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PART III

Despair and Hope

Though the challenges are unprecedented, and though the disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion if we keep our fears under control and be a bit more humble about our views.

10

TERRORISM

Don’t panic

Terrorists are masters of mind control. They kill very few people, but nevertheless manage to terrify billions and shake huge political structures such as the European Union or the United States. Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).1 In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether.2 Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.3 So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?

As the literal meaning of the word indicates, terrorism is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. This strategy is almost always adopted by very weak parties who cannot inflict much material damage on their enemies. Of course every military action spreads fear. But in conventional warfare, fear is just a by-product of the material losses, and is usually proportional to the force inflicting the losses. In terrorism, fear is the main story, and there is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.

It is not always easy to change the political situation through violence. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, 19,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 wounded. By the time the battle ended in November, both sides together suffered more than a million casualties, including 300,000 dead.4 Yet this horrific carnage hardly altered the political balance of power in Europe. It took another two years and millions of additional casualties for something to finally snap.

Compared to the Somme offensive, terrorism is a puny matter. The Paris attacks of November 2015 killed 130 people, the Brussels bombings of March 2016 killed thirty-two people, and the Manchester Arena bombing in May 2017 killed twenty-two people. In 2002, at the height of the Palestinian terror campaign against Israel, when buses and restaurants were bombed on a daily basis, the yearly toll reached 451 dead Israelis.5 In the same year, 542 Israelis were killed in car accidents.6 A few terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, kill hundreds.7 The 9/11 attacks set a new record, killing almost 3,000 people.8 Yet even this is dwarfed by the price of conventional warfare. If you add all the people killed and wounded in Europe by terrorist attacks since 1945 – including victims of nationalist, religious, leftist and rightist groups alike – the total will still fall far short of the casualties in any number of obscure First World War battles, such as the third Battle of the Aisne (250,000 casualties) or the tenth Battle of the Isonzo (225,000).9 How, then, can terrorists hope to achieve much? Following an act of terrorism, the enemy continues to have the same number of soldiers, tanks and ships as before. The enemy’s communication network, roads and railways are largely intact. His factories, ports and bases are hardly touched. However, the terrorists hope that even though they can barely dent the enemy’s material power, fear and confusion will cause the enemy to misuse his intact strength and overreact. Terrorists calculate that when the enraged enemy uses his massive power against them, he will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. During every storm, many unforeseen things happen. Mistakes are made, atrocities are committed, public opinion wavers, neutrals change their stance, and the balance of power shifts.

Hence terrorists resemble a fly that tries to destroy a china shop. The fly is so weak that it cannot move even a single teacup. So how does a fly destroy a china shop? It finds a bull, gets inside its ear, and starts buzzing. The bull goes wild with fear and anger, and destroys the china shop. This is what happened after 9/11, as Islamic fundamentalists incited the American bull to destroy the Middle Eastern china shop. Now they flourish in the wreckage. And there is no shortage of short-tempered bulls in the world.

Reshuffling the cards

Terrorism is a very unattractive military strategy, because it leaves all the important decisions in the hands of the enemy. Since all the options the enemy had prior to a terrorist attack are at his disposal afterwards as well, he is completely free to choose among them. Armies normally try to avoid such a situation at all costs. When they attack, they don’t want to stage a frightening spectacle that would anger the enemy and provoke him to hit back. Rather, they seek to inflict significant material damage on the enemy and reduce his ability to retaliate. In particular, they seek to eliminate his most dangerous weapons and options.

That is, for example, what Japan did in December 1941 when it launched a surprise attack on the USA and sank the US Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. This wasn’t terrorism. It was war. The Japanese could not be certain how the Americans would retaliate after the attack, except about one thing: no matter what the Americans decided to do, they would not be able to send a fleet to the Philippines or Hong Kong in 1942.

Provoking the enemy to action without eliminating any of his weapons or options is an act of desperation, taken only when there is no other option. Whenever it is possible to inflict serious material damage, nobody gives that up in favour of mere terrorism. If in December 1941 the Japanese torpedoed a civilian passenger ship in order to provoke the USA, while leaving the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor intact, this would have been madness.

