Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Attempting to tame terrorism in the time of Trump & Twitter [updated]

Terrorism intrigues and disturbs policy makers, the media, and the public even more in the infancy of the new millennium than it did in the last quarter of the twentieth century. And although this fact no doubt delights terrorists themselves, and consoles them for the apparent ineffectiveness of much terrorist activity in achieving ultimate political goals, it is nonetheless surprising that the phenomenon has commanded such attention. Prior to September 11, 2001, the death and damage done by what are commonly called terrorist attacks in any single year had been mostly insignificant compared to the annual road toll in the United States, or to the ‘collateral’ death and damage cause by the NATO bombing of Serbia in just one month of 1999. Even the September 11 attacks were small-scale compared to the destruction wrought by other dramatic attacks, such as the bombing of Dresden and the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. These might well qualify themselves as terrorist acts, and indeed I shall argue that they should, but most of the contemporary anxiety about terrorism is focused on the activities of substate agents whose successes have been nowhere as spectacular. The explanation of what can seem a disproportionate concern with substate terrorism is sometimes said to lie in the random and unexpected nature of the attacks, but this cannot be the whole story, since most road deaths are, if anything, even more random and unexpected, though of course they are not usually ‘attacks’ [that is, not until recently].  – C.A.J. Coady, Morality and Political Violence (Cambridge University Press, 2008): 154.

Both Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are trying—and succeeding—to be as dumb and disingenuous as their father. I’ll cite only the former here: “Maybe rather than the mayor of London attacking, maybe he should do something about it,” Trump Jr. said. “Maybe he should do something to fix the problem rather than just sit there and pretend there isn’t one.”

First of all, there’s no truth whatsoever in the claim that London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan has been just “sitting there” and “pretending” terrorism doesn’t exist. In other words, that proposition is utter bullshit. Second, the battle against terrorism is not a “problem” that needs fixing, like a leak on one’s roof, or a broken down washing machine, or a flat tire (or, for some, an insufficiently diversified investment portfolio). The “problem” of terrorism is hydra-headed and thus enormously complex, and it varies with time, place, politics, ideologies, and so forth. We have learned that the battle is often (thus not invariably) lost once individuals become avowed militant or self-described “jihadists,” in other words, there is only so much we can do, security-wise, to prevent them, alone or in concert with others, from committing terrorist acts once there’s wholesale identification with these ideologies and this identification is shared with the requisite reference groups (a sharing that may be only ‘virtual’). Several countries have begun to appreciate this fact, believing it imperative that we understand why and how (largely) young men (and increasingly women) are socialized into ideologies wedded to indiscriminate violence. The attempt to counter such socialization is an enormous task and involves in part significant socio-economic, political, and cultural changes in the host societies, changes that will require decades in some instances and demand a leadership with a kind of courage that is equivalent to and perhaps even greater than that evidenced by those who confront terrorists face-to-face, be it in large cities or on the battlefield.

There is well-documented evidence of terrorist groups and organizations abandoning terrorist methods to achieve their political ends, and social scientists have proffered more-than-plausible explanations for why this has occurred, suggesting strategies for creating the kind of social and political environments conducive to the conditions that increase the probability of this occurring with more frequency.1 Any would-be democratic state must completely forswear resort to state-(or state-sponsored) terrorism (e.g., carpet bombing or ‘collective punishment’2), for until they do, moral and political self-righteousness (and hysteria) about terrorism will be rightly seen as hypocritical or empty by those willing to consider its utility ... and that in no way aids our efforts, however sincere, to protect civilians from terrorist attacks, let alone eliminate terrorism. Finally, and by way of keeping proper perspective, we need a sufficiently moral (including moral-psychological), political, and legal appraisal of, and national “conversation” on, the nature of routine gun violence in this country, the deaths to date from which far outweigh the fatalities from political terrorism of all kinds. If only we could devote half as much attention and urgency to this uniquely American nightmare.

1. See, for example:

  • Ashour, Omar. The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming armed Islamist movements. New York: Routledge, 2009.        
  • Atran, Scott. “Genesis of Suicide Terrorism,” Science (March 2003) Vol. 299: 1534-1539.
  • Atran, Scott. “Who Becomes a Terrorist Today?” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. II, 5 (March 2008): 3-10.
  • Atran, Scott. Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.
  • Gambetta, Diego, ed. Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.
2. On “carpet bombing” and firebombing please see several contributions in Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds., Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History. New York: The New Press, 2009. Israel has become particularly adept at “collective punishment,” exemplified (but not exhausted) by a punitive house demolition policy and its wars on (and war crimes in) Gaza.

I have a bibliography for terrorism here. 

Update: An editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times reiterates the point made in the last two sentences of our post: Trump obsesses over terrorism but ignores the bigger threat: access to firearms.


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