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“The power of some needs the stupidity of others” —Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“It’s better to meet a mother bear who has lost her cubs than a fool in his stupidity.” Proverbs 17:12

” Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level, and win with experience. “ Mark Twain 

“When arguing with fools; be absolutely sure that the other person isn’t doing the same thing” — Abraham Lincoln “

“Anyone who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” – Voltaire.

The simple believes every word, But the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, But a fool rages and is self-confident.” Proverbs 14:15-16 “

I want to continue this week with my discussion of radical jihadist “suicide bombers.” Last week I revisited the matter of violent jihadist terrorism with the aim of establishing a context for suicide bombers to see if we can discover some modicum of reasoning behind the motivation that leads a person to literally give up their lives by taking the lives of others, often in a most violent and gruesome way.

This is a manner of thinking that escapes the rational capacity of most westerners. Therefore, I write this week’s article with few delusions that I am going to get this completely right. I understand that my starting point is from a western “Weltanschauung” (world-view) and that it biases my entire thought framework. I invite you into this process of challenging our logic by looking briefly at what many scholars would describe simply as a theory of stupidity.

This week I want to look hard at the notion of stupidity and the possibility that it could be a framework for understanding why people blow others up and proactively kill themselves in the process. In this second part of my discussion, I want to consider the matter of stupidity. What is a good definition of it? Who is stupid based on that definition, and who should be classified as stupid? How could stupidity be a possible explanation for this matter of suicide bombing?

It is really important to remember as you read this discussion that stupidity as I will be defining it is more of a moral failing than an intellectual one. The failure is in believing things based on how they make us feel rather than on their truthfulness. It puts “taste” above “nutritional value.” It eventually leads to a scenario where we all starve to death. We must resist thinking of stupidity as a junior high disparagement designed to tear down our foe with words. When it comes to stupidity, there is certainly more than meets the eye.


How is “Stupidity” defined? Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla, in his book ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’, identifies four different kinds of people in the world – stupid people, helpless people, intelligent people, and bandits. 

Cipolla’s Theory of Stupidity is based on the following laws:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.
  2. The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous kind of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

He defines stupidity as, “causing losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain while incurring losses to himself.” Can you see now perhaps where I am going with this as it relates to suicide bombers?

In describing four different kinds of people in the world – stupid people, helpless people, intelligent people, and bandits – Cipolla reveals his theoretical commitment that stupid people are among the most dangerous people in the world, far more dangerous than criminals and even terrorists who do not commit suicide bombing themselves but coerce others to do it for them. Those who sell themselves to this kind of servitude are among the most dangerous people in the world.

As a group, stupid people are far more powerful than the Mafia and the Military-Industrial Complex because they actually drive and influence social outcomes. Cipolla found that the same proportion of people in any group tended to be stupid, even within the group of Nobel laureates or professors, or even blue-collar workers. The reality is that we have to face the same proportion of stupid people, no matter where we go or travel.

Everyone underestimates the effects of stupid people in action because it is not apparent. As a result, non-stupid people underestimate the damaging power of stupid people.

Cipolla’s Categories of People

helpless people are exploited for their naivety despite contributing positively to society Intelligent people benefit themselves and society
stupid people are counterproductive to both their own individual and society’s overall interests bandits steal from others to benefit themselves

Intelligent people benefit themselves and society; bandits steal from others to benefit themselves; helpless people are exploited for their naivety despite contributing positively to society. However, stupid people are counterproductive to both their own individual and society’s overall interests.

Cipolla says that a stupid person is far more dangerous, especially if the individual was born into the elite class. Their total damage capacity is infinite within their potential position as bureaucrats, generals, and even politicians.

As stated by Yuval Harari, history teaches us that people must never underestimate the role of stupidity in human history. It is one of the most powerful forces around the world.

We cannot trust human decency and supposedly good human leadership to do what is best for humanity. We can only hope that is the case, but stupid humans could win much of the time.

