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Confusing the Symptom for the Disease

Listening to the most recent Intelligence Squared episode debating the motion "Airports Should Use Racial and Religious Profiling",  one of the participants (I forget which one) made me laugh out loud when he/she claimed that Israel had stopped airplane terrorism.

If I were in the debate, I would have responded, “Yeah, you are damn right they stopped airplane terrorism. But man, they sure haven’t stopped terrorism.” In fact, they aren’t even close. The debater confused the symptom (airplane bombings/hijackings) with the disease (Islamic Extremism and the continued violence in Israel/Palestine).

Confusing the symptom for the disease happens all the times in public policy debates. More prevalent in domestic debates, it still flairs up when we discuss national security. Here are the three most egregious foreign affairs/military affairs examples I have found:

1. Violence in Iraq The worst example of a symptom masking the disease was the outbreak of violence in Iraq. Our military leaders saw the violence, then tried to stop those committing the violence, viewing violence as the problem, not a symptom. The problem was centuries of tension between Shia and Sunnis, punctuated by thirty years of Sunni dictatorship over the Shias. Therefore, the initial tactics of locking up every violent person in a chaotic post-invasion Iraq didn’t work. Creating true political reconciliation was the key. The violence was just a symptom. (Even now political reconciliation looks tenuous and could reignite the violence.)

2. Violence in Afghanistan This is pretty similar to my first point, but the Army continues to make the same mistake. (My theory why? The military has plenty of guns, and its leaders are all people who have backgrounds in using those guns. Like the “if all you have is a hammer then all you see is nails” analogy, the Army wants to fight its way through its problems. War-is-war right?) The symptom--violence--hides the disease--a corrupt Afghan government that worries more about funneling money out of country than helping its people. Or the secondary problem, decades of tribal warfare and multiple regions of Afghanistan that do not want a central government. More troops will help quell the violence, but it won’t cure the disease.

3. Terrorism We can’t just stop terrorism, or chalk it up to “Islamic extremism”. It doesn’t work. Instead we need to look towards all the competing diseases, and see how they coalesce into violent terror attacks. Failed states are a disease. Corrupt Arab nations that leave their populations in poverty are a disease. US military bases in the Arab world are a disease. Over reliance on our “defense” portion of President Obama’s three D’s (development, diplomacy and defense) is a disease.  Since 9/11 we have radically altered our policies to treat the symptom of terrorism, but as the most recent The Economist briefing on “The US in the Middle East” pointed out, the disease of anti-US sentiment has gotten dramatically worse.

Three classic cases of ignoring the underlying problems and instead treating the outward symptoms. But for the most misunderstood issue of 2011 you’ll have to wait for...On Violence’s "2011 Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of the Year."

ten comments

We need to get at root causes. It is the same for political debates: too often we debate an issue with no regard for underlying philosophies and values behind that debate.


“It’s hard to tell the poison from the cure.” – The Police

While I generally agree with your opinions, if we are talking about an “infection” the first step is to treat the symptoms, often in a trauma situation. This is akin to the military moving in. Once the symptoms are as much under control as possible and there is some stabilization, the next step is to understand the ailment before treatment can begin. We saw these steps in Iraq where there was a political solution which, for now, is in place.

You don’t seem to make the connection between how President Obama’s “radically altered our policies” and how “anti-US sentiment has gotten dramatically worse.”

We also do not have the benefit of time. On October 12, 1986, President Ronald Reagan walked out on Soviet Premiere Mikhail Gorbachev during arms negotiations. At the time, commentators said Reagan was going to cause WWIII and had blown the chance to make “peace” with the Soviets. He was lambasted in the press for this. About a year later, the two countries signed a treaty eliminating all nuclear and conventional intermediate-range missiles.

There can be no Diplomacy without Defense (or, technically, Offense).

As I think I have written before, the U.S. is the biggest game in town. No matter what we do (or don’t do) people will always find a way to hate us. Since this is a fact, do we cower up in a little ball and be hated or do we live our lives and be hated?

While I agree that we may be mostly treating the symptoms of Islamic terrorism, until those cultures get out of the 14th Century and their religion undergoes a Reformation similar to the one Christianity did which effectively separated Science from Mysticism, I’m not sure there is much we can do. And that Reformation has to come from within.

The Eastern European countries badly wanted to undergo a Reformation but it took the muscle of the United States to allow those peoples to grasp at – and secure – the freedoms they so badly wanted and that included playing hardball with the USSR and taking sides and backing that up with the threat of violence.


