The Modern Survival Guide #48
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I’m not afraid of terrorists. That’s just me. I don’t think you should be either, because spending too much time being afraid of something as unlikely to harm you as a terrorist is bad for your peace of mind and bad for the country.
And before you ask, yes, I was around for Sept. 11. I remember that national tragedy, and I remember the heart breaking aftermath. I also remember the colossal national freak-out that accompanied it, and that’s my primary reason for writing this article. Because, as near as I can tell, our national posture surrounding terrorism is totally, completely, and insanely fear-dominated. And it’s not changing. It’s an issue because this affects our way thinking about terrorists, our ways of responding to terrorists, and as a result, your personal life.
The Problem with Fear
Once upon a time millions of years ago, mammals evolved. And because they lived in a world with a lot of other creatures that would quite like to eat them, nature in her wisdom gifted them with the fight-or-flight response, which is still with us today.
Put bluntly, people only have a few responses to fear-based stimuli: run or fight. We’ve become very good at fighting over the years, because fighting is a function of tool use for humans, and these days we have some very, very good tools indeed. But the problem with this reflexive response is that it limits our options and our thought processes. People are exposed to a fear-based problem, and if we aren’t careful our responses are either “Get away!” or “Kill it with fire!”
That works just find for saber-toothed tigers, but not so well for the modern world, and specifically not very well at all for terrorism.
Terrorists do their work by exploiting fear responses. They work to prompt either the “Get away!” reaction, which is a prelude to surrender or bargaining, or the “Kill it with fire!” response, which is a prelude to martyrdom. Either response helps them, and they don’t have to do much to achieve these results. That’s the whole point, you see: terrorists are terrorists because they don’t have the wherewithal to be an army or a nation. They engage in asymmetric warfare because they can’t engage in normal warfare. Part of that means refusing to fight an enemy directly, and being perfectly willing to use horrific means to elicit fear responses.
Fear clouds our thinking; it makes things easy for the terrorists, not only because they get a lot of attention, but because they can get us to hurt ourselves. That’s the thing about asymmetric warfare: it’s not always about winning. Sometimes it’s just about hurting your opponent as much as possible.
And good God, they’re good at it.
The Fear-Based Response to Terrorism
A victim nation providing either a “Get away” or “Kill it with fire!” response is a perfectly acceptable situation for a terrorist, because both of those responses are knee-jerk reactions. They are undertaken with the minimum of consideration of consequences, and the real trouble with that kind of thing is that the consequences can be both severe and far-reaching.
Let’s take a look at air travel, shall we? What happened right after Sept. 11? All of a sudden, we had the TSA — The Transportation Security Administration — a brand-new government agency that stood up overnight to protect the nation from the threat of terrorists on aircraft. This agency was billed to the public as a necessary reaction to protect people from the threat of aircraft hijackings and suicide bombers. By and large, we accept this as their reason for existence.
Trouble is, they suck at it. TSA routinely fails simulations and tests. Not to mention that they add complexity and aggravation to air travel, they routinely engage in invasive checks, and they’re consistently rude. They also cost about $8 billion a year.
Now, don’t get me wrong, air travel needed a security upgrade. But the really effective measures went into place with a minimum of cost or aggravation: scanning checked luggage for explosives, locking the crew cabin door, telling passengers that they might need to fight for their lives (a novel concept, but one that actually has stopped a few attacks), and putting more air marshals on flights. The rest is just security theater.¹ TSA is an example of a fear-based response pushing security theater at your expense. It doesn’t make you much safer, but now it’s an institution and it’ll be bloody hard to get rid of.
Similarly, remember the lead-up to the Afghanistan conflict? We’d just been hit. The narrative was totally focused on “let’s hit back.” It was very much a knee-jerk, rally-round-the-flag, blood-for-blood reaction. And within months we were in a land war in Asia. It’s now the longest running war in US history, and what has it accomplished? Well, we destroyed an already unstable country, killed a bunch of people, spent a lot of money, tested some theories on nation-building, and eviscerated a major faction of Al Qaeda. One of those is a good thing. But global terrorism didn’t just stop; if anything we’ve perpetuated a breeding ground for terrorists and insurgents.
Last but not least, let’s chat for a bit about the US national surveillance apparatus. Your emails are screened. Your phone calls are tracked. Your apps are surveilled and your searches are monitored. Because it contains a lot of keywords, someone might even scan this article. Ever since Sept. 11, our right to privacy has basically gone up in smoke. Is this all worth it? Who knows?! The agencies involved haven’t publicly released much info about how many terrorist plots they’ve uncovered. But their budgets increased, and their administrative fiefdoms have grown, and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy is kicking in.
Here’s the thing: a fear-based response by a developed nation against a terrorist threat tends to lead to an asymmetric conflict, mainly characterized by vast expenditures of treasure, degradation of civil liberties, and heavy-handed military actions on the part of the developed nation. In this circumstance, whatever happens to the terrorists, they’ve won. They’ve disrupted a nation vastly more powerful than their group. They’ve claimed the media spotlight. They’ve forced opportunity costs. They’ve created a new generation of resentment over civilian casualties from our reprisals. They’ve strained our international relationships. They’ve impacted our rights. They’ve actually hurt us.
