Tilly, Professor of Social Science, Columbia University
The following is a series of three emails
written by Professor Tilly in the week following September 11.
These emails were originally posted to amsoc,
a list-serve based at Columbia University.
New York Disasters
September 12, 2001
terrible loss of life downtown a little less than a day ago,
New York is picking up the pieces of its existence. The city's
inhabitants seem to have responded with a lot of anxiety,
not much panic, and a remarkable display of solidarity; by
all reports, for example, blood donor stations had more volunteers
than they could handle. (My daughter Sarah and her family,
who live about two kilometers north of the World Trade Center's
burning rubble, went through a difficult day, but suffered
no damage.) So far, we have no news of casualties from among
the New York amsoc crowd.
None of us will avoid asking the classic moral questions:
who dunnit, and what (choose one: ideas, urges, or incentives)
did they have in mind? From the perspective of contentious
politics -- these attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade
Center surely qualify as contentious politics -- even more
difficult and important questions press upon us: how, with
what sort of coordination?
I imagine that American intelligence services are at this
very moment searching for cockpit voice recorders, listening
to air traffic control tapes, and reviewing recent traces
of travel within and into the United States as well as whatever
monitored communications they have, with just such questions
before them. I also imagine that intelligence services across
the world are collaborating. We amsocers will not match their
information-gathering capacities, but we might at least share
some ideas about causes and effects of international terrorism.
We can also help place the New York and Washington events
in world perspective. Even if the highest estimates of casualties
now being bruited turn out to be correct, the scale of killing
will remain small in comparison with the last half-century's
violent deaths in Rwanda, Cambodia, Indonesia, Afghanistan,
Angola, Colombia, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, and the Caucasus.
That does not make New York's or Washington's losses trivial,
but it does accent the difference between terrorism and civil
In yesterday's events, the degree of coordination and effectiveness
displayed resembles wartime covert action far more than ordinary
peacetime terror -- despite the previous attacks on the World
Trade Center, American embassies, and Oklahoma City. Assuming
that some connected set of people coordinated their action,
they managed to seize at least four passenger-filled aircraft
almost simultaneously shortly after takeoff from three of
the country's biggest and most heavily policed airports, and
to get three of the four craft flown into self-destruction
on precise targets. (I can't help speculating that the people
involved tried to seize more than four planes, but failed
in the other attempts; we'll see.)
All this bespeaks substantial financing, planning, coordination,
and organizational support -- although not necessarily a single,
centralized, enduring Organization. Those of us who study
contentious politics should resist the temptation to concentrate
on ideas of repression and retaliation, which demagogues will
surely broadcast. We may be able to make a small contribution
to explaining how such high levels of coordination emerge
among damage-doers, and therefore how to reduce threats of
violence to civilians in the United States and, especially,
September 15, 2001
Let me take advantage of this bullhorn to broadcast some predictions
concerning what we will eventually learn about and from the
suicide crashes a little less than four days ago.
Students of human affairs can hope to make two different kinds
of predictions: unconditional predictions based on statistical
regularities, and if-then predictions based on causal regularities.
In the first category, demographers compare favorably to weather
forecasters when it comes to anticipating, over large populations,
how many children will be born tomorrow, how many people will
be injured in automobile accidents, and so on -- just so long
as they remember which day of the week and year tomorrow is,
making appropriate adjustments for weekly and seasonal cycles.
The second category brings us instantly onto controversial
territory; at issue is not just the validity of any particular
causal connection but a set of assumptions concerning the
nature of social processes, causality, and knowledge of both
social processes and causality.
I write out predictions in the two categories not because
I know the answers better than anyone else, but for precisely
the opposite reason. Most of us learn more from discovering
that we were wrong, then inquiring into how and why we went
wrong, than from being right. I am hoping a) to encourage
amsoc colleagues to lay out their own contrary predictions,
b) to identify errors in my own knowledge and reasoning, c)
thereby to identify errors in the public discussion of what
to do about terrorists and d) perhaps to stimulate more creative
and constructive thinking about alternatives to dividing up
the world into Us and Them as a preliminary to dropping bombs
It will turn out that:
1. More than four suicide crews set off to seize airliners
on Tuesday, but only four succeeded in taking over their targets.