But the terrorists have little choice. They are so weak that they cannot wage war. So they opt instead to produce a theatrical spectacle that will hopefully provoke the enemy and cause him to overreact. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and turns it against us. By killing a handful of people the terrorists cause millions to fear for their lives. In order to calm these fears, governments react to the theatre of terror with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.

Terrorists don’t think like army generals. Instead, they think like theatre producers. The public memory of the 9/11 attacks testifies that everyone understands this intuitively. If you ask people what happened on 9/11, they are likely to say that al-Qaeda knocked down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Yet the attack involved not merely the towers, but two other actions, in particular a successful attack on the Pentagon. How come few people remember that?

If the 9/11 operation was a conventional military campaign, the Pentagon attack should have received most of the attention. In this attack al-Qaeda managed to destroy part of the enemy’s central headquarters, killing and wounding senior commanders and analysts. Why is it that public memory gives far more importance to the destruction of two civilian buildings, and the killing of brokers, accountants and clerks?

It is because the Pentagon is a relatively flat and unassuming building, whereas the World Trade Center was a tall phallic totem whose collapse made an immense audiovisual effect. Nobody who saw the images of its collapse could ever forget them. Because we intuitively understand that terrorism is theatre, we judge it by its emotional rather than material impact.

Like terrorists, those combating terrorism should also think more like theatre producers and less like army generals. Above all, if we want to combat terrorism effectively we must realise that nothing the terrorists do can defeat us. We are the only ones who can defeat ourselves, if we overreact in a misguided way to the terrorist provocations.

Terrorists undertake an impossible mission: to change the political balance of power through violence, despite having no army. To achieve their aim, terrorists present the state with an impossible challenge of their own: to prove that it can protect all its citizens from political violence, anywhere, any time. The terrorists hope that when the state tries to fulfil this impossible mission, it will reshuffle the political cards, and hand them some unforeseen ace.

True, when the state rises to the challenge, it usually succeeds in crushing the terrorists. Hundreds of terrorist organisations were wiped out over the last few decades by various states. In 2002–4 Israel proved that even the most ferocious terror campaigns can be suppressed by brute force.10 Terrorists know full well that the chances in such a confrontation are against them. But since they are very weak, and have no other military option, they have nothing to lose and much to gain. Once in a while the political storm created by counter-terrorist campaigns does benefit the terrorists, which is why the gamble makes sense. A terrorist is like a gambler holding a particularly bad hand, who tries to convince his rivals to reshuffle the cards. He cannot lose anything, and he may win everything.

A small coin in a big empty jar

Why should the state agree to reshuffle the cards? Since the material damage caused by terrorism is negligible, the state could theoretically do nothing about it, or take strong but discreet measures far from the cameras and microphones. Indeed, states often do exactly that. But every now and then states lose their tempers, and react far too forcefully and publicly, thus playing into the hands of the terrorists. Why are states so sensitive to terrorist provocations?

States find it difficult to withstand these provocations because the legitimacy of the modern state is based on its promise to keep the public sphere free of political violence. A regime can withstand terrible catastrophes, and even ignore them, provided its legitimacy is not based on preventing them. On the other hand, a regime may collapse due to a minor problem, if it is seen as undermining its legitimacy. In the fourteenth century the Black Death killed between a quarter and a half of European populations, yet no king lost his throne as a result, and no king made much of an effort to overcome the plague. Nobody back then thought that preventing plagues was part of a king’s job. On the other hand, rulers who allowed religious heresy to spread in their dominions risked losing their crowns, and even their heads.

Today, a government may take a softer approach to domestic and sexual violence than to terrorism, because despite the impact of movements such as MeToo, rape does not undermine the government’s legitimacy. In France, for example, more than 10,000 rape cases are reported to the authorities each year, with probably tens of thousands of additional cases left unreported.11 Rapists and abusive husbands, however, are not perceived as an existential threat to the French state, because historically the state did not build itself on the promise to eliminate sexual violence. In contrast, the much rarer cases of terrorism are viewed as a deadly threat to the French Republic, because over the last few centuries modern Western states have gradually established their legitimacy on the explicit promise to tolerate no political violence within their borders.

