Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Correctly Understanding Islamic Terror

Robert Weissberg

The U.S. has been locked in a war with Islamic terrorists for nearly 20 years (I date the beginning from the November 1990 assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane). This is a complicated war, but one of the most counter-intuitive features is why we yearly spend billions plus suffer immense inconvenience when the domestic casualties are so low. Moreover, even if every thwarted terrorist attack had been successful, the number of Americans killed would still be comparatively tiny. According to the National Safety Council, for example, 39,000 people were killed by automobiles in 2008 at cost to society at $255.7 billion. If we assume a 9/11 event once every 20 years plus the worst from sporadic Christmas Day and Times Square-like attacks, it would probably take Islamic terrorists two centuries to kill as many Americans as die in car accidents in a single year.

Yet, I submit, this hugely expensive effort and the countless hours spent at airport security etc. etc. is worth it. But, a sound justification would not focus on the cost per likely casualty, and this is true even if the number murdered falls to zero and every would-be attack is thwarted. Understanding this seemingly odd calculation requires first recognizing terror’s true intent. This is not a WW II-style conflict where progress is measured via the body count and regained territory nor a super-power vs. super-power Cold War.

The place to begin is the concept of random disaster. We know that cars are dangerous but we also realize that prudence drastically lowers the odds of death. The key phrase is “sense of control.” Using seat belts, not driving while intoxicated, avoiding excessive speeds, steering clear of erratic drivers, checking tires among other behaviors, hardly guarantees a safe arrival but these actions make driving hardly fear-inspiring. But suppose if one’s car were sufficiently unpredictable that it might become a death trap through no fault of one’s own – for example, an accelerator pedal prone to locking up impossible to pinpoint beforehand. Even if highly unlikely, say comparable to being hit by a drunk driver, the Sword of Damocles would be truly terrifying. After all, vigilance can help one avoid drunks, but no amount of attentiveness can anticipate the unpredictable. In sum, randomness, not the awaiting calamity per se, makes terror so terrifying. Recall how an unexpected sniper attacks on motorists in the Washington D.C. area generated panic, though a statistician might demonstrate that 20,000 disappointed angry inebriated Washington Redskins football fans leaving a stadium pose a greater risk to life and limb.

The terrorist’s aim is to transform the safe and ordinary into the possibly catastrophic. Now, for example, a leisurely stroll through Times Square might bring immolation and this is supposed to produce far more apprehension than the far more likely being hit by a taxi running a red light. The latter can be avoided by being alert; the former is inescapable. Terrorists succeed when everyday life becomes a source of near debilitating dread. The Israelis understand this exactly – after a terror attack, no matter how deadly, they immediately return life to normal. The terrorists may kill Jews, but they cannot psychologically debilitate them to the point of destroying public life.

This aim explains why terrorists favor public places where innocents assemble with minimal expectations of harm – cafés, buses, office buildings. Here’s the important policy point: a populace driven “crazy” by the angst caused by randomness will demand government do something to calm nerves, and the terrorists hope this “something” will be acquiescence to their demands. To repeat, it is not the body count that instigates pleas to placate; it is the uncomfortable psychological distress, the widespread feelings of vulnerability regardless of precautions that drives demands.
Truth be told, terrifying an entire population by just randomly killing a handful is incredibly cost effective. Only a few inexpensive homemade bombs can convince millions that they are defenseless against terrorism, and even an inept failed attack can provoke dread. It is hardly accidental that after each terrorist attack, multiple Islamic groups vie for taking the credit – anonymous attacks accomplish nothing. That even a small incident can dominate the headlines for days attests to this psychological impact.

The parallel is how anxiety ridden individuals “solve” their personal chronic mental distress. Some gorge themselves; others take tranquilizers. In politics, those perpetually terrified might demand government “medicate” their apprehension by celebrating Islam in school textbooks; require mandatory cultural sensitivity training, forcing businesses to give Muslims released paid time for Friday prayers; ban alcohol in public settings; make Muslim holidays official holidays; permit Muslims their own courts; facilitate Mosque construction; ban offensive symbols like piggy banks; fund Muslim charities via “compassionate conservatism and use only innocuous words like “militant” as to avoid offense. In short, lest one becomes a nervous wreck, Islamize America on the installment plan.

What does this mean for defeating Islamic terrorism? When the battle is put in these psychological terms, certain things become clear. Most obviously, pleas for accommodation, appeasement, if you will, can only be interpreted by terrorists as success. Remember, this is their purpose - advance a theocratic agenda, slowly if that is the only option - not slaughter as many infidels as possible. Put succinctly, transformation, not carnage.

Second, unlike classic military struggles, this cannot be a war of attrition. Military might, industrial capacity and high technology count for naught. There is no Muslim Emperor Hirohito who will finally say, “Yes we can still fight, but I will not sacrifice millions of my fellow Japanese for a war that will eventually be lost.” Terrorism is incredibly asymmetric – five successful subway bombers can terrify a nation of a 100 million, and with thousands of would be martyrs standing by, a state of high trepidation can become permanent. This asymmetry renders the usual “let’s negotiate for an armistice” stratagem totally meaningless – terrorists will never say that “our cities are in ruins and people are starving, so let’s sue for peace.” A few clever ones might say that there cities are already in ruins, so no big deal.
Third, the hatred that drives Islamic terror is incurable, at least in the short run. This is not to argue that religious animosities are permanent. They often do vanish – relations between European Catholics and Protestants are better post Thirty Years War. Still, America’s recent and well-funded failed forays into curing the “disorders” of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, whether by tinkering with school curriculums or passing hate crime laws, bodes poorly for “curing” Muslims convinced that Islam and the West are locked in a deadly struggle. Even if an anti-hate medicine existed, imagine forcing hateful Muslims to take it? The opposite is more likely: non-Muslims would be required to take love-thy-Muslim neighbor medicine. At best, open conflict can be pushed underground. History will show, moreover, that calming religious animosities requires centuries, and even then, success is hardly guaranteed (the Thirty Years War quieted continental religious strife in 1648 but the Treaty of Westphalia failed to settled matters in Northern Ireland).

So, what is to be done? One option to reducing skittishness is high-profile security--police and video cameras everywhere. This is currently policy in New York City and it undoubtedly reduces the likelihood of a terrorist attack and calms a nervous citizenry. More important in the long run, however, is our stance toward accommodation beyond dealing with religion generally. The message here is unambiguous; concede nothing and, perhaps better yet, respond to each attack with less accommodation. This is Psychology 101 – don’t reward bad behavior.

Unfortunately, this approach contravenes natural inclinations “do something” when facing apprehension and surrendering half a loaf is often the easiest escape. Acquiescence is also politically correct. But, in the final analysis, the Israelis have it right – the terrorist must learn that their strategy is doomed since it will not bring surrender on the installment plan. Note well, nothing here counsels anti-Muslim behavior or restricting their religious liberties. Everything is just a matter of responding to terror. So let’s put it this way: If you think life is stressful from fearing terrorism, consider the discomfort if constant appeasement were to bring an Islamic Republic of America. The choice is only between anxieties. Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is the author of the soon-to-be-released Bad Students Not Bad Schools which can be previewed at the book's website, He is also emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana and currently an adjunct instructor at New York University Department of Politics (graduate). He has written many books, the most recent include The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and the forthcoming, Bad Students, Not Bad Schools: How both the Right and the Left have American education wrong (early 2010). Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs.

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