Should Social Scientists Help the U.S. Fight Terror?

Among the military brass giving testimony about global terrorism at a Senate hearing yesterday was a single academic: Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Why invite an academic to speak to the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee?

Because while the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions on terrorism research, including the creation of terrorism research institutions at the University of Maryland and elsewhere, the U.S. strategy against terrorism “is focused on technology, not understanding who violent extremists are and where the are coming from,” Atran told ScienceInsider by e-mail. In fact, he said, the only reason they invited him to the hearing is “because they were spooked by the [attempted] Christmas bombing and aware that their over-reliance on widgets isn't doing the job. ... They know I'm one of the only people around who works in the field with jihadis and wannabes and want to find out what makes them tick.”

Atran leveled criticism at the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System, a program that has embedded social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive,” Atran told the senators. “Such efforts as these, small as they are, are potentially quite counterproductive. ... The military and cultural reality of the terrain may favor having embedded social scientists be uniformed and armed, ... but the possibility that social scientists themselves would have to fire their weapons and perhaps kill local people ... is guaranteed to engender academia's deep hostility.”

While giving his testimony, Atran called on the U.S. government to engage social scientists more directly in open, peer-reviewed studies of terrorism, rather than relying on clandestine intelligence and antiterrorism technology. “Involve social scientists but not in [the military] theater,” Atran said.

But persuading more anthropologists to collaborate with the U.S. military “is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen today,” says Karaleah Reichart, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She notes that the ethics code of the American Anthropological Association prohibits researchers from doing clandestine work for any government as well as any research that leads to the harm of their subjects. “How can the military convince us of that?”

Reichart says that the distrust between academic anthropologists and the U.S. military is a recent phenomenon. “Historically, anthropologists have worked closely with the government, and many were in the armed services,” she says, for example, studying the culture and ideology of the Germans and Japanese during World War II. “It’s the ‘know your enemy’ strategy.” But sentiment among academics about the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has turned sour, she says, especially in the wake of scandals involving social scientists' role in government-sanctioned torture.

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