Blog 35. Complex Terrorism

Terrorism doesn’t work, but fear of terrorism works very well.


Scientific American on terrorism.

The August, 2013 Scientific American offered an article,  “Five Myths of Terrorism,” by Michael Shermer.   Shermer says terrorism doesn’t work because the terrorists have reason to perpetrate violence; they aren’t under central control, they are not unique geniuses, and they are not deadly compared to the annual average of 13,700 homicides.  Shermer notes that most terrorist groups failed to attain their strategic goals.

Shermer is wrong because he ignores the effectiveness of the terrorist acts of 9/11.  The coordinated hijacking of four airplanes gave a paranoid American administration the excuse to initiate unending warfare in the Middle East, to initiate secret courts allowing secret intrusion of homes and private records, with universal wiretapping in the US and abroad. The effect is to bankrupt our treasury, degrade our international respect, and increase hatred of us in the Middle East.  Yet Shermer would call 9/11 ineffective?

Shermer’s article attracted comments, in which one commentator suggests the Muslim Brotherhood has more than 80 offices around the world, intent on establishing Sharia through infiltration, immigration, and growth of their own population.

Is centrally directed terrorism more dangerous?

Suppose one Islamic organization does indeed direct 80 offices around the world.  What makes that effective?  A centralized organization has agents and communication links that can be detected and monitored, so individual acts can be intercepted.  That’s classical warfare; you can identify your opponent.  I suggest a self-organized complex network of local groups is much more dangerous.  The local agents might use the name and central ideas of a remote, formal organization, while employing local tactics on local initiative.  I’m suggesting terrorism based in ideology can become a self-organized complex system, not relying on central direction, although achieving a massive impact by means of isolated events.  If a subculture spawned continuing acts of violence at a generic set of targets, such as schools or trains or grocery stores, would it have an impact?  Within the US, would the response be even more secret courts, secret police, secret monitoring of citizens?  Is the US susceptible, not so much to directed international terrorism as to amorphous domestic terrorism by individuals and groups affiliated by ideology and connected by informal communications?

Terrorism abroad.

The US has tried to suppress terrorism on foreign lands so as to maintain governmental regimes friendly to the US.  Fifty years ago, the Viet Cong were terrorists, controlling rural roads, taxing and killing the peasants in south Viet Nam.  Trying to fix that, we discovered military force cannot defeat an insurgency unless the military can absolutely control the people and provide protection from domestic and imported crime.  Occupying armies aren’t good at such police work.  Rather than generating loyalty, the army offends the population.  Witness Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why care about terrorism elsewhere?
The US is a global empire of marketing, debt, and military presence.  In history, empires have dissolved under the costs of their military domination.  The Romans are one example, perhaps the Mayans another.  Empire implies domination rather than local initiative.  An oppressed population uses terrorism to resist an empire by terrorism, regarding its criminal agents as patriots.  Think of Romans and Zealots.  Some Zealots are now Islamic rather than Jewish, seeing the US as imposing modernism in their territories.

A police state at home?

An open, free society cannot be immune to terrorism.  In responding to terrorism, the government can impress security on movement, transactions, communication, and privacy—while stimulating fear to justify such authority.  The US has started on that road.  We have searches for air travelers, monitoring of communications, and proposals for armed teachers in schools.  Local police are supported by Homeland Security.  In its final form that’s a police state, leaving little room for terrorists to move because all movement is restricted.

Another way.

There’s another way.  A robust, resilient society may suffer terrorist attacks, but the society itself is not threatened.  Terrorism works only if a society succumbs to it, if the people restrict commerce, education, and daily activity in fear of terrorists.  Now divided by ideology, the US is not a resilient society.  Congressmen act more to amplify fear than to manage the nation.  The one percent in wealth can live behind their guarded walls and travel on private jets, retaining political power while increasing the disparity, thereby also increasing the sensitivity of the lower populace to terrorism.  The lowest classes may come to regard the one percent as an economic police, and then lend comfort to the terrorists!  Witness the inner city riots of the 1960’s.

We have an opportunity to be different, to be a free society in which terrorism might occur, but which would die out due to its ineffectiveness.  But we would have to be unified, secure in ideas and ideals, not a society in which only a few have a meaningful stake.