The Soft Logic of Soft Targets

Everyone is freaking out over the France train attack. But the sad truth is, you’re more likely to be murdered in America than killed by Islamic State terrorists.

A passenger walks on a platform at Paris Gare du Nord railway station on January 29, 2009, during France's first major strike triggered by the global financial crisis. France is facing massive disruption to transport and public services on this "Black Thursday", with all the country's main trade unions having called for their members to take part in large-scale street protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government.
AFP PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)
A passenger walks on a platform at Paris Gare du Nord railway station on January 29, 2009, during France's first major strike triggered by the global financial crisis. France is facing massive disruption to transport and public services on this "Black Thursday", with all the country's main trade unions having called for their members to take part in large-scale street protests against President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government. AFP PHOTO PATRICK KOVARIK (Photo credit should read PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images)

The recent “lone-wolf” attack on a French train — thankfully foiled by three alert and courageous American passengers — has sparked new concerns about terrorist assaults on so-called “soft targets.” These are places where people congregate and are potentially vulnerable, but are not subject to airport-style security procedures. The Islamic State has called upon sympathizers to conduct such attacks wherever they might be, and European governments are now pondering additional measures to protect trains and railway stations. And on Aug. 22, just one day after the thwarted attack, the New York Times brought it all home by warning: “Train Attack in Europe Puts Focus on Vulnerability of U.S. Rail.”

As I’ve suggested before, it’s time to “chill out” in the face of this latest supposedly grave danger. It is obviously not a good thing that these (and other) attacks have taken place, and counterterrorism officials should continue to take reasonable precautions against future occurrences. But hyping the threat and turning ourselves inside-out to prevent any and all attacks will squander resources and play into our adversaries’ hands.

For starters, the danger of terrorist attacks on “soft targets” is dwarfed by other hazards that we accept with aplomb every day. Highway accidents, household mishaps — and in the United States, ordinary homicide — are all far more serious dangers than the risk from terrorism. To take but one example, over the past 12 months Islamic State sympathizers have killed about 600 people outside Iraq and Syria. In that same period, more than 15,000 people were murdered in the United States alone. Both phenomena are disturbing, but which is the greater danger?

Second, trying to defend “soft targets” is essentially impossible, because such targets are by definition vulnerable and there are an infinite number of them in any minimally free society. Suppose there were a 100 percent foolproof way to protect airports, airliners, trains, and railway stations against any possible terrorist attack. With these sites well-protected, terrorists would go after schools, shopping malls, public parks, athletic contests, or crowded restaurants instead. Protect those places too, and the bad guys will seek out supermarkets, churches, concerts, or IKEA stores.  And so forth. Who wants to live in the kind of police state that would be required to guard everyone all of the time?

Given that airtight defense is impossible, free societies facing a terrorist danger need to accept that violent acts will occur from time to time, whether by “lone-wolf” attackers inspired by the Islamic State, right-wing fanatics like Anders Behring Breivik, or violent sociopaths with no particular political agenda. Such incidents garner enormous attention and can have political repercussions, but our societies are more resilient than most politicians, pundits, or media mouthpieces recognize.

Here in Boston, for example, we remember the 2013 Marathon bombing and we honor its victims, but we aren’t cowering in our homes. The Red Sox are a downer this year, but Beantown is doing just fine, thank you. Al Qaeda bombed a train in Spain in 2004, but the financial crisis of 2008 has done more lasting harm to Spanish society than that single attack did. Norway suffered a horrific blow when Breivik murdered 77 innocent people — most of them teenagers — but if you visit there today, you will find not a nation in paranoid lockdown but a healthy, wealthy, vibrant, and open society. Terrorists may be a frequent source of tragedy, but they cannot achieve their larger aims unless we let them. Although they brought tragedy and heartache to many, people like Breivik or the Tsarnaev brothers are mostly pathetic failures.

If foreign and domestic terrorists are moving away from large-scale, dramatic attacks (such as 9/11), and toward smaller attacks on soft targets, then how should we respond? Mostly by refining basic counterterrorist activities (e.g., creating better watchlists, sharing information with foreign intelligence services, monitoring terrorist publications, etc.), and guarding high-value targets whose destruction would have more far-reaching effects. But trying to harden every conceivable target is a fool’s errand.

