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Drawing Analogies

I love reading blogs. I also have a particular fondness for columnists. The reason goes beyond a general sense of curiosity about other people, what they think, and why they behave the way they do – which is often tied to how they perceive the world and illustrated in their writing. The reason I love to read people’s personal opinions and thoughts is to be a better communicator myself. This “learning by witness” takes two forms – being provoked into thought by someone else and trying to verbalize my response, or by seeing something that strikes me as abusrd, and not knowing how to respond.

A Wired article titled Suicide Bombing Makes Sick Sense in Halo 3 falls into the second category.

I used to find it hard to fully imagine the mind-set of a terrorist.

That is, until I played Halo 3 online, where I found myself adopting — with great success — terrorist tactics. Including a form of suicide bombing. …

I know I’m the underdog; I know I’m probably going to get killed anyway. I am never going to advance up the Halo 3 rankings, because in the political economy of Halo, I’m poor.

Specifically, I’m poor in time. The best players have dozens of free hours a week to hone their talents, and I don’t have that luxury. This changes the relative meaning of death for the two of us. For me, dying will not penalize me in the way it penalizes them, because I have almost no chance of improving my state. I might as well take people down with me.

Or to put it another way: The structure of Xbox Live creates a world composed of two classes — haves and have-nots. And, just as in the real world, some of the disgruntled have-nots are all too willing to toss their lives away — just for the satisfaction of momentarily halting the progress of the haves. Since the game instantly resurrects me, I have no real dread of death in Halo 3.

The author does specifically state that he is not trying to “trivialize the ghastly, horrific impact of real-life suicide bombing” or to “gloss over the incredible complexity of the real-life personal, geopolitical and spiritual reasons why suicide bombers are willing to kill themselves” because this is “impossibly more nuanced and perverse than what’s happening inside a trifling, low-stakes videogame.”

And yet he follows that disclaimer with this statement:

I’ve read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an “aha” moment that I’d never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.

This may be one of the strangest pieces of ‘journalism’ I have seen in some time. To argue that you understand terrorism because you have “read scores of articles, white papers and books” and have a “strong intellectual grasp” betrays your completely egocentric worldview. I have read books on terrorism, have taken courses on the subject from renowned experts in the field, and studied the subject with great vigor, but I claim to have no sense of what causes someone to take another person’s life for a political goal.

The one clear difference the writer ignores is the fact the person he’s fragging “from beyond the grave” in Halo was actually trying to kill him in the game. Most often terrorists in real life do not strike directly at other combatants. They strike at innocent women and children.

Thompson’s piece might make sense if terrorism were confined to attacks on military targets (as they sometimes are in Iraq), but falls desperately short of anything approaching a rationale conclusion when weighed against the actions of terrorists who strike at families dining at Sbarro.

Drawing analogies is dangerous if it’s easy to poke holes in your comparison. In this case, it’s all too easy. To compare, in any way, the irrational acts of depraved terrorists bent on killing innocents to make a political point and the spastic tactics of poor video game players does little to make a point. It does more to teach others how not to make a case.

Written by Michael Turk