What Price the Sacred?

Whilst busy in the catacombs of HP Towers developing Penis-Melting Zionist Robot Combs and other assorted weapons of mind control, I came across the following paper – “Sacred bounds on rational resolution of violent political conflict,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In summary, the authors suggest when resolving violent political conflicts, material incentives can actually inflame the situation if one side feels it is compromising a “sacred” position, regardless of the benefit obtained were that party to grab the carrot-on-the-stick. However, when both sides agree to yield a little on sacred issues of their own, the likelihood of violent opposition decreases.

To test their hypothesis, the authors interviewed a mixture of Palestinian refugees, Jewish Israeli settlers and members of Hamas, analysing their responses to various hypothetical peace deals where the incentives on offer varied from the material:
e.g. Israel will pay each Palestinian family 1,000 U.S. dollars a year for 10 years in economic assistance &#47 In return, the United States would give Israel 1 billion dollars a year for 100 years
to the “sacred”:
e.g. Israel would symbolically recognize the historic legitimacy of the right of return &#47 Palestinians would give up any claims to their right of return.

Read the paper (it’s open access so should be free for all) and see what you think. (Supplementary information here.)

Ignoring their choice of conflict (and in fairness the authors haven’t set out to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict – there are more parties involved than settlers, refugees and Hamas-supporting students for starters), one reservation I have about this paper is that it tells us nothing about disputes where one party has “sacred” positions that cannot be matched by the other side: one desiring an ethnic cleansing of the other, for example. Thankfully, such conflicts are the exception rather than the rule.

The paper also got me thinking about the principle of giving concessions to terrorists. On the one hand you have doves who favour the “do as they ask and they’ll leave us alone” approach and on the other hawks convinced giving even an inch only encourages further acts of terrorism. Take the current war on terror. The authors’ conclusions suggest there is little point trying to buy off Islamist terrorists as material incentives may lead to an escalation in violence, supporting the hawkish philosophy. That said, were we to find a suitable “sacred” issue on which to compromise, we’d stand a better chance of coming to some kind of arrangement, which is essentially the doveish position. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, the authors miss another trick by assuming both sides appreciate the true nature of their opponent’s conciliatory gesture. The key to an agreement is not actually the gesture itself, but how the other party perceives it.

If one party’s compromise is not viewed as sacred by the other it doesn’t matter a jot whether it truly is – the second party is unlikely to play ball and may instead step up hostilities.

Back to dealing with terrorists. Take one of Al Qaeda’s pet hates: Western boots on Islamic soil. One could argue hauling our troops back from Afghanistan, Iraq and wherever else they might find themselves ought to appease the head-choppers and suicide bombers. But would bringing them home be viewed as a compromise over a sacred issue or simply seen as a compromise over material gains such as political influence or oil? If the latter, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If the former, we’re alright Jack, but pity those left behind – unless you happen to be one of the Cifilitic Left who buy into (or make themselves mouthpieces for) Hizb ut Tahrir propaganda.

What do we actually consider sacred in the West? Is our faith in democracy a truly sacred belief? What would we have a hard time selling our souls for? I’d like to think the vast majority of people in this country would cry “blue murder” were our rights or freedoms to be frittered away in return for peace with a foreign foe or terrorist group. Yet I’ve met several people (some of them online) who’ve taken the hard yuan and turned a blind eye to the not-so-subtle activities of a fairly unpleasant regime in the process. I’ve known people come back from Cuba extolling its virtues, claiming crackdowns on political dissenters weren’t really a problem. After all, with its legendary healthcare system and literacy rates, “what would you really protest about over there anyway?

So whilst we’d be livid at losing our own personal freedoms, we’re a little more cavalier when it comes to other people’s. Which is I guess why realist foreign policies work so well – for those of us lucky enough to live in the West and the privileged few elsewhere.

&#47rant off

Critiques of the paper, comparisons with other conflicts and suggestions for sacred compromises to solve the world’s problems welcome in the comments box.