Steven Pinker on Terrorism

It's almost time for a deluge of "Ten Years After 9/11" essays. Here's Steven Pinker:

The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident. Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the root of the word makes clear: "Terror" refers to a psychological state, not an enemy or an event. The effects of terrorism depend completely on the psychology of the audience.

[...]

Cognitive psychologists such as Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Paul Slovic have shown that the perceived danger of a risk depends on two factors: fathomability and dread. People are terrified of risks that are novel, undetectable, delayed in their effects, and poorly understood. And they are terrified about worst-case scenarios, the ones that are uncontrollable, catastrophic, involuntary, and inequitable (that is, the people exposed to the risk are not the ones who benefit from it).

These psychologists suggest that cognitive illusions are a legacy of ancient brain circuitry that evolved to protect us against natural risks such as predators, poisons, storms, and especially enemies. Large-scale terrorist plots are novel, undetectable, catastrophic, and inequitable, and thus maximize both unfathomability and dread. They give the terrorists a large psychological payoff for a small investment in damage.

[...]

Audrey Cronin nicely captures the conflicting moral psychology that defines the arc of terrorist movements: "Violence has an international language, but so does decency."

Posted on August 18, 2011 at 1:32 PM • 21 Comments

Comments

anonymous cowardAugust 18, 2011 2:39 PM

I wonder how we can maximize the unfathomability and dread of the experiences of terrorists after the fact.

Richard Steven HackAugust 18, 2011 2:40 PM

From the article: "A former White House counterterrorism official prophesied that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, downings of airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants."

And it should have. But as I've often said, terrorist groups have no imagination and little competence. But can we count on that being true forever in every circumstance? The probability is high, based on the historical facts the article cites (correctly), that it will be true. But the probability is not unity.

"terrorism was far more prevalent before our so-called age of terror than during it, and that all terrorist movements die. Remember the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Front de Libération du Québec, the Symbionese Liberation Army?"

Relatively bad examples here, as the Baader group was a joke, and the SLA consisted of half a dozen people led by a former FBI informant (which generated quite a few "conspiracy theories" BTW).

"The 1960s and 1970s saw hundreds of bombings, hijackings, and shootings by various armies, leagues, coalitions, brigades, factions, undergrounds, and fronts. Where are they now?"

What is more important is that there is no such thing as "terrorism" as a generic phenomena. Every terrorist group is unique to its environment. You can't compare the Turkish Grey Wolves with the PLO or the Italian Red Brigades or the Japanese Red Army even if those groups occasionally worked together or overlapped in ideology.

"Over the years, terrorist groups collapse as their leaders are killed or captured, as they morph into political movements, or as they fizzle out through internal squabbling and the defection of young firebrands to the pleasures of civilian life."

Most of these groups arose out of a specific ideology at a specific time in a specific country for reasons specific to all those elements and more. And they died out for equally specific reasons.

There is nothing proving that a terrorist group has to die out for any of the reasons cited.

While terrorist groups do die out, others come into existence. The only thing saving the countries which have experienced terrorism is that most terrorist groups are more focused on their cause than on their strategy and tactics. While each terrorist group has advanced terrorism tactics in one way or another, none of them have stepped back and considered the full nature of terrorism and the optimum strategy and tactics. Only a few fiction writers - notably Richard Condon in "Whisper of the Axe" but there are others - have attempted this and apparently terrorists don't read fiction.

When I was planning my little terrorist campaign back in the '80's, I did considerable research on all the terrorist groups and campaigns and extracted all the methods and strategies employed. And I added hundreds of my own. In fact, when these documents were presented to the judge in my case, he didn't know whether to poop or go blind. All he could say was he didn't think some of them were possible. Except that they were.

More importantly, I abstracted the critical components of an effective terrorist strategy. The most important of which is consistency. To be effective, terrorism must be chronic. The most effective terrorism events were like the Grey Wolves in Turkey, where people were being shot daily and the entire society was in fear for their lives. The Red Brigades almost managed to bring down the Italian government - but of course, that's Italy and so how hard is that? :-)

Chronic terrorism doesn't mean you have a 9/11 every day, week, month or even year. It means someone important dies frequently enough, and things blow up enough in enough random ways that it becomes a conscious impact on the ordinary citizen almost daily.

Without that, terrorism doesn't work. As long as being affected by terrorism is about as likely as being hit by lightning, it won't work. And that's what ultimately caused every terrorist group to date to fail: they could not impose themselves on the minds of their target society at a deep enough level.

But it's not impossible, especially as technology develops, that someone may finally figure that out and make it work in some country.

Shachar ShemeshAugust 18, 2011 3:47 PM

From the article: "A former White House counterterrorism official prophesied that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, downings of airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants."

Totally came true. The American economy did shut down due, at least in part, to chronic fear of bombings, downings and acts of cataclysmic sabotage (whatever that means...).

Shachar

mcbAugust 18, 2011 5:20 PM

"A former White House counterterrorism official prophesied that by the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the American economy would be shut down by chronic bombings of casinos, subways, and shopping malls, downings of airliners by shoulder-launched missiles, and acts of cataclysmic sabotage at chemical plants."

There's still time...

pfoggAugust 18, 2011 6:56 PM

"People are terrified of risks that are novel, undetectable, delayed in their effects, and poorly understood."

Sounds like the premise to every thriller-horror movie released, and more than a few urban legends.

