Terrorism -- or the threat of terrorism -- appears to be everywhere these days. But is it really? Why do we react to the threat of terrorism the way we do? What purpose does it serve? And how can be most effectively counter it? Looking at some facts about terrorism through the Lenses of Wisdom can help us make some sense of it. As we usually find, things are not always as we perceive and as Mark Twain once said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."
We start with the basic definition (from Wikipedia):
Terrorism is, in its broadest sense, the use or threatened use of violence (terror) in order to achieve a political, religious, or ideological aim. It is classified as fourth-generation warfare and as a violent crime. In modern times, terrorism is considered a major threat to society and therefore illegal under anti-terrorism laws in most jurisdictions. It is also considered a war crime under the laws of war when used to target non-combatants, such as civilians, neutral military personnel, or enemy prisoners of war.
A broad array of political organizations have practiced terrorism to further their objectives. It has been practiced by both right-wing and left-wing political organizations, nationalist groups, religious groups, revolutionaries, and ruling governments. The symbolism of terrorism can exploit human fear to help achieve these goals.
Like many concepts, the origins of "terrorism" in its modern usage date from the French Revolution:
""Terrorism" comes from the French word terrorisme, and originally referred specifically to state terrorism as practiced by the French government during the 1793–1794 Reign of Terror. The French word terrorisme in turn derives from the Latin verb terrere (e, terreo) meaning "to frighten". The terror cimbricus was a panic and state of emergency in Rome in response to the approach of warriors of the Cimbri tribe in 105 BCE that the Jacobins cited as a precedent when imposing the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. After the Jacobins lost power, the word "terrorist" became a term of abuse.
Although "terrorism" originally referred to acts committed by a government, currently it usually refers to the killing of innocent people for political purposes in such a way as to create a spectacle. This meaning can be traced back to Sergey Nechayev, who described himself as a "terrorist". Nechayev founded the Russian terrorist group "People's Retribution" in 1869."
Terrorism and "terrorist" are also often used as political labels by opposing factions:
Those labeled "terrorists" by their opponents rarely identify themselves as such, and typically use other terms or terms specific to their situation, such as separatist, freedom fighter, liberator, revolutionary, vigilante, militant, paramilitary, guerrilla, rebel, patriot, or any similar-meaning word in other languages and cultures.
The purpose of terrorism is fundamentally intimidation:
In November 2004, a Secretary-General of the United Nations report described terrorism as any act "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act".
In the age of the internet, we have also seen terrorism being used as a means of establishing notoriety and attracting recruits and/or funds, particularly by organizations such as Al Quaeda and Daesh (a/k/a ISIS or ISIL).
From current media headlines, one might perceive that terrorism is common everywhere, and most common in Western societies. This perception is erroneous. As this article summarizes from the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland, "The Middle East and North Africa region is where terrorism is by far the most common. With nearly 6,000 incidents last year , the region experienced 40 percent of all terrorist attacks; South Asia was second with about 4,600 incidents." Worldwide there were almost 15,000 terrorism incidents in 2015 and 38,000 deaths. The largest of such attacks occurred in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Niger and Egypt, accounting for about 2,000 deaths. The most significant attack in the West, which was the 23rd biggest overall, occurred in Paris and resulted in 92 deaths.
By contrast, In the United States, there were 38 attacks with 44 deaths in 2015. The most significant attacks were the San Bernardino shootings, which resulted in 16 deaths, and the Charleston church shootings, which resulted in 9 deaths and were committed by an unaffiliated individual. Thus, terrorist incidents in the United States accounted for approximately 0.2% of incidents worldwide and 0.1% of all deaths due to terrorism worldwide in 2015. According to the GTD, total fatalities due to terrorism in the United States from 1995 through 2014 amounted to 3264 deaths in 510 attacks, of which 3003 deaths occurred on 9/11, meaning that all other attacks accounted for about 261 deaths in a 20-year period.
