Explaining Madness

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by Gene Callahan

“All along,” [Poirot] said, “I have been worried over the why of this case… It is no answer to say the man was mentally unhinged. To say a man does mad things because he is mad is merely unintelligent and stupid. A madman is as logical and reasoned in his actions as a sane man – given his peculiar biased point of view. For example, if a man insists on going out and squatting about in nothing but a loin cloth his conduct seems eccentric in the extreme. But once you know that the man himself is firmly convinced that he is Mahatma Gandhi, then his conduct becomes perfectly reasonable and logical.”

~ Agatha Christie, The A.B.C. Murders

“It is the merit of psychoanalysis that it has demonstrated that even the behavior of neurotics and psychopaths is meaningful, that they too act and aim at ends…”

~ Ludwig von Mises, Human Action

A frequent non-explanation of the terrorist attacks on September 11th is that the terrorists are simply evil madmen. As Poirot points out above, such an explanation is stupid, because it does not explain any specific action at all. Granted, they are evil madmen: But why was their evil madness expressed in those particular actions, rather than, say, torturing dogs or setting fire to their neighbor’s house?

Another posited motivation for the attacks, offered by the President and countless columnists, is that the terrorists hate democracy, freedom, and prosperity. This is, at most, a partial explanation, because, after all, it could explain an enormous variety of actions:

“Why did Jim move to Cuba?”

“Oh, he hates democracy, freedom, and prosperity.”

“Why did Mel punch Michael Bloomberg in the nose when he knew he would go to jail for it?”

“Mel, too, hates democracy, freedom, and prosperity.”

Anything that “explains” such a variety of actions cannot be a full explanation for any particular, concrete event. (Note: The same must be said for the left’s favorite “explanations” for many acts of violence: poverty, powerlessness, and so on.) Perhaps the terrorists do hate freedom, democracy, and prosperity. If so, we have at most a fertile ground from which the specific actions they engaged in could spring. We certainly do not have a satisfying historical explanation for why they engaged in those activities and not some others.

Why is it that such inadequate explanations are offered seriously as the reasons for the 9/11 attacks? Could it be that some of those offering them want to keep Americans’ attention off of the explanation offered by the man who we presume is the terrorist mastermind?

Osama bin Laden repeatedly offers three reasons for his jihad against America: our one-sided support for Israel against the Palestinians, our stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia, and our embargo against and repeated bombing of Iraq. When I mentioned this to a friend, he said, “Well, bin Laden is a liar.”

Perhaps so: if you’ll murder 6000 innocent people, it seems unlikely that you’d flinch from a little prevarication. But even if bin Laden is lying about his motivation for the jihad, we should examine why he is telling that lie and not some other one.

I have never seen stupidity appear on a list of bin Laden’s faults. Whether he is speaking truthfully about his own motivation or not, could it be that he focuses on those three grievances because he knows that they resonate throughout the Muslim world? Could it be that he knows they are his best recruiting tools? And if we’re really serious about protecting the US, mightn’t we want to take those tools away from him?

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2001, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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