The Right Approach to Terrorism

A replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels tourist attraction, is seen among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels metro and Brussels international airport of Zaventem, in Brussels
Replica of the Manneken-Pis statue, a major Brussels attraction, among flowers at a memorial for the victims of bomb attacks in Brussels. REUTERS/Yves Herman

W.J. Astore

I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence.  Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat.  Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels.  But terrorism was and is nothing new.  We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it.  The question is how best to face it.

Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it.  Restricting liberty is the wrong way.  An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way.  Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way.  Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international).  Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems.  The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).

Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill.  We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop.  The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.

One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985.  Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater.  As Jenkins notes:

“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding.  News coverage focuses on action not words.  Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “

Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.

What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism?  Three big lessons:

  1. Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic.  And don’t exaggerate the threat.
  2. Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want.  They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
  3. Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want.  They want to turn people against one another.  To divide is to conquer.

The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?

Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action.  But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands.  Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote.  Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.

6 thoughts on “The Right Approach to Terrorism

  1. The right approach to terrorism: prevent it by recognizing and respecting legitimate grievances.


    1. The final two paragraphs are key points. As long as Americans are easily swayed by non-rational fears and passively roped into simple-minded solutions by non-stop audio-visual inputs, there can be no widespread recognition of complexities and therefore any consequent political action to address problems beyond the immediate focal domain of family, work, and neighborhood.


  2. You say we do not face an existential threat. Is Europe facing one now? Cologne, Germany?

    Do you think our women should walk 15 feet behind us? Should they be covered from head to toe? Do you think this is cultural? Do you think that slavery under the Confederacy was cultural and that half a million Americans should not have died because it was “cultural”?


  3. Europe is facing a threat, but not an existential one. The danger to the EU has more to do with potentially being overrun by refugees and tearing itself apart over their presence than sharia. What gets me about the ISIS issue is how little attention is paid to the Gulf emirates, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, that — under the table — funded its start-up.


  4. Three words which define and explain that “state-sponsored terrorism” thing:

    “Shock and Awe.”

    Please permit me to suggest that, rather than go on and on about the superficial symptoms (i.e., “terrorism”) of a disease (i.e., imperial corporate militarism) we might better concentrate on its causes, which in the case of “terrorism” ought to include the United States military as the world’s worst example of what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Dr King said that in 1967, of course, but put in today’s date — or any date you like in the 21st century so far — and his famous speech: “Beyond Vietnam” rings just as true. The United States of America has learned nothing of itself in the last fifty years. The United States of America suffers from self-induced arrested development. The United States of America never got behond Vietnam. It has only wished to forget and not to learn. Hence, what the late Gore Vidal called “The United States of Amnesia.”

    As every sentient, carbon-based life form ought to know full well by now: “Full Spectrum Dominance” and “Garrisoning the Globe” induce violent counter-reaction by those countries and peoples that the United States military seeks to dominate and occupy, call these invasions and occupations by whatever Orwellian euphemism you wish. Eliminate the cause and you will have much less to worry about in dealing with the symptoms. Involving the U.S. military in any domestic or foreign policy question not only precludes solution of the problem but guarantees its exacerbation. The World does indeed have a terrorism problem and the problem has a name: The United States of America. Fix the problem of America — namely, its metastasizing cancerous military — and you go a long way towards fixing the problem of “terrorism.”

    Not “shocking.” Not “awesome.” Just the plain unvarnished truth. “Physician, heal thyself.”


  5. Reblogged this on Life Weavings and commented:
    Fearful sensationalism feeds into the goals of terrorism. It would seem that the modern media age helps support terrorism’s perceived usefulness by those who seek power through any other means than dialogue.


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