Think Before You March

Why mass rallies and photo ops are the wrong response to attacks like “Charlie Hebdo.”

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

How should one respond to the recent attacks in Paris? Whether you are a political leader, a prominent pundit, or just an ordinary citizen, what is the most constructive way to react when a handful of people are singled out and brutally killed? Being outraged by these senseless deaths is easy, but it’s not especially effective or illuminating. What really matters is how societies facing the danger of terrorism deal with it, and I worry that the reflexive responses we have seen over the past week are unintentionally aiding the terrorists’ broader purpose.

For example, was that inspiring mass march in Paris on Jan. 11 really the best response? To be sure, it is gratifying to see the outpouring of support for the victims and the vocal defiance directed toward the terrorists, along with eloquent defenses of the broad principle of free expression. It is equally encouraging to see these attacks condemned by a diverse array of political and religious leaders, including prominent representatives of the Arab and Islamic worlds. But these dramatic gestures also magnify the importance of a heinous act committed by some otherwise marginal individuals, and they reinforce the perception that such people present a large, growing, insidious, and existential threat to our civilization’s future and our own personal safety.

A shocking event such as this one requires more from us than just expressions of sympathy and defiance, however appropriate those emotional reactions may be. It also requires us to think calmly and rationally about what has happened, why it has happened, and what the most effective responses would be. If we let anger, emotion, or political opportunism dictate our reaction, we are likely to lash out at the wrong targets, take actions that merely confirm the terrorists’ own self-justifying narrative, and make it easier for them to recruit new followers. Any one of these things will make this problem worse instead of better.

Let’s begin by recognizing what these murderers sought to achieve by targeting Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market. Apart from a simple desire for revenge (more below about that), part of their aim was to provoke precisely the sort of overreaction that would bolster their narratives about the West’s “war on Islam” and make them appear to be the staunchest defenders of an oppressed religion. As Juan Cole noted here, fueling a broad civilizational conflict between Islam and the West is precisely what these groups want, because it would aid their recruiting efforts and make them look like heroes instead of criminals. Like other extremists in Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere, they know that violence is intensely polarizing and frequently leads governments to react foolishly. Just look at the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks: Instead of focusing its attention solely on al Qaeda, George W. Bush’s administration chose to invade Iraq, a senseless and unnecessary diversion that eventually helped spawn the Islamic State.

Today, more than 10 years after 9/11 and more than 20 years after the World Trade Center bombing, we need most of all to keep the terrorist threat in perspective. It is clearly a problem — especially given the number of people still flocking to the Islamic State’s banner — but the actual danger from terrorism, while rising, remains modest. According to the Global Terrorism Index, there were roughly 18,000 worldwide deaths from terrorism in 2013. That sounds like a big number until one realizes that the vast majority of these deaths occurred in places where active insurgencies are operating (Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria, etc.). Deaths or injuries resulting from terrorism in the rest of the world — including the United States, France, and the rest of Europe — remain quite low, especially when compared with other risks (highway fatalities, household accidents, preventable disease, or ordinary murders). Not counting suicides, about 30 Americans are shot dead every day. By comparison, the risk that an American or European will be killed or harmed by terrorists remains (fortunately) vanishingly small.

My point is not to trivialize what happened last week in Paris, but to emphasize that overstating the risk of terrorism can be just as bad as ignoring it. In the present context, overstating the risk fuels Islamophobia, and growing anti-Muslim sentiment will inevitably encourage a few more Muslims to embrace the jihadi cause. It leads governments around the world to devote excessive resources to counterterrorist activities. Exaggerated fears of terrorism led many Americans to support Bush’s misbegotten invasion of Iraq, and similar fears led President Barack Obama to escalate and prolong U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to little purpose. Shamefully, it led the United States (and some of its allies) to engage in acts of torture and illegal surveillance, thereby threatening America’s core political values. A few months from now, inflated fears of terrorism could propel even France’s National Front into office, a step that would reinforce nationalist tendencies within Europe and put the future of the European Union in doubt.

To be honest, I don’t fully understand why it is so hard for most societies to calibrate the actual danger from terrorism properly. Although the evidence clearly shows that the danger individuals face from terrorist violence is vastly smaller than many other risks, you wouldn’t know it by looking at how Western democracies have reacted over the past decade or more. Some commentators say this is because terrorist violence seems “random” or unpredictable, but that’s equally true of other dangers (such as highway accidents) that don’t generate the same hype or the same frantic public response. Others scholars suggest the problem lies in the nature of terrorist violence itself: Because human beings are hard-wired to react to dramatic or vivid events, then events like the Paris attacks exert undue weight on our perceptions of how the world works. Even when such events are very rare and the consequences are limited, people believe attacks are more likely and more lethal than they really are.

