The nation seems caught in a fear of terrorism because fear makes good political sound bytes. Stoke their fear and you’ve got their votes. Fear that immigrants will overwhelm the society, fear that the government will take your land or your water or take your right to pollute; fear of vaccination or fear that scientists conspire to take control, or fear that we are weak against the other fears.
Let’s distinguish what terrorism is.
Terrorism, as an –ism, is the effort to restrict a society’s actions through separate violent acts against targets with which most of the people can identify. “It could have been me …” Terrorism is a societal torture. Terrorism injures the rules and customs—the nerves—of a society. If the society is paralyzed by terror, the terrorists have achieved their objective.
Totalitarian governments regard human rights as a threat to order. Dictators maintain order by promoting national honor. Order suppresses dissent—and terrorism. Is that a trend in to current American politics? Terrorism succeeds when it results in oppression, when the leadership promotes itself rather than the well-being of the society. The capture and crashing of three airplanes on 9/11 sparked a set of oppressive wars that, in turn, prompted the growth of more terrorist organizations. On 9/11, terrorism succeeded. It induced an illegal restriction of our civil liberties and secret domestic spying, all in the name of patriotism: the “Patriot Act.”
Terrorism worked in Viet Nam. In the early days of our preoccupation with Viet Nam, we sent selected U.S. troops to be “advisors” to the South Vietnamese forces. Our advisors found that the Viet Cong controlled commerce by closing roads, spread fear by blowing up school buses, controlled villages by taking the rice and putting grandmother’s head on a spike at the village entrance. One advisor’s response (he was later my instructor) was to find the VC, return the rice to the village, and proclaim that the government (the Diem regime) was strong. Perhaps we lost in Viet Nam because we were supporting a bad government instead of empowering the people. Likewise in Iraq.
Let’s distinguish what terrorism isn’t.
A lone, isolated gunman attacking a crowd that few people identify as “me” is not terrorism. Most of the population does not patronize gay bars, so the horror in Orlando (6/12/2016) was one man’s hate, but not terrorism. One commentator called it “toxic masculinity*,” which is evident in our society and our politics. What would be terrorism? Several gunmen, operating in concert, successively attacking large gatherings of ordinary civilians. Not one pair with one bomb at the Boston marathon. Few of us attend marathons. To affect the population, terrorism needs common targets: the planes, the big games, the shopping centers. Attacking grandmothers wouldn’t work here as it did in Viet Nam—grandmothers aren’t revered in our village life. But an attack on all cell phones or electrical grids might generate anxiety. We revere convenience and we feel connected more by social media than by handshakes and hugs.
How do you defend against terrorism?
You don’t. In a free society, you can’t. Because terrorists merge into the populace, police can’t easily identify friend from foe. Each defense necessarily restricts the general population. A total defense would require a Soviet-style spy in each household, an airport-style security line in each grocery store. We can monitor suspects, but the only defense is the defense against fear.
A resolute, confident population is secure, although individuals are at risk. A few will fall to the terrorists’ violence, but the terrorism can’t panic a confident population into trading freedom for an impossible security. However, if the population views security as an entitlement, if the privileged class defends privilege more than people, if winning is the major personal, political, and corporate objective, then terrorism can succeed. Winning (that is, defeating someone else) as a goal can so violate the hope for justice that the population will accept dictatorship as a defense against fear, moving the society far from its ideals.
Remember this: it isn’t either the ideals or the reality that make a society strong or great. Rather, it is the gap between the ideals and the reality that makes a society frail and shaky.
- The Week magazine, 7/1-7/8, 2016, p. 12.