The Social Dynamics of Terror

Good essay:

Nineteenth-century anarchists promoted what they called the “propaganda of the deed,” that is, the use of violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point, such as inspiring the masses to undertake revolutionary action. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, modern terrorist organizations began to conduct operations designed to serve as terrorist theater, an undertaking greatly aided by the advent and spread of broadcast media. Examples of attacks designed to grab international media attention are the September 1972 kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the December 1975 raid on OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Aircraft hijackings followed suit, changing from relatively brief endeavors to long, drawn-out and dramatic media events often spanning multiple continents.

Today, the proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and the Internet have allowed the media to broadcast such attacks live and in their entirety. This development allowed vast numbers of people to watch live as the World Trade Center towers collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001, and as teams of gunmen ran amok in Mumbai in November 2008.

This exposure not only allows people to be informed about unfolding events, it also permits them to become secondary victims of the violence they have watched unfold before them. As the word indicates, the intent of “terrorism” is to create terror in a targeted audience, and the media allow that audience to become far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of a terrorist attack. I am not a psychologist, but even I can understand that on 9/11, watching the second aircraft strike the South Tower, seeing people leap to their deaths from the windows of the World Trade Center Towers in order to escape the ensuing fire and then watching the towers collapse live on television had a profound impact on many people. A large portion of the United State was, in effect, victimized, as were a large number of people living abroad, judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11 that “We are all Americans.”

Posted on January 7, 2011 at 6:30 AM39 Comments


Imperfect Citizen January 7, 2011 6:41 AM

Good article. The author’s link to situational awareness is interesting as well.

That website was helpful to me in terms of understanding surveillance and countersurveillance and what was happening with the perimeters in my observation.

Clive Robinson January 7, 2011 7:42 AM

I remember the debate about live feeds from the Falklands war and how it might assist the enemy or terrorise those in Britain.

Likewise a similar argument with regards the first George Bush “Gulf War”

For those old enough to remember the early 1970’s (yup I’m one and Bruce should be as well 😉 there where arguments about the effect on home moral of the presence of TV crews and press in Vietnam.

And it was felt for many years after Vietnam that the televison crews etc “weakened the resolve of the American people” with respect to the war.

Others said it showed the utter bestial behaviour of war and how it could not be won (specificaly the iconic photograph of a Vietnamese girl burt naked with skin blistered and chared after a napalm attack).

It appears some fourty years later the argument about the sensitivity of a nations people to reported news still goes on

DDD January 7, 2011 7:57 AM

The resolve of the american people was never behind the vietnam war, the war was a case of mission creep from a training mission, the mission creep was aided by a Navy hysteria that was probably planned by some one at pacific fleet headquarters. the purported gulf of tonkin incident that actually never even happened. The military never even had a plan to win that war, it was a sideshow, a placewhere pentagon twerps could drop in for a few months and get some people killed, grunts, or locals, it didn’t matter, the idea was to prove the halfbaked officer who recieved the medals for it was tough. I know, I was there in 68 and 69. it was all about politicians egos, they wanted to feel tough. pentagon just wanted the war to continue as long as they found it useful for giving each other medals. the saying was “its a dirty little war but its the only one we have.” and that really was pentagon policy.

Clive Robinson January 7, 2011 7:59 AM

@ Bruce,

You forgot to “attribute” the essay in the way perscribed at the botom of it’s page 😉

bob January 7, 2011 8:26 AM


When you say you were there, I assume you mean you were in the pentagon. If not, I have to write you off as a conspiracy theorist.

The war was an escalation of a dispute between France and N.Vietnam.

Other than those two points, I agree with you.

David January 7, 2011 8:31 AM

Good article. I think the point from the Inspire publication pretty much sums up the mindset (to me) of actual terrorist plots:

“In addition to the suggestion that an attacker could weld butcher knives onto the bumper of a pickup truck and drive it through a crowd,”

This suggestion is both scary AND ridiculous. For example, it puts out the very real idea that little things (just driving through a crowd) can be an effective attack, if that’s what you want. However:

–The human body is pretty frail in some respects…hitting them with large metal objects like a truck is fairly guaranteed to do enough damage. But now you’re going to add insult to injury by having sharp metal object on the front…sort of like the old James Bond villain who was using a mega-Death Laser to kill Bond instead of putting a 3-cent round through the back of his head.