Governments will also exaggerate the danger if they focus primarily on what terrorists say they want to do instead of focusing on what they are actually able to do. Terrorist organizations threaten horrific things in order to scare others and to keep their members motivated, but terrorism itself remains a weapon of the weak. If the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or other groups had lots of precision-guided weapons, supersonic planes, drones, ballistic missiles, warships, and other sophisticated power-projection capabilities, they could do enormous damage and put tens of thousands of lives at risk. But because they lack these abilities, they have to rely on clandestine plots that usually fail or on small-scale operations that attract a lot of attention but whose destructive effects are inherently limited.

I suspect the real reason we exaggerate these threats has more to do with domestic politics than with the true level of danger. Whenever a terrorist incident occurs, politicians are quick to accuse incumbents of failing to do enough to prevent such actions. The fear of such accusations, of course, encourages officials to overreact so that they aren’t vulnerable to the charge of insufficient vigilance. The ever-growing coterie of terrorism experts and counterterrorism consultants is equally quick to hype the danger and prescribe responses because that is what keeps all that money flowing into their coffers. With a few exceptions, the official national security establishment isn’t about to downplay the danger either, because threat inflation is its lifeblood too. And the media has every reason to join the chorus of doom and gloom: Even a small terrorist incident gets lots of people watching, listening, or reading online, especially when it occurs in Paris, London, or some other Western city.

Nor should the United States ignore its own role in causing this problem. Contemporary terrorism has diverse roots, but it is at least partly inspired by a deep hostility toward the actions of the United States and a number of its key allies. Over the past several decades, the United States and its allies have bombed and invaded several Arab or Islamic countries; attacked them with drones, special forces, and large conventional armies; and sometimes occupied their territory. The United States and its allies have also imposed stifling economic sanctions that have caused great hardship among civilian populations. Whatever the intentions may have been, these actions led directly or indirectly to the deaths of tens of thousands of Arabs or Muslims.

At the same time, the United States has been closely allied with authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Persian Gulf. These regimes govern with an iron hand, but Washington conveniently turns a blind eye to their conduct. For example, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt overthrew a democratically elected government, has shot and killed more than 1,300 protesters, and has jailed thousands more, yet it still gets billions of dollars of U.S. assistance. The United States has also bankrolled and protected Israel for decades, despite its continued occupation of the West Bank, its blockade of Gaza, and its brutal treatment of its Palestinian subjects, and has repeatedly failed to achieve meaningful progress toward the goal of Palestinian statehood.

Given this history (and the prior legacy of colonialism), it would frankly be astonishing if some fraction of the world’s roughly 1 billion Muslims didn’t come to believe that the West was irredeemably hostile and decide to try to strike back however they could. Osama bin Laden and his followers made their motivations abundantly clear from the early 1990s onward, and there is a wealth of survey evidence confirming that hostility toward the United States (and the West) is driven primarily by opposition not to the West’s values but to its policies. Indeed, what is more remarkable is that the number of violent jihadis is as small as it is.

To say this does not justify attacking innocents, and I’m not suggesting that opposition to Western policies is the only reason that violent extremism is prevalent in the Arab and Islamic worlds. At present, there is a deep internal struggle roiling the Middle East for which the West is not directly responsible and is not going to resolve. Nor does it mean that U.S. policies are necessarily wrong (though I think many of them are); one could argue that terrorism is simply the price that must be paid for actions taken to defend various interests in that part of the world.

At this point, however, we should hardly be surprised by the blowback that the United States and its closest allies — to include France — are experiencing. And the danger of a self-reinforcing spiral is real: The more the United States and its allies interfere in different parts of the world, the more opposition they are likely to generate and the more they will be tempted to conduct even more aggressive actions in response. And so forth.

What is to be done? I can’t improve on the advice of the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf, whose column this week is full of wisdom. He offers six extremely valuable recommendations: 1) “accept that we are playing the long game of containment,” 2) recognize “that the heart of the struggle is elsewhere,” 3) “offer the lived idea of equality as citizens as an alternative to violent jihad,” 4) address the frustrations that marginalized populations feel, 5) accept the need for security measures while recognizing they never ensure completely safety, and 6) remain true to our ideals (rule of law, no torture, etc.). I would only add: Stop trying to engage in regime change and/or social engineering in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and stop using force there in an inconsistent and often indiscriminate fashion.

In other words, the keys to success are not bellicose speeches, mass marches, wars on terror, or continued military interventions throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The key is calm resolution and conscious efforts to build resiliency at home. Tragedies will occur from time to time, but they cannot alter our way of life unless we allow them to do so. Terrorists of all sorts remain too weak to impose their will upon us, which means we always have the freedom to decide how to react to the danger they pose. We will be fools indeed if we allow the modest threat they pose to scare us into doing something foolish or, worse still, into abandoning the core principles of a free society.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.