Why terrorism works

Why do we always fall for it? Since September 11, 2001, there has been one successful terrorist attack in the United States, and everyone says the world has changed. We indeed lost some of our freedom, our security and our rationality on that day, not in the attack itself, but in our reaction to it. Our overreaction, to be more precise, is why terrorism works.

Everyone was scared. I lived at the time in Victoria, BC, a town of 300,000, and even there people were afraid there would be an attack on their office. Meanwhile, in the US, the Patriot Act eliminated some of the basic freedoms Americans have enjoyed for over 200 years, and new airline security regulations made flying harder and longer and more invasive than ever before.

The media blared with warnings of who did it, where terrorists might bomb next, what they could do, what new security measures should be implemented, and where the US should invade to end terrorism. The bombs began to fly over Afghanistan, and then over Iraq in perhaps the most unnecessary and abortive military operation since the Vietnam War. One terrorist attack, two wars. This was an incredible overreaction, and it was entirely predictable.

One feature of human nature is our predictable behaviour. Not all of our behaviour is predictable, of course, but when an entire society is pushed to the limit of its fear it is certain to overreact. The US played right into the hands of the terrorists. It joined what Reza Aslan calls a cosmic war: a war for god and heaven and apocalypse. It is a war it cannot win. The US simply killed Muslims, which enraged moderate Muslims, pushing them into the hands of extremists. It also gave Israel the green light to use any measures it wanted against its own terrorists (who had nothing to do with the 9/11 bombers), deepening Muslim rage against the West. The extremists wanted polarisation and they got it.

Terrorism even works when it does not work. Witness the new security rules implemented after the failed attempt to use gelatine explosives–now we cannot bring toothpaste onto an aircraft. Observe the attempted “shoe bomber” incident–now we must take our shoes off before boarding a plane. Most recently, a Nigerian man failed to kill people on Christmas and security rules are tighter and stricter.

Some say that reactions to terrorism such as the invasion of Afghanistan were the right reactions, and that ending those wars and leaving Iraq, Afghanistan and the Saudi peninsula, ending aid to Israel and the House of Saud, and so on are wrong because they mean giving in to terrorism. This argument is misleading. It implies that, no matter what the right initial reaction would have been, reversing the chosen course would be wrong. However, if the initial reactions were wrong, that means reversing them should be considered. It still might be the right thing to do.

The War on Terror is unwinnable. It will only make people angrier and waste resources. Giving in to terrorism is not about pulling troops out of the Middle East. It is about not overreacting in the first place. Stay strong in the face of terrorism and it will not be terrorism.

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5 Responses to “Why terrorism works”

  1. Matt Baril Says:

    Hey Chris!

    It’s so funny that I just read your post cause I was reading Freakonomics 5 minutes ago and the last line I read: “The basic reality is that the risks that scare people and the risks that kill people are very different.” I thought it was well related to your post 😉

    nice blog, keep up writing!

  2. menso Says:

    Check out SuperFreakonomics–it is just as good!

  3. Stop trying to combat terrorism « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin […]

  4. The implications of human nature for conflict resolution « The Menso Guide to War, Conflict and World Issues Says:

    […] response. The disproportional retaliations of, for instance, the Bush administration to terrorism played right into the hands of the terrorists. Many popular books on psychology and economics attempt to explain that, while we are ultimately […]


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