By: Adam Strømme

In the aftermath of the horrendous attacks in London, it is tempting to write something which can contextualize the most recent act of horrific violence. By writing something that explains an attack in its own terms, articles written along these lines try to bring solace through clarity. Yet at the same time, they also try to dig channels into which to pour all of the complex array of emotions which naturally spring forth in the face of such trauma. By that measure, they are trying to do something both intellectual and emotional, and each necessarily cuts against the other in ways which tend to undermine both.

But as the reader will no doubt notice, it is not my intention to do this. This article comes out, deliberately, as a reflection on terrorism that does not occur in the immediate aftermath of a terror attack, with all of the anger, fear, confusion, and scapegoating which defines those times. Rather, it is my intention to speak a little bit more broadly about terrorism, its motives and impacts upon the public, and why the common conception of how to manage terroristic attacks, “getting tough” on terror, whether pursued for shameless electoral gain or out of a genuine conviction that it is a constructive solution to the problem, is often wrong.

Terrorism is an important subject for our times, and yet for all the importance which is attached to it in public discourse, precious little time is given to helping people understand the motivations and solutions for terrorism. Media outlets, more concerned with ratings than information, often choose to inundate their audiences with the grotesque imagery of the acts themselves. Such a set of priorities is both cruel and counterproductive.

Discussions about terrorism usually dwell on two things, both of which do remarkably little to help clarify the problem terrorism poses in the public eye. The first concerns itself with the most recent acts of the terrorists, whether they were acts of violence, or the often disturbing pronouncements of the groups in the run-up to some event. Doing so is certainly helpful for accomplishing the completely unnecessary task of vilifying the terror group in question, but beyond that it doesn’t give the audience a lot of information that is constructive. In effect, news readers or television audiences tune in to hear “there is a group out there which wishes to do harm to you to order to achieve its aims” and little else. Where actually relevant information could be afforded, few commentators seem to feel the need to proceed.

The second set of discussions is a bit more constructive than the first, but still present numerous problems absent a serious discussion of the nature of terrorism itself. This set of discussions, piggybacking off the first, set out to explain the motivation of the groups, combing manifestos or the pronouncements of the groups in order to tie it into a coherent ideology. In doing so, such conversations at least try to give an identity to the terroristic group in question, but stop short of a lot of the necessary caveats which must be made if one is to talk about terrorists seriously.

Terrorism is an important subject for our times, and yet for all the importance which is attached to it in public discourse, precious little time is given to helping people understand the motivations and solutions for terrorism

For example, a large part of the reason for acts of terrorism is that they allow a relatively small and otherwise inconsequential group of political radicals to seize the public forum and dominate it with a discussion of their own views. In granting such a large forum for their views, outlets that dwell on the ideologies of terror groups often play into the very narrative that the group is trying to project, namely, that they have the support and the means to carry out their agenda. This grants them a sort of legitimacy through notoriety which, and this is crucial to any discussion of terror groups, they would emphatically not be able to secure through recourse to democratic deliberation and popular organizing.

This is a major caveat which is the starting point of any serious terror scholar, and yet is virtually never brought up: terrorism is a weapon of the politically, organizationally, and militarily weak. 

These groups do not engage in terrorism because they are a threat to the status quo, nor do they do so with the broad support to the religious or ethnic groups they are often associated with, but precisely because they cannot secure the support of those very groups. If we are to scale up the acts of political violence to those which have the support of at least some of these social groups, and which therefore can be sustained, then we are talking about guerrilla warfare, which requires some sort of popular support to be sustained. If we scale it up to the national level, then we are talking about outright war: the implicitly-sanctioned violence of a political community.

This is a major caveat which is the starting point of any serious terror scholar, and yet is virtually never brought up: terrorism is a weapon of the politically, organizationally, and militarily weak. 

Political violence exists upon a continuum, and terrorism is far and away the least consequential, least meaningful, and most desperate form of violence. It is a form of political violence which relies upon fear and intimidation because, on the one hand, its advocates cannot produce respect for their views in a legitimate political forum, and on the other hand, because this lack of support for their agenda translates into an inability of terrorists to sustain the means to oppose their political enemies through more conventional forms of warfare. It is for precisely this reason that terrorists are rightly considered so vain and contemptible: their craft is that of the socially and politically exiled, incapable of producing respect for their convictions by any other means, and this presents itself in the profile of many terror groups, as well as in so-called “lone wolf” terror attacks. Carrying the analogy to its logical conclusion, one could rightly consider a terror group as a sort of cult of ideologically associated lone wolves.

Terrorists with radical agendas are less dangerous because of their radicalism, not more.

It should be clear that our knee-jerk reaction to terrorism, to describe in visceral detail the actions of terrorists, producing precisely the aura of fear that they seek to impose, and to elevate their views into realms of discussion which produce an implicit illusion of popular support, is a quite unhelpful exercise. But this is not the only problem with modern discussions about terrorism. In particular, the solutions are often presented in two interrelated maxims, “getting tough” and discrimination, which are extremely counterproductive.

In the immediate aftermath of a serious terror attack, the notion that the solution lies in “getting tough” on terror groups is often the first thing trotted out as a solution to the problem. Worse still, getting “tough on terror” is often used as a pretense for a lot of intrusive and unpopular government policies meant to root out a problem whose net public impact is below deaths caused by infants with firearms and orders of magnitude below things like choking on food or dying while bicycling.