For alternative comparison purposes, we might consider that approximately 200 deaths per year in the U.S. are caused by animals, with bees and wasps leading the way at 58 on average. Approximately 300 people are struck by lightning each year in the United States, resulting in about 30 deaths per year. In 2015 there were 986 deaths in the United States from shootings by police. Traffic fatalities average about 33,000 per year, or about 90 deaths on an average day. Thus, more Americans die in traffic accidents every month or two than have been killed in all terrorist attacks combined in the last 20 years, even including 9/11.
Looking at terrorism first through the Fractal Lens, we can observe that the distribution of acts of terrorism and deaths due to terrorism follows the typical curve of a power-law. That is to say most terrorist attacks result in zero or very few deaths besides the perpetrators themselves, a few result in tens of deaths, even fewer result in hundreds of deaths and only a handful result in thousands of deaths. Further, the distribution by region also follows a power-law, which reveals that the vast majority of both terrorist acts and fatalities are confined to only a handful of countries and regions. These do not include the United States or other Western nations. The flip side of the coin is that, in any given year, it remains almost certain that the United States (and most other countries with significant populations) will experience at least one terrorist attack, albeit it will probably will not result in any casualties other than the perpetrators themselves. This means that it is impossible to eliminate all terrorist attacks as a practical matter.
Thus, in probabilistic terms, terrorist acts are akin to unusual weather events, such as tornadoes, lightning strikes, hurricanes and snow storms. Such events are certain to occur every year without fail. However, the probability of suffering injury or death from such an event in any given year is quite small. Indeed, one is more likely to be injured or killed in the United States by a weather event or being attacked by an animal than a terrorist attack.
What this tells us is that (1) the terrorist threat is not as great as we perceive and/or (2) efforts to combat terrorism in the U.S. have been largely successful. Moreover, because the actual threat is so low, additional efforts are likely to be ineffectual or expensive "cures worse than the disease" that involve have the state actively monitor all individuals and detain individuals on the flimsiest of suspicions or racial/ethnic profiling.
So why do so many misperceive the actual threat of terrorism and demand further state actions that are not likely to be of any benefit and may be otherwise detrimental? For this, we turn to a view through the Prospecting Lens.
Considering that viewpoint, if we employed our more rational "System 2" thinking minds, the information we have gained from looking through the Fractal Lens would tell us that terrorism is probably not something most of us should spend a lot of time worrying about in our day-to-day lives. Yet in our public lives, almost all discussion of terrorism driven by heuristic driven "System 1" type thinking, largely in reaction to the horror these events evoke. We perceive that it is a much larger threat than it really is. Dealing with terrorism pushes a lot of our emotional buttons and clouds our abilities to think rationally about it at all. The host of System 1 heuristics we see in play include many related to our difficulties in mentally translating numerical data to the realities they represent. These include:
THE LAW OF SMALL NUMBERS. Our brains have a difficult time with statistics. Small samples are more prone to extreme outcomes than large samples, but we tend to lend the outcomes of small samples more credence than statistics warrant. System 1 is impressed with the outcome of small samples but shouldn’t be. Small samples are not representative of large samples.
As a prime example, in the year or two after 9/11 many people refused to fly and logged many more miles driving long distances. Since driving is more dangerous than flying, it is estimated that there were 1500 additional highway deaths -- more than all of the people that died in the planes that were hijacked. Ironically, this System 1 reaction was more deadly than the terrorists themselves.
OVERLOOKING STATISTICS. When given purely statistical data we generally make accurate inferences. But when given statistical data and an individual story that explains things we tend to go with the story rather than statistics. We favor stories with explanatory power over mere data.
The horror and carnage of terrorist acts creates a powerful narrative that leads to:
THE POSSIBILITY EFFECT. When highly unlikely outcomes are weighted disproportionately more than they deserve we commit the possibility effect heuristic. Think of buying lottery tickets.