–Knife metal is either brittle (good knives) or weak and flexible (bad knives). After the first person hits the knife, you now have a either a ragged stub or a bent, useless tab…if the weld holds. Hours of work wasted.

–Looking for a crowd while driving a Road Warrior prop is a sure way to get pulled over by the first law enforcement to see you. You’ve now made yourself a blatant threat instead of an inconspicuous surprise.

–Welding knives on your vehicle is a pretty obvious act…if the neighbors get a glimpse, you can be sure that someone is going to remember and very possibly intercede or report before you can even try.

I’m not saying that all terrorists are stupid, but security theater seems to be matched by “terror theater.” Instead of using simple, cheap, effective hits to the Other Side, elaborate plans greatly increase the likelihood of failure.

(Nothing new, I know, but this was a good primary example.)

Clive Robinson January 7, 2011 8:34 AM

One thing of note.

Although the author acknowledges the 7/7 bombing in London and that by far the majority of Londoners went back to work the following day on the same railway lines and bus routes. He does not hazard a guess as to the reason.

Some that have been put forward by others include,

1, Cultural difference between Europeans and Americans.

2, The number of deaths was relativly small.

3, Both the UK and other European countries had had “rail disasters” where similar magnitude of people killed or injured.

4, The UK had had two largish bomb’s in London (Mary Axe & Docklands) that had caused similar death and injury.

5, The UK & Europe have a history of significant terrorist attack from the 1970’s onwards.

Of more interest was the sugestion that people have an inbuilt desensitisation to terrorist attacks in that the become almost expected or just abnormal not exceptional to everyday life.

Some people think of this in terms of a 3D “disaster shock” graph that is three things come into play,

1, Previous survival/experiance of a disaster of that type.

2, The knowledge of how to survive the “class of disaster”

3, The relative serverity of the disaster.

Which tends to sugest the best thing the US can do to “get over it” is to “drill” or “train” for it as part of “fire” or “earthquake” training from kindergarten age upwards.


“it useful for giving each other medals.”

Similar was said about US Military flights over NI during “the troubles” carrying US forces to places like SHAPE and other deployment areas in Europe along the old East/Weat border.

“the saying was “its a dirty little war but its the only one we have.” and that really was pentagon policy”

Sadly the same could be said of the “War Hawks” and most Politicos attitudes since 9/11.

We know in the UK that contrary to what the Politico’s say we don’t have enough troops on the ground. If you have done FIBUA training you will know that you only normaly consider it when you clearly have an overwhelming force, capable of hitting very hard whilst also maintaining a clear egress path such that your forward force does not become cut off and surounded.

Anything less than a 10:1 advantage usually results in high casualty figures and little operational effectiveness as the oposition develop a “sting and fall back” system such that they know your forces will either only move forward a small distance or be susceptible to being either out flanked or surounded and cut off.

Neil in Chicago January 7, 2011 8:58 AM

@Clive Robinson — Note that there has not been such unrestricted news coverage since Viet Nam, culminating in “embedded” reporting of Iraq.

@bob — “The Pentagon Papers” is a history of the decision making through the escalation of the Viet Nam War, written from inside the Pentagon. Please consult the original source material.

GreenSquirrel January 7, 2011 9:00 AM

Clive –

Interesting points and I totally agree over the FIBUA ratio. It amazes me how little details like this almost always get lost by whatever General is agreeing to a war.

This could be a reason for the historical failure rates with regard to occupations… 🙂

I am not sure I agree with the options given over why 7 Jul had a fairly insignificant impact on daily life.

While as a nation we have collective memories of bombing campaigns, I doubt many people commuting in 2005 had that in their mind. Given our countries current reaction to the hint of EVIL TERRORIST, I dont think we are in any way more stoic than any other country.

My personal (I have no research to support this, its a hunch) thoughts are the attack vector was so essential to everyday life people had no choice but to suck it up and get on with it.

We can not survive in the city without using the bus and the tube so nearly everyone simply had to push the threat to the back of their minds and get on with daily life.