Terrorists with radical agendas are less dangerous because of their radicalism, not more.

It would of course appear disingenuous to say that we could treat these things as similar, in particular because of the weight that is given to the political message implicit in terrorism, and because, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, stopping terrorism is often regarded as a matter of political will, “getting tough”, rather than the product of radicalization or mental instability. But the fact that the comparison appears absurd, or that terrorism is regarded as somehow a greater public danger than mundane sources of danger that are thousands, or even tens of thousands of time more dangerous to the public is precisely my point.

Terrorism is not a serious threat to society, because those that use terrorism use it precisely because of their impotence. The efficacy of terrorism lies in how big a threat it is perceived to be, and not how big of a threat it actually is. This is important, because the efficacy of terrorism is therefore within our power to control, and it is in large part a function of the headlines it produces in the media, and the often conscious government policies which unfortunately serve to magnify rather than reduce the sense of fear after an attack. In any case, the fear terrorism aims to produce is not a product of rational deliberation. Watching the increasingly extreme pronouncements of fear-mongering administration officials, in particular in the United States, and the otherwise unaccountably rising perception of risk within the public is a particularly instructive exercise.

It is clear that a government policy which delegitimates, downplays, and demonstrates the futility of terrorism, rather than aggravating them, is likely to be much more effective than one which accepts the perceived threat terrorists are said to pose on their own terms.

But of course, the reality for political leaders is not quite so simple. Even for those politicians who do not indulge in reckless, nationalistic platitudes about a great nation under peril from politically isolated radicals, the temptation to crack down on terror groups, even when there is no real longstanding reason to do so (or, in the case of lone wolf attacks, no implicit group to hold suspect), is quite powerful. If terrorism is the calculated use of symbolic acts of violence to produce fear and achieve a political end, then part of the solution still needs to come from a leadership which ameliorates the fears of the public and reassures them of their safety. To not so do would be politically reckless and ethically questionable.

[T]he efficacy of terrorism lies in how big a threat it is perceived to be, and not how big of a threat it actually is

But the way in which many political leaders choose to do so is by no means the only one. Often, for want of other constructive outlets, political leaders tend to implicitly accept metanarratives from the xenophobic (and unconsciously hypocritical) far-right that terrorism is the unique product of a specific ethnic group, or an irreducible element of their ideology or religion, and that the persecution of these groups is therefore the appropriate solution. By taking drastic actions after terror attacks, these politicians protect themselves from the right, which will often hold any calculation which does not point the blame at entire social groups as a measure of sympathy with the terror groups, or a betrayal of the defense of the country.

It doesn’t have to make sense, it just needs to have the capacity to enrage voters.

The problem with this approach is that it plays into the aims of the terror group. Here the best case study is Islamic extremism as it manifests in the West, both because it so often (and irrationally) steals the headlines, and because it is perceived by the “get tough” narrative to be the product of a particular ethnic group which has correspondingly found itself subject to invasive and discriminatory persecution, both in government policy and in the public eye.

By accepting the antagonistic response of the far-right, which mistakes discrimination and brutality for efficacy, the government ends up legitimating the narrative of Islamic terror groups by sowing antagonisms between Western Muslim minorities and their own governments. Muslims are treated as alien, foreign, and dangerous. Muslims in turn feel threatened and persecuted by their government for the actions of others. In the ensuing crackdown, governments which brand themselves as taking proactive steps to eradicate terrorism end up fostering the kinds of humiliating, degrading, and suspicious attitudes towards Muslims that produce the sympathy for radicalization in the first place.

[A] government policy which delegitimates, downplays, and demonstrates the futility of terrorism is likely to be much more effective than one which accepts the perceived threat terrorists are said to pose on their own terms.

In essence, terror groups are trying to put politicians in a double bind. The government doesn’t want to appear weak on terrorism, and under the pressure of a recent attack it is therefore likely to be more open to drastic or discriminatory actions. However, if these actions fail to destroy the terror group, such measures can often devolve into a climate of fear which improves the relative position of the terror group, which needs the atmosphere of persecution in order to gain sympathy, draw recruits, and thrive.

However, if the government sees the danger in this approach and chooses not to escalate the situation, then they risk being attacked, nearly always by the right, as being “weak” on terrorism. Of course here being “weak”, rather than having anything to do with efficacy, just means not engaging in reprisals, cracking down on whole ethic/religious groups, and generally engaging in policies which can often be counterproductive to the long term goals of removing the base of a terror group’s support. By contrast, by isolating terror groups and their influence from potential followers, and ensuring life goes on normally for those who have literally nothing to do with the outbursts of an unrelated sect of the population, a government is likely to be not only much more humane, but also much more successful. The best challenge to divisive acts of terror is solidarity, protecting those they wish for us to isolate and punishing politicians who seize upon the climate of fear for personal gain.

In essence, terror groups are trying to put politicians in a double bind

So next time the world is rocked by tragedy, just remember a few things. First, terror groups are a comparatively impotent force in the international community. Second, terror groups are defined by weakness, not strength, and this is particularly true the more radical a group attempts to portray itself. Third, terror groups are as old as civilization itself, and stripping away our civil liberties or persecuting minority groups does little to improving our collective safety. If anything, it makes us less secure. And finally, the purpose of a terror group is to use fear and intimidation: if we stand united, against opportunistically divisive politicians and ethnonationalists in equal measure, terror loses much of its force.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt aptly wrote almost a century ago: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

 

 

 

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