The probability of death by terrorism is similar to that of winning a large lottery prize. This is related to:
OVERESTIMATING THE LIKELIHOOD OF RARE EVENTS. It makes more sense to pay attention to things that are likely to happen (rain tomorrow) than about things that are unlikely to happen (terrorist attacks, asteroids, terminal illness, floods and landslides). We tend to overestimate the probabilities of unlikely events, and we tend to overweight the unlikely events in our decisions. Potential for error: succumbing to fear mongers who manipulate data in favor of their cause.
This is exactly the effect that terrorists are hoping to take advantage of -- an overreaction based on a misconception of how powerful they are, which is usually not very much.
We are also erroneously influenced by past experience, especially if recent, through:
THE AVAILABILITY HEURISTIC. When asked to estimate numbers like the frequency of divorces in Hollywood, the number of dangerous plants, or the number of deaths by plane crash, the ease with which we retrieve an answer influences the size of our answer. We’re prone to give bigger answers to questions that are easier to retrieve. And answers are easier to retrieve when we have had an emotional personal experience. One who got mugged over-estimates the frequency of muggings, one exposed to news about school shootings over-estimates the number of gun crimes, and the one who does chores at home over estimates the percentage of the housework they do. A person who has experienced a tragedy will over estimate the potential for risk, danger, and a hostile universe.
Because terrorist acts are widely and repeatedly reported and many are affected tangentially, we erroneously believe they are much more probable than they are. For example, I was one of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, that were tangentially affected by the 9/11 attacks in that I had to go into Washington D.C. to retrieve our then-toddler from a daycare near the White House shortly after the plane hit the Pentagon building. We were not injured, but the experience was frightening and, for that reason, remains burned in memory. (Our ability to remember is enhanced by strong emotions at the time of the event to be remembered.) Many others lost loved ones or narrowly escaped death or injury themselves. It is difficult and takes a great deal of effort to separate the feelings associated with those memories from rational decision making about what to do going forward.
AVAILABILITY CASCADES. When news stories pile up our statistical senses get warped. A recent plane crash makes us think air travel is more dangerous than car travel. The more we fear air travel the more eager news reporters are to sensationalize plane crashes. A negative feedback loop is set in motion, a cascade of fear.
This is how the contagion of fear spreads. Even those not close to the event may have feelings and reactions to it similar to those who actually experienced some aspect of it. This can lead to community outrage and the crowd-base reactions discussed in this post, which may be directed not at the terrorists themselves, but at surrogates or scapegoats. This societal error in responding to terrorism is discussed further below in connection with the view through the Mimetic Lens.
The difficulties in separating reactive or emotional-based decision making lead us to create fear-based narratives longer term. There are several additional System 1 heuristics in play here, including:
THE ANCHORING EFFECT. This is the subconscious phenomenon of making incorrect estimates due to previously heard quantities. If I say the number 10 and ask you to estimate Gandhi’s age at death you’ll give a lower number than if I’d said to you the number 65.
After we hear of a terrorist attack, we are more likely to believe that another one is imminent and that it will be at least as destructive as the one being reported. In fact, such an attack remains unlikely and the likely death toll is likely close to zero, not including the terrorists themselves. This leads to:
THE NARRATIVE FALLACY and THE HINDSIGHT ILLUSION. In our continuous attempt to make sense of the world we often create flawed explanatory stories of the past that shape our views of the world and expectations of the future. Further, we think we understand the past, which implies the future should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do. Our intuitions and premonitions feel more true after the fact. Once an event takes place we forget what we believed prior to that event, before we changed our minds. Prior to 2008 financial pundits predicted a stock market crash but they did not know it. Knowing means showing something to be true. Prior to 2008 no one could show that a crash was true because it hadn’t happened yet. But after it happened their hunches were retooled and become proofs. “The tendency to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened produces a robust cognitive illusion.”
