Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why do engineers become terrorists?

This article (via Crooked Timber) claims that engineers are quite a bit overrepresented in the ranks of terrorists -- including Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 attacks.

Well, I've spent some time tracking political extremism in engineering culture, although not of the violent type, so here's some random attempts at a theory:

- engineering historically has been a profession caught between the upper and working classes. The lowest-status of the professions, it has been a way for children of laborers to move up to professional status. I don't know how much this is still the case, but it wouldn't surprise me if it is still so in the developing world.

- this sociological fact causes a good bit of status-anxiety and role confusion, among a class of people whose social skills aren't usually that great to begin with.

- engineers are also often mathematically inclined and hence drawn to abstractions.

- so, one cure for being lost in society is finding a cult to belong to, preferably one with a simple, powerful, self-reinforcing belief system, that is, a form of fundamentalism.

- but, engineers also having a practical, real-world orientation, they will also be drawn to taking action, and may be more skilled than average in doing so.

This is drawn from my experience with libertarians and Randroids, who whatever else you can say about them are not particularly violent (Ayn Rand depicted blowing stuff up in her novels and was drawn to serial killers, but her followers don't seem to follow her that far). But I'm guessing some of the psychological forces that pull engineers into those ideologies may also draw others into violent religious and right-wing fundamentalism. Libertarianism is a form of enlightenment fundamentalism, it fetishizes and oversimplifies enlightenment virtues like rationality, self-interest, and individuality, and turns them into an ideology and a cult.

Now of course the vast majority of engineers aren't terrorists or libertarians or extremists of any kind. And almost no libertarians are terrorists as far as I know -- but they do tend towards unhealthy obsessions with weaponry and in that respect the culture tends to merge into other more violent tendencies of the extreme right.

I hope nobody interprets this as an attack on engineers or engineering culture. Engineering's successes represent some of the highest forms of human creativity and progress. But we are talking here about failures, people on the margins who, due to either their own limitations or the limitations of their education, failed to direct their energies in a creative direction and instead chose destruction.


jlredford said...

Or it could just be a fluke in a small data set! They're looking at about 80 people of the 400 they know of. That could be accounted for by statistical variation, or a particular group that all happened to know each other. Even the article notes that other movements that used terrorism like the Baader-Meinhof gang didn't seem to have many engineers, nor are the IRA or the Tamil Tigers known for it.

Or maybe another reason is that everything these days is getting more technically involved, and that includes political crime. 9/11 needed an unusually high level of technical skill for a mass murder, and so maybe needed more engineers. Given how successful it was (in Al Qaeda's view that is), other groups of killers probably want to emulate their recruiting demographics.

Anonymous said...

Engineering may be the lowest-status of the professions in the United States and Britain, but historically (and perhaps still) had a much higher status in Germany, where the prenominal title Ing. conferred a great deal of prestige, and the doctorate (Dr. Ing.) enjoyed even more. So, I don't think the Anglophone world's present social estimation of engineers can be generalized.

In military forces engineering has generally enjoyed high prestige, and certainly in the United States Army, an appointment to the Corps of Engineers is reserved for those at the top of their West Point class. The old military tradition was that those with brains became engineers and artillerymen; those with money became cavalrymen; and those with neither became infantrymen.

It is noteworthy that two of the founding members of the Royal Society, Elias Ashmole and Sir Robert Moray, both served as military engineers and artillerists in the English civil war. Both perhaps would have been familiar with the advice given by Diego Ufano in his "Vraye instruction de l'artillerie" (1621):

"Et de fait ceste science est de telle qualité, que par le moyen d'icelle, tant le noble, que celuy qui est de basse qualité se peut acquerir honneur & reputation: veu que tant plus curieusement il s'exercera en icelle, tant plus se sera il aymer de son general ou superieur, qui ne faudra de le favoriser & avançer plus que les autres en toutes occasions..."

mtraven said...

jlr: You're probably right about the statistical significance. But there are an alarming number of engineers attracted to varieties of right-wing kookery.

The social status of engineering is certainly more complex and diversified than my original short summary. I guess besides personal experience, I'm basing my opinion on Paul Fussell's Class, which says:

"Thus, the social-class problems of engineers, uncertain always of where they fit, whether with boss or worker, management or labor, the world of headwork or the world of handwork. " This is in the midst of discussing the signalling significance of belt hangdowns. It's a somewhat an obsolete view of engineers as coming out of the building trades, but the social aura of that still persists even though engineers nowadays generally keep their hands clean.

It's easier to see in fiction and popular entertainment, where doctors and lawyers are regularly featured as heros, but engineers rarely. I can think of exactly one movie where engineering was valorized realistically (Apollo 13). In our era, the fact that some engineers are famous billionaires is starting to change things. There is a movie coming out about Facebook...somehow I doubt it will focusing on the engineering challenges.

Buddhism for Vampires said...

My grandfather was a mechanical engineer in England. At that time, engineering was a "trade", which had a specific meaning within the English class system -- the "trades" were the upper end of the working class, but absolutely, definitely not middle class. My father, therefore, was working class, by immutable definition, despite having attended Cambridge University.

I suppose that makes me working class, too. I'm not sure how Brits perceive me. I am also an engineer, but that seems to be a more-or-less middle class occupation in Britain now.

Something I'm always puzzled about is how incompetent and uncreative terrorists are. The overrepresentation of engineers doesn't seem to translate into well-thought-out or innovative attacks.

This is reassuring, I suppose. Terrorists actually seem to be stupid. Given that Western anti-terror programs also seem to be incompetent, that is a very good thing.


jlredford said...

re: lack of imagination among terrorists:
I was at a dinner party in '98 or '99 when the conversation turned to the first attack on the World Trade Center in '93. That time they filled a rented truck with a fertilizer bomb and set it off in the parking garage under one of the towers. I said "If it had been me and a bunch of my MIT buddies we would have brought that tower down!" I cringe at the memory even now.

And maybe this relates to the original point about engineers being over-represented among terrorists. Most people have dark fantasies of revenge at some time or other. For most it's "l'esprit de l'escalier", the perfect comeback that you think of as you're leaving, but engineers have more specific imaginations.

Chris said...

For what it's worth: lawyers for plaintiffs in civil cases supposedly hate it when engineers end up on their juries. Supposedly engineers are more likely to rigorously scrutinize damages claims. (Put another way: they're stingy.)