Another perspective on this was offered by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rather than write an analysis of Bonhoeffer’s position, let me just quote Bonhoeffer. You will get his point better.

“In his famous letters from prison, Bonhoeffer argued that stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice, because while “one may protest against evil; it can be exposed and prevented by the use of force, against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplishes anything here. Reasons fall on deaf ears.”

Facts that contradict a stupid person’s prejudgment simply need not be believed and when they are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential or incidental. In all this, the stupid person is self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.

The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid, or rather they allow this to happen to them.

People who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals in groups. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.

It becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power, be it of a political or religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. Almost as if this is a sociological-psychological law, where the power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, such as intellect, suddenly fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up an autonomous position.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us from the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not with him as a person but with slogans, catchwords, and the prepackaged rhetoric that have taken possession of him. 

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and is abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil – incapable of seeing that it is evil.

Only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then, we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. “ The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Proverbs 1:7

Reasons to believe that Bonhoeffer and Cipolla, to some extent, might be right.

“Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is a pleasure to a man of understanding. Proverbs 10:23 

“A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence. Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.” Proverbs 26:3-12 

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words. Proverbs 23:9


Why is this of any interest to me? First, you feel nervous about riding the bus. Then you wonder about going to a mall. Then you think twice about sitting for long at your favorite café. Finally, everyone you don’t recognize is a potential threat. Then nowhere seems safe. Terrorist groups have a strategy—to shrink to nothing the areas in which people move freely—and suicide bombers, inexpensive and reliably lethal, are their most effective weapons. They will accomplish all this by manipulating stupid people.

Suicide bombers are simply an organizational attempt to frighten/terrorize people at the expense of those who are desperate, hopeless, and emotionally weary. We need to understand that suicide bombers have become tools, guided munitions to accomplish their means. They convince those who are easily manipulated through what appears to be sound reasoning, an offering of an abstract promise, and glory. In the end, what it has produced is a frightening world that is becoming less and less frightened every day because suicide bombings have become the new normal in many parts of the world.

The conclusion of my reading is that stupidity, in a sociologically moral sense, lies at the heart of suicide bombings. There is very little intellectual engagement happening, very little deep conviction, and a lot of empty promises. The naive are manipulated by their leaders to take life away from an ambiguous enemy while sacrificing themselves on the altar of expediency. This is practically Cipolla’s definition of stupidity.

There are numerous quotes concerning stupidity. It appears that just about every thinking person throughout history has considered the notion of stupidity and had something intelligent to say about it. Here are a few more.

“Smart people learn from everything and everyone, average people from their experiences, stupid people already have all the answers.”  – Socrates

‘The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.’ — Charles Bukowski

“Whenever you find yourself in the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.” (paraphrase) —Mark Twain

“A chief goal in life is not to be on the side of the majority; but rather to avoid being found among the ranks of the insane” — Marcus Aurelius.


Ask yourself this simple question. Am I stupid? I think it fascinating that all through my reading and consideration of stupidity theory, it never dawned on me once that I might be stupid. Remember, Cipolla defines stupidity as, “causing losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain while incurring losses to himself.” It is not so much of a stretch from what can easily be considered a Christian mandate, to proclaim goodness and love to a world while ourselves deriving no gain. Paul wrote repeatedly that he was prepared to become a fool for the sake of Jesus. Knowing what I know now, I question myself again, “am I willing to become a fool for Him?”

I know this may seem a bit off the trodden path, but it seemed worthwhile to explore this as a possible explanation of why people strap bombs to their chests and kill others while killing themselves. It has created far more questions than it has answered, but that is ok, if it causes us to think. Many of us will not think about it even for a second. We have way too many important things to do…or do we? Meanwhile, there are those who will strap a bomb to their chest and kill themselves while killing others. It is perhaps the height of stupidity.

The follow-up.

The UnMaking of a Radical Islamic Jihadist…


The feed-back.

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