What the Terrorists Want
On Aug. 16, two men were escorted off a plane headed for Manchester, England, because some passengers thought they looked either Asian or Middle Eastern, might have been talking Arabic, wore leather jackets, and looked at their watches—and the passengers refused to fly with them on board. The men were questioned for several hours and then released.
On Aug. 15, an entire airport terminal was evacuated because someone’s cosmetics triggered a false positive for explosives. The same day, a Muslim man was removed from an airplane in Denver for reciting prayers. The Transportation Security Administration decided that the flight crew overreacted, but he still had to spend the night in Denver before flying home the next day. The next day, a Port of Seattle terminal was evacuated because a couple of dogs gave a false alarm for explosives.
On Aug. 19, a plane made an emergency landing in Tampa, Florida, after the crew became suspicious because two of the lavatory doors were locked. The plane was searched, but nothing was found. Meanwhile, a man who tampered with a bathroom smoke detector on a flight to San Antonio was cleared of terrorism, but only after having his house searched.
On Aug. 16, a woman suffered a panic attack and became violent on a flight from London to Washington, so the plane was escorted to the Boston airport by fighter jets. “The woman was carrying hand cream and matches but was not a terrorist threat,” said the TSA spokesman after the incident.
And on Aug. 18, a plane flying from London to Egypt made an emergency landing in Italy when someone found a bomb threat scrawled on an air sickness bag. Nothing was found on the plane, and no one knows how long the note was on board.
I’d like everyone to take a deep breath and listen for a minute.
The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.
And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want.
We’re all a little jumpy after the recent arrest of 23 terror suspects in Great Britain. The men were reportedly plotting a liquid-explosive attack on airplanes, and both the press and politicians have been trumpeting the story ever since.
In truth, it’s doubtful that their plan would have succeeded; chemists have been debunking the idea since it became public. Certainly the suspects were a long way off from trying: None had bought airline tickets, and some didn’t even have passports.
Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers’ perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they’ve succeeded.
Imagine for a moment what would have happened if they had blown up 10 planes. There would be canceled flights, chaos at airports, bans on carry-on luggage, world leaders talking tough new security measures, political posturing and all sorts of false alarms as jittery people panicked. To a lesser degree, that’s basically what’s happening right now.
Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror.
(I am not saying that the politicians and press are terrorists, or that they share any of the blame for terrorist attacks. I’m not that stupid. But the subject of terrorism is more complex than it appears, and understanding its various causes and effects are vital for understanding how to best deal with it.)
The implausible plots and false alarms actually hurt us in two ways. Not only do they increase the level of fear, but they also waste time and resources that could be better spent fighting the real threats and increasing actual security. I’ll bet the terrorists are laughing at us.
Another thought experiment: Imagine for a moment that the British government arrested the 23 suspects without fanfare. Imagine that the TSA and its European counterparts didn’t engage in pointless airline-security measures like banning liquids. And imagine that the press didn’t write about it endlessly, and that the politicians didn’t use the event to remind us all how scared we should be. If we’d reacted that way, then the terrorists would have truly failed.
It’s time we calm down and fight terror with antiterror. This does not mean that we simply roll over and accept terrorism. There are things our government can and should do to fight terrorism, most of them involving intelligence and investigation—and not focusing on specific plots.
But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches. There are approximately 1 billion Muslims in the world, a large percentage of them not Arab, and about 320 million Arabs in the Middle East, the overwhelming majority of them not terrorists. Our job is to think critically and rationally, and to ignore the cacophony of other interests trying to use terrorism to advance political careers or increase a television show’s viewership.
The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.
This essay originally appeared on Wired.com.
EDITED TO ADD (3/24): Here’s another incident.
EDITED TO ADD (3/29): There have been many more incidents since I wrote this—all false alarms. I’ve stopped keeping a list.