Terrorism and Being Terrified

George Friedman
Editor, This Week in Geopolitics


In 2013, President Barack Obama pointed out that more people are killed in the United States in car crashes than in terrorist attacks. More recently, he said that more people are killed by handguns in the United States than by terrorist attacks. Both statements are true. His intention in making these statements was to put terrorism into perspective, in order to calm the public and keep terrorism from defining our national policy. Obviously, his argument did not achieve its rational goals. Terrorism clearly frightens people more than other threats do. Some argue that people are overreacting to terrorism. However, comparisons with automobile accidents fail to capture the profound difference between the two, a difference that isn’t reflected in the simple probabilities of dying by various means. And this difference is the reason that fear of terrorism is an appropriate response.

Americans and Europeans know intuitively that we are, as individuals, highly unlikely to be killed in a terrorist attack, but we also know such attacks are almost inevitable and that some of us will be the victims. It is terrifying to think that there are people who at this very moment are planning attacks with the goal of causing as many deaths and injuries as possible.

To understand how people respond to different threats, we need to look at the psychology of risk. Automobile deaths are generally not intended, and people who are about to have a car accident do not wake in the morning expecting or planning to die.

Gun deaths may be accidental or planned, but even the ones that are planned are generally not part of a major, well-integrated plot. Some shootings have involved relatively large numbers of casualties; they have been the work of individuals or small groups. Though such shootings may be intended, they remain unrelated to one another rather than centrally organized by a malevolent network bent on destruction. Therefore, what differentiates gun and automobile deaths from terrorism is organized intentionality.

Terrorism draws its motivation from a clear and organized intention. Terrorists believe they are acting out a moral imperative on behalf of a well-established organization.

Terrorists are not maniacs, and terrorism is not an accident. Terrorism is carefully planned yet invisible until it strikes. This is one of terrorism’s most powerful aspects.

Neither the time nor place is predictable. And the moment public fear subsides, terror may erupt again.

Lone wolves are alone to the extent that no one directly helps them plan or execute an attack. But even as they act alone, they may draw their inspiration from a supposed moral principle. European left-wing terrorists in the 1970s and 1980s relied on transitory moral principles. They were easily defeated because they self-destructed as a result of internal squabbles and defections that reflected a lack of clarity in their beliefs and the weakness of their bonds.

Islamist terrorism is different. It draws its strength from a cohesive doctrine with a deep history. As with all religions built on revelation, there is deep disagreement within Islam between the demands imposed by revelation and the interpretations conceived by later religious authorities. But a powerful case can be made that Islamic terrorists cannot be separated from the Islamic religion. They are Muslims, and their violent interpretation of their religious doctrines is a powerfully destructive trend, even if it is not dominant within contemporary Islam. In addition, the concept of jihad, defined in the military sense, has played a critical role in shaping the evolution of Islam. Armed Islamist non-state actors have built their ideology on historical precedent. The fact that most Muslims today do not believe in jihad as the terrorists have interpreted it is not as important as is the fact that some do believe in it and are willing to act on t hat belief and kill for their cause.

There is an inhumanity, not in the Islamist terrorists’ cruelty—cruelty is common—but in their sense of what life and death mean. Islamist terrorists welcome death. Many groups—not just IS and al-Qaida but also Hamas, Hezbollah, and others—have promoted the saying “We love death more than you love life.” This idea has its origins in the statement of a prominent 7th-century Muslim general who was engaged in jihad against the Persian Empire. Terrorists who have no fear of dying rob us of a key weapon we wield in conducting warfare: the threat of death. The purpose of killing in war is not to simply eliminate enemy soldiers; it is to demoralize them by convincing them that death awaits. But this threat no longer has power when the enemy doesn’t fear death. What makes terrorism more frightening is that we do not know how many jihadists there are, how many need to be killed, or even how we can recognize them a mong the innocent.

When we see pictures of terrorists calmly pushing luggage carts in an airport, it is not their courage that stands out, nor their willingness to die, but the sense that death does not mean to them what it means to us. We speak of dehumanizing people by regarding them as “other” or alien. These terrorists are “other.” They are not like us in the fundamental sense that they say they prefer death over life—and by every indication, they do. We are, of course, terrified by the randomness and the violence of the terrorists, but what is more frightening is the terrorist himself.

