Limiting Terror in the Past, Present and Future

Buenos Aires Herald. 21 de julio de 2017.

At multilateral gatherings such as the G20 meeting in Hamburg last week, in national capitals, and in public opinion, across the globe but especially in developed and Western countries, we hear concern about terrorism. People and their leaders believe terrorism is a plague for humanity, and often perceive it to be on the rise. For example, a recent HYPERLINK ""poll Gallup conducted in 14 European countries revealed a median of 66% of residents believe terrorism by non-residents to be a serious current problem.

Is this concern valid? And if it is, what are the implications of changing patterns of terrorism for the future of humanity? Political scientists offer some answers, and cause for both pessimism and optimism.

Some of the lessons are rooted in political realism. First, terrorism is a tactic used to obtain a goal. It has been with humanity always, and it never can be completely eradicated. In this sense, declaring “war on terrorism” is a futile gesture. The additional bad news is there are real tradeoffs between liberty and security. Respect for human rights and free speech can make democracies more vulnerable to terrorism than autocratic countries.

At the same time, the causes and quantity of terrorism matter. What motivates terrorists? How great is the threat? Is terrorism really increasing?

Four dominant motives—anarchism, nationalism, Marxism, and religion-- have motivated terrorists since the beginning of the twentieth century. Some researchers have shown that these motives have piqued and valleyed in “waves.” Anarchism and nationalism have long been on the wane, and Marxism hit a valley in the 1990s. The “new” terrorism that worries people today is motivated by religion. Embedded in this finding is some sober news. Religious terrorists place a higher priority than other groups on “maximizing casualties.” Indeed, if measured in terms of fatalities, terrorism increased with the “new” wave.

Every terrorist act is significant, especially in liberal democracies where all individual victims are valued. However, political realism can helps us keep perspective. In democracies, terrorism does not represent an existential threat, except for the special case of terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Nuclear war is indeed an existential threat, and we need only look to current events to see that it remains a clear danger.

Furthermore, the good news political science research has for us is that all previous terrorist “waves” have eventually played themselves out. The same fate surely awaits the new religious terrorism.

This end can be hastened, and damage kept to a minimum, by means of good intelligence regarding specific problems, such as the dangers posed by return fighters from civil wars. It requires searching for ways to keep extremist groups from trying to outdo each others´ horrific acts, i.e., engage in competitive outbidding. It also requires acknowledging that excesses such as torture are quite likely to backfire by becoming rallying cries for extremists.

The desired effect of terrorist attacks is fear. Societies must resist giving in to terror; otherwise, the terrorist wins. Unfortunately, information technology and other aspects of our globalized society combined with short-term political logics make such resistance difficult. Politicians are tempted to engage in “security theater,” casting blame on particular groups and polarizing societies, rather than devote resources to evidence-gathering and prevention of outbidding. As mentioned above, terrorists take advantage of liberal freedoms, and employ social media and other communications tools to their deadly ends.

Democratic countries must find a way for the marvels of modern communications to coexist without allowing panic to dominate. Practical strategies for doing this range from better mental health services to a renewed emphasis on liberal arts and civic education and narratives of stoicism and bravery. Experimentation with these strategies will strengthen democratic resilience to terror.

As U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said at his inauguration in 1933, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Whatever their party or ideological inclination, political leaders in all democratic countries would do well to communicate the same message to their people.