THE BLOG

What to Do: Blow Myself Up or Study Engineering at Caltech?

08/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sometimes the answer to a problem isn't as hard as we think it is. In fact, it may be downright easy. But something in our makeup prevents us from either seeing or pursuing the answer. We continue to tread the more arduous path and, in the process, not only perpetuate, but compound the problem.

In a Washington Monthly article, "How many of you want to study in America?," Kenneth Ballen reports on the extensive polling that his organization, Terror Free Tomorrow, has done around the world. First, he describes a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia with young Muslims in apparent thrall to bin Laden. Though they didn't give him credit for 9/ll, which, Ballen writes, they felt was the work of "the CIA and the Israeli intelligence service -- how else to explain the fact that there were no Jews in the World Trade Center when it was destroyed?"

The students, however, were surprised to learn that Ballen knew Jews who had been killed in the Twin Towers. Then, after a night of conversation, "their insistent questioning took an unexpected turn: how could they obtain visas to study in the United States?"

The truth comes out.

Ballen continues:

"After that, whenever we had the chance to speak with young radicals in Indonesia, out of the hearing of their leaders and late at night, we'd always ask: How many of you want to study in America? Invariably, almost everyone said yes, and those who still disdained the Great Satan were eager to study in Canada, Australia, or France instead."

You can't help but laugh at how quick radical Muslims (those, that is, who are sympathetic to, but not actual members of terrorist organizations) are to sell out. Showing their cards that fast suggests not only a lack of conviction but of pride.

Maybe, but Ballen writes that "stories of upstanding Muslims denied entry to the United States for seemingly arbitrary reasons are a staple of the Muslim press." Extending to them the right to study in the US and Europe is, instead, a symbol of what they most crave from the West -- respect.

"Like most analysts," he continues, "we had assumed that radical views in the Muslim world were the outgrowth of a deeply held ideology. [Instead] Muslims feel that the United States does not respect their views, values, identity and the right to determine their own affairs." Extending student, as well as work, visas to Muslims is perceived as a show of respect, as are humanitarian aid and trade agreements.

The trouble is that many in the West believe that any expression of support for bin Laden, no matter how reflexive, is the deepest form of disrespect you can show us. If we make concessions like inviting them into our country to study, they'll think they can walk all over us (not to mention form terrorist cells while on spring break from Caltech).

In fact, Ballen writes, the next president doesn't even, as progressives assume, "need to pull all troops out of Iraq right away, or solve the Israel-Palestine conflict overnight."

Hold on a minute: No problem wants to be solved that easily. All that time and energy spent wrestling with radical Muslim terrorism can't be swept away just because the answer is staring us in the face. The entire defense establishment -- from policy wonks to the military -- has too much invested in the concept of an implacable foe.

Dangle a degree in front of your enemy's face and he's putty in your hands -- where's the fun in that?