Sixty-eight years ago today, the American bomber, Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. The blast instantly killed 80,000 people. Another 35,000 were injured. Yet another 60,000 died within the year as a consequence of the fallout.
While the toll of war would have continued to mount had President Harry Truman not made the onerous decision to unleash atomic weapons, the subsequent change to geopolitics — in the form of the Cold War — complicates what might otherwise be a relatively more simple moral calculation.
One of the prime movers in the course of events leading to Hiroshima was the Japanese people’s resolve. It was clear that traditional warfare, even the massive bombing of Tokyo, would prove insufficient to break their will. The U.S. government reasoned that only an act that was equal parts substance and symbol would be sufficient to the task.
In the decades since, the U.S. has confronted many enemies with a similar constitution. In recent years, the conflict with members of Al Qaeda is emblematic of this ongoing struggle. Unfortunately, America’s post-war approach is an ill fit with the new reality.
Writing for Solutions.com, Scott Atran observes: “Unfortunately, U.S. national security strategy continues to primarily rely on two flawed post–World War II paradigms: a theoretical “rational-actor” model of decision making based on cost-benefit assessments (which are blind to the moral imperatives that sustain conflict and spark revolution) and an applied “foreign-aid” model of government-to-government military and development aid, which tends to support the patronage networks of corroded regimes rather than the aspirations and idealism of youth.”
Atran convincingly argues a point most cops in America can already make: Bad guys aren’t wholly rational actors. Where local thugs may be motivated by money and reputation, many radicals in the political world have a far more potent motivator: Moral certainty.
A couple of well-known quotations from terrorists go directly to this point. In a recorded message, Mohammad Sidique Khan, jihadi perpetrator of the July 7, 2005, London Underground bombing, stated: “I and thousands like me have forsaken everything for what we believe.”
Corollary to this, Ander Behring Breivik, the right-wing, anti-Muslim perpetrator of the July 22, 2011, Oslo–Utoya Island massacre, said via Twitter, “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”
To this, Atran adds an important detail: “This kind of group morality does not operate simply from an ideological canon. It is almost always embedded and distributed in social networks of ‘imagined kin’: Brotherhoods, Motherlands, Fatherlands, Homelands, and the like.”
He goes on to clarify that religious fervor alone is insufficient: “The greatest predictors of sustained commitment to sacred causes, including ongoing youth-driven uprisings and terrorist trends … are not levels of religious or ideological education or mere strength of belief. What seems critical is belonging to action-oriented networks — of families, friends, and fellow travelers — especially when these young people are in transitional stages in finding meaning and a place in life.”
What makes this observation even more interesting is the degree to which familial or quasi-familial associations in our own community are supportive of crime and disorder. This manifests in all manner of poisonous ways. For instance, the broad social prohibition against bearing witness against violent criminals — even by the victims themselves — suggest the presence of a false family consciousness. Street gangs come to substitute for real families; criminal networks for filial piety.
From this it is clear that we hunger to belong. We want validation and support. For far too many — here and abroad — we’re willing to do terrible things to get it.