Compare that with planes. Very few people fly more than twice a year and flying is a stressful event. There is no overwhelming pressure to “get on with it” so people are able to continue to be scared.

As a result of this (if I am correct of course) people are always going to “want” more security around air transport than anything else, even though it wont work.

John Campbell January 7, 2011 9:57 AM

I think I’ve been commenting on the leveraging/amplification of mile-hills into mountains handled by the news media in order to acquire money.

I like the term “Terror Theater”, however, since it fits well into “Security Theater”.


Where is Firesign Theater now that we need them?

DDD January 7, 2011 10:05 AM

@bob, I was a medic first battalion twentieth infantry, about 6 months after they did the my lai massacre. LZ Cork, LZ volunteer, LZ liz, LZ dragon

moo January 7, 2011 10:09 AM


Your comment about the essential nature of subway travel is interesting. I think maybe you don’t give londoners enough credit though. I think the solidarity displayed by many londoners after those bombings was at least partly a result of the many years of the troubles and IRA attacks. Even if londoners were not on the front line during those years, I think the frequent news documentation of the troubles over many years had an effect of preparing people (even subconsciously) for the possibility of successful terrorist attacks, or at least successful bombing attacks. Because they had first-hand evidence (via the news) of such things happening not too far from home. Bombing attacks during the troubles could not really be stopped, and everyone just had to accept the reality of the threat and get on with their lives. Which is what seems to have happened in London after 2005. Before 9/11 most Americans were psychologically unprepared for the possibility of a devastating terrorist attack against their home country, because nothing like that had happened close to home in their lifetimes.

kangaroo January 7, 2011 10:41 AM

War has been primarily a question of propaganda since WWI — since it began to actually matter whether the little people were behind a war or not.

It’s that damn simple — we’ve had a century of sophisticated pontificating on a very simple concept. In no state prior to the 20th century were the political opinions of the great mass of people — serfs, farmers, factory workers, slaves, etc — of any political consequence. They’d keep on doing the same thing no matter which side won.

With the development of a surplus in productive capacity as the industrial revolution wound down and the development of technologies that required extreme stability to function, the only way to win a war (other than mutual genocide) was to convince the folks on the other side to just give up — that they didn’t care to win.

Simple. “Terrorism” and everything else are words used by sophisticates who don’t want to face simple facts.

BF Skinner January 7, 2011 11:07 AM

“proliferation of 24-hour television news networks and the Internet”

Given the turn from traditional media to the wide number of specialized networks and internet outlets I think that terrorists will have to increase the size and intensity of their attacks (up the gain) to overcome the rest of the noise.

How big a boom will Al Queda need to be heard on OWN?

BF Skinner January 7, 2011 11:15 AM

@Clive “5, The UK & Europe have a history of significant terrorist attack from the 1970’s onwards.”

I’d say this is the strongest element. Having been on the reciveing end of a bombing campaign from the IRA one thing that experience would have taught the UK…bombs are only so big by so big and so deep and can blow up so many people. THere are a limit to the number of people able to make, place and detontate a bomb. BAD. I’m not suggesting its not, but survivable.

The talk after 9/11 around here is ‘they are going to destroy us’ to the point more people thought they had a much greater chance of dying in a terrorist attack than a car wreck on the highway.

Lack of perspective. I don’t think Bin Hiding ever had any intent on ‘destroying’ the US and the west. He knows how few people he has, how few bombs he can make or aircraft he can hijack and how large the forces against him.

Good point on desensitization.

BF Skinner January 7, 2011 11:18 AM

Addendum…(a jolly joker here occasionally posts as if he’s Bin Missing)

Pass this along to your boss.

Bin Laden wants us out of the mideast. That’s NEVER going to happen as long as they have the oil and we use it. You want us out?

Use your money and al queda army to develop cost effective alternative forms of energy.

GreenSquirrel January 7, 2011 11:24 AM

@Moo (and to a lesser extent BF Skinner)

I didnt mean to denigrate Londoners, but there is a very transient population. There will have been many in 2005 who didnt live through the 2001 RIRA campaign, let alone the previous PIRA ones.

That said there is an element of stoic behaviour but nowhere near as much as there was in then 1980s.