This is what comes of fear.
A Rational Response to Terrorism
There are, of course, rational responses to international terrorists, and they all start with one premise:
Do not be afraid of them.
The simple truth of the matter is that no terrorist organization is capable of seriously harming the United States.² They universally lack the manpower, funding, political strategy, resources, and training to do so because they’re terrorists. They’re not rival nation-states with huge military budgets. They’re not even international corporations who can insidiously manipulate economics (or whatever James Bond-level conspiracy you like). They’re mostly scrappy cells of a few fighters, a few bomb-makers, and a few leaders with the charisma to hold it all together.
Can they sting us? Yes. Can they destroy us? No. Not by such a long shot it’s not even funny. Therefore the following statement is true:
Any terrorist attack is a wasp sting.
And like all stings, your reaction determines the consequences. Do you treat the sting and move on? Do you call an exterminator for the nest? Do you spray it yourself and risk another sting? Or do you go nuts, cover your entire house in saran wrap, tell the local paper you’ve got an infestation of killers bees, and then run out in the yard and start kicking the nest with bare feet?
There are measured and proportional responses to most international terrorist attacks, and they mostly have to do with convincing the local government to do something about them. We’ve seen a broad-scope effort to do just that over the last twenty years, and they’ve been the most effective methods in the War on Terror. Remember: most terrorist groups are small enough that dealing with them is effectively a police action (admittedly, one that involves SWAT teams). It’s only the very rare case when an actual military incursion is even necessary. Don’t let the Middle East fool you — it’s a big world, there are a lot of terrorist groups, and almost none of them are on a path to become another ISIS.
Similarly, any rational effort to root out terrorism should address the core reasons why terrorists get recruits. If we learned nothing else from ISIS, it’s that large numbers of poor, unemployed young men in lawless regions are susceptible to messages that promise a better life, particularly when they get to shoot something and/or are promised eternal rewards in heaven. If you want to fight terrorism, supporting international efforts to establish the rule of law and promote economic development are great places to start.
At the same time, it’s vitally important in any debate on terrorists to understand that all terrorists are not created equal. Many of them actually are not in the business solely for religious reasons, for example. That means that many of them have basic political goals, which in turn means that we can negotiate with some groups. This is one of those “some men are tall, some men are doctors, not all doctors are tall men” type things.
Finally, any rational discussion of international terrorism needs to include the caveat that not every terrorist is our problem. The international War on Terror attempted to make every terrorist everyone’s problem (to the great delight of authoritarian regimes — one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter), but the fact remains that we have no business getting involved in every single incident. That’s a rabbit hole with no end.
How This Affects You
You pay for fear in money and lives. If you’re a US citizen, over the past seventeen years we’ve spent more than $5.5 trillion dollars fighting “international terrorism.” That is a literally unreal amount of money, and somehow or another we still have terrorists.³ The human cost is staggering too. Thousands of Americans have died overseas, and hundreds of thousands (at minimum) of Iraqis and Afghans have died primarily due to American activities. And that doesn’t even touch Syria.
Remember earlier, when we talked about asymmetric warfare? This is what winning looks like for the terrorists. They don’t have to make America weaker by bombing us every year, they can just bomb us once and let the opportunity costs kill our infrastructure, healthcare, and corruption index, while the human costs increase their recruiting base and destabilize nations to serve as new conflict zones. That’s not a bad return on investment for a few attacks and a handful of suicide bombers.
And this all stems from fear. Specifically, our fear. It is our responsibility as citizens to inform our elected representatives as to exactly how much we care about and/or are afraid of particular things. It is also our responsibility as citizens to be afraid of the right things.
Terrorism is not one of those things. Your chances of being involved in a terrorist incident are notoriously slim, and there are many, many, many things in life that are much more likely to harm you, yet receive a fraction of the attention. You are literally more likely to win the lottery than you are to be involved in a terrorist incident.
We have to stop being afraid, and we have to stop letting our politicians and media outlets make us afraid. This is, quite simply, a key to survival in the modern world in general, and to dealing with terrorism in particular.
That does not mean that we ignore terrorists, and it doesn’t mean we’re disregarding a threat. It simply means that we understand the severity of the threat, treat it accordingly, and prevent the dialogue on the threat from tainting other issues. This is our responsibility as citizens of both the nation and the world, and hey… aren’t you going to be a little happier if you aren’t afraid of bogeymen?
So say it with me:
I’m not afraid of terrorists.
¹Security Theater: “Security measures” that are in place primarily to make you feel safer, but which don’t actually do much to protect you.
²But what about Sept. 11, I hear you say? Well, look… yes, it was awful. Yes, it was traumatic. But it really wasn’t a national-level catastrophe, when looked at objectively. Ultimately a couple of thousand people died and a city block was destroyed. We’ve had building fires that did the same thing. The recent hurricane in Puerto Rico probably killed more people and caused more damage. Hell, as bad as Sept. 11 was, it doesn’t even touch our annual deaths from homicides by good ‘ole home-grown American citizens. Sept. 11 is seared into the national consciousness because it was unusual and because we made a big deal out of it. Sept. 11 changed the nation because we let it; that’s the solid truth.
³No, seriously, it’s unreal: that amount of money is almost literally impossible to print.