Fashioning a Response to Terror: Action versus Overreaction

On January 30th, 2011, members of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula advise, train, and assist Iraqi Security Forces in preparation for counter-terrorism operations during Operation New Dawn, Baghdad, Iraq. By Army Sgt. Andrew Jacob, Special Operations Task Force-Central.

By Rachel A. Epstein for Denver Dialogues

A Symposium with Deborah Avant, Sarah Glaser and Martin Rhodes

In recent weeks, I’ve been party to a number of heated conversations among otherwise like-minded people about the appropriate response to terrorist attacks. The catalyst for disagreement was the Paris attacks, but of course there have been many attacks, both before and after those, in Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, Somalia and elsewhere. On the one hand, the wall-to-wall media coverage, stepped-up surveillance, military action and reinvigoration of a ‘war on terror’ seem appropriate to many, given the savagery of the attacks. But on the other, overreaction also carries risks—namely that we will encourage more attacks by providing terrorist events so much profile; that we will misallocate resources; or that we will fuel our worst nativist impulses.

To answer the question of what constitutes an effective response to terror versus an overreaction, I turn to three well-informed colleagues with strong views on this subject. Professor Deborah Avant specializes in international security with a particular focus on non-state actors. Sarah Glaser is a research scientist with One Earth Future who has researched East Africa extensively. Professor Martin Rhodes is a Europeanist who works in comparative and international political economy.

EPSTEIN: Does the media and do politicians hype terrorist attacks too much?

AVANT: Yes. Terrorist attacks are very rare events. We have all heard the statistics; as an American you are much more likely to drown in your bathtub or be struck by lightning than to die in a terrorist attack. Even with the rise in terrorist attacks worldwide (generally associated with ISIS) in the last couple of years (here are some statistics on that), Americans and Europeans are relatively unaffected.

RHODES: Probably, and politicians who seek to gain votes or US presidential primary support thereby are especially culpable of fear mongering. But those politicians who try to treat the topic with greater rationality than others have to tread a difficult line; downplaying a threat can be as dangerous politically as overplaying it—especially when nationalist/nativist politicians portray moderation as disregard.

GLASER: Yes and no. Yes, if you’re asking about the risk to Americans on American soil. But countless terrorist attacks occur around the world—especially in Africa—that receive little or no media or political coverage in the U.S. For example, since the attacks on Paris in November there have been attacks by al-Shabaab (the al-Qaeda linked jihadist group based in southern Somalia) on a bus of citizens in Kenya, on an African Union base in Somalia (killing between 50 – 100 Kenyan soldiers), and on a hotel and restaurant at a popular beach in Somalia (killing at least 20), but there was virtually no US coverage of these attacks.

EPSTEIN: Would you estimate, referring first to the United States and Europe, that this set of countries devotes too many resources to anticipating, preventing and responding to terrorist attacks?

AVANT: Yes again, referring specifically to the US, the numbers are staggering. Check here for a running tab of the amount the US has spent in wars since 9/11.

The puzzling thing is why?

One idea about “why” was what started the debate between Martin Rhodes and me. A mutual friend who runs a tech start-up was talking about an idea to pull signals about potential threats from social media. His claim was that the US government missed Facebook posts that could have made them aware of the malign intent of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. This friend has no particular knowledge about terrorism or responses to it but saw a business opportunity in what looked like a missed possibility to head off a terrorist attack. I suddenly had a Michael Moore moment. Remember how in Bowling for Columbine he showed how average Americans employed in weapons industries were part of the structure ensuring that it continued? In this sense, there is too much money attracting energy and innovation to address terror where the actual threat of terror (at least in the US) doesn’t warrant it.

Terrorism—and fighting it—has become a structural part of our politics and economy (for more on structural arguments, check out the recent Duck of Minerva symposium). Many receive benefits from playing up the threat no matter what they actually think. This then plays into other psychological factors that exaggerate fear and make it even less likely that we will have a reasoned response. In the worst case, a fearful response generates fear (or resentment) that actually worsens the problem. And that is something we should consider seriously given the potential relationship between America’s response to 9/11 and the growth of ISIS.

GLASER: I would add that it’s problematic to overstate terrorism in one case and understate it in another. Hyping terrorism scares people. A NYT/CBS poll from December showed 19% of Americans believe terrorism is the top issue facing the country, up from just 4% the month before. That fear creates real anxiety, but it also elevates reactionary, isolationist, and racist policy responses—see Donald Trump’s suggestion to ban travel by Muslims to the U.S., or the movement of certain states to ban Syrian refugees. This, in turn, fuels one of the terrorist narratives of anti-Muslim hatred in the West that perpetuates self-radicalization in the U.S. and Europe and recruits foreign fighters to travel around the world to join ISIS, the Taliban, or al-Shabaab.