Back in the Middle Ages, the public sphere was full of political violence. Indeed, the ability to use violence was the entry ticket to the political game, and whoever lacked this ability had no political voice. Numerous noble families retained armed forces, as did towns, guilds, churches and monasteries. When a former abbot died and a dispute arose about the succession, the rival factions – comprising monks, local strongmen and concerned neighbours – often used armed force to decide the issue.

Terrorism had no place in such a world. Anybody who was not strong enough to cause substantial material damage was of no consequence. If in 1150 a few Muslim fanatics murdered a handful of civilians in Jerusalem, demanding that the Crusaders leave the Holy Land, the reaction would have been ridicule more than terror. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you should have at least gained control of a fortified castle or two. Terrorism did not bother our medieval ancestors, because they had much bigger problems to deal with.

During the modern era, centralised states gradually reduced the level of political violence within their territories, and in the last few decades Western countries managed to eradicate it almost entirely. The citizens of France, Britain or the USA can struggle for control of towns, corporations, organisations and even of the government itself, without any need of an armed force. Command of trillions of dollars, millions of soldiers, and thousands of ships, airplanes and nuclear missiles pass from one group of politicians to another without a single shot being fired. People quickly got used to this, and consider it their natural right. Consequently, even sporadic acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a deadly threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state. A small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise.

This is what makes the theatre of terrorism so successful. The state has created a huge space empty of political violence, which now acts as a sounding board, amplifying the impact of any armed attack, however small. The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. Killing a few people in Belgium draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism.

The state has stressed many times that it will not tolerate political violence within its borders. The citizens, for their part, have become used to zero political violence. Hence the theatre of terror generates visceral fears of anarchy, making people feel as if the social order is about to collapse. After centuries of bloody struggles we have crawled out of the black hole of violence, but we sense that the black hole is still there, patiently waiting to swallow us again. A few gruesome atrocities – and we imagine that we are falling back in.

In order to assuage these fears, the state is driven to respond to the theatre of terror with its own theatre of security. The most efficient answer to terrorism might be good intelligence and clandestine action against the financial networks that feed terrorism. But this is not something citizens can watch on television. The citizens have seen the terrorist drama of the World Trade Center collapsing. The state feels compelled to stage an equally spectacular counter-drama, with even more fire and smoke. So instead of acting quietly and efficiently, the state unleashes a mighty storm, which not infrequently fulfils the terrorists’ most cherished dreams.

How then should the state deal with terrorism? A successful counter-terrorism struggle should be conducted on three fronts. First, governments should focus on clandestine actions against the terror networks. Second, the media should keep things in perspective and avoid hysteria. The theatre of terror cannot succeed without publicity. Unfortunately, the media all too often provides this publicity for free. It obsessively reports terror attacks and greatly inflates their danger, because reports on terrorism sell newspapers much better than reports on diabetes or air pollution.

The third front is the imagination of each and every one of us. Terrorists hold our imagination captive, and use it against us. Again and again we rehearse the terrorist attack on the stage of our mind – remembering 9/11 or the latest suicide bombings. The terrorists kill a hundred people – and cause 100 million to imagine that there is a murderer lurking behind every tree. It is the responsibility of every citizen to liberate his or her imagination from the terrorists, and to remind ourselves of the true dimensions of this threat. It is our own inner terror that prompts the media to obsess about terrorism, and the government to overreact.

The success or failure of terrorism thus depends on us. If we allow our imagination to be captured by the terrorists, and then overreact to our own fears – terrorism will succeed. If we free our imagination from the terrorists, and react in a balanced and cool way – terrorism will fail.

Terrorism goes nuclear

The preceding analysis holds true of terrorism as we have known it in the last two centuries, and as it currently manifests itself on the streets of New York, London, Paris and Tel Aviv. However, if terrorists acquire weapons of mass destruction, the nature not just of terrorism, but of the state and of global politics, will change dramatically. If tiny organisations representing a handful of fanatics could destroy entire cities and kill millions, there would no longer be a public sphere free of political violence.

