How terrorism works, and what we should (and shouldn’t) do about it

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How terrorism works, and what we should (and shouldn’t) do about it

Terrorism is very much on everyone’s mind these days. It is not our intent to discuss the politics of the Middle East here, the rightness or wrongness of any of the participants, or the nature of good and evil. Rather, it is to remind us that terrorism – criminal acts that deliberately hurt innocents for political reasons – is something we should not tolerate. We would also like to remind ourselves that the reaction to terrorism can be as destructive as terrorism itself, and that anti- and counter-terrorism policies must therefore be implemented with great caution.

While the function of terrorism is to terrorize, the goal is to change political behavior. There are two types of changes that might be desired by terrorists as a result of terrorism: Transforming a society and changing its views on some political issue.

Transforming a society

The first goal of terrorism is to transform in some way the country being terrorized. There are a number of reasons terrorists might wish to transform a society. One is to make the country more open to a political change desired by the terrorists.

How does this change take place? Countries that are the victims of terrorism tend to become more politically restrictive as they attempt to curtail the terrorists’ use of available freedoms through increasingly intrusive police powers, and increasingly intrusive incursion into personal liberties, all in the name of protecting freedom. These restrictions always weaken freedom and can eventually move democracies toward dictatorship. In many cases, as the country becomes more controlling, the citizens become more restive, more unhappy with the political structure, and more willing to consider change of political structure. This is particularly true as the civil rights of citizens are abrogated, and particularly true if the police or military start to use kidnapping and torture as investigative tools.

It is an unfortunate truth that there is a natural conflict between freedom and security, with citizens wanting more freedom and government wanting more security. This author remembers when Miranda came on the scene and many in the police world believe that they would never again be able to make a successful arrest and conviction. We see much the same philosophical conflict now, as we struggle to figure out how to deal appropriately with those criminals willing to uses our own system against us.

Another goal of terrorism is to focus the attention of the targeted country inward, making it more isolationist. By removing its influence abroad, weaker societies can fall prey to the political masters of the terrorists more easily. A third goal – vengeance – is that of the terrorist like Ted Kaczynski who is merely angry (or crazy), and wishes to cause terror in order to get even. From the point of view of a democracy, the greatest risk of terrorism is neither the killing of its citizens nor the destruction of its infrastructure. Rather, it is the destruction of its social values that is most to be feared.

Influencing the decision making process

The second way change takes place is by causing citizens to make political decisions in hopes of ending the terrorism. The most obvious way this happens is by making the victims afraid, so they will walk away from an issue or change their policy. The danger for the terrorists is that they will make their victims angry, and that their anger will push them to find the terrorists and kill them.

The other way this happens is to change the victims’ belief structure, so that the terrorism turns them from being the terrorists’ enemies to being their supporters. The term Stockholm syndrome was coined after four hostages were taken and kept captive for six days in a failed robbery in 1973 at a branch of Kreditbanken in Stockholm. During the rescue, the hostages actively resisted being rescued. After being released, they raised money for the defense of their captors, and refused to testify against them in court. It is this type of transfer of allegiance after an incident of captivity that is now termed the Stockholm syndrome.

How unique is this from a psychological view? Not very!

One of the techniques used to placate abusers is to try to keep them happy. Because of this, there ends up being a difference between the participants’ beliefs and their actions. This conflict is a type of cognitive dissonance: a dissonance between thought and behavior. Cognitive dissonance theory tells us that when there is a clash between people’s behavior and their beliefs, they will most easily adapt by changing their beliefs. We see this in everything from the way abused spouses (“Since I put up with this I must really love him”) and children (if you aren’t sure which is the abusing parent, put the child in a room with both parents: The parent to whom the child runs is likely to be the abuser) identify with their abuser, to the way politicians underpay their campaign staff (“since I am working so hard with so little reward I must really believe in him”), to captives becoming the allies of their captors. We also see it in the way people react to terrorism. In theUS, for example, one might have expected a near-total rejection of the Palestinian cause. In fact, while nobody is particularly happy about the destruction of the World Trade Center or the attack on the Pentagon, there is a shocking acceptance of the legitimacy of both the suicide bombings in Israel and the attacks on the US. Instead of being seen as criminal acts, they are discussed in some circles as a justifiable part of the political process.

This extends from the government at the top, which has classified what happened as “an act of war” rather than treating it as a crime, down to the bottom, with the June 2002 Harpers noting that the Gallup Organization reports that a horrifying five percent of Americans say that the September 11 attacks were “totally justifiable.”

Is this view likely to influence our dealings with terrorism? It already has.

Dealing with terrorism

How, then, should we deal with terrorism, particularly as a secondary target, such as we are when dealing with theMideast? Sadly, nobody knows. We can look at examples of how terrorism has been dealt with in modern times, and still get no clues.Israel has spent a lot of time trying to deal with terrorism, and the bombs still keep going off. Even if you look at a strained example such as Nazi Germany attempting to crush resistance, we see that even in an environment bereft of social constraints these activities were not stopped On the one hand, we know that we should not tolerate terrorism (though we do), nor those countries and individuals who sponsor it (though we do). Unfortunately, nobody really yet has a grasp of how to implement these non-toleration concepts.

On the other hand, we also know that the conventional approaches to dealing with terrorism don’t work very well (In a recent article in Newsweek, Jack Devine, a former CIA associate deputy operations director, is quoted as saying “The truth is that [with new homeland security] we’ll improve defensively by maybe 7 percent or 10 percent.”), but do cause social problems, which means we ought to be more than a bit chary about implementing conventional programs, which are likely to be socially destructive without producing any real benefit. Because of this difficulty, we need to stop taking action merely to give the impression that we are doing something.

Rather, we should be gathering the best and the brightest to try to find new approaches. We also need to be willing to try new approaches, and, if they don’t work out, to rescind them and try again, rather than leaving failed and socially destructive policies in place.

In looking at possible measures to implement, we need to ask the five questions that should be asked when considering any security measure:

1. What problem is the measure trying to solve?

2. How can it fail in practice?

3. Given the failure modes, how well does it solve the problem?

4. What are the costs, both financial and social, associated with it?

5. Given the effectiveness and costs, is the measure worth it?

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