5 Surprising Truths about Terrorism

By Joseph S. Nye | (Project Syndicate) | – –

SAO PAULO – American politics has been captured by terrorists. In December 2015, polls showed that one in six Americans, some 16% of the population, now identify terrorism as the most important national problem, up from just 3% in the previous month. This is the highest percentage of Americans to mention terrorism in a decade, although it is still lower than the 46% measured after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The effect of this change in public opinion has been particularly strong in the Republican presidential primary. It certainly boosted the candidacy of Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric has been particularly tough (if not incendiary). Some politicians are starting to call the battle against terrorism “World War III.”

Terrorism is a problem for the United States, as the attack in San Bernardino, California in December showed. But it has been blown out of proportion, both by the presidential candidates and by a news media that adheres to the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.” To put terrorism in proper perspective, Americans – and others – should bear in mind the following considerations.

Terrorism is a form of theater. Terrorists are more interested in capturing attention and putting their issue at the forefront of the agenda than in the number of deaths they cause per se. The Islamic State (ISIS) pays careful attention to stagecraft. The barbaric beheadings that are broadcast and disseminated through social media are designed to shock and outrage – and thereby capture attention. By exaggerating their effect and making every terrorist act a lead story, we play into their hands.

Terrorism is not the biggest threat facing people in advanced countries. Terrorism kills far fewer people than auto accidents or cigarettes. Indeed, terrorism is not even a big threat – or a small one, for that matter. One is likelier to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist.

Experts estimate that an American’s annual risk of being killed by a terrorist is one in 3.5 million. Americans are more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million), or on a commercial airliner (one in 2.9 million). Six thousand Americans die annually from texting or talking on the phone while driving. That is several hundred times more than die from terrorism. Radical Islamic terrorism kills fewer Americans than attacks by disgruntled workplace and school shooters. Terrorism is not World War III.

Global terrorism is not new. It often takes a generation for a wave of terrorism to burn out. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the anarchist movement killed a number of heads of state for utopian ideals. In the 1960s and 1970s, the “new left” Red Brigades and Red Army Faction hijacked planes across national borders and kidnapped and killed business and political leaders (as well as ordinary citizens).

Today’s jihadist extremists are a venerable political phenomenon wrapped in religious dress. Many of the leaders are not traditional fundamentalists, but people whose identity has been uprooted by globalization and who are searching for meaning in the imagined community of a pure Islamic caliphate. Defeating them will require time and effort, but ISIS’s parochial nature limits the range of its appeal. With its sectarian attacks, it cannot even appeal to all Muslims, much less Hindus, Christians, and others. ISIS will eventually be defeated, just as other transnational terrorists were.

Terrorism is like jiu jitsu. The smaller actor uses the larger actor’s strength to defeat it. No terrorist organization is as powerful as a state, and few terrorist movements have succeeded in overthrowing one. But if they can outrage and frustrate citizens of the state into taking self-defeating actions, they can hope to prevail. Al-Qaeda succeeded in luring the US into Afghanistan in 2001. ISIS was born in the rubble of the subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq.

Smart power is needed to defeat terrorism. Smart power is the ability to combine hard military and police power and the soft power of attraction and persuasion. Hard power is needed to kill or capture die-hard terrorists, few of whom are open to attraction or persuasion. At the same time, soft power is needed to inoculate those on the periphery whom the die-hards are trying to recruit.

That is why attention to narrative and how US actions play on social media is as important and as necessary as precision air strikes. Antagonistic rhetoric that alienates Muslims and weakens their willingness to provide crucial intelligence endangers us all. That is why the anti-Muslim posturing of some of the current presidential candidates is so counterproductive.

Terrorism is a serious issue, and it deserves to be a top priority of our intelligence, police, military, and diplomatic agencies. It is an important component of foreign policy. And it is crucial to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands.

But we should not fall into the terrorists’ trap. Let the actions of thugs play out in an empty theater. If we let them take over the main stage of our public discourse, we will undermine the quality of our civic life and distort our priorities. Our strength will have been used against us.

Licensed from Project Syndicate


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5 Responses

  1. The only post 9/11 terror prosecution of Michigan residents of Middle Eastern descent was a disaster for the federal government – the case of U.S. vs Karim Koubriti et al – which eventually ended in the criminal prosecution of an assistant U.S. attorney and a U.S. State Department investigator, plus a spate of federal civil rights lawsuits.

    There was a massive buildup of federal law enforcement and investigative activity in Metro Detroit after 9/11 to target Arab-Americans – who amount to about 10% of the 4 million residents of the Metro Detroit area.

    link to newsweek.com

    link to deadlinedetroit.com

    link to justicedenied.org

    link to factsofisrael.com

    link to convertino.org

    • Do you know what is going on with those ‘caught’ in the Newberg Sting, the poster child of entrapment, vicious prosecution and government scape-goating after 9/11? Are there any justice groups working with them? Where else can I look for more information?

      • Each defendant was convicted and received a 25-year prison sentence.

        In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the convictions, albeit a sharp judicial dissent assailing government misconduct was written by Judge Jacobs.

  2. The false enemy of “terrorism” is a war technology, not an ideology. The warmonger uses the term to (1) obscure the cause he opposes, (2) obscure his lack of any admissible rationale for war, and (3) obscure the fact that he is the terrorist, the one whose belief system requires terrorizing. Aristotle warned millennia ago that fearmongering is the ploy of the tyrant over democracy, who must create fears to pose as protector and accuse his opponents of disloyalty.

    What the US tyrant calls a “threat” is an insurgency with a cause that he opposes, usually economic progress or self-determination for the unfortunate. He fears better social programs in the US, and so we fight the “threat” of socialism around the world, in fact merely anti-colonial nationalist and populist movements. If we had supported those movements, their nationalism would have turned to democracy by now. Where the tyrant could not fight those “threats” as in China, those peoples have prospered.

    The tyrant warmonger destroys democracy and the social and economic progress, while claiming to promote them. The US secretly overthrows democracies around the world from Iran to Chile and Venezuela, always because they are also socialist. The tyrant warmonger tells us that we must have war to promote democracy, but never establishes a democracy. The growth of democracy requires preparation of the soil through stability and education, by humanitarian assistance, and always fails among the warring factions left by the warmonger, as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    The tyrant uses the military to steal natural resources and land for insiders like oil companies, and campaign contributors like Israel. We pay for those natural resources at market prices regardless of who owns them. We pay for the wars that give those resources to insiders and campaign contributors. We pay a third time, for the blowback when dispossessed groups are forced back upon their religious or national identity, and form insurgencies to oppose the dictators our tyrants have imposed. And we will pay again and again throughout our remaining history, for the enduring instability and injustice caused by our warmonger tyrants. And our children will pay yet again, if they ever have the opportunity, to finally rebuild the societies we have destroyed, as we should have done long ago. The warmonger tyrant steals our resources and enslaves us.

    The warmonger tyrant never has a plan for humanitarian results, but merely shops for propaganda fragments and shouts them while waving the flag, an infantile bully, the lowest imitation of masculinity. His intended audience is the timid and the ignorant: those fearful of bullies and the irrationality of their own kind.

    Humanitarian aid to improve health, education, and industry in impoverished areas deserves the vast budget given for military aid, would have had far better results in national security alone, and since WWII would have lifted half the world from poverty. US military aid and action since WWII has had neither the intent nor the effect of improving security, human rights, or forms of government elsewhere, and has resulted in injustices for which the US is quite predictably and properly hated.

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