muslims see the U.S. as a country that has declared war on Islam. So we’ll probably see more homegrown terrorism, which will lead to more Americans mobilizing against mosques and Shariah law, and hence more terrorism … and so on.

Nature of Fear

Sustaining this cycle is one of the most ancient of our impulses for dealing with enemies: fear. Fear has its virtues -- like getting us so energized about threats that we address them. But it’s in the nature of fear to make threat detection relatively undiscerning. Indeed, the more fearful you are, the more likely you are to misidentify things as threatening. Hence the classic thriller scene where, in a tense moment, a frightened character jumps out of his skin in reaction to some noise that turns out to be innocuous. Fear seems to have been designed for situations in which the costs of not sensing the peril were high, while the costs of false positives -- of misidentifying something as a threat -- were low.

But in the current environment, the cost of misidentifying threats seems pretty high. If Americans think mosques in general are to be combated, or that Shariah law needs to be checked, that will alienate Muslims and thus increase the likelihood of terrorism. Once again, the modern environment renders an ancient impulse less useful, if not downright counterproductive.

There’s a second sense in which fear is now misfiring. Back in the ancestral environment, when you heard that someone had been, say, attacked by a wild beast -- or, scarier still, when you actually witnessed the attack -- it was cause for alarm. After all, you only caught wind of things that happened in your village or one nearby. That area encompassed a small population, so the chances of your being the next victim were nontrivial.

But these days, when you hear about an attempted terrorist attack somewhere in the U.S. -- or, scarier still, see the attempted attack on TV -- there is little real cause for alarm. After all, the American community is big, so the chances of your being the next victim are small. But, judging by the recent behavior of Americans, the mind isn’t naturally good at doing this math. We seem to respond to scary images on TV almost as if they reflected nearby threats -- which, after all, is what scary images always reflected in the ancestral environment, well before the invention of TV.

Threat Assessment

How would we assess news of terrorism if we weren’t laboring under ancient impulses? Let’s suppose that the Times Square bomber had been successful and killed, say, 100 people. Even if you live in New York City, your chances of being killed in a New York terrorist attack of that magnitude would be about 1 in 80,000. If you live in the Midwest, such a bombing is even less relevant to your welfare. Yet, judging by the TV coverage, Midwesterners were pretty concerned about the Times Square incident. And if they weren’t concerned before Fox News and CNN got through with them, they were afterward. Thus does TV news put Americans in a frame of mind that makes them vulnerable to the manipulation of fear mongers like Newt Gingrich and Frank Gaffney and indeed the entire Islamophobia industry.

In short, we’re starting to do on the domestic front what we did abroad after 9/11: respond to the threat in a way that exacerbates it. And with both domestic and foreign threats, this can mean a vicious circle. More terrorism leads to more counterproductive reactions, which leads to more terrorism, and so on. Once these dynamics are in play both at home and abroad, and are reinforcing each other, it’s not crazy to imagine that we could see a true clash of civilizations -- a clash that could eventually involve nuclear or biological weapons.

If so, the root cause may be disarmingly simple: that we’re operating under the influence of brains that were designed for a very different environment. We weren’t built to survive in the modern world, and I’m not taking it for granted that we will.

(Robert Wright, a fellow at the New America Foundation and Editor-in-Chief of Bloggingheads.tv, is the author of “The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life” and, most recently, “The Evolution of God.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Robert Wright at wright@newamerica.net

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net