Terrorism: Keep Calm and Carry On

At home I have a book about September 11th, 2001 called “Never Again”. The book itself is not as interesting as its title: Never Again. This vague, yet quite powerful catchphrase best characterises America’s understanding of homeland security in the post-9/11 era. The notion that we must, by all means possible, prevent another terrorist attack gave us hope that invulnerability is possible. Yet, despite the further sacrificing of our liberties, the nearly $640 billion the US government has spent on homeland security over the past 10 years, and one seemingly never-ending war on terror, we don’t feel safe. In fairness, we can never be absolutely safe, no matter how much money we spend and how many civil liberties we sacrifice.

Image courtesy of Vjeran Pavic, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Vjeran Pavic, © 2013, some rights reserved.

The reaction to 9/11 caused the relatively clandestine phenomenon of terrorism to become a primary focus of the US government. By linking sporadic terrorist attacks into one “attack on freedom”, we have created a monster that has cost the US public trillions of dollars in bolstered security and two very expensive and unnecessary wars. Every time we change laws to make our society less open, whenever we weaken the ideals and liberties that our society is built upon in pursuit of the often-illusionary goal of more security, the terrorists ‘win’ by default. Not because of what they have done but as a result of how we have reacted. So what can be done?

First, we need to realise that terrorist acts, as horrific as they are, can never seriously harm our society, only our reaction to them can. There have been numerous bombings and other forms of mass violence in the past, and there will be in the future. But these are by-and-large rare events. The odds that any sort of terrorist violence will affect an average American citizen are astronomically small. In fact, one is more likely to be struck by lightning than die from a terrorist attack. Moreover, the probability of any American being killed by a terrorist attack is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun, for instance.

Terrorism is designed to scare people disproportionately to its actual danger, cause psychological trauma and, as a result, achieve massive cumulative material effects. When we are confronted with vivid, shocking and graphic pictures of people affected by terrorist attacks, our brain tends to exaggerate the situation. Our fear arises from being aware of a threat and from feeling powerless to deal with it. But we do not have to be scared and we are far from powerless. All we have to do to render terrorism ineffective is to refuse to be terrorised.

For a start, instead of round-the-clock coverage full of frightening details and premature speculation, we should deprive the terrorists of what they seek the most: attention. But in the world of social media, even traditional media has become more sensation seeking and has sacrificed a great deal of its reliability and impartiality in order to keep up with social media outlets. This is an ominous trend that only helps spread fear and rushed judgments that, in turn, result in overreaction.

The antithesis of “Never Again” is resilience – best summed up by the famous World War II propaganda poster “Keep Calm and Carry On”. It behooves us to mirror the type of resilience the British displayed during World War II and again six decades later during the London Underground suicide bombings, when Londoners showed up, as usual, to ride the Underground the next morning. An effective way to beat terror is to return to routine as fast as we can. When terrorism fails to achieve its disruptive goals in spreading terror or spooking us into violating our values and forcing us to overreact, it becomes less attractive as a tactic. But societal resilience can be achieved only by an inspired, informed and mobilised public, because it is often civilians who can prevent and respond to an attack.

Throughout the 9/11 narrative, in addition to many firefighters and rescuers who put their lives at stake to help others, there is one story that is particularly inspiring in this regard. It is the story of the passengers of the United Airlines flight 93, who stormed the cockpit, fought their hijackers and crashed in a Pennsylvania field during an attempt to regain control of the aircraft. The story of the recent Boston Marathon bombings shows that the same spirit of community and volunteerism, witnessed in the months following 9/11, is still present. “Boston is a tough and resilient town,” said President Obama in his statement on Boston bombings, and he was right in his observation. The people of Boston displayed selflessness, civil responsibility, level-headedness, and competence in the moments following the attack. The media have reported stories of people who stepped up in the midst of chaos to do everything they could to help the victims, and of the local public safety personnel, who rushed to the scene to help, regardless of whether they were on duty or not.

In the aftermath of the attack, however, public officials decided to ground aviation and lock down the whole city. This has real costs and, as a result, provides further motivation for future attacks. What followed is well known: the police locked down Watertown and went in with full force and combat gear to search for the 19-year-old suspect. The Fourth Amendment ceased to exist as the scene recorded in this video resembles a war zone governed by martial law: house-to-house search, police shouting orders at people as they order them at gunpoint to identify themselves and get out of their home with their hands on their heads. Are we willing to surrender our rights so easily? Ironically, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who together with his brother was identified with the help of social media, was arrested not as a result of the house-to-house search but his capture was based on a tip by an attentive civilian, who saw the plastic cover on the boat in his driveway flapping in the wind and went to investigate. As a matter of fact, Tsarnaev could have been discovered much earlier if it was not for the “shelter in place” order.

There is no perfect defence against terrorism. From time to time, things will go badly wrong. Whilst homeland security is about making sure that fewer bad things happen, the real goal is to ensure that when they inevitably do happen, we are prepared to minimise their consequences and bounce back quickly. For that we need a resilient society with ability to prepare for and recover from terrorist attacks and disasters of all types. A resilient society will not bend in the face of a cowardly attack and as such would undermine much of the incentives terrorists have for targeting us.