On Monday, a student at Ohio State – who was also a permanent United States resident from Somalia – injured 11 people on the University’s campus. He did so using both a car and a knife. Because he is Muslim, posted his displeasure at perceived treatment of fellow Muslims on Facebook, and included a vague threat there, the first response of many has been to assume terrorism. This is entirely the wrong response.
There have been a number of different definitions of terrorism used both by government agencies and in scholarly discourse. These definitions focus on many aspects of terrorism, but one stands out: terrorism is a tactic that necessarily employs an intermediary in order to have an effect.
There’s an unfortunate role the media too often plays when covering terrorism.
There’s a tendency to sensationalize terrorist attacks and the people who commit them. This is highly detrimental when trying to reduce terrorism, as it induces fear among the public — just as the terrorists want.
It’s difficult to balance rights and security, particularly when it’s difficult to measure security. That’s one reason why the debates on gun control that follow mass shootings rarely lead to compromise solutions.
There are components of the debate that should be easy, though. One relates to the no-fly list, and was brought up recently by President Obama.
In the aftermath of a horror like the Orlando mass shooting, we often turn to religious or political ideologies as explanation. For example, the shooter’s last-minute pledge to ISIS must have signified the real reason he committed such a heinous act.
There is some truth to this. Certainly your beliefs influence how you treat others.
But a focus on ideology ignores two things.
<Variant Version at Political Violence @ a Glance>
A lot of our present public discourse involves attacking people who hold opinions different from our own. We call them names. We say they are weak or uncaring or stupid or lazy.
This is not helpful. We all come to our beliefs in different ways. Assuming others’ beliefs are driven only by ill intent is not fair to the passion and reason and pragmatism and idealism that form the bedrock of real beliefs. And it ruins the chance for real conversation.
So rather than argue here for a particular political point of view, I’m going to ask a simple favor: Please don’t fear terrorism.
Human beings are incredibly good at recognizing patterns. It is an amazing skill, both practically and creatively. But it can get us into trouble, too. And it is doing that now.
We observe ISIS’s horrific behavior and we see a pattern: A terrorist group bent on destroying our way of life. This pattern lends itself to certain assumptions. We assume that its propaganda accurately states its true motivations. We assume that anyone who supports ISIS must agree with all it says. These assumptions imply a purely military solution: Destroy the evildoers, wherever they are.
Insurgents cannot decide what to make of cellphones. While some insurgent groups target cellphone towers and demand companies turn towers off at night, others complain when providers are slow to fix network problems and threaten them for poor coverage. This variation reflects the fact that cellphones can hurt insurgents by allowing civilians to more safely share information on rebel activity with the government, but they also help insurgents by facilitating violent collective action, just as they help us all manage our daily lives.
Which effect will dominate is often unclear a priori. We provide an analysis in our forthcoming paper, which is part of a new special issue of the Journal of Peace Research. In some cases it is beneficial for governments engaging in counterinsurgency or counterterrorism to facilitate the spread of cellular communications. In others, the government should focus on limiting access to cell phones. To know when governments should do each, we need to know why insurgent groups vary in how they view cell phones.
Let’s start by getting something straight: the attack on the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo was terrorism. It was planned, carefully targeted, and intended to spur people other than those who were attacked to take actions in line with the terrorists’ goals. Unable to accomplish these goals via conventional means, the perpetrators chose the tactic of terrorism instead. The strategic goals of the terrorists are what are important in understanding their actions and how to counter them, not the ideas they toss around as easy supposed justifications for their actions.
The actual identity of the target was symbolically important but incidental to the strategic goal of the attack. Yes, the perpetrators might have found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons deeply offensive. But they also surely knew that the magazine is not unique in its offensiveness, has relatively small print numbers, and would only gain more attention after the attack. In fact, the magazine now plans a print run over thirty times greater than usual. So in what way does that target suit their goals?