Are We Safe Yet?

As the media are already reminding us, this September will mark the tenth anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  So it is not surprising that we are beginning to see articles and essays looking back over the intervening decade.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a special collection of essays, called “An Era in Ideas”, published earlier this month.  The essays, by a diverse group of authors, touch on various themes suggested by the events of 9/11.  One of these, on “Terrorism”, is by Steven Pinker, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and the author of several books, including The Language InstinctThe Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought.  In his essay, Prof. Pinker touches on some themes that will not be new to readers here.

His first observation is that, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11,. predictions of doom and disaster were everywhere, emphasizing the fragility of our society in the face of the terrorist threat.

A former White House counterterrorism official prophesied that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, downings of airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants.

Now it is certainly true that our economy is going through a rather rough patch just now, but as far as I can see we have managed to do that quite nicely without any outside assistance from terrorists or anyone else.

Pinker reminds us again that the number of deaths caused by terrorist acts is dwarfed by the number due to more mundane causes, like automobile accidents.  Terrorism is a tactic, not a state actor that can be defeated, whose objective is to generate publicity by generating fear.

The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident. Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the root of the word makes clear: “Terror” refers to a psychological state, not an enemy or an event. The effects of terrorism depend completely on the psychology of the audience.

He also usefully reminds us that terrorism did not start with 9/11, al Qaeda, or Osama bin Laden.  They were preceded, just in the western world, by the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof gang, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.   Assassinations and other random acts of violence have a very long pedigree.  But, as Pinker points out, almost all of these movements eventually self-destruct.

Audrey Cronin nicely captures the conflicting moral psychology that defines the arc of terrorist movements: “Violence has an international language, but so does decency.”

The notion that we can have a “war on terrorism” is no more sensible than that of having a “war on pornography”.  In either case, who is supposed to surrender?   But we can deny terrorists the panic they are trying to induce: refuse to be terrorized.

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