Hence while present-day terrorism is mostly theatre, future nuclear terrorism, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism would pose a much more serious threat, and would demand far more drastic reaction from governments. Precisely because of that, we should be very careful to differentiate such hypothetical future scenarios from the actual terrorist attacks we have so far witnessed. Fear that terrorists might one day get their hands on a nuclear bomb and destroy New York or London does not justify a hysterical overreaction to a terrorist who kills a dozen passersby with an automatic rifle or a runaway truck. States should be even more careful not to start persecuting all dissident groups on the grounds that they might one day try to obtain nuclear weapons, or that they might hack our self-driving cars and turn them into a fleet of killer robots.

Likewise, though governments must certainly monitor radical groups and take action to prevent them from gaining control of weapons of mass destruction, they need to balance the fear of nuclear terrorism against other threatening scenarios. In the last two decades the United States wasted trillions of dollars and much political capital on its War on Terror. George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama and their administrations can argue with some justification that by hounding terrorists they forced them to think more about survival than about acquiring nuclear bombs. They might thereby have saved the world from a nuclear 9/11. Since this is a counterfactual claim – ‘if we hadn’t launched the War on Terror, al-Qaeda would have acquired nuclear weapons’ – it is difficult to judge whether it is true or not.

We can be certain, however, that in pursuing the War on Terror the Americans and their allies not only caused immense destruction across the globe, but also incurred what economists call ‘opportunity costs’. The money, time and political capital invested in fighting terrorism were not invested in fighting global warming, AIDS and poverty; in bringing peace and prosperity to sub-Saharan Africa; or in forging better ties with Russia and China. If New York or London eventually sink under the rising Atlantic Ocean, or if tensions with Russia erupt into open warfare, people might well accuse Bush, Blair and Obama of focusing on the wrong front.

It is hard to set priorities in real time, while it is all too easy to second-guess priorities with hindsight. We accuse leaders of failing to prevent the catastrophes that happened, while remaining blissfully unaware of the disasters that never materialised. Thus people look back at the Clinton administration in the 1990s, and accuse it of neglecting the al-Qaeda threat. But in the 1990s few people imagined that Islamic terrorists might ignite a global conflict by plunging passenger airliners into New York skyscrapers. In contrast, many feared that Russia might collapse entirely and lose control not just of its vast territory, but also of thousands of nuclear and biological bombs. An additional concern was that the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia might spread to other parts of eastern Europe, resulting in conflicts between Hungary and Romania, between Bulgaria and Turkey, or between Poland and Ukraine.

Many felt even more uneasy about the reunification of Germany. Just four and a half decades after the fall of the Third Reich, lots of people still harboured visceral fears of German power. Free of the Soviet menace, won’t Germany become a superpower dominating the European continent? And what about China? Alarmed by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, China might abandon its reforms, return to hardline Maoist policies, and end up as a larger version of North Korea.

Today we can ridicule these scary scenarios, because we know they didn’t materialise. The situation in Russia stabilised, most of eastern Europe was peacefully absorbed into the EU, reunified Germany is hailed today as the leader of the free world, and China has become the economic engine of the entire globe. All this was achieved, at least in part, thanks to constructive US and EU policies. Would it have been wiser if the USA and the EU had focused in the 1990s on Islamic extremists rather than on the situation in the former Soviet bloc or in China?

We just cannot prepare for every eventuality. Accordingly, while we must surely prevent nuclear terrorism, this cannot be the number-one item on humanity’s agenda. And we certainly shouldn’t use the theoretical threat of nuclear terrorism as a justification for overreaction to run-of-the-mill terrorism. These are different problems that demand different solutions.

If despite our efforts terrorist groups eventually do lay their hands on weapons of mass destruction, it is hard to know how political struggles will be conducted, but they will be very different from the terror and counter-terror campaigns of the early twenty-first century. If in 2050 the world is full of nuclear terrorists and bioterrorists, their victims will look back at the world of 2018 with longing tinged with disbelief: how could people who lived such secure lives nevertheless have felt so threatened?

Of course, our current sense of danger is fuelled not just by terrorism. Lots of pundits and laypeople fear that the Third World War is just around the corner, as if we have seen this movie before, a century ago. As in 1914, in 2018 rising tensions between the great powers coupled with intractable global problems seem to be dragging us towards a global war. Is this anxiety more justified than our overblown fear of terrorism?

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