Terrorism is that rarest of things: a social problem that goes away if we simply ignore it.
Yesterday, I wrote at some length about how badly we have overstated the risk of terrorism.
80% of American voters told pollsters that they considered it a “very important” issue. Many politicians and public intellectuals have declared ‘radical Islamism’ to be a threat on par with that posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
Despite this, you are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist, and at its peak ISIS had a military force the same size as – but less well equipped and trained than – the Bulgarian military.
Our inability to see terrorism for the modest threat that it is, is not harmless. Ironically, if we worried less about terrorism, there would probably be less terrorism.
Here are some reasons why our over-the-top reaction to terrorism is counterproductive:
1. It gives terrorists publicity
When Greenpeace activists chain themselves to the machinery at a coal-fired power station or barricade themselves in the office of an oil company, the apparent purpose of doing so is to disrupt the activities of polluting companies. But that’s only a small part of what is happening. You’d have to cause a whole lot more disruption to actually reduce pollution by a meaningful amount. It’s about getting publicity. Therefore, one presumes that if all Greenpeace’s direct actions – however small – became big news around the globe, they’d carry out as many as they could.
That’s essentially the incentive structure we have created for terrorists. The more they attack us – and the deadlier those attacks are – the more attention we reward them with. And let us be clear about this, they understand this dynamic and are keen to promote it. Back in the day, Osama Bin Laden gave interviews to CNN. The attackers in Paris in 2015 wore body cameras and livestreamed what they were doing. Terrorists know that attacking night clubs, metro cars and shops will not in and of itself achieve their ends. Indeed, publicity is probably the principal reason they conduct attacks.
My strong hunch is that the way most recruits first hear about the terrorist group they eventually wind up joining is through the mainstream media.
2. It helps terrorists impress potential recruits
Joining such a group is made more appealing if they appear to be a big deal. Bear in mind that the key demographic for most terrorist organisations is young men in search of a purpose and a sense of belonging. The more formidable we present terrorists as being, the ‘cooler’ they will appear to these young men. Joining a group of isolated misfits who are badly out of their depth and bound to fail sounds like a terrible idea. Becoming part of a movement that’s on the march, feared around the world, that can humble even superpowers? For a certain subset of people that will be an appealing prospect.
3. It is liable to generate a backlash that furthers radicalisation
The greater we perceive the danger from terrorists to be, the more punitive our reaction is likely to be. And that cruelty allows terrorists to portray us as the villains.
In 1972, British soldiers policing a demonstration in Northern Ireland imagined IRA snipers in the crowd and opened fire with real bullets killing 14 people. The result was (understandable) anger. South of the border, there was a general strike and the British embassy in Dublin was burned down. In Northern Ireland, good will towards the British army amongst the Catholic community largely disappeared. The IRA argued that if Catholics couldn’t trust the British to defend them, then Catholics had to take up arms themselves. The organisation saw the biggest surge in recruitment in its history and the conflict rapidly entered its most violent phase.
Infringements of civil liberties that target a particular ethnic or religious group are particularly dangerous in this regard, as these are easy to fit into the us versus them narrative that terrorist groups tend to promote. One national security expert commented on Trump’s travel ban, saying:
The message this projects is that America sees Muslims as a threat—not specific actors who are intent on committing terrorist acts. The message that America really is at war with Islam will be ISIS’s best friend.
Keeping the threat of terrorism in proportion would help us to avoid panicking and doing things that will make that threat worse.
3. It encourages us to take military actions that put our soldiers in harm’s way
American soldiers are much more vulnerable to groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq than in Idaho. They are operating in an environment they are less familiar with. The local population is less sympathetic to them. And it is much easier to get your supporters and their weapons there. Indeed, American casualties in Iraq exceed those from 9/11. If we think of terrorist attacks as acts of war that necessitate a military response, we will continue providing terrorists with abundant targets.
4. It creates radicalisation in the opposite direction
In this series of posts, I’ve mostly been discussing Islamist terrorism. There are, of course, plenty of other ideologies that can fuel terrorism. Sometimes those ideologies can be opposed. When that happens, it is possible that a group will justify its own attacks by arguing they will help to prevent attacks by others.
In 2012, a white nationalist named Anders Brevik killed 77 people to promote the cause of ‘counter-Jihadism’. Just a few months ago, six people were killed in a shooting at a mosque in Montreal, carried out by a student who had expressed support for Marine Le Pen.
There are other examples too. Columbia faced a long insurgency by Marxist guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN. But it also had to contend with the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries that used the existence of left-wing terrorist groups to justify their own terror (and links to drug cartels). The first killings during the Northern Irish Troubles were carried out not by the IRA but by Loyalist paramilitaries that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. They cited fears of the IRA – which at that point had been dormant for decades – as a justification for their actions. Of course, once Catholics began being murdered, the IRA rapidly became un-dormant.
If, as a society, we decide terrorism is an extreme problem, then sadly we should expect that some people will conclude that extreme response is necessary. Ironically, those responses may include terrorism. In that way, an exaggerated fear of terrorism can actually serve to legitimise more terrorism.