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Is There Terrorism Without Fear?

Aug 25, 20065 mins
Business ContinuityCSO and CISOIT Leadership

Re-evaluating a familiar refrain on defeating terrorism

In early August, suspected terrorists did not blow up several commercial jets over the Atlantic Ocean. The alleged plot was, in part, successful.

Despite the apparent illogic of connecting those two statements, they’re not incongruous. The first is provably true, of course. As for the second, what success can terrorists claim?

The ordinary refrain here is that people are scared again. Since 9/11, no stymied terrorist plot has been so vivid in its detail and come so close to execution. Even after bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, large-scale terror scenarios gradually receded in the American mind, to the realm of vague, intellectual possibility. Until Aug. 10, when once again terror’s palpable, bitter taste coated the tongue. Experts, as they have repeatedly since 9/11, seized on fear as the thing that makes terrorists successful. And if you want to know what you can do to help? Dont be terrorized, Bruce Schneier implored in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune op-ed piece after the recent plot was uncovered, later adding, If we refuse to be terrorized, then they loseeven if their attacks succeed.

Professor John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, gave a remarkably similar prescription in an essay called A False Sense of Insecurity? in 2004. Mueller wrote in Regulation magazine: Terrorists can be defeated simply by [our] not becoming terrifiedthat is, anything that enhances fear effectively gives in to them.

Frankly, its a tired refrain. A sound bite. Limiting the dialogue on defeating terrorism to a bit of clever grammatical parsingits called terrorism, so all one needs to do is eliminate the terrorbetrays the inherent complexities of the so-called asymmetric threat, the stateless, cell-based networks of terrorists operating within legitimate states. It presumes that the motivation of the plotters is singular: purely to scare. Mueller in fact prefaces his statement by defining terrorism in the words of 20th century revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who said, The aim of terrorism is to terrify.

Too simple. Terror is just one of many goals. Causing political upheaval and change, reshaping public opinion and, above all, causing severe economic disruption are more significant goals of terrorists.

Reducing the response to terrorism to “Just don’t be scared” is not only glib, but it’s also counterproductive. It implicitly condones, for example, a risk management model that would value symbolic targets equally to strategic ones. Put another way, it takes away resources from defending, say, the Brooklyn Bridge (transportation infrastructure) and the Rayburn House Office Building where some members of Congress and their staffs reside (concentrated political power), and allocates those resources to, say, defending the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument.

Remember the deployment of menacing machine gun stations around the obelisk on the Mall post-9/11? The idea was that terrorists, seeking maximum damage to some collective American psyche, would try to destroy monuments to America and what it stands for. Let’s be clear: Monuments ought to be defended, and symbolic targets are at risk. Having said that, all you have to do is read the news to know that there’s zero precedent for grading purely symbolic targets as a risk on par with strategic targets.

A recent history of major terror attacks demonstrates that terrorists prefer strategic destruction to symbolic destruction. The U.S.S. Cole attack targeted military personnel and infrastructure, as do the daily roadside bombs detonated in Iraq. The World Trade Center attacks (both of them) targeted global financial markets. The London and Madrid train bombings targeted transportation infrastructure. Even bombs in marketplaces and on buses are meant to disrupt daily normalcy and by extension commerce vital to local economies. To be sure, all of these attacks ply fear, but fear is neither the exclusive means terrorists use nor the ends they seek. Far more valuable to terrorists than fear is forcing enemies to expend money and resources needed to create the necessary and prudent response to security threats. After all, it would be unconscionable not to respond to a threat like the London plot. We have to be prudent no matter what. Prudence comes with costs, regardless of whether you’re perfectly brave or cowering.

Mueller partially acknowledges this reality. He quotes a risk analyst named David Banks, saying: “If terrorists force us to redirect resources away from sensible programs and future growth in order to pursue unachievable but politically popular levels of domestic security, then they have won an important victory that mortgages our future.”

Here are some of the costs that just hint at the overall damage caused by the most recent plan that was never carried to fruition: British Airways canceled 1,100 flights, according to a New York Times story, and that airline alone will lose $100 million. One financial analyst was quoted saying that “you are never going to be able to put that revenue back in there.” Mueller cites an economist who says that security measures that delay airline passengers by a half-hour could cost the economy $15 billion annually. In 2004, according to World Travel Market in London, the European outbound travel market was (Euro) 323 billion. Threaten to take down European outbound passenger planes a couple more times, and watch Banks’ theory ripple to life: Airlines earnings slide. Global commerce slows. Oil prices spike. Stock markets turn down. Government diverts money to bail out the airlines. Unemployment rises. Salaries stagnate. Housing markets soften. GDPs dip.

The damages are real and lasting despite the fact that no planes were blown up, no lives lost. Whether or not anyone was terrified, a prudent response was necessary and it will ripple out for months or years. The plot was thwarted and, in part, successful. Maybe it’s time to replace a sound bite with a sound strategy.

Can we defeat terrorism by refusing to be terrorized? Let me know, along with other thoughts on this topic at