Terrorism persists because terrorism works. Terrorism works because we let it.
It takes a great deal of violence to wipe out an army. But it only takes a tiny bit of violence to instill a sense of fear in a population. Terrorism is not meant to conquer through force; it is meant to conquer through fear.
How did you feel when you heard that men with machine guns had murdered a dozen people at a French newspaper because they did not like its political content? Angry. Afraid. Those of us in the media felt these twin emotions most of all. "I am shaking with rage at the attack on Charlie Hebdo," wrote the New York Times' Roger Cohen. "It's an attack on the free world. The entire free world should respond, ruthlessly."
Rage and fear. These are the twin goals of terrorists. And terrorism is wonderfully effective at achieving these goals. All of our rhetoric about bravery and freedom and honor and Settled Determination to Push Forward After This Tragedy rarely adds up to anything more than rage and fear. Our responses to terrorism are based on rage and fear. Because of this, terrorism works.
The attacks of September 11 were a spectacular success. Is there any other honest interpretation? They were a success not because of the Americans they killed that day, but because we chose to spend the next decade mired in hopeless, counterproductive global wars that cost us trillions of dollars and killed thousands more Americans and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Terrorists wanted to show the world that we were brutal and unjust, and we did our best to help them do that. Terrorists wanted a war, and we gave them one. And we lost. We lost by giving them the stupid, fearful, angry response that they wanted.
Two men with a rifle paralyze Washington, DC for weeks. Two men with a couple of homemade bombs paralyze Boston for days. One man on a plane with a dud bomb packed inside his boots has an entire nation taking off its shoes at the airport for years to come. A small group of religious zealots send three U.S. presidential administrations down a nightmarish rabbithole of drone war, torture, and total surveillance of the citizenry.
Terrorism works. Against us, terrorism works very, very well. Our collective insistence on treating terrorist acts as something categorically different than crime—as something harder to understand, something scarier, something perpetrated not by humans but by monsters—feeds the ultimate goals of terrorists. It makes us dumb. It makes us primitive. It is our boogeyman, and no amount of rational talk will drive it out of our minds.
Terrorists who despise freedom of speech shoot up a satirical magazine. How do we respond? We respond with fear, by censoring ourselves and refusing to show the very images that prompted the attack in the first place. (Nothing new about that—the free press has demonstrated its cowardice on this issue for years now.) We respond with rage, by condemning all of Islam and instinctively calling for a response violent enough to dwarf the violence of the initial attack. We cower in fear and cry for war. We countenance any countermeasure as long as it will keep us safe. We let the ideal we once proclaimed so strongly sink into a pool of terror, and drown.
Sound familiar? It is always the way. We are richer, and mightier, and far more deadly than any of our terrorist foes could dream of being. And yet we happily play into their hands. We declare a "War on Terror" of our own making, an absurd construct with no possible victory. We overreact so harshly to every injury that our reputation as bullies and savages is confirmed. We allow ourselves to be cowed by fear. We allow ourselves to be rendered senseless by rage. The terrorist lays the bait, and we give him the terror he seeks. The terrorist may be the criminal, but we are the hapless suckers who make his act worthwhile.
Terrorism works. But it does not have to. Terrorism reduces us to the sort of society that we claim to despise. But it does not have to. The ideals we espouse when times are calm—justice, understanding, rationality, proportionality, a love of peace—are the ones that we must cling to most tightly when things get scary. If we discard them, we have lost the game from the start.
We cannot control the terrorist. We can only control our response. Let that response be just, and wise, and proportional. Let that response embody the best of who we are, and not the worst. Terror is momentary. A loss of our ideals can last forever.
[Image by Jim Cooke]