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The Threat Is Already Inside
And nine other truths about terrorism that nobody wants to hear.
By now, the script is familiar: Terrorists attack a Western target, and politicians compete to offer stunned and condemnatory adjectives. British, Chinese, and Japanese leaders thus proclaimed themselves “shocked” by the Paris attacks, which were described variously as “outrageous” and “horrific” by U.S. President Barack Obama; “terrible” and “cowardly” by French President François Hollande; “barbaric” by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; “despicable” by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; and “heinous, evil, vile” by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who possesses a superior thesaurus.
The Paris attacks were all these things. One thing they were not, however, was surprising.
Occasional terrorist attacks in the West are virtually inevitable, and odds are, we’ll see more attacks in the coming decades, not fewer. If we want to reduce the long-term risk of terrorism — and reduce its ability to twist Western societies into unrecognizable caricatures of themselves — we need to stop viewing terrorism as shocking and aberrational, and instead recognize it as an ongoing problem to be managed, rather than “defeated.”
Politicians don’t like to say any of this. But we’re not politicians, so let’s look at 10 painful truths.
No. 1: We can’t keep the bad guys out.
Borders are permeable. The United States has more than 95,000 miles of shoreline. Greece has 6,000 islands and some 10,000 miles of coastline. You can walk from Iraq and Syria into Turkey and from Turkey into Bulgaria. Eight-hundred million people fly into U.S. airports each year, and 1.7 billion people fly into Europe’s airports. No wall can be long enough or high enough to keep out the truly desperate or determined, and there aren’t enough guards in the world to monitor every inch of coastline or border.
No. 2: Besides, the threat is already inside.
The 2005 terrorist attacks in London were carried out by British citizens, the Boston Marathon attack was perpetrated by a U.S. citizen and a U.S. permanent resident, and the Paris attacks appear to have been carried out mainly by French citizens. Every country on earth has its angry young men, and the Internet offers a dozen convenient ideologies to justify every kind of resentment. Adding more border guards — or keeping out refugees fleeing war and misery, as too many members of Congress seem eager to do — won’t help when the threat is already inside.
No. 3: More surveillance won’t get rid of terrorism, either.
As Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks made clear, the United States is already surveilling the heck out of the entire planet and so are half the governments in Europe. The trouble is, the more data you collect — the more satellite imagery and drone footage and emails and phone calls and texts you monitor — the harder it gets to separate the signal from the noise. The U.S. National Security Agency intercepts billions of communications each day, according to a Washington Post investigation, but despite sophisticated computer programs designed to detect “suspicious” activity, not everything can be analyzed — and a lot of time gets wasted on false positives.
Sometimes, the authorities get lucky and stumble on a plot before it can be carried out. Data from electronic intercepts, surveillance cameras, and the like often end up being most useful after an attack, however: Once the authorities know who they’re looking for, they can backtrack to gain a better understanding of how an attack came about, and they can sometimes link attackers to previously unknown plotters. When attacks are thwarted before they can be carried out, it’s usually as a result of the same factors that keep ordinary crime rates from going through the roof: good investigative work, vigilant communities, and bad guys who often make dumb mistakes.
No. 4: Defeating the Islamic State won’t make terrorism go away.
Don’t kid yourself. The Islamic State isn’t even the most lethal terrorist group operating today: Nigeria’s Boko Haram wins that title. Regardless, before there was the Islamic State, there was al Qaeda, which brought us 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings; before al Qaeda there was Hezbollah and Hamas; and before Hamas there was the Abu Nidal group, Black September, and various other PLO factions. Europe saw more terrorist attacks — and more deaths from terrorist attacks — in the 1970s and 1980s than it has seen since 9/11. The Islamic State may now be the flavor du jour for the world’s angry young men, but if every single Islamic State fighter in Syria and Iraq is obliterated, the Middle East will still seethe — and so will the banlieues of Paris.
