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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 171-177

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The McNamara Complex

Hugh Gusterson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I was participating in a panel discussion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) called "Technology, War and Terror." Although the panel had been billed as a "teach-in," the discussion was remarkably depoliticized. There was strikingly little analysis of United States policy in the Middle East and considerable talk of technocratic measures the U.S. might take to prevent future terrorist attacks—measures that ranged from improving airport security to enhancing development in the Third World so that there would be less poor people who felt left out of the great leap forward of globalization. Finally, an M.I.T. physics student approached the microphone and solemnly asked the panel if it wasn't true that the "problem" was not just Osama bin Laden, but, more broadly, "irrationality." Describing the presumed Islamic fundamentalism of the terrorists as just one manifestation of this irrationality, he suggested that M.I.T. had a special calling in the struggle against irrationality and that we all now had an obligation to fight terror by challenging irrationality wherever we found it—not least in the attachment of some members of the M.I.T. community to religious belief.

Looking into the face of this student I was reminded that rationality can itself become a fetish. A certain kind of attachment to rationality in the West can become so hyperbolic that it itself becomes—like the logical sophistry of scriptural [End Page 171] fundamentalists and legal strict constructionists recently described in Vincent Crapanzano's recent book on literalism as a cultural style (Serving the Word: Literalism in America from the Pulpit to the Bench)—a form of irrationalism wrapped in the garb of rationalism.

This Western fetishization of a spurious rationalism has been quite apparent in reactions to what, using a bland and colorless term for an epochal moment, we seem to be learning to call "the events of September 11." Thus many pundits, from The New York Times' Thomas Friedman down, have opined that the terrorists were not impelled by actual political grievances but by an atavistic reaction against rationalist modernity. As Friedman himself put it, "this is not a clash of civilizations—the Muslim world versus the Christian, Buddhist and Jewish worlds. The real clash today is not between civilizations, but within them—between those Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook and those with a medieval one." 1 In a similar vein, Salman Rushdie has argued that the attackers of the World Trade Center were animated by "A loathing of modern society in general" and that they seek "the closing of those [Islamic] societies to the rival project of modernity." 2

The crimes of September 11, such pundits keep telling us, were not really gestures of resistance against U.S. intervention in the Middle East or deluded expressions of solidarity with the long-suffering Palestinians, but were senseless manifestations of the derangement of a certain kind of Islamic mind by its encounter with the modern West. This theme is further driven home by the incessantly repetitive media evocations of the Taliban as the ultimate ambassadors for a reactionary traditionalism that bans everything from television to the mini-skirt. This is a media frame that exonerates U.S. policymakers from their partial responsibility for the derangement of Afghan society in the 1980s when, treating other people's country as a square on their cold war chessboard, they helped construct the very forces we now fear and deride, and it is a frame that reprises the stale dichotomies between tradition and modernity that were essential to the modernization theories of the 1960s and are now, at least within the academy, largely discredited. Within this frame the attacks of September 11 emerged not from a clash of interests, nor even from Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations," but from a clash between rationalist modernity and irrational tradition. This perception of the attacks is only compounded by...


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