Friday, January 16, 2015

Terrorism is less scary than you think

As prevalent as terrorists appear to be, they don’t kill very many people and they consistently fail to achieve their goals.

I was seven years old on 9/11. Living in Iowa at that age, I was too young and too far removed from New York and D.C. to really “get it.”

My first response when I heard about what happened went something along the lines of, well, that’s really sad, but there’s still hundreds of millions of Americans left.

Shortly after it happened, when my cousin and I were playing at Grandma’s house, we knocked over towers of dominoes and jumped into tall piles of leaves shouting, “9/11! 9/11!”

Grandma must have been mortified.

By now, I get it, though my connection to 9/11 remains abstract. I’ll never really understand what it must have felt like to witness such an atrocity in-person or live on television.

However, my seven-year-old self was on the right track about something very basic: terrorism does not kill many people. Even though it makes a big splash and inflicts a big psychological toll, terrorism is terribly ineffective. Instead of getting people to cower in fear, it often leads to retaliation from members of the targeted group and alienates those who sympathize with the terrorists’ ultimate goals.
A collection of photos depicting those killed in the 9/11 

Granted, on an international level, terrorism has gotten deadlier in the past few years. The chaos in Iraq and Syria is certainly driving up casualties, though the line between war and terrorism is a blurry one. With this in mind, the most recent figures from the Global Terrorism Database showed that in 2013, over 22,000 people died as a result of terrorism.

But the United States loses relatively few citizens to terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Database, operated by the University of Maryland, only seven Americans died domestically from terror attacks in 2013.

You read that right: seven. Seven fatalities from terrorism in the United States in 2013.

Since 1970, when the Global Terrorism Database first started collecting data, terrorism fatality rates in the United States only inched above 1 per 100,000 in 2001. Otherwise, the prevalence of terrorism has been microscopically small, failing to reach even 0.1 per 100,000 (ten times lower than the 2001 figures) in any other year.

This graph shows the rate of terrorism fatalities in the United States since 1970. Visually, this graph is a little deceptive because each horizontal line represents a value 10 times greater than the one below it. I used this type of graph because otherwise, 2001 would be a towering peak above a barely distinguishable line. This graph allows us to get a better sense of trends in terrorism fatalities. This type of graph does not allow us to display values of 0, so 0.0001 was arbitrarily chosen as a substitute for 0. Data were obtained from the Global Terrorism Database, compiled by University of Maryland researchers.

From the graph above, it looks as though terrorism in the United States has declined since the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Keep in mind that since terrorist incidents are so rare and kill few people, all it takes is one big incident to create a big spike, hence the ease with which we can spot the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, 9/11, and the 2009 Fort Hood shooting. It is, however, obvious that terrorism is not killing Americans on U.S. soil any more than it was a few decades ago, even though the United States has supposedly entered an age of terror.

One last technical note: the Columbine shooting may not sound like terrorism, but the Global Terrorism Database compiles these statistics from several different organizations, so it defaults to a very inclusive definition of what qualifies as terrorism. The fact that the net is so wide and we still see terrorism so rarely tells you a lot about how deadly terrorism actually is.

So how rarely does terrorism kill Americans? Let’s put it this way: you’re 87,165 times more likely to die of heart disease, 4,686 times more likely to die in a traffic accident, 2,357 times more likely to be murdered, and three times more likely to die from being hit by a bolt of lightning than you are to die in a terrorist attack.

None of this makes individual terrorist attacks any less awful. The emotional and symbolic impact of such attacks is often very meaningful even if they don’t kill very many people. Still, it doesn’t quite warrant the near-hysterical levels of society-wide panic that can follow such events.

Terrorists certainly do succeed in creating a climate of fear by killing civilians, but instead of surrendering, societies tend to strongly unite against the terrorists.

Much like the attack on Charlie Hebdo is uniting the French people, 9/11 served as a unifying moment for the United States.

President Bush’s approval rating skyrocketed from a mediocre 51 percent before the attack to 90 percent afterwards.

Americans donated an estimated $2.8 billion and 36,000 units of blood to help 9/11 victims. This flood of aid was famously so great that charities like the Red Cross struggled to manage the sudden boom in donations.

And then of course, the United States, with the backing of the international community, tore apart what remained of an already war-torn Afghanistan while fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. And then the United States, with the widespread disapproval of the international community, tore apart Iraq, which didn’t really have anything to do with 9/11.

Approve or disapprove of the United States’ reaction to 9/11, one thing is obvious: it united the entire country. As President Bush said in a speech in front of a joint session of Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, “My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our union, and it is strong.”

Americans unleashed an outpouring of caring and benevolence to fellow citizens and righteous, furious retribution against those who reportedly attacked us.