At the same time, our political leaders must do a much better job of educating the public about the real level of threat that we face. Instead of hyping terrorist dangers to justify foreign wars, a bigger national or homeland security budget, or more intrusive government surveillance, politicians would do us a huge favor by reminding everyone the actual danger is small. But they also need to make it clear the risk is not zero and admit that occasionally a foreign terrorist, domestic lone-wolf, or mentally disturbed individual — like the fired TV reporter who murdered two fellow newscasters in Virginia this week — will find a way to harm innocent people. It will be regrettable every time it happens, but we are tough enough to endure it and still thrive.

The media needs to do its part too. Today, the media lurch into overdrive whenever an act of violence takes place, in a breathless attempt to keep every eyeball glued to the screen, every ear listening for the latest bulletin, and every laptop searching for the newest tweet. Not only does this hysteria put even more pressure on politicians to “do something” (even when there isn’t that much for them to do), it also gives the terrorists the attention they crave but do not deserve.

Ironically, politicians would benefit from doing more to debunk the threat and stiffen our national resolve. Today’s leaders quail at the thought of an attack occurring “on their watch,” because they fear they will be blamed and that their political fortunes will suffer. They are assuming the public expects 100-percent perfect performance, which is why politicians should be working to lower these expectations. No U.S. president can prevent bad things from occurring while they are in office: The World Trade Center bombing occurred on Clinton’s watch; 9/11 happened during Bush’s first term; and Obama was president when 13 people were murdered at Fort Hood and the Boston Marathon was bombed. I’m all for holding public officials accountable, but we still need to use a reasonable standard. When it comes to terrorism, recognizing that these not-very-frequent acts of violence are an unfortunate feature of modern life and will never disappear completely would be a good start.

One more thing: If you are either angry or petrified (or both) about the vulnerability of soft targets, you might want to ask yourself whether some of our own actions are contributing to this problem. Is it possible some lone wolves or other terrorists are attacking us not just because they’ve been visiting jihadi websites, but also because they were already angry at what they regard as acts of illegitimate violence being committed against their co-religionists in other parts of the world? Is it conceivable that the violence we rightly decry here at home is simple the price we pay for actions the United States and its allies have undertaken over many years, and which continue today?

And before someone accuses me of “blaming America,” let me make it clear that I am not saying U.S. foreign policy is solely responsible for these acts. Nor am I absolving the perpetrators from direct moral responsibility for what they have done, are doing, or may do in the future. I don’t feel the slightest sympathy for anyone who deliberately targets innocent people, and I don’t doubt that contemporary terrorism is caused by a number of different elements. But I am saying that U.S. policy is part of this equation — as the 9/11 Commission concluded and numerous experts have confirmed. Pretending that terrorists just “hate our values” and that our actions have nothing whatsoever to do with it just prevents us from understanding why we have a problem in the first place.

Nor does the existence of terrorism necessarily mean U.S. policy is wrong. One can argue the U.S. role in the Middle East is basically correct and should not change. I don’t happen to believe that, but let’s assume for the moment it is true. If so, then anti-American (or anti-Western) terrorism could be viewed as the price that we pay for a policy that is on balance a net plus. Looking at the problem in this way is at least honest: It doesn’t try to deny that we’re getting is blowback from what we do.

But if you think U.S. policy in the Middle East is mostly a failure, and if these failed policies are also increasing the number of people who would like to deliver some amount of payback, then you might also ask what the United States (and others) might do differently. A different Middle East policy wouldn’t solve all the problems of the region, and it wouldn’t eliminate all anti-American feelings or make all soft targets safe. But a different policy might help make the problem smaller than it is, and over time, it might begin to make the United States as popular in the region as it was before it started interfering there more-or-less constantly. To me, that looks like a better long-term approach than putting a TSA agent at every street corner, bus stop, or day care center.

Photo credit: PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images

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

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