These aspects of faulty reasoning lead us to believe we can accurately predict where and how the next terrorist event will occur based simply on past events and that is possible to eliminate the possibility that such attacks will occur. In fact, predictions are only possible based on current information gathering, not past attacks, and the only way to eliminate the possibility of terrorism would be to monitor all persons at all times in the manner of a totalitarian state, and even that probably would not work. The reason we are overconfident in our abilities to predict future attacks is related to:
THE ILLUSION OF VALIDITY. We sometimes confidently believe our opinions, predictions, and points of view are valid when confidence is unwarranted. “Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it”.
Feelings of fear can easily lead into actions that erroneously create feelings of confidence, which can then lead to ill-conceived scapegoating and counter-attacks against surrogates.
Which leads us to our view through the Mimetic Lens, where we try to make some sense of "who" terrorists are anthropologically and how they interact with their sworn enemies and targets.
I recently ran across some works of Professor Waller Newell of Carlton College, a political historian who has written some scholarly works on the history of tyranny. Conveniently, some of his basic observations are laid out in this article. He identifies three types of tyranny:
"The first may be called “garden variety” tyrants, at once the oldest and still the most familiar type. These are men who dispose of an entire country and society as if it were their personal property, exploiting it for their own profit and pleasure and to advance their own clans and cronies. Examples from history abound, ranging from Hiero of Syracuse and the Emperor Nero to General Franco of Spain, the Somozas of Nicaragua, Saddam Hussein, and Bashar al-Assad.
The second type is the tyrant as reformer. These are men who are driven to possess supreme honor, wealth, and power unconstrained by law. They are not mere hedonists and wealth-seekers. They really want to improve their society and people through the constructive exercise of their untrammeled authority. Examples include Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, the Tudors, and such “enlightened despots” as Frederick the Great, Napoleon, and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Frequently, they are perceived not as tyrants, but as champions of the common people.
The third type of tyranny is millenarian. These rulers are content neither to be mere garden-variety tyrants nor to be reforming tyrants who make constructive improvements. They are driven by the impulse to impose a millenarian blueprint on the world . . .
[The French Revolution under Robespierre] was the first millenarian tyranny. After Robespierre, the league of millenarian tyrants includes Stalin, Hitler, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, and today’s Jihadists."
As we noted above, the modern usage of terrorism originates from the French Revolution. Newell appear to agree and elsewhere makes the central point that is of relevance to the view through the Mimetic Lens, namely that "Terrorist movements are tyrannical movements". This contextualizes terrorist in the framework of state sanctioned violence.
Recall from earlier discussions that the Mimetic Lens sees human societies built up on archaic sacred religions that evolve into rules or laws, under which the community disallows or strictly controls violence among its members, but uses state-sanctioned violence to maintain order and to bind the community together through the selection and sacrifice of designated scapegoats. (For a refresher on that, see "The Scapegoat Mechanism" and "The Origins of Culture" on the Mimetic Lens page.)
In this model, terrorism forms a mimetic rival to the state that is a form of "anti-state." Terrorists, in effect, seek to exercise the state authority to select scapegoats and sacrifice them for themselves. This is why terrorists often choose random or symbolic targets -- the target is merely a representative scapegoat of the enemy state or states. Moreover, the terrorist firmly believes that the scapegoat victims of his sacrificial violence are not innocent, and cannot be dissuaded otherwise.
The terrorist acts of sacrifice are used to bind the terrorist community in the most ancient manner of forming states. The reactions of the victims and their communities are used as part of this psychology of binding and reinforcement. Similar "binding" psychologies are employed by terrorist groups on an individual level when they require their recruits to commit atrocities against local scapegoats that they may have kidnapped or imprisoned.
Terrorists ultimately wish to create their own states by either supplanting or, more usually, carving out a portion of the states that they oppose. Power is the ultimate purpose and object.