And, no, it’s not just Islam. Right-wing extremists in the United States still kill more people than jihadis. The 2011 attacks in Norway — which left 77 people dead — were carried out by a single far-right terrorist, Anders Behring Breivik. Since 2006, more than half of all deaths in terrorist attacks in the West have been caused by non-Islamist “lone-wolf” attackers, most motivated by right-wing extremism or separatist sentiments. You can’t even count on Buddhists to be peaceful: On Oct. 23, 2012, for instance, Buddhist militants attacked the Burmese village of Yan Thei and massacred at least 70 people, including 28 children, most of whom were hacked to death.
No. 5: Terrorism still remains a relatively minor threat, statistically speaking.
That’s no consolation to the victims or their loved ones, but it might offer some solace to the rest of us. Those scary statistics you sometimes see about the alleged vast increase in global terrorism include attacks occurring in regions wracked by ongoing armed conflicts, such as Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Afghanistan. According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, between 2000 and 2014, only 2.6 percent of victims of terrorism lived in Western countries. Stay away from active war zones, and the average American is far more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. And gun violence in the United States? I won’t even go there.
No matter how you look at it, those of us who live in the West have it pretty easy. Gun violence in the United States notwithstanding, we live longer, we’re less likely to die of preventable diseases, and we’re far less likely to die violently than those in non-Western countries. If you live in Iraq, Libya, or Syria — or Nigeria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Honduras, or South Sudan — violent death is a constant possibility. If you live in Paris or Boston or Ottawa, relax.
No. 6: But don’t relax too much, because things will probably get worse before they get better.
From a historical perspective, the relative safety and security currently enjoyed by those in the Western world is anomalous. Until about 1850, life expectancy at birth hovered around 40 years in most of Europe; today, it’s over 80. The history of the West is every bit as violent as the modern Middle East, with brief periods of relative peace punctuated by periods of bloody conflict.
Don’t count on this period of relative Western safety continuing. Someday, the political, ethnic, and religious turmoil roiling the Middle East may end, but that day probably won’t be soon — and probably won’t be hastened by a more aggressive Western military campaign against the Islamic State.
If anything, the world is likely to see an uptick in violent conflict in the coming decades, and the West is unlikely to be fully spared. The Syrian refugee crisis has given Europe a taste of what can happen when substantial populations flee one region and try to settle in another. European border controls, refugee assistance systems, and humanitarian instincts were quickly swamped by the sudden influx of more than 750,000 refugees, and though most of those refugees were exactly who they said they were, a handful were not. Imagine what will happen a few decades down the road, as climate change fuels new conflicts over resources and vast populations move in search of a better life. One recent study suggests that portions of the Middle East will become literally too hot for human habitation by century’s end. What then?
No. 7: Meanwhile, poorly planned Western actions can make things still worse.
So in the wake of the Paris attacks, the fat, happy, over-privileged West wants to turn away the hundreds of thousands of desperate Muslim families seeking shelter and peace, just because a tiny fraction of those refugees might be militants? Islamic militants couldn’t ask for a better recruiting gift.
The same goes for stepping up military action against the Islamic State. If we respond to the Paris attacks by sending a large number of ground combat troops into Syria and Iraq, we once again become foreign occupiers — and big fat targets. If we respond by bombing every Islamic State target we can find, odds are high we’ll end up bombing some people we never wanted or intended to bomb, and this won’t help us make new friends. Also, if we take out the Islamic State in Syria, we may just end up helping Syria’s other extremist rebels — or helping embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, though it was Assad and other brutal regional leaders whose actions helped inspire and strengthen the Islamic State in the first place. Besides, what happens next in Syria, do we get rid of the Islamic State or Assad? As Iraq should remind us, nature abhors a vacuum.
Military force can play a role in preventing and responding to terrorist attacks, but when we don’t know who to target and we don’t fully understand the regional dynamics, that role should be small.
No. 8: Terrorism is a problem to be managed.