When it comes to anything other than tube/bus attacks, Londoners (and the rest of the UK) act in the same manner as everyone else in the world.

We, as a society, allow the Metropolitan Police to fear monger with the best of them. The shooting of De Menezes is a prime example of how people had a massive panic about the fear of terrorists. Even today we have a raised alert level in our airports because of the possibility of an attack (*).

When it comes to the more generic forms of terrorism, Londoners are just as scared as everyone else, if not more. The only blip seems to have been how quickly everyone returned to the bus & tube to get to work.

(*) From the BBC:

This strikes me as massive pointlessness with no purpose other than to condition society to remain a bit worried. What is the public supposed to do with the information that the threat level has increased?

GreenSquirrel January 7, 2011 11:27 AM

Sorry to extend my own comments but I thought I would add a bit from the BBC news:


The letter says there are indications al-Qaeda “may be considering an attack against a UK airport or aviation sector target” and it describes the reports as “credible”.

It goes on to say the “economic, political and psychological significance of the UK aviation sector, coupled with the large crowds present within some of its major assets, would enable a successful attack to fulfil al-Qaeda’s objectives”.

It emphasises that no changes to security will be made and the planned method of attack is unclear.

What a massive amount of pointless. What value has that provided?

I think we should resort to crystal balls and reading tea-leaves.

noble_serf January 7, 2011 11:48 AM


I think it is the opposite. Though media is fragmented now, even failures or snitch plots get a chance to dominate news cycles. Witness the xmas tree bomber or cpt. underpants and imagine the advertising cost to buy equal the airtime and copy they each got — talk about an epic return on investment!

cod3fr3ak January 7, 2011 12:48 PM


I agree with you. The information the article is worse than useless.Its like saying someone on the planet there is a guy, getting ready to rape someone you know. Well you know many people and there are many, many men in the world. What should one do first?
We get the same thing here in the US.
Personally I think much of this has to do with: ($eyeballs_on_screen * $sensational_event = $profit) for mass media companies. They are literally skimming the information flow for maximum profitability; as they are required to do by their corporate charters (ie. maximizing shareholder value).

Clive Robinson January 7, 2011 12:58 PM

@ noble_Serf,

“talk about an epic return on investment”

Yes and the good new for OBL et al AKA AQ is nobody inocent got hurt, therefore no negative publicity at home.

His sponsors (or those sponsering the controlers of the would be suicide bombers) must realy love him.

@ GreenSquirrel,

“When it comes to anything other than tube/bus attacks, Londoners (and the rest of the UK) act in the same manner as everyone else in the world”

Irespective of if Londoners still have “The Blitz Spirit” or stoicism or “stiff upper lip” you raise a very valid point.

London is a maze of medieval passages and cart tracks that people put shops and businesses around. Even the Great Fire of London did not sort the mess out as “early returners” immediatly started a land grab on adjoining property.

More recently the “ring of steel” that went up after the IRA bomb and the congestion charge has further reduced peoples ability to freely travel without using the god forsaken and overpriced tube and bus network.

I know of few other cities/metropolises of the size of London, and even those a tenth of it’s size have a dependence on public transportation. But London appears to be one of the worst served for the price.

Maybe it is because of the privations of our public transport network that we have a degree of fatalism in London. After all we have had people die of heat stroke in summer months on the tube, visiting students and others attacked, robbed, murdered and raped. And as a disease vector it has to be very very high on the list now that we are in flu season and people are dying of swine flu.

Personaly I would say you have not lived (the living death) untill you have traveled through central London on the Northern Line during the rush hour or late in the evening, and the Central line is not much better…

Yes I think we will add it to the list.

jacob January 7, 2011 1:47 PM

I’m sure I’m going to ripped a new one here, but here goes. I have wondered at times if society is so conditioned to thinking all bad things can be prevented and should be at any costs by organizations, people, or government.

This ties in with many discussions on this blog and others. Perspective is missing. 3,000+ die, we mobilize 1 trillion dollars. 40,000 die every year in automobile accidents, then what? We ban phones. I am in no way diminishing the tragedy. Just wondering if we could handle things better and get more accomplished for the money spent.

Some idiot trys to light his shoes, everyone has to take their shoes off at airport. I’m waiting for the body cavity searches after the condom bomber strikes, or blows.