@ harrison – I think you’ve made a really good point about treating the symptoms, then curing the disease. Iraq is a really good example of that.

On one point, I agree with your premise but disagree with the solution. “the U.S. is the biggest game in town. No matter what we do (or don’t do) people will always find a way to hate us.” But cowering up in a ball, to me, is represented by the Patriot Act and over-the-top nationalism post 9/11. (I’m sure we disagree on this.) When security out weighs freedom, we’ve lost something.

Some good points though.


“When security out weighs freedom, we’ve lost something.”

These slogans honestly do nothing for me. Some people talk about all of these “freedoms” we’ve lost. I have not lost, nor does anybody I know, any freedoms because of the Patriot Act. I have lost freedoms thought because Democrats in Sacramento, California now make me get fingerprinted were I to buy more than 50 rounds of ammo and now it is illegal for me to buy, via mail, ammunition for my Mosin-Nagant. I have lost freedoms because my health insurance now costs me, thanks to Obamacare, over $825.00 more per year than it did. I have lost freedoms because Democrats have run California financially into the ground thus reducing my income potential because I’m in sales and they’ve taken money away from my clients.

But the Patriot Act? I wait in a line that’s perhaps 20 minutes longer at the airport.

That’s about it so no, I don’t think that is a concern.


The timing of this post is fortuitous.

After the events in Arizona every jackass politician in office, particularly the Domocrats are using this tragedy as a shooting position in order to take aim at things that should have absolutely no connection.
Gun control.
Republican angst.
The general populous up in arms about a Government gone wrong.
Organized groups demanding reform.

Then just today I read in the NY times, a pathetic and disgusting organization if ever I have encountered one, the the Arizona shooting is in fact Sarah Palins fault.

….Really?

I am no Palin fan, but come on….have things become that pathetic? Is the American Political machine that ridiculous?

Confusing symtoms for the disease.

The disease, in my opinion and this is not something I have come to lightly, is that….

1. We are a nation of violence, both abroad and at home, get used to it. Rationalize however you like but America is all about Ass kicking.

2. The economy is horrid and it will get much worse. The people that have destroyed it have gotten rich even when they have broken the law but they have gone unpunished. People see this. People know.

3. Personal freedoms are eroding bit by bit. I had been out of the USA for years and when I returned I was shocked. The list is long. It started a long time ago and has just gotten worse and will continue to get worse.

Finally, tightening the chains will not work for the kind of people that are willing to go shoot people. Call him mentally disturbed but then blame it on Republican rhetoric; go ahead and have your cake and eat it too. But be prepared….this is all going to get worse.


someone mentioned democrats running CA into the ground…didn’t Orange County go bankrupt in the nineties?


I like the overall theme of this post. I think it’s actually a main theme in Accidental Guerrilla that leads to large scale failures. I think Harrison made an excellent point too about treating symptoms to help manage the disease. Continuing with the medical analogy, what do you do if the disease is incurable? For example, the Shia and Sunni tension that led to an estimate 1000 civilian deaths a month in Iraq in 2007. When fighting a disease that can’t be cured, sometimes all that is left is palliative care.

@Harrison – The freedoms the Patriot Act encroached upon were those of personal privacy. With regard to gun and ammo ownership, I don’t find it any less necessary than having background checks to be a volunteer that works with children; it’s a potential risk to public safety.

@Barnes – I think with regard to the Arizona shooting, gun control is an issue. A man not mentally fit to own a weapon used one. The rest is just analysts vying for air time. Although, the Sarah Palin website photos were ill-advised and changed immediately after the incident.


Scott – California tanked back in the 90s because the aerospace industry contracted. Orange County is the nexus of Conservatives in the state but the taxes, regulations, and union rules are all set by Democrats in Sacramento. It is telling that when all of those aerospace companies contracted and merged many opened plants in more business friendly places (i.e. not California).

Matty – I am no fewer freedoms today because of the Patriot Act nor do I know anybody who has. Which freedom have you personally lost? Regarding gun control (ammunition control, specifically), nice to see you pick and choose which you consider to be “lost freedoms.”


Matty P

Gun control will and and would not have stopped something like this from occuring, not at all.
The “war on drugs” has done nothing….perhaps less than that; it is easier for a teenager to get dope than it is to get booze.
Stricter gun laws or a ban on weapons will have a similar effect.


Barnes curious what you think about the flow of US weapons into Mexico? Does that stoke that conflict?