RHODES: Maybe the US does devote too many resources, where it can justifiably be said that other problems are far more pressing. The US government spends around $1 trillion a year countering terrorism; or to put it another way, as a headline on website Think by Numbers puts it, “Anti-Terrorism Spending 50,000 Times More Than on Any Other Cause of Death”.

But that argument becomes casuistic when ‘relative risk’ statistics are tritely deployed. Richard Jackson, for example, states that given the actual relative risk of being killed in a terrorist attack, we’d be better off having a ‘war on bees’ or on lightning or suicide.

That’s not a very a helpful way to frame a complex public debate. Indeed it is the worst kind of trivializing sophistry. It ignores the difference between risk and uncertainty; we know how to reduce our chances of dying in a car crash, or of alcohol consumption, and we and our governments can deploy resources accordingly. But we do not fully understand terrorism—what causes it, when and where it will happen, and with what effect. It also ignores the fact that the ‘risk’ of dying in a terrorist attack (the number of incidents in a given place and period) is only the most immediate manifestation of the problem. In the case of Jihadism, governments have to deal with many unknowns (e.g. the success of internet recruitment strategies; the profile of the terrorist; the capacity to cross borders unchecked). In some European countries—notably France—a new wave of virulent anti-Semitism (not unrelated to the terrorism there) is more than just a low-level threat, measurable simply by the number of physical attacks. It causes widespread distress and outward migration by Jews and costs both the state and local Jewish communities a fortune to police. The ‘relative risk’ discourse thus ignores the collateral damage that terrorism inflicts.

EPSTEIN: What should the public policy focus be for terrorism, in light of your views about the value of action versus the risks of overreaction?

AVANT: Public policy is best when it is based on reason rather than fear. So the first thing I advocate for is a calmer public discourse. Once it becomes politically and economically expedient to play on fear, as it has now, generating calmer discourse is an uphill battle. As academics, though, I think we have the responsibility to continually point out the “facts”, to take note when we see structural forces at work, and to engender debate about the degree to which terrorism is such a threat and whether treating it as we have is making things better or worse. We have overreacted, and it has made things worse.

GLASER: The public policy response should take into account that Americans currently misperceive who are the most numerous victims of radical jihadist movements. ISIS is killing Muslims. Al-Shabaab is killing Muslims. The Taliban is killing Muslims. Boko Haram is killing Muslims. But too many Americans feel terrorism is an us-versus-them situation in which us = US/Europe and them = Muslims. This makes our policy response not only ineffective, but counterproductive. Moreover, it misses the fact that most victims of terrorism are actually Muslim.

RHODES: True: only 3 per cent of terrorist deaths have occurred in the West since 2001. This number is used by those who say (rightly) that we should “put terrorism in perspective”. But it also tells us something equally if not more important: that we should avoid an isolationist view of terrorism and recognize that the fight against Jihadist terrorism is a global one, in which Al Qaeda and ISIS and their affiliates are now competing to out-brutalize each other. Potentially this means spending more money but differently. A Marshall Plan, for the fractured parts of the Middle East, called for by US politicians as different as John Kerry and John McCain, would be massively expensive and certainly opposed by nativists and isolationists. But it would be ‘rational’ and proportionate to the scale of the problem.

In Europe, where populists and nationalists are calling for a dismantling of the EU in response to terrorism and large-scale migration, the correct response is to get smarter and devote more resources, not fewer, to fighting terrorism and its root causes. European countries have had to deal with domestic terrorism in the past, but they are ill-prepared to deal with new cross-border security challenges. Not only have they depended for too long on US spending on NATO for their broader security, but they have neglected to put in place effective security coordination within EU countries and across them. The establishment of a new European Counter Terrorism Centre within Europol in January is a step in the right direction. But a broader, coordinated, and yes, costly, global strategy is in order.

Dr. Deborah Avant is the Sié Chéou-Kang Chair for International Security and Diplomacy and Director of the Sié Center at the University of Denver.

Dr. Sarah Glaser is a research associate for Secure Fisheries, and an affiliate research scientist at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Dr. Martin Rhodes is Professor of Comparative Political Economy, and Academic Co-Director of the Colorado European Union Center of Excellence.



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