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

After the 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 the causes and effects of international terrorism.

We can also help place the New York and Washington events in a 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 war.

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, elsewhere.


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 on Them.

Unconditional Predictions

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 at 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 single conspiracy.

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 Tuesday’s action.

6. Some participants in the seizure of the aircraft only learned what they were supposed to do shortly before action began, and had little or no information about other planned seizures of aircraft.

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).

Contingent Predictions

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 their mettle.

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 powers.

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 across countries.

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.

Predictions, reflections, and commentaries

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 of what resources systematic social science has, and does not have, to offer.