I am not quite old enough (clive?) to remember WWII, but I get the impression they were more stoic.

Why is it assumed by government that it is their duty/right and people expect them to prevent everything bad.

If we stopped being terrorized, the terrorists would have to try something else. Perhaps in the arena of ideas???

Moderator January 7, 2011 1:49 PM

A banned user has been sockpuppeting heavily in this thread. I’ve removed a couple of comments that were perfectly fine except for being replies to that user; my apologies to the two people that happened to.

mcb January 7, 2011 2:01 PM

Welcome to 2011! “The Year of Fear,” the Official 10th anniversary of 9/11 ™, has begun. On Tuesday the 11th we begin the nine month countdown to a gala 24 hour multi-media extravaganza reminding us all how terrorized we were, have been, and should remain. “It’s time to embrace the horror.” Hawks and doves, politicians and pundits, apologists and apoplectics will hash, rehash, and make hash of comparisons to Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, all the assassinations from JFK to John Lennon, Madrid, 7/7, and Mumbai. Remember, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” All that’s left to decide is what color the commemorative silicone bracelet should be.

BF Skinner January 7, 2011 2:32 PM

@greensquirrel “condition society to remain a bit worried”

Perhaps the converse is true. Perhaps society is always a bit worried and the response from officialdom is…not reflecting that but expressing it.

Conditioning tends to be an external activity doesn’t it? An actor working against a passive recipient. A terrorist terrorizing society. The white coat making changes to stimulus of the white rat.
But for CI, LE and Government they are in the milieu (yay! double word score) as what’s being conditioned.

Less than devious people trying to keep their phoney baloney jobs (I’m excluding media here) I see it more as nuerotic society version of nail-biting.

noble_serf “even failures or snitch plots get a chance to dominate news cycles”

Fair to say. But I think what we’ve seen is that the cycles are going faster. To exploit that the terrorists or anyone else will have to move as fast.

There was significant bomber activity that made it to the headlines for a day or two only (outside of the prisonplanet world) because it didn’t fit the narrative the the major outlets were using to tell their stories.

ilgioa January 7, 2011 2:36 PM

It’s interesting to think about the first sentence: “the use of violence as a symbolic action to make a larger point, such as inspiring the masses to undertake revolutionary action”.
What do today’s terrorists want to achieve with their acts? What are they achieving?

mcb January 7, 2011 4:17 PM

@ ilgioa

“What do today’s terrorists want to achieve with their acts?”

The reactionaries want things to be the way they used to be, except with them in charge.

The radicals want things to be the way they ought to be, except with them in charge.

Doug Coulter January 7, 2011 6:36 PM

@mcb +5, insightful.
Now just replace “reactionary” and “radical” with any two other opposing parties (political or you name it). And it still is true. As Asmiov said, “a fire eater will eat fire even if he has to start one himself”. Look at the world, and how often things like say, abortion are framed as so absolute on either side there is no hope of reconciliation.

As deep thought said in HHGTTG — “and you’ll be on the gravy train for life”. One wonders if they know their motivations explicitly or just subliminally, but that’s clearly in the picture on most conflicts.

Clive Robinson January 7, 2011 11:41 PM

@ mcb,

One important point about your definitions about reactionaries and radicals.

When you say “…want things to be the way they…”

It should be “…want things to be the way they think they…”

Self delusion is after all their greatest friend and alows them to “invent” their world views the way they want no matter what reality or others have to say about it.

@ Doug C,

I’m not sure some of the younger folk would get the Douglas Adams “Hitch Hikers Guide…” refrence.

Though I still think it should be compulsory reading for all teenagers so they can get an understanding of their parents and the way the world “fails to” work the way ‘they think’ it should, especially with those “small pieces of green paper” 😉

Davi Ottenheimer January 8, 2011 2:21 AM

“statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11 that “We are all Americans.””

Meanwhile, in America, the guy about to become chair of the US House Oversight Committee is saying the opposite:

“that had no dirty bomb in it, it had no chemical munitions in it…I have to ask…why the firefighters who went there and everybody in the city of New York needs to come to the federal government for the dollars versus this being primarily a state consideration.”