NobodySpecialAugust 18, 2011 9:43 PM

"People are terrified of risks that are novel, undetectable, delayed in their effects, and poorly understood."

Then obviously the Americans were right and the IRA weren't terrorists after all.

E.I.AAugust 18, 2011 9:45 PM

Great find. I have been waiting for linguists to start addressing this subject. Oh wait, I guess Chomsky has made a few efforts. But Pinker's insight is welcome enough.

Reply to anon 1:
"I wonder how we can maximize the unfathomability and dread of the experiences of terrorists after the fact."

I think the DHS is doing a great job of that. Too great.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?...
It has gone from foreign terrorist to "home grown extremist", and according to the CIA, script kiddies are preparing a "new Pearl Harbor" & "9/11".
1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/13/...
2. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/03/...
Perhaps I am too cynical.

christianAugust 19, 2011 1:25 AM

though i agree with many of the points. where do you draw the line between terrorists and freedom fighters? after all fidel castro kicked batista out of cuba along with the us corps and.mafia. maybe all you need to do is win...just asking btw

christianAugust 19, 2011 1:29 AM

though i agree with most of the points in the article, i wonder at what point do terrorists become freedom fighters? after all, castro kicked batista out of cuba along with the us corps and the mafia.maybe the distinction is all about winning. which invalidates one of pinkers points though. just asking btw.

Clive RobinsonAugust 19, 2011 5:38 AM

@ Christian,

"... at what point do terrorists become freedom fighters?"

When sufficient numbers of people believe them to be so, irrespective of what the politicos say, as has been seen with "Arab Spring".

A mistake many terrorist organisations make is to attack a civilian population, it might get them lots of press initialy but it losses them support at home and abroad.

It is one reason why we now hear the term "insurgents" being used for the irregular forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world.

Also as they are nolonger attacking the US on US soil they are nolonger "the enemy within" that the Politico's appear to need (see the writings of George Orwell to see a reasoning on this need).

As a result the US has decided that any type of "ECO", "anti-vivisection", etc activity nomatter how passive that effects or makes look bad certain US companies and corporates (who hand over large quantities of cash to the politicos) not just a disobediance or minor crime. It makes you either a "domestic terrorist" or a supporter of "domestic terrorism" in essence it is now a crime to protest against anything that makes politicos money (so no conflict of interest there then).

And guess where these "domestic terrorists" are starting to end up? Well it appears there are a couple of new Gittmo's actually on US soil, they are Federal "Communications Managment Units" set up under G.W.Bush ( http://www.thenation.com/article/159161/... ) and they are currently very much a "black hole" once inside you effectivly disapear from view...

But...

Also according to the "George Orwell play book" as a government you need an external enemy as well to keep citizens under control.

Well the Middle East has kind of paned out now due to amongst other things "Arab Spring" so we need somebody new to be the new "reds under the bed" by which US citizens can thretend and intimidated, step up to the plate China...

But for all their other activities China has not fired a shot in the direction of the US and just coincidentally is the largest holder of US bonds and National debt and is a major trader of economic goods with the US.

Which kind of makes it a bit difficult to call them "enemies" in the traditional style of previous Hot and Cold wars. So the US war hawks have come up with a new type of warfare "Cyber-War" to rattle the saber at...

There is (of yet) no such thing as "Cyber-War" what we actualy have is more properly called "Cyber-Crime" of which a subset is "Cyber-espionage" which is the modern version of "industrial espionage" or spying of old, much practiced by all governments under the auspices of "National Security" which covers all manar of things including economic activity.

China is alledged to be the masters of both Cyber-espionage and Cyber-crime and an amalgamation of the two with a fancy title of "Advanced Persistent Threat" or APT has been touted by the war hawks and others.

Though in practice most if not all countries routienly carry out cyber-espionage and APT, however much of the cyber crime actualy originates from the old CCCP countries.

Now ask yourself a question, if you were a major investor in an organisation and it appeared to your eyes to start acting in a duplicitous fashion, would you start looking at them very carefully and covertly to check your investment was not being stolen?

Yes you would, it's called being a sensible investor and there are whole industries devoted to ferreting out such information from Credit-Rating organisations downwards to Private Investigators and journalists.

Now ask a second question, if as an industrial organisation you felt that you were being treated unfairly by the competition who are also your customers would you look at methods by which you could get "an edge"?

Well the answer is yes, but the qualifier is how far you would be prepared to go (you only need to look at the current in fighting between Microsoft and Google to see this). Again there is a whole industry devoted to this sort of activity from market analysts down to private investigators carrying out industrial espionage.

Well you could (as others have) argue that both of these viewpoints are those China legitimatly has against the US and thus, China is just behaving in the way you would expect as a fairly normal consequence.

Which viewpoint is correct is difficult to decide, what however is not difficult to spot are the posturing of the War Hawks and more recently Legislators in the US political hierarchies. And importantly how it appears to be out of both the George Orwell and Machiavelli play books, where words are used as weapons to twist viewpoints and cowe the citizens by fear of ghosts and shadows those that manipulate the politicians have conjured up for their own benifit.

However it goes on, this idea of "Cyber-War" has another usefull side effect for the "protesters are domestic terrorist" brigade in the Federal hierarchies such as Law Enforcment, it now alows them to treat script kiddies and those involved with "Cyber-protest" DDoS attacks to be classified as "Domestic Terrorists".

And the evidence offered against people who have had a Federal "