Thursday, November 01, 2007

Jihadist schedules of reinforcement in counterterrorism policy?

Beyond my work in counterterrorism policy as a legal matter, I also have a related interest in terrorism and, these days, jihadist terrorism as a matter of religious and political psychology, and the intersection of that psychology with legal regimes of counterterrorism.

One phenomenon that has not received sufficient attention is the effect of legal rules as a matter of behavioral affect of terrorists. We often say - correctly - that jihadist terrorists, who live in hope of heaven, cannot be deterred by ordinary criminal law and its sanctions, and that is true. We also talk about counterterrorism regimes and how they can psychologically radicalize individuals; this is also true in some cases, and a good example is the effect of taking someone who might not have been so very ideologically serious, locking them away at Guantanamo, and then handing them nothing to do but read the Koran. Should we be very surprised that this reinforces fanatical religious identity? Hardly. So there are ways in which legal regimes both fail to deter and reinforce the psychological attributes of jihandism.

One form of reinforcement seems to have gone unnoticed. This is speculative, but bears, I think, further investigation. Yesterday the Madrid bombers were acquitted of some of the most serious crimes. Prior to that, Padilla was found guilty in US court of various things - but observers would agree that the outcomes were in doubt until the moment the verdicts were read. Understood from the moral, legal, and political framework of the just, liberal, and democratic society, that uncertainty gives people reason to believe that the system is an impartial one - the outcome is not set in advance. (There is a problem with that comforting thought, of course, which is that it is not necessarily a sign of justice that verdicts in advance seem uncertain; in cases where guilt, to any outside observer, seems incontestable, radical uncertainty as to outcomes is actually a sign that the justice system is unreliable, not impartial and independent, but that is another issue.)

That same phenomenon, so comforting from a liberal legal standpoint as the proof of the rule of law, appears quite differently framed as a matter of behavioral psychology. Rather, the fact of terrorist trials having the appearance of being open as to result, and with an intermittent but unpredictable and indeed surprising element of what appears to be unexplainable acquital (intermittent reward) - well, this looks very much, and indeed, way too much like the classic reward reinforcement regime of classical behavioral conditioning. Yes, of course, there are not many terrorist trials, but it would not surprise if they are closely watched by some important Islamists. And there are other parts of the standard counterterrorism repertoire that also bear a certain resemblance to this classic behaviorist schedule of reinforcement - detention on a basis that is hard to explain, at least to outsiders, intermittent and unpredictable elements of release.

One might have thought that the psychological aim of counterterrorism policy would start not with schedules of reinforcement of jihadism, but something more like learned helplessness.

This is speculative, to be sure, but it is an area in which psychology might have some explanatory role. And, note, it is a role that lies at the intersection of psychology, sociology, and law. Pigeons, rats, slot machine players ... jihadists?