This point brings us back to the question of what the appropriate response to terrorism should be. Obama wants to put our fear of terrorism into context—but we have seen that terrorism is not like other threats we face. It is invisible, pitiless, and very real. Terrorism is designed to transform the souls of potential victims. As Lenin is said to have remarked, “The purpose of terror is to terrify.” Those who claim not to be afraid may characterize our fear of terrorism as excessive, but perhaps those who think they have rationalized away their fear of terrorism simply don’t understand it or may feel personally immune to the danger it presents.

In war, the goal is to keep the enemy off balance. One way to accomplish that is to do something that paralyzes him. Another way is to force him to lash out irrationally, so that he squanders his strength in pointless enterprises. Islamist terrorists are adept at both strategies. By making their attacks intermittent, they create a temporary sense that they have disappeared, so that readiness is reduced and there are squabbles about overreaction—a familiar cycle that has been playing out in Europe and the US for decades now. At the same time, the terrorists have caused the United States in particular to take substantial military action that has not succeeded in reducing terrorism. The cyclical nature of Islamist terrorism, coupled with large military deployments by the US, have created a cycle that oscillates between demands for extreme countermeasures and demands that we m ust not change our lives because terrorism is a marginal force. This cycle reflects the paralysis of the hyperactive—always doing, never getting anywhere.

People express a variety of beliefs about Islamist terrorism. One is that it is invisible but potent and ready to strike, and this assumption creates fear that the threat is imminent.

The other stance dismisses this fear, arguing that terrorism isn’t war and so isn’t all that important. The latter attitude is essentially the one that Obama has espoused. His argument is that, since other things cause death more frequently than terrorism does, terrorism ought not to be granted unique importance. It should not be responded to disproportionately, but rather in the broader context of all potential threats.

The president’s argument is a powerful one in light of the terrorist’s mission, which is to terrify us into unwise actions. According to this argument, terrorism is one of the things we must live with. It has a definable size and shape—even if some of the perpetrators act irrationally or alone. We will do what we can to fight terrorism, but we will not let it fundamentally change the way we live. Otherwise, the terrorists have won.

We should not dismiss this stance. I do, however, disagree with it. First, I suspect that there is bit of denial involved in it. It’s true that terrorist attacks are rare and that few of us will die from them, but it is still possible that we, or our loved ones, will become the victim of an attack. If we’re playing terrorist roulette—and we are—we shouldn’t get too comfortable about our house odds. The probability of you or me dying in a terrorist attack is vanishingly small. But we are human beings, and if 100 people die in an attack and the president reacts by saying, “Only 100 people died. Don’t panic,” I suspect there will be public turmoil. Game theory might minimize the significance of such an event, but we can all imagine that the people lost in that attack were our own family members. Imagination is not comforted by statistical improbability, and our political leaders cannot get away with offering only a fal tering response to terrorism—even if we turn around and criticize them for intruding on our privacy. I don’t think Obama would be comforting us with comparisons to car accidents had the attacks in Paris or Brussels occurred in the United States.

The second argument against Obama’s view is that, in prior conflicts, the United States has always limited liberties in the course of formulating a robust response to our enemies. During World War II there was severe censorship. In the Civil War habeas corpus was suspended. These limitations were lifted after the wars. The United States has a superb history of managing national emergencies and then moving beyond them.

But of course, this is the problem. The present emergency may not end, because we will never know—and have no way of knowing—whether people who love death more than life have moved into the house next door. We can ban anyone and everyone from the country, as we ban drugs or once banned alcohol. But banning people won’t work. And even if it did, we would never be sure that the threat was really gone.

And that is why terrorism is effective. A terrorist need not be present among us in order to cause terror. Our imaginations are already infested with him. He wins if we can’t live with the terrors our imaginations conjure, inspired by acts already committed here and there around the world. But imagination is neither trivial nor a mere illusion. It is where we define our relations with the world. We win if we can control our collective imagination. But in naively purging our imaginations of a known threat just because there are more car accident deaths than terrorism deaths, we fail to understand the power of the jihadist army and the nature of the terrain of the imagination. In the end, we are only human, and we, for our part, love life.

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