The Terrorism Paradox

In the past two decades, terrorism has dominated discussions of American national security. Many politicians paint terrorism as an existential threat to America and argue that terrorists must be found and dealt with directly, both at home and abroad. While such a viewpoint is understandable and consistent with the traditional ways a state deals with its enemies, it also completely ignores the unique goals of terrorism. Terrorism is different from other forms of violence; its primary purpose is not to kill people, but to spread fear and gain recognition. Therefore, a combative and aggressive approach to dealing with terrorism actually plays into the hands of terrorists by legitimizing them and spreading fear among Americans.

U.S. policy toward terrorists clearly demonstrates the pitfalls of direct reactions to terrorism. After the 9/11 attacks, the American people understandably demanded that the government take action. In short order, the government passed the Patriot Act and invaded Iraq. Now, the efficacy of these actions remains dubious at best. The Patriot Act caused great controversy for what many believed to be invasions of privacy, and created widespread suspicion of government surveillance.

As for the “war on terror,” the United States has spent trillions of dollars and suffered tens of thousands of military casualties fighting in the Middle East, yet has only managed to destabilize regimes, kill civilians and harm America’s international image. In fact, terrorist attacks have increased since 9/11 despite the United States’ efforts. The simple truth is that no amount of government surveillance or military action can crush a terrorist’s ideas. More often than not, direct action backfires by creating resentment and anger among those harmed by the government’s actions. These efforts have only given terrorists a larger presence in the media and international politics, which is exactly what terrorists value most.

One might argue that the government’s response makes people feel safe, even if it is ineffective at stopping terrorism. However, a large response can often create more fear than it prevents. Protective measures like airport security provide dubious reassurance to fliers, and the constant reminder of the risk of terror attacks creates an atmosphere of paranoia. By going to such great lengths to root out terrorism, the U.S. legitimizes terrorists as a credible threat to the lives of every American, which blows the situation entirely out of proportion. Since 9/11, fewer than 300 American civilians have been killed by terrorist attacks. The fact is that terrorism remains a negligible threat to most Americans, and treating it as a great danger only creates fear and plays into terrorists’ goals.

A big reaction to terrorism can also lead to a vicious cycle of paranoia and fear. In democracies in particular, politicians can easily further their careers by stoking fears about terrorists and promising to deal with the problem directly. The promised measures passed by these politicians, however, inevitably create more fear and render the public more susceptible to these opportunistic politicians. The fear instigated by political leaders is at times some of the most corrosive and harmful, because it is often directed at and encourages hostility toward specific groups of people, such as Muslim people, and creates a divided society.

But if a big reaction to terrorism simply plays into the terrorist’s hands, then what can governments do? The simplest, cruelest answer is to do almost nothing. Autocratic governments in particular have the power to ignore terrorist attacks, thus preventing terrorists from spreading fear as effectively. Indeed, autocratic regimes tend to suffer fewer terrorist attacks than democracies, likely in part because terrorists know that democratic countries feel an obligation to respond to terrorism. Yet ignoring terrorism stands against democratic principles and the state’s responsibility to protect its people.

While autocratic states rely on the government to repress anyone who would try to respond to terrorism, democracies like the U.S. should use its greatest strength: the people. Americans should understand that terrorism cannot be met directly with strength. Terrorism’s greatest strength is the way it takes advantage of people’s emotions and provokes them into unwise action. If the American people temper their anger and fear with rationality, they will be able to neutralize what makes terrorists powerful and deal with the problem far more effectively.

It would be wrong to ignore terrorism entirely, but only indirect action can give a proportional and effective response. Instead of arresting thousands of potential terrorists, the government and people of America should try to treat the underlying problems which cause radicalization. After a century spent fighting large states, the United States has forgotten that a blunt approach is not effective against every type of threat.