How to Think About Terrorism
An act of desperation rather than real power.
Posted February 15, 2018
Many people in are in mortal fear of terrorist attacks. This is human nature—but before we jump to conclusions that life as we know it has changed forever, we should try to look at these events in a more rational manner. This is not to diminish the horror of these attacks or the terrible loss of life of innocent people. And in no way is this terrorism justified. But we all need to stand back and think about how we can cope psychologically with these recent events. Because, I believe, we will face more events in the future. We must be ready in our minds to understand what this is really about.
Some people watching these events on television may actually have excessive fears of future attacks—they may have nightmares, they may find themselves suddenly startled for no apparent reason, and they may come to fear people who “look like they are Muslims." These fears are part of the goal of terrorism—to instill fear in those people who witness it or hear about it. Terrorism is more a political and psychological weapon than a true military strategy to achieve the subordination and defeat of “the enemy."
How We Think About Risk
People who were at the event and who were near the line of fire are especially likely to feel traumatized. Over the next month many of these people will no longer feel traumatized and will begin feeling like life has returned to normal. Having an initial “traumatic response” may reflect what is called “Acute Stress Disorder,” but most of these people will find that their anxiety has decreased over the next month or two. PTSD can only be diagnosed a month after a traumatic event. The best thing for people to do who have been exposed to a traumatic event is to gradually engage in making their lives as normal as possible—do what you did before the event. This involves traveling, going to places that may make them feel anxious, and try to make their lives as normal as possible. There is increased risk if people use alcohol or drugs to cope with their anxiety. But people are actually resilient. People bounce back. Not everyone—but almost everyone.
I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.
We have to understand that the purpose of terrorism is to frighten people and to make all of us believe that we are in imminent danger. We are not. You are more likely to die from skin cancer than from an act of terrorism, whether you live in the U.S., France, Italy, or Israel.
The rational response is to estimate the probability of being a victim of terrorism.
The problem is that people tend to overestimate their risk based on several irrational factors.
- First, we tend to think that something is more risky if a very dramatic event recently happened. This is true after acts of terrorism or airplane accidents or the Ebola “crisis." The recency of an event leads to increased fear of the event reoccurring.
- Second, we tend to overestimate risk if the event is dramatic—especially if we see pictures on the news 24 hours a day. We do not see pictures on the news of skin cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, car accidents, or the effects of obesity or alcoholism. These illnesses are far more dangerous and kill far more people.
- Third, we do not see “non-events” on the news. For example, we do not see people going about their normal business, arriving safely, going to stores, and doing things they always do. These “non-events,” which constitute “reality,” do not make the news. That’s because these are events that are more likely. But that is how you should evaluate risk. How many people were not attacked in Europe or America? 600 million.
- Fourth, we overestimate risk if the cause of the danger is invisible. So, for example, there's an increased estimate of risk because we believe we cannot see terrorists coming toward us, just as there was an increased estimate of risk about Ebola, which also seems to be an invisible threat.
- Fifth, we overestimate risk if we perceive the perpetrators as malicious. So we view terrorists as hating us and trying to kill us. But malicious intent does not affect the actual probabilities of dying from that event. Cancer and heart disease do not have malicious intentions, but they are far more lethal.
- Sixth, we tend to overestimate risk when the risk appears uncertain. But we live with “accepted uncertainties” daily, including driving to work, eating in restaurants, crossing the street, and sitting next to someone who sneezes. The anxious mind equates uncertainty with danger. This is irrational.
The rational way to estimate risk is to look at what percentage of the population actually die. My view is that the risks are actually quite low, but we are terrified about being the target of an attack.
What Is the Purpose of Terrorism?
The way that terrorism works is to make everybody afraid that they are a target. When we are anxious we might say, "Yes, I know risk is one in 1 million, but what if I am that one?" This is human nature, I believe, to worry that you are the one, but the rational approach is to look at the probability, which is very low.
As horrible and unjustified this recent attack is, it is not in existential threat to France, Europe, Britain, or the U.S. Terrorism is the psychological weapon for those who don't have more powerful weapons. If the terrorists had more powerful weapons, they would have used them. You do not win the war by killing 16 people that then unites an entire nation and much of the world against you.
The strategy of ISIS is to make themselves appear relevant and powerful. There are over 300 million people in the European Union and 300 million people in the U.S. and almost none of us have anything to fear. We have seen the failed policies of terrorists for decades including the IRA, Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, The Students for a Democratic Society (Weathermen), and the Black Panthers. They were terrorists because they lacked ideas and policies that the world would wish to embrace. They were terrorists rather than democratic representatives because what they represent was something almost no one wanted. You don’t engage in terrorism if you can win elections.
By frightening people, getting on the news, raising doubts and fears, and striking at symbolic targets, terrorists momentarily change the narrative—they become powerful, important, something to take seriously. But they are not an existential threat. France, Britain, and the U.S. are not going to be “conquered” or “defeated” by these actions. But for a moment in time, it puts a small group of ardent extremists on the same level as nation states. It becomes a momentary “equalizer."
Another goal of terrorists is to serve the function of expressing grievances shared by many. Whether it is the recurrent concerns about policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, or the support for regimes that are disparaged by many, the terrorists become a voice of protest. This gives them some popularity. But the very acts of terrorism undermine their legitimacy.
An additional goal of terrorism is to recruit new terrorists. Somewhere in the US or France or Italy or Britain a frustrated and despondent individual will say, “I can do something.” That is one of the main goals—recruitment. These are likely to be young men who think it is heroic to join a “cause” even though they are likely to be killed in the sands of the desert and forgotten forever. They will sadly join the league of lost causes.
My advice is to recognize that the risks are extremely low, which is why terrorists love being on the news. I doubt if the primitive and hateful messages of the Islamic State will eventually win the battle of ideas. Terrorism is a political and psychological tactic—but the bigger picture is winning the battle for the ideas of how society should function. If we want to win this battle, we need to demonstrate that there is value in freedom, democratic institutions, the free and peaceful expression of ideas, the rights of women, the dignity of every gay person to live as he or she wishes to live, and the power of rational truth. That is what terrorists fear—they are the ones who are driven by fear. They know that there is a vast appeal throughout the world for individual liberty, freedom from religious oppression, and the pursuit of a better way of life.
What we might consider as the bigger picture is the battle between the vision first expressed in the Enlightenment and the vision of the darkness that we all wish to rise above. I am betting on Enlightenment.