Critique of terrorism study flawed

By John Lovejoy

Rafi Youatt’s critique of Robert Pape’s paper, “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism,” suffers from a several flaws. Youatt suggests that Pape considers a suicide terror target’s regime type to be more important than the target’s status as a so-called occupier asking, “Is it specifically the liberal democratic character of the target states at stake, or is it perhaps occupation or empire?” Pape’s study never claims it is the former, to the exclusion of the latter, that determines which countries suicide terrorist groups choose to attack.

Pape’s argument is that these groups wish to drive perceived occupying powers out of specific areas. If this is the case, they must believe a country to be an occupying power before they even consider attacking it, regardless of its regime type. Liberal democratic regimes are merely a subset of this larger group of so-called occupiers, not a separate grouping.

Youatt accuses Pape of “selecting on the dependent variable” of regime type. This is plainly untrue. Pape assembled the universe of all the suicide attacks that have ever taken place. He found that all of them were conducted against countries perceived to be occupiers. Only then did he assign them regime types and find that of all the countries in the large group of so-called occupiers, suicide terrorist groups target only those that are also within the liberal democratic subset.

Youatt uses a simplistic analogy to explain his grievance. He describes a universe of train accidents in which 15 of the 16 people who have been hit are Democrats. He attacks the idea that one could arrive at a causal relationship between being a Democrat and getting hit. A hypothetical that actually parallels the situation would be that of a driver who hates pedestrians who belong to either of two political parties, Democrats and Whigs. While driving, he can tell not only whether or not a pedestrian belongs to a major party (is an occupier), but which one they belong to (whether or not their regime is democratic). In 50 years of driving around, encountering Whigs and Democrats, he only drives his car into Democrats, never Whigs, despite hating them just as much. He may spit at them, or threaten them, but he never even attempts to hit them with his car.

In the past half-century there have been plenty of both Whigs and Democrats, regimes of both types occupying territory claimed by other people. If anything, illiberal regimes have been far more active and brutal as imperialists than have democratic regimes. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and Eastern Europe, China occupies Tibet, and Syria controls most of Lebanon, all against the wishes of a large portion of the populations of these areas. Yet none of these or any other populations subject to illiberal occupation has ever given rise to a suicide terrorist group. That is the control group of Pape’s study, which Youatt completely overlooks.

There are other problems with Youatt’s critique. It attacks Pape for not explaining why suicide terrorists target liberal regimes in particular. The explanation is actually in the paper: suicide terrorists have learned through experience that liberal countries are unlikely to risk collateral damage in combating them and are often willing to grant concessions. The critique also questions why suicide attacks should be studied separately from other terrorist acts. It is obvious that the greater effectiveness of these attacks (since there is no need to plan to escape afterwards), and the powerful signal they send (that the attacker is willing to die for his cause) are alone enough to warrant distinguishing these from other forms of terror.

Youatt’s flawed critique of Pape’s methodology seems merely a segue into the true purpose of the article: implying a moral equivalency between suicide terrorism perpetrated by unelected Marxists and Islamo-fascists, and the actions liberal democracies take in their own defense. Youatt asks, “Does anyone think that we can usefully understand Palestinian terrorists without thinking about Israeli military action? Or that we can understand Al Qaeda without considering the American presence in the Middle East?”

Yes, actually, many people do. The only useful understanding of these suicide terrorists would be that which frustrates their murderous plans. Most of the academy focuses on concocting theories to excuse suicide terrorism and foisting blame for it on the West. Pape’s article is refreshing for accepting the undesirability of suicide terrorist attacks, and for reaching useful conclusions about how to combat them. He demonstrates the futility of giving in to these groups, arguing instead for separation: A wall to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and stricter entry procedures in the U.S. for people of Middle Eastern origins. Naturally this conclusion upsets scholars who seek appeasement of terrorists; we likely have not seen the last of the criticism of Pape.