Terrorism has recently developed into a new way to conduct war, exploiting new communication technologies (cell phones, the Internet) and new explosives, as well as new uses for airplanes, machine guns and large trucks. The chief innovation of the new terrorism lies in its selection of targets.
The old terrorism concentrated on high profile targets like Czar Alexander II in 1881 and Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Such attacks were not without effect and in 1914 precipitated World War I. But prominent people can hire protection. And with exceptions like the beginning of World War I, assassinations had little impact on ordinary people.
The new terrorism attacks targets of opportunity rather than notable people. It blows up airliners, mows down crowds with hijacked trucks, attacks theaters, schools, concert halls, and tourists on trains. It relies on the unpleasant fact that, although one can harden any particular target, it is impossible to harden all targets. The targets selected are always the unprotected ones.
The new terrorism requires political talent in those who recruit other people — often using the internet — to engage in terrorist acts. But terrorists themselves can be extremely mediocre. Most are young. Many may be mentally ill. They are manipulated by leaders who prey on their desire to do something significant, focusing them so totally on political or religious abstractions that they disregard the actual people their actions will harm.
Thinking about real people can be sobering. When I was an undergraduate in Salem, Ore., a professor told us Republicans could win Portland only if its telephone system went down on election day. He thought Republicans would vote anyhow but Democrats would need reminding. I was a Republican back then, so this sounded great, and I figured out how to shut down all Portland telephones. (I'm not telling how!) But then I had second thoughts.
Without telephones, how could heart attack victims call an ambulance? How could people call the fire department? Considering the side effects of the proposed action for real people squelched my enthusiasm for the abstract goal of a Republican victory.
World leaders are not being candid about the new terrorism. After every new attack, they wax indignant, vowing to do more. But putting more police into our cities cannot do the job since terrorists simply attack in places that remain unguarded. In a future column I will explain two long term strategies that could minimize, but unfortunately not eliminate, terrorism. But for now honesty requires our leaders to tell us some unpleasant truths.
First, we can't protect everybody because it is impossible. Second, neither can any alternative leaders, so replacing us (the incumbents) will not solve the problem. Third, we need to put the damage caused by terrorists into perspective. In the U.S. every year more than 30,000 people are killed in motor vehicle accidents. Another 15,000 or so are murdered, more than two-thirds by guns, but we don't make guns illegal because many people value the right to bear arms.
Terrorists want attention and therefore prefer attacks that kill many people at once. They capitalize on the psychological fact that we pay more attention to rare individual events like a plane crash that kills hundreds than to a much larger number of people dying by twos and threes in car accidents happening every day. Our leaders must warn us about this phenomenon to reduce terrorists' ability to profit from it.
Of course it is possible to protect key infrastructure and it is imperative to do so since damage to water, electrical, or transportation systems could cause immense damage to millions of people. And we ought to do what we can, including the judicious use of metadata, to penetrate and derail terrorist conspiracies. But self-radicalized "lone wolves" do not conspire with anybody, so there is no conspiracy to penetrate.
Recent attacks in London, Paris, and Tehran remind us that the world will have to live for awhile with the random tragedies that terrorists can inflict.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published 1981 and his most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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