However, leading sociologists, notably Talcott Parsons, have long pointed out that there is a third category of decisionmaking and behavior, which they called “nonrational.” This may at first seem like typical academic hair-splitting, a weakness that is rather prevalent among social scientists. In this case, though, it points to a major category of human behavior, where people act in response to deeply held beliefs that cannot be proven or disproven; for instance, their sense that God commanded them to act in a particular manner. People have long shown that they are willing to kill for their beliefs, even if they will die as a result. True, they respond to facts and pressures, but only as long as those factors affect the ways they implement their beliefs—not the beliefs themselves. Thus, a religious fanatic Iranian leader may well believe that God commands him to wipe out Tel Aviv, may calculate whether to use missiles or bombers, and what season to attack, but not whether or not to heed God’s command to kill the infidels.
In “Can Iran Be Deterred? A Question We Cannot Afford to Get Wrong,” National Review Deputy Managing Editor Jason Lee Steorts writes, “[Iran’s] religious zealotry causes it to exaggerate the sig- nificance of issues that are, objectively speaking, only tangentially related to its interests. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict, for instance, has no direct bearing on Iran’s security, but much of the regime sees it as fundamental to Iranian interests and even to Iran’s identity as a Muslim nation.” This is an example of nonrational, not irrational, thinking.
Nonrational behavior is not limited to one faith. The Israelis, for instance, who have been criticized roundly on many accounts, are usually not consid- ered irrational. But they have a strong Masada complex, which led their forefathers to kill each other and commit suicide, rather than surrender. This is more than an idle piece of history. Many Israelis still hold to this fatalistic belief, further reinforced by the narrative about Samson, who pulled a building down on himself in order to kill his enemies, and by the strong commitment to “never again” go “like lambs to the slaughter” as Jews did (in the Israeli view) during the Nazi regime. Israelis model them- selves after those few Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who fought the Nazis—despite the fact that they had no chance of winning—until the bitter end. Such beliefs might lead Israel to attack Iran even when rational considerations indicate that such an attack would be extremely detrimental. Such an attack would serve their beliefs and is rational in this technical sense—but the beliefs themselves are based on nonrational commitments that one cannot argue with on the basis of facts and logic, and thus cannot be reliably deterred.