This is also why purely rationalized approaches -- i.e., efforts to make the individual terrorists behave through economic incentives -- do not have a good track record of success. As Newell notes:
"The first step in confronting this danger, therefore, is to speak frankly about what it is without clinging to the comforting delusion that the spread of Western-style prosperity will be sufficient to counteract it. Reducing the root causes of terrorism to poverty and frustrated individual opportunity ignores the long-established if troubling psychological possibility that a hatred born of wounded honor and moral outrage is independently rooted in the human character."
What Newell seems to be missing, however, is that what is fundamentally rooted in human character is Mimetic Desire -- that form of envy that induces one actor to desire an object -- what another has -- and to supplant the former and possess the object themselves. In the case of terrorists, that "object" is not anything of a corporeal form, but is, in fact, power itself.
Finally, Mimetic Theory provides the clues to effective means of combating terrorist organizations. It must be a two-pronged approach. First, a society must avoid "feeding the beast". Since the reactions of the victim populace are used to psychologically bind and strengthen the terrorist organization through the mechanism of sacrificial violence, the more measured the immediate reaction to a terrorist attack, the less helpful it will be to the terrorist organization. Unfortunately, this is often difficult to accomplish as terrorist attacks make for exciting news stories and hyperbolic reactions by victims, media and government actors alike. But the more a society appears to be hunkered down in reaction to a terrorist act, the more emboldened and unified the terrorists will become.
Second, a society must have a plan for eradication or neutering of the terrorist organization, and would probably be better off not revealing too many of the details. Because publicly dramatic announcements and overt actions tend to embolden the terrorists by making them seem more significant and dangerous than they are -- as we know from the view through the Fractal Lens -- the mode of eradication should be targeted and systemic, much like eradicating an invasive species or disease, or cleaning up a crime-ridden neighborhood. And it must be proportional to the actual threat -- requiring us to calibrate our Prospecting Lens and engage in serious System 2 thinking, as opposed to System 1 gut-reactions.
Accurate targeting and proportionality is critical. There is enormous pressure on a society that has been attacked by terrorists to seek immediate and psychologically gratifying solutions. But a society that reacts disproportionately, or mimetically creates its own scapegoats of convenience that it seeks to punish as symbolic representatives of the terrorist organization, is making egregious errors. Disproportionate reactions and scapegoating only provide the terrorist organization with sympathetic grounds to proclaim that its sacrificial acts are clearly justified because the state it opposes is engaging in its own unnecessary sacrificial violence.
Disproportionate System 1 reactions also cloud our ability to analyze the situation accurately. For example, in the case of Daesh, it is obvious that the organization seeks to create an alternative state by filling the vacuum created by failed states in the Middle East and toppling other nearby governments if they can. But despite the propaganda, they are not seriously trying to create alternative states in Western territories or control them. Thus, the terrorist acts committed in Western countries are not directed at overthrowing Western governments, but function as a form of propaganda and as a recruitment tool. The proportionate reaction within Western countries should thus be better policing and information gathering directed at particular individuals. There is no need and it is counterproductive to round up, restrict or investigate vast segments of the populace as convenient scapegoats, as hotter heads have sometimes urged. There are no actual threats to the governments of Western states.
Larger scale and military responses, probably unannounced and of a covert nature, would be appropriate only where the terrorists are based and are seeking to maintain control. But even those are fraught with difficulties due the unintended consequences that may result, including weakened states and power vacuums that can be later exploited. While not very emotionally appealing from a System 1 perspective, grinding the terrorist organizations down with consistent pressure, disruption and attrition is likely the preferable approach in accordance with System 2, because it preserves order while neutering the ability of the terrorist organizations to use overt Western acts as propaganda and recruitment fodder.
On the other hand, when responses to terrorism involve disproportion and scapegoating, the terrorist threat may continue for decades if not generations and may morph into other organizations and problems. I'll leave the historical examples to the reader, bearing in mind the admonition that one person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter.
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I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.