I grew up during the Cold War when America's rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country's very existence. Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat. Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. But terrorism was and is nothing new. We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it. The question is how best to face it.
Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it. Restricting liberty is the wrong way. An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way. Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way. Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international). Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems. The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old "body count" from the Vietnam War era).
Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill. We're helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop. The more we "hit" various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.
One of the first Rand primers I read as a young Air Force lieutenant was "International Terrorism: The Other World War," written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985. Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly "aimed at the people watching," that terrorism can't be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose ("causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order"), that terrorism is a form of political theater. As Jenkins notes:
Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding. News coverage focuses on action not words. Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy.
Furthermore, "terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack," though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.
What can we learn from Jenkins's primer on terrorism? Three big lessons:
- Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don't panic. And don't exaggerate the threat.
- Don't sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That's what the terrorists want. They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
- Finally, don't change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want. They want to turn people against one another. To divide is to conquer.
Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action. But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized overreaction simply play into the terrorists' hands. Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote. Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.
William Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and historian who blogs at Bracing Views.