We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the relationship between anthropology and the war-on-terror (mostly by Oneman: see here, here, here, and here). I think a lot of the discussion misses the mark. Aside from important issues about how such work would affect the ability of anthropologists to do their work in the first place, the issue that really concerns me is whether or not the context exists in which anthropological knowledge could matter to government agencies?
The Washington Post recently ran an article in which they quoted FBI officials to the effect that they didn’t need to have top level operatives with knowledge of Arabic in order to effectively do their job:
In a recent deposition filed in an employee lawsuit, a senior FBI official testified that the bureau’s two International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) do not require any agents to know Arabic, even though the sections coordinate all foreign terrorism investigations. Only four agents in ITOS have any familiarity with Arabic, and none of them are ranked above elementary proficiency, documents show.
And just this week the New York Times ran an editorial about how few leading officials in the war-on-terror are unable to articulate the most basic differences between Sunnis and Shiites:
But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?
If it could be done without hurting the trust necessary between anthropologists and their informants/collaborators (an admittedly big “if”), I don’t really have anything against anthropologists working for the government; however, I’m very skeptical about the ability of government to make use of anthropological knowledge. I don’t think this is because these officials are stupid, many are quite sharp, but because they work in an administrative culture in which knowledge about the rest of the world simply doesn’t matter.