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Terrorism: What if we Can't Stop it?


I didn’t comment on last week’s attacks in Brussels, though it wasn’t for lack of something to say. I just needed time to think through what I wanted to communicate.

I’m ready now!

First, it’s worth mentioning that Brussels is not the only place to be struck recently. Yesterday, the Taliban bombed a festival in Lahore, Pakistan. In Turkey, there have been terrorist bombings in Istanbul and Ankara just this month. It’s easy to learn of these events and believe we’re facing an epidemic of violence–an existential threat to our way of life.

In reality, that’s not the case at all.

Unfortunately, politicians–at least American ones–always feel the need to respond to such events by declaring that something must be done about them. Indeed, inaction is not a wise course in the face of such violence, but nor are the sorts of draconian legal restrictions and excessive uses of military force likely to help matters. The truth is that societies which are free and open are virtually impossible to make immune to terrorist attacks. There are too many open spaces, too much freedom of movement, too much protected expression and political activity. Authorities tend to be constrained in what preemptive actions they can take to thwart a terrorist plot. This is not a criticism, but a fact. There are often ways government agencies and laws can more efficiently target terrorist activity, but even those show limited returns. It’s always possible for someone to slip through the cracks and carry out an attack, at which point the public demands to know why it wasn’t prevented.

It is fair to say that terrorist activity sometimes is preventable–there are times when warning signs are present, and authorities are even alerted, but take no action. It’s useful to examine the systems in place whenever there is an incident and determine how they could be improved to thwart future attacks. But the balance of individual liberties must be maintained, which means clear lines must be drawn as to what the government and law enforcement institutions are permitted to do.

We must also consider what purpose laws serve to begin with. Laws do not control behavior. To some extent, they may influence it. To borrow a proverb, laws keep honest people honest. They have a limited deterrent effect. For individuals who believe their aims supersede mortal laws, however, the mere existence of laws means nothing. Connecting a few dots, this is the basic problem with radicalism. Once an individual has become radicalized and disposed toward political or religious violence, there is little existing legal structures can do except attempt to identify such people between the time they begin planning an act of violence, and actually carry it out. Once again, however, this is difficult to achieve without draconian surveillance measures being taken against everyone.

It’s at this point that the “political correctness” of such a position tends to be called out. “Of course you don’t have to spy on everyone,” the critique goes, “just the people likely to become terrorists.” In the current political landscape, this amounts to a suggestion that Muslims in general be regarded with suspicion. The problems with this are twofold. First, vanishingly few Muslims ever engage in political violence. Polling shows that very few support violence, as well: about 12%. Counting up all the terrorist attacks committed by al-Qaeda, ISIS, and similar organizations over the past few decades, one would be hard-pressed to call it an impressive showing. The most spectacular attack to date remains the attacks of September 11, 2001, in terms of death, destruction, and subsequent fear and panic. That was almost 15 years ago, now. Terrorism is sometimes described as an “existential threat” to the United States (among others), but as one statistic puts it, more Americans are killed by toddlers than terrorists. While that specific stat doesn’t hold for countries with gun cultures very different from the US, one is still more likely to die of almost anything other than terrorism. Profiling all (or most) Muslims for the sake of preventing the very small numbers of deaths and injuries that terrorists cause makes no sense: the price–whether it be financial, social, or political–outstrips any possible benefits. It is also offensive to the principles of a free society that respects human rights to simultaneously decide that certain people, based on their religion and national origin, are less entitled to those rights.

Secondly, terrorism is a problem that is hardly carried out only by Muslims. Indeed, in the United States, terrorism is primarily a threat posed by right-wing vigilantes and reactionaries, most of whom engage in violence (or plan to do so) on the basis that they view the United States government as a threat. The same politicians who are quick to demand action against Muslim terrorists tend to call for restraint when dealing with right-wing extremists–if they don’t remain completely silent on the matter. This double-standard points far more to religious prejudice and xenophobia than it does to sound violence prevention strategies.