2. Participants in the effort were never, ever in their lives
all in the same place in the same time.
3. All were connected indirectly by networks of personal acquaintance,
but not all had ever met each other, or knowingly joined a
4. Because of network logic, all were therefore connected
to Osama bin Laden and a number of other organizers or sponsors
of attacks on western targets.
5. But no single organization or single leader coordinated
6. Some participants in seizure of aircraft only learned what
they were supposed to do shortly before action began, and
had little or no information about other planned seizures
7. Instead of emerging from a single well coordinated plot,
these actions result in part from competition among clusters
of committed activists to prove their greater devotion and
efficacy to the (vaguely defined) cause of bringing down the
enemy (likewise vaguely defined).
8. Bombing the presumed headquarters of terrorist leaders
will a) shift the balance of power within networks of activists
and b) increase incentives of unbombed activists to prove
9. If the US, NATO, or the great powers insist that all countries
choose sides (thus reconstituting a new sort of Cold War),
backing that insistence with military and financial threats
will increase incentives of excluded powers to align themselves
with dissidents inside countries that have joined the US side,
and incentives of dissidents to accept aid from the excluded
10. Most such alliances will form further alliances with merchants
handling illegally traded drugs, arms, diamonds, lumber, oil,
sexual services, and rubber.
11. In Russia, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, the Caucasus, Turkey,
Sudan, Nigeria, Serbia, Algeria, and a number of other religiously
divided countries, outside support for dissident Muslim forces
will increase, with increasing connection among Islamic oppositions
12. Bombing the presumed originator(s) of Tuesday's attacks
and forcing other countries to choose sides will therefore
aggravate the very conditions American leaders will declare
they are preventing.
13. If so, democracy (defined as relatively broad and equal
citizenship, binding consultation of citizens, and protection
from arbitrary actions by governmental agents) will decline
across the world.
Am I sure these dire predictions are correct? Of course not.
I write them out both to place myself on record and to encourage
counter-predictions from better informed colleagues.
September 17, 2001
A surprising number of commentators on my two statements of
last week (not all on amsoc; with my permission, people have
been forwarding the statements and circulating them on other
lists) took me to be advocating inaction by the United States.
As I thought I had said clearly, I wasn't advocating anything.
In my often-stated view, any political-moral program includes
three kinds of assertions that are ripe for social scientific
scrutiny: 1) statements of fact, 2) statements of possibility,
and 3) explanations. When confronted with momentous political
and moral choices, social scientists have a professional opportunity
and obligation to distinguish between their preferences for
certain actions and outcomes, on one side, and these three
sorts of assertions, on the other.
Are our actual positions on one side and the other empirically
interdependent? Are mine? Of course they are. That makes the
challenge of distinguishing, and discovering that preferred
actions or outcomes are impossible or counter-productive,
crucial for social scientists.
The challenge I laid down last week was for kindred spirits
to set out their own unconditional and contingent predictions
concerning what we will eventually learn about last Tuesday's
attacks and international responses to them. So far the main
objections anyone has voiced to me concern the degree of coordination
among Tuesday's attackers.
That is an important objection if correct. It does, indeed,
affect my contingent predictions; if one person or tightly
knit organization planned and executed the whole operation,
one can more easily imagine searching out that small number
of persons and neutralizing them by one means or another.
Even in that case, we would want to consider the likely consequences
of that neutralization. Personally, I would be very surprised
if bombing the Taliban reduced the frequency or deadliness
of terrorist attacks across the world. Whether I am right
or wrong is not important for the present discussion; what
matters is that policy choices not only seek good ends but
rest on the best available statements of fact, of possibility,
and of cause-effect relations.
Before I do, indeed, move into advocacy, let me re-issue the
challenge: how about stating counter-predictions based on
different premises? That will not only advance the policy
debate, but also give us a clearer idea what resources systematic
social science has, and does not have, to offer.
Charles Tilly died just weeks after receiving the SSRC's highest award, the Albert O. Hirschman Prize. In commemoration, the SSRC created a Web site, “Tributes to Charles Tilly”, featuring essays by several of his close colleagues and former students.