Keeping the Threat of Terrorism in Context
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
My friend, J.J. Green of WTOP News radio, and I recently discussed a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intelligence bulletin warning of the increasing domestic terrorist threat in the United States.
The threat posed by domestic violent extremists is very real, but it is important to place such threats in the proper context.
Historical and tactical context is critical in assessing threats because it is what allows us to understand what a threat is, and just as importantly—what it is not.
The psychological fear caused by such threats can actually be increased by warnings of these threats.
Therefore, keeping the threat of terrorism in context can help reduce the impact of the resulting fear by examining the closely related phenomena of terrorism and terror.
Understanding the Role of “Terror” in Terrorism
Terrorism has always been closely linked to mass media because the media allows terrorists to magnify the impact of their attack far beyond the actual death and destruction the attack produces.
Terrorism is by its very nature “the propaganda of the deed,” and the intent of those who practice it is to create terror in their targeted audience.
Remember the sense of fear, dread, and terror inflicted on the world by the 9/11 attacks?
Through those attacks, a small group of men was able to not only able to kill some 3,000 people and destroy aircraft and iconic buildings, but they were also able to terrorize nearly the entire nation—and a good part of the world.
Millions of people were shaken to the core by those attacks and then lived in fear of the widely anticipated (and threatened) al Qaeda follow-on attacks.
These threats caused the DHS to circulate bulletins advising citizens to prepare for future chemical and biological weapons attacks by purchasing plastic sheeting and duct tape to protect themselves.
While additional attacks never materialized, these official warnings served the terrorists’ goals of propagating terror by affecting the daily lives of normal citizens.
Magnitude of Fear
Sensational terrorist attacks create an impact on the human psyche that results in a sense of terror that can dwarf the reaction people have to a natural disaster that is many times greater in magnitude.
As an example, compare the reaction to the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 227,000 people, with that of 9/11 which killed some 3,000 people.
The 9/11 attack clearly produced a sense of terror far more profound than the tsunami.
In addition to terrorizing the population, the 9/11 attacks also produced a visceral reaction from the U.S. government.
This reaction led to the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a wide-ranging global war on terror that has resulted in American military and intelligence activity in scores of countries around the world and that has cost untold billions of dollars.
Terrorism is a very real and persistent problem, especially for people living in places like Yemen, Afghanistan, or Northeastern Nigeria.
However, the current domestic terrorism threat in the United States, and other locations in the developed world, is simply not an existential threat.
Violence, and the terror it generates, have always been an aspect of the human condition.
The Chinese did not build the Great Wall to be a tourist attraction.
It was constructed to protect China from the violence and destruction unleashed by marauding hordes descending from the Eurasian steppe.
Fortunately, today’s terrorists are far less dangerous to most of the world than the Mongols, Huns, Vikings, or other violent invaders of humanity’s past.
However, the fear they create may not be any less, and those who employ terrorism clearly recognize the difference between terrorist attacks and terror.
It is a successful tactic used by a variety of actors that will not go away anytime soon.
Separating Terror from Terrorism
To combat the mystique and associated hype is to mitigate the psychological impact of terrorism.
Therefore, it is crucial to recognize terrorism for what it is and the intent of its practitioners.
Terrorists consciously plan their operations, and even their empty threats, in an effort to maximize the terror they create.
Those planning and executing terrorist attacks are not some sort of Hollywood “super commandos” who can conjure spectacular attacks out of thin air.
Individuals who practice relaxed, sustainable situational awareness, can help protect themselves and others from terrorist attacks.
And when people practice situational awareness collectively, they also can help protect their communities from such attacks.
Additionally, resist the terror magnifiers terrorist planners use in their efforts to maximize the impact of their attacks.
Terrorist attacks will cause tragedy and suffering, but if the targeted population can separate terror from terrorism, it will help to minimize the total impact of the attack.
This is not to ignore the tragedy of the people who are murdered or injured in a terrorist attack, but by refusing to take our fear to the extremes, we can deny terrorists a cheap victory.
Terrorist attacks are relatively easy to conduct, especially if the assailant is willing to die in the attack.
While authorities in the United States have proved quite successful in foiling attacks over the past few years, the government simply does not have the resources to protect everything, and a lot of soft targets remain vulnerable.
This means that some terrorist operations will invariably succeed.
However, the manner in which media, governments, and populations respond to successful attacks will determine how successful an attack is in creating terror.
The practitioners of terrorism lose a great deal of their power and reach if the people they are targeting refuse to be terrorized.
A great example of this was the reaction of London’s population after the July 7, 2005 attacks.
Londoners returned to work the next day and refused to be cowed.
This made the attacks much less successful as terrorism than they could have been.
A Hard Truth
The world has always been—and remains—a dangerous place. Each of us is going to die, and some of us will die in a violent manner.
In 2001, more than 42,000 people died from car crashes in the United States and hundreds of thousands of Americans died from heart disease and cancer.
The 9/11 attacks were the bloodiest terrorist attacks in world history, and yet even those historic attacks resulted in the deaths of fewer than 3,000 people, a number that pales in comparison to deaths by other causes in the U.S. that year.
This is in no way meant to trivialize those who died on 9/11 or the loss their families suffered, but merely to point out that lots of people die every day and that their families are affected, too.
Recognizing that violence, like car crashes, cancer, and natural disasters, is part of the human condition permits people to refuse to be terrorized.
This recognition also permits us to take prudent measures to avoid becoming victims of violence or to quickly respond to an unfolding attack.
This is why it is important to always keep the terrorist threat in context.