This very reaction is part of what makes terrorism fail so frequently. After an attack like 9/11, American society saw Al-Qaeda and its partners as an existential threat and it let absolutely nothing stand in the way of revenge.

The most surefire way for terrorists to derail their campaign is to kill civilians. Once they start doing that, public support, even from sympathizers usually evaporates.

Like with 9/11, the recent terrorist attacks in France have prompted peoples and world leaders from around the globe to offer their condolences to those recently wounded by terrorism.

Parisians gather for a demonstration the night after the Charlie Hebdo shooting.
(Wikimedia Commons/JeSuisGodefroyTroude).

The Arab League, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern governments all denounced the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

And it’s not just governments who worry about violent fundamentalists.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey last year, showing that an ever-strengthening majority of people in Middle Eastern countries are concerned about Islamic extremism, including Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt. The public’s opinion throughout the Middle East of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda is soundly negative. The same is true for Pakistanis’ feelings about the Taliban (59 percent unfavorable) and Nigerians’ feelings about Boko Haram (82 percent unfavorable).

That same survey also showed that Muslims living in regions where terrorist attacks are highly prevalent were less likely to say suicide bombings against civilians are justified to defend Islam. The one exception was Nigeria, which saw an increase of 11 percentage points in the share of Muslims who agree that suicide bombings that kill civilians are sometimes necessary to defend Islam. Still, 61 percent of Nigerian Muslims disagreed with that sentiment.

Sometimes the terrorism gets so bad that local peoples have taken matters into their own hands.

When Iraq was on the verge of civil war in the mid-2000s, in what became called the Sunni Awakening, community leaders across the ravaged nation joined forces with U.S. and Iraqi troops to protect their families and friends from militant fundamentalists.

Academic studies also suggest that terrorism rarely works. In 2009, George Mason University political scientist Audrey Cronin published a book in which she analyzed 457 terrorist organizations. A whopping 94 percent of them failed to achieve even one of their objectives. The average terrorist group usually fizzled out after eight or nine years.

9/11 was a very short-term win for Al-Qaeda. Studies have found that many Muslim terrorists plot attacks against the West because they want to protect their families from what they perceive as U.S. aggression in the Middle East. Bin Laden himself said he was responding to American interference in the region. And what exactly came of 9/11?

We got more involved in the Middle East than ever before, launching lengthy invasions of two countries, and we are still using drones and airstrikes across the region over 14 years after 9/11.

9/11 seems to have accomplished the exact opposite of what bin Laden had hoped for. When governments interpret the intentions of terrorists, they don’t usually look at their officially stated goals. They look at what terrorists actually did and often believe these terrorists will stop at nothing to destroy their society, Max Abrahms, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor wrote in 2006.

It may often feel that for each terrorist leader a counterterrorism operation kills, some other obscure guy with an impossible to pronounce name takes over. Yet Abrahms wrote that once a terrorist group’s main leader is killed, the remaining members who attempt to attack the United States are often “neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools.”

This makes sense. The underwear bomber of Christmas 2009 succeeded not in blowing up a plane, but mostly just igniting his crotch. The Shoe Bomber, Richard Reid, eight years earlier, was foiled by a wet match.

Terrorists tend to be less like the canny Joker from Batman and more like the bumbling burglars from Home Alone.

And in all of this, the United States could stand to learn a thing or two when it occupies other countries or launches counterterrorism campaigns. Winning hearts and minds really is important if we don’t want to be perceived as terrorists ourselves. Several of Iowa’s antiwar and anti-drone activists have honed in on this particular problem.

Much like the terrorists who attack the United States, when we launch drone strikes in foreign countries, we also cite a desire to defend ourselves. But is that what people on the ground see?

When the military misidentifies civilians as combatants and our drones blow them up, that whole trying to protect ourselves argument isn’t terribly convincing to the friends and family members of those who were killed. Just as the United States lashed out after 9/11, it’s likely that many people in the Middle East, angered by drone strikes that killed civilians in their communities will join fundamentalists to take revenge on the United States.

Our aggressive posture would probably explain the United States’ dismal level of support throughout the Middle East. A Pew Research Center report from last year showed that across the region, about 30 percent of respondents viewed the United States favorably, with much of the region and world in general also condemning the U.S. drone program.

Obviously, the Americans don’t intend to terrorize people across the Middle East, but much like the terrorists we often fight, we must remember that when our government kills civilians in other countries, it looks like terrorism to those people.

If we’ve learned anything from our own history, it’s clear that when people feel terrorized, they do not back down. The international community at large will not side with people who kill noncombatants. And if you kill innocent men and women, you will most likely fail to achieve your goals, regardless of how noble your intentions may be.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology.

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