Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Power of Terrorism Isn't In the Terrorists

Terrorism, and responses to it, have been back in the news lately. Revelations of NSA data-gathering, fresh memories of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the winding down of US involvement in Afghanistan have all combined to put "The War on Terror" back on the radar screen, even if we don't use that term very much anymore.

A couple of days ago, I blogged about what I regard as one of the key questions - not "how much privacy are we giving up?" but "how much security are we getting for it?" The good folks at the Dayton Business Journal were nice enough to republish it as a guest blog column, which has probably expanded the readership significantly. No angry emails or eggs on my window yet, though.

That post sparked a discussion, unsurprisingly, about the balance between how much to "spend" (in dollars or privacy or what have you) in fighting terrorism and what it's "worth". That discussion made me realize that I had stopped a level short in my previous thinking - and that one reason for disagreements about counterterrorism measures is that people can fundamentally disagree about the "value" of terrorism.

In that earlier column, I wrote this:
We don't comb through emails or phone calls for evidence that people are going to commit murder, or sell drugs, or rob banks, or any number of other illegal and harmful activities. And our political system is unable to put even the mildest controls on firearms. So why do we accept this "logic" when it comes to terrorism?
It's easy to point out that we apply different standards to things that are roughly equal in objective facts. Many (not all, but many) Americans are willing to put up with measures to prevent deaths by terrorism that they wouldn't agree to in preventing other kinds of deaths - even other violent deaths. From an economists' point of view, of course, this is crazy - but then, most of the world looks crazy to economists.

What I didn't ask in that previous column is, why? What is there about terrorist violence that makes it weigh more heavily - makes it "worth more" in our cost/benefit calculations? There is no objective answer, of course - different people can and do assign different values to such things. A friend of mine suggested a logic I hadn't considered before:
Terrorism isn't like car accidents - it's an attack on the state and the communityI don't see it as a cost-benefit calculation like bike helmet laws - it's not about the death toll, it's about sovereignty. (emphasis added)
There is, of course, no way of making an appeal to facts to support this argument - it's an argument about values. In particular, it's an argument based on the proposition that the intent or motive behind the violence alters its value, aside from how much damage it causes or to whom.

Violence has long carried symbolic meaning apart from its practical value. It is precisely that point that terrorism is designed to exploit. Terrorist groups lack the ability to cause enough damage to matter in practical military or security terms. Assuming that most terrorist groups have a political goal - change US foreign policy, or bring down the US government, or something similar - they just don't have the firepower to accomplish that by attacking the thing they want to change.

So they attack symbolically and emotionally important targets, either out of a sense of frustration and catharsis (not expecting to really "win" but feeling better because they "struck back"), or in hopes of inducing a disproportionate counter-reaction that advances their cause. In 1957 Eric Frank Russell wrote the novel Wasp in which he elucidated exactly this theory of how terrorism works:

“In given conditions, action and reaction can be ridiculously out of proportion … One can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort … Let’s consider [an] auto smash-up…. The driver lost control at high speed while swiping at a wasp which had flown in through a window and was buzzing around his face…. The weight of a wasp is under half an ounce. Compared with a human being, the wasp’s size is minute, its strength negligible. Its sole armament is a tiny syringe holding a drop of irritant, formic acid. … Nevertheless, that wasp killed four big men and converted a large, powerful car into a heap of scrap.”
Here's the thing about the power of terrorism and terrorists: it has almost nothing to do with them, and almost everything to do with us. The objectively small amounts of damage terrorists cause loom large in large part because we assign weight to them far in excess of their actual size. In short, terrorists have power because we give it to them.

Now, I readily grant that not all death is equal in meaning. Some death (say, from old age at 95 or 100) is regrettable but expected - even a marker of something to celebrate. Other deaths (say, traffic accidents) are tragic, and so we look for ways to prevent more while recognizing that the world is an inherently dangerous place. Death by intentional violence is in a different category - in cases where one human dies at the hand of another, the malice of the act matters and changes its meaning.

But from my point of view, death by violence is equally tragic whether it's at the hands of a Muslim bomber or a South Chicago gang member. The presence of political motives (or, more often, vague political rationalizations - were the Boston Bombers really trying to accomplish something?) is, for me, vastly overshadowed by the fact that some people were willing, even eager, to kill others. That, to me, is the greatest tragedy.

There isn't really a prescription at the end of this so much as an observation. Terrorists and the violence they commit have exactly as much power as we give them. If we impute greater meaning to violence done by Muslims acting in small groups than we do to violence done by racist or homophobic whites or urban gang members in similar numbers, then of course we will be willing to expend more resources on preventing the former than on the latter. That is, collectively, our choice to make. I hope we can extend our national conversation to this level, rather than relying on sound bites and loud politicians to define those choices for us.

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