I can’t believe it’s still necessary to repeat this, but — no, Fox News, we can’t “win” a “war” against terrorism or terror or terrorists anymore than we can “win” a war on crime or drugs or poverty. But though we can’t eliminate all risk of terrorism, we can adopt sensible policies to reduce the risk and damage caused by terrorist attacks. We can fund moderate Muslim organizations that offer alternatives to extremist interpretations of Islam, for instance, increase law enforcement outreach in communities that are targeted by terrorist recruiters, and look for ways to increase community incentives to report suspicious activity — perhaps by exploring rehabilitation approaches to dealing with misguided teens who are attracted by violent ideologies but haven’t yet taken decisive steps to harm anyone. We can also look for reasonable ways to give additional tools to law enforcement officials, as long as we also add safeguards to prevent abuses. If we’re creative in our approaches, we can find ways to make terrorist attacks a little harder to carry out successfully and make successful attacks less rewarding to those who carry them out.
No. 9: To do this, however, we need to move beyond the political posturing that characterizes most public debates about counterterrorism and instead speak honestly about the costs and benefits of different approaches.
We can throw more border guards and bombs and police and TSA and NSA agents at the problem of terrorism, and some or all of these things may well buy down short-term risk, reducing the odds that terrorists will engage in successful attacks. But each of these approaches has costs, too, some financial and some human and some political. More police might mean more thwarted terrorist plots, but ham-handed policing might mean more potential recruits for the Islamic State or its successor. More police will certainly mean higher public safety budgets, which, in a world of finite resources, means less money for something else. The same is true for airport security, NSA programs, and airstrikes: If implemented poorly, they can cause a backlash, and even if implemented thoughtfully, they cost money and take resources away from something else.
Fourteen years after 9/11, we still have astonishingly little empirical evidence about which counterterrorism techniques are effective and which aren’t. In large part, this is because governments haven’t made it a priority to fund or conduct evidence-based counterterrorism research. This needs to change.
We need to be hardheaded and unsentimental about this, just as we’re hardheaded about the prevention of crime, disease, car accidents, and a thousand other more run-of-the-mill risks. How much do we think more police (or border guards or NSA programs or bombs) will make a difference, and at what point will we see diminishing marginal returns? At what point do we say: Yes, we could reduce the risk of successful terrorist attacks by another 5 percent if we added 5,000 more border guards, but the costs are just too high? Or even: We could reduce the risk by 85 percent if we turn France or the United States into police states, but we’d rather accept the added short-term risk than abandon the values that make our countries what they are?
No. 10: We need to stop rewarding terrorism.
We can change the cost-benefit calculus for would-be terrorists by reducing terrorism’s benefits as well as by reducing its costs. Terrorism is used by states and non-state actors alike both because it’s relatively cheap and easy — and because it works. From al Qaeda’s perspective, the 9/11 attacks were a spectacular success. The attacks cost the United States billions of dollars: We closed stock exchanges, halted air travel, and started expensive and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. From the Islamic State’s perspective, the Paris attacks are working, too: The anti-refugee backlash will aid Islamic State recruiting, and tourism is taking a hit even here in the United States, where fear alone has led schools to cancel class trips to Washington. The more the West flails around with talk of bombs and border guards and police, the happier the Islamic State becomes.
The cheapest and easiest way to reduce the benefits of terrorism is to stop overreacting. That 130 people were killed in the Paris attacks is a terrible tragedy and a vicious crime, but 16,000 people in the United States are murdered each year in “ordinary” homicides, 30,000 die in accidental falls, 35,000 die in car crashes, and 39,000 die of accidental poisoning. We should mourn each and every death, and we should take all reasonable steps to prevent more deaths from occurring and punish those responsible for intentionally inflicting harm.
But we need to stop viewing terrorism as unique and aberrational. The more we panic and posture and overreact, the more terrorism we’ll get.
Photo credit: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Nov. 23, 2015: The capital of Canada is Ottawa. An earlier version of this article misspelled it as Ottowa.