Social Dynamics of Terror

Scott Stewart has an excellent essay, at the Stratfor Global Intelligence site, on “Separating Terror from Terrorism”, in which he explores some of the social dynamics of terrorism and its effects.  (Thanks to Bruce Schneier, at Schneier on Security, for the link.)  He starts with the possible roots of terrorism in the anarchist movement of the 19th century.

Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the “propaganda of the deed,” that is, the use of violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point, such as inspiring the masses to undertake revolutionary action.

It was in the mid-20th century that the modern phenomenon we call terrorism began to emerge, as a form of political theater, a development facilitated by the development of mass media and better communications.  (It is worth remembering that, if someone had blown up the US Capitol at the beginning of the Civil War, no one in London could have known of it before the news arrived by ship.)   Thus, getting the attention of the media was a prime focus of the attacks.

Examples of attacks designed to grab international media attention are the September 1972 kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the December 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Aircraft hijackings followed suit, changing from relatively brief endeavors to long, drawn-out and dramatic media events often spanning multiple continents.

(I have always been struck, too, by the fact the so many of the protest signs at demonstrations are in English, regardless of where in the world the protest is occurring.)

Today, the advent of 24-hour cable news and the Internet means that world-wide publicity is constantly available.  The global distribution of content also means that many people around the world can be involved in a way that was simply not possible with more limited communications facilities.

This exposure not only allows people to be informed about unfolding events, it also permits them to become secondary victims of the violence they have watched unfold before them. As the word indicates, the intent of “terrorism” is to create terror in a targeted audience, and the media allow that audience to become far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack.

Even the most passionate newspaper account conceivable probably could not have the same psychological impact as live video of the plane hitting the World Trade Center tower.

Mr. Stewart argues that the immediacy of reporting in the media, as well as the reactions of the authorities in at least some cases, can act as terror magnifiers, producing a considerably greater effect on people’s attitudes and fears than the event itself.   This, in turn, can allow the terrorist organization to get results “on the cheap“, as I’ve noted before.

Terrorism has been around for a while now, and it is unlikely to go away entirely.  The concept of a “War on Terror” is essentially nonsense; terrorism is a tactic, designed to promote fear, not a nation-state or other actor that can be conquered by force.  Whether the tactic is effective depends on our response, as much as anything.

How the media, governments and populations respond to those successful strikes will shape the way that the attackers gauge their success. Obviously, the 9/11 attacks, which caused the United States to invade Afghanistan (and arguably Iraq) were far more successful than bin Laden and company could ever have hoped. The London bombings on July 7, 2005, where the British went back to work as usual the next day, were seen as less successful.

The world, after all, is a dangerous place.  More than 10 times as many people die from automobile accidents each year as died in the attacks of 9/11.  (It is also worth remembering, I think, a remark the vicar of St John’s Church, Hampstead, once made about death rates in general.  He said that, as far as he knew, the rate was the same always and everywhere: one per person.)   If we  can keep our sense of perspective about all this, it will deny terrorists an important weapon.

Refuse to be terrorized.

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