Looking Backward at Terrorism

Nice essay on the danger of too much security:

The great lie of the war on terror is not that we can sacrifice a little liberty for greater security. It is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, rather than look at the other causes of our social, economic, and political anxiety. That is the great seduction of fear: It allows us to do nothing. It is easier to find new threats than new possibilities.

A decade after 9/11, we look backward and find ourselves in all-too-familiar surroundings. We have, in fact, accomplished very little. We have yet to do any of the serious thinking that might carry us beyond the banal, stifling quest for security. That kind of thinking would require us to have a different relationship to fear: a willingness to accept it, even cause it.

Posted on August 19, 2011 at 1:57 PM12 Comments


Richard Steven Hack August 19, 2011 2:08 PM

Excellent little article.

I highly recommend everyone watch the movie “V for Vendetta”. The most important scene in the movie – perhaps in any movie – is the scene where Evey loses her fear. The second most important scene is the finale where a huge mob loses its fear.

This is also why I recommend martial arts be taught to every child. Once you learn to deal with the immediate fear of being attacked – which goes directly to the basic primal fear of every human which is what guides almost all human behavior – the fear of death – it’s much easier to learn to deal with more of life’s fears.

PackagedBlue August 19, 2011 3:28 PM

“Where is the beef?”

“Where were the taxing troublesome Dangerous Diamonds?”

Frank Ch. Eigler August 19, 2011 7:40 PM

“[The great lie] is that fear can be eliminated, and that all we need to do to improve our society is defeat terrorism, […]”

That claim, and its neighbours, would be classified like a straw man fallacy, if it were an argument at all.

David August 20, 2011 11:40 AM

@ChristianO “Why should we willingly cause fear?”

Because people are frightened about stupid things, and that shouldn’t constrain us. I would point chiefly at the war on photography, but there are analogous situations.

We should not set out with a goal to cause fear, and we should take reasonable steps to mitigate it, but we should be willing to cause some fear when avoiding it unreasonably constrains our freedoms.

Rob August 20, 2011 3:45 PM

@ChristianO “Why should we willingly cause fear?”

@David’s answer is a pretty good one, but the essay from which the quotation is taken, gives a more immediate one:

“Radical demands for justice are dangerous—they inspire fear in those committed to the injustices of the present.”

Aarren August 20, 2011 8:15 PM

Security has many dimensions. One of these is liberty itself. So in a real sense, reducing liberty can actually reduce security, because we have less liberty.

Anton August 20, 2011 10:01 PM

Bruce, nice quote!


yes and ironically security is used to protect our liberty (think bank account) because in the west liberty equates to ownership of assets which is the corner stone of western law and in turn bestows power and control over others.

Joe August 21, 2011 1:00 AM

@ChristianO “Why should we willingly cause fear?”

This is an interesting question because one could say that terrorists are willingly causing fear as well.

However there is a difference between the fear of fear and fear of something. The essence of terrorism is to increase the natural human tendency to be afraid of fear. In this endeavor the media and most governments are complicit with the terrorists.

When we are no longer afraid of our fear, then we are able to explore it. Fear becomes a symptom, not of an external enemy, but of something within us that we need to change.

That is why we willingly cause fear (perhaps face fear might be more accurate)

Tony August 22, 2011 10:10 AM

My 6 year old girl is afraid of wasps. I do what I can, for her safety, to minimize our proximity to wasps, but there will always be wasps. Since wasps sting the fear is justified, so taking it away would do her an injustice. The best thing I can do for her is teach her how to handle the fear so she can act rationally when faced with a “threat”.

I think there’s an analogy in there somewhere. Is the war on terror just some large-scale well-intended over-protective “parenting”?

Keith August 23, 2011 4:46 AM

@ Tony
Nice analogy as it can also be used to show the disproportion of fear and fear based response (mitigating action, defence cost and side affect of actions) Vs the Risk (frequency / likely hood and severity).

In parenting we TEACH a perceived severity (and likely hood of sting) than is maybe realistic (as shown by the action of kids that have never been stung). We allow the media to teach the same overly biased risk perception when it comes to (most) risks (that are newsworthy).

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.