If law enforcement is of limited use in combating terrorism, what can be done about it at all? Many of the problems which underlie it are structural, regardless of which specific brand of terrorism one is discussing. Terrorism committed in the name of Islam has a complex history that stretches back decades. The particular animosity held toward Western governments originates in the post-World War I era, in which European powers had dominion over the Middle East. After drawing borders, empowering their chosen factions, and withdrawing, an unstable status quo was set. As European interference diminished, the United States stepped in primarily to keep our oil supplies secure–a necessity both for our manufacturing and our culture of automotive transportation–and, later, to protect and support Israel. Cold War politics were also in the mix, and true to our strategy in that era, we happily supported vicious dictators so long as they did what we asked, put down left-wing revolutions, and gave the Soviets the cold shoulder. The US’ leading role in repulsing the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1990-91, generally seen as a small but notable victory for the American military and our foreign policy, was in fact an ideological flashpoint for Islamist radicalization. It was proof that we could be provoked and drawn directly into a regional conflict, which is precisely what Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were after with their multiple plots (and attacks) against the World Trade Center. Their goal at the time was the same as ISIS’ is now: to pull the West into an apocalyptic religious war with Islam. But, despite news stories talking about tens of thousands of young men and women flocking to join ISIS, it’s worth keeping in perspective just how few people that really is. It’s a worldview that certainly has appeal to some, but ultimately not that many. Crucially, the worst thing that can be done in response to a terrorist attack by ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any similar group is to respond in kind or to escalate violence, as that reinforces the central motive of expanding religious conflict. Essentially, responding at that point is simply too late. Efforts to prevent radicalization will bear more fruit, and those must be indirect in character, focused on achieving political, social, and economic buy-in from marginalized communities. This quite likely requires much more intense and dedicated outreach, as well as expenditure of public services, on underserved and alienated communities whose people may be at risk of radicalization. In the end, this will be a far more effective terrorism prevention measure than law enforcement or military activity could ever be. The downside is that it takes time to accomplish: years, more likely decades. No one wants to be told they will have to live with this kind of low-frequency but shocking violence, but in the short term there are few acceptable ways to prevent it.

Examining right-wing extremism in the United States, for good measure, there is likewise a complex history. Up until the 1980s, there was actually a significant amount of both right- and left-wing political violence. The latter came from groups concerned variously with racial, economic, and environmental justice. However, the disintegration of left-wing movements in the United States more generally meant that little real political support existed for such groups, and massive law enforcement crackdowns killed or imprisoned many of those involved in left-wing terrorism. There was also a broader transition that began no later than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in which nonviolent protest became the preferred vector of activism for left-wing agitators. This is important, because it represents a social change driven by activists themselves, rather than as a consequence of law enforcement crackdowns. (Indeed, police still have a tendency to treat left-wing protesters violently, and yet it rarely causes retaliatory violence from activists at this point.) These factors, in combination, have virtually eliminated left-wing political violence, which was once at least as prevalent as right-wing extremism. What happened that has allowed the latter not merely to survive, but to grow dramatically?

One major cause is that much of what philosophically underpins right-wing extremism is woven into the cultural history of the United States. This is a nation founded on rebellion–on political violence. The motivations for that rebellion revolved around freedom and liberty. Specifically, the purpose was freedom from oppression and tyranny. There’s a reason right-wing groups invoke the Founding Fathers and speak of protecting their freedom in the face of tyranny, as it lends legitimacy to their views. They believe they are protecting their Constitutional rights, and view various Congressional acts and Presidential orders as illegal. Unlike with left-wing activism, there has been no sea change in the mentality of leading activists to favor nonviolent methods or traditional political process. Instead, they have been fueled by conspiracy bubbles, initially through talk radio shows and mailing lists, and now via Internet communities, wherein one can consume a steady diet of nothing but extreme right-wing views that validate a deeply hostile, even violent attitude toward the government. There is no compelling incentive to change this mindset, since every clash between government forces and right-wing extremists only confirms how oppressive and out of control the government has become. To speculate momentarily, it may not be possible to compromise with such individuals, because the end goal is not a reformed government, but one that is rendered unreasonably powerless. This may also be why adherents to such ideologies don’t view political participation as a valid means of redress. If the whole system is corrupt, participating in it can only endorse the corruption. At this point, it does not appear that any trends are in place which will diminish these groups, and ample evidence that they will be an ongoing nuisance and occasionally cause injuries and deaths of law enforcement officials, themselves, and bystanders.

Even so, they do not represent an existential threat any more than members of ISIS do, and that’s a key point. Law enforcement can be used to minimize the threat, but is likely incapable of fully stopping it. The only thing that has ever worked to curtail political violence is to give those intent on engaging in it a real stake–in their economy, in their politics, in their society. Terrorists must see that their efforts bear no fruit, and that only participation in the legitimate institutions of society will achieve political aims. The goals of groups like ISIS, of course, must be rejected by political process, as well–they are inherently anti-democratic and oppressive–but with violence being ineffective and political process not providing the results they want, one will be faced with the choice of admitting that they can’t always get what they want, or decide to go out in a pointless blaze of martyrdom.

People intent on lashing out violently because they can’t get what they want politically will probably always be with us. The worst possible course would be to legitimize that violence by responding to it in kind, or victimizing people who’ve done no wrong. Few of us want to live in a world where this kind of violence happens, but to stop it completely is hardly practical. Without validating the violence itself, examine what drives people to it, mitigate those factors via the institutions and mechanisms available, while always respecting the rights of individuals as well as our core values.