That kind of puts a giant wrinkle in this Social Dynamics of Terror theory.

Paul Charles Leddy January 8, 2011 3:54 AM

I never act. I let others do it for me.

Luckily, they are very good at hiding their “terror”. They send “messages” instead, that are very kindly well covered in the international news.

I am active in my passivity and identity as a non-actor. I only “do” good. This is my message to myself.

Dirk Praet January 8, 2011 2:35 PM

Intelligent article that nicely differentiates between terrorism and terror, the way governments and media act as an amplifier, and how adopting a different mindset can help in limiting the impact of terrorist goals and tactics.

“People across India were fearful of being attacked by teams of Lashkar-e-Taiba gunmen,”

Actually, they weren’t. Ever since its independence, India has known sporadic outbursts of sectarian violence, and most of Indian society has come to accept it as part of the human condition just as much as death and taxes. To me, India is very fine example of how terrorism has been unable to strike permanent fear into people’s hearts. I happened to be in New Delhi during the October 2005 bombings that killed 62 people and injured several hundreds more. One of the bombs went off in a bazar only a block away from the hotel where I was staying. If nothing else, I was struck by the immense grief of hindus and muslims alike, mourning their dead together, nobody screaming for vengeance, all carrying on with everyday life preparing for the light festival of Diwali two days later. However gutted they felt, the serene way they dealt with such a horrible event and their utter inability to fathem my own outrage over it was both humbling and mind changing.

On a related sidenote, I am a bit puzzled why some articles I’ve recently read on terrorism – including this one – consistently seem to omit from history Jewish movements like Irgun and Lehi that between 1920 and 1948 equally resorted to terrorist tactics in order to drive the British out of Palestine. It kinda adds to the notion that there remains a very thin line between terrorist and freedom fighter just depending from which angle you’re looking at it.

ddd January 9, 2011 8:24 AM

terror works best on a population that believes that bad things only happen to others. The Unibomber scared them because he was hitting them where they think they are safe. If he had been bombing in the ghetto, it wouldn’t have been a big case since no one, especially law enforcement care about poor people.
populations get used to terror. the palestinians have raised three generations of terror immune populations under foreign occupation.
The people of sarajevo learned to run in the places where snipers were active, but I never understood why they took such a devastating mortar hit in a market. the place could have had some low sandbag walls with walk throughs creating an easy maze to walk through, but one that would stop frag raising from a ground level impact, which would reduce the effective radius of an area targeted weapon, they took one mortar that killed 68 people. the israelies had to shell the UN at Qana (canae in the bible) extensively to kill as many.
In any case, terror only works on a soft and rich population, one that has a media to help sell the fear.

J. Merton January 10, 2011 7:33 AM

I don’t usually say “cull post, dude,” but thanks for this. People need to be educated more deeply about the psychology of terror. The reason terror works is because people don’t understand it.
& @bob re @ddd: the war was a campaign for independence by the Vietnamese. Period.

Clive Robinson January 11, 2011 7:12 AM

@ AC2,

“Hmm, maybe if you have travelled Mumbai local trains at peak hours??”

I can say I’ve not traveled in Mumbai trains it was not on my paymasters itinerary many years ago.

However the trains in India I did travel on all those long years ago where a little more crowded outside than that one. But inside it was actually not as bad as you would think with a compartment for me and my traveling companians and our equipment.

An oddity back then (and might still be today) was the tea sellers. The train would have to stop at various places and there would be a tea seller walking up and down the side of the track selling strong tea.

This was served in ‘sun dried pressed mud cups’, and if you did not drink the tea fairly quickly the cup disolved back to mud. The locals would chug the near boiling tea down and then chuck the cups on the track side. So you could say it was environmentaly friendly in many ways. However I’m still not certain about it being healthy, however I was over the “backdoor trots” by then…

Oh if you ever find yourself in that part of the world do not under any circumstances eat watermellon even if you buy it whole and uncut.

Some of the less reputable sellers stick thin wire needles through the skin in many places and then store them in a local river to make them swell up larger to get a better price from tourists.

Oddly as a student we did similar with water mellons a large hypodermic syringe and a bottle or two of vodka, the mellons did not get that much bigger but we sure had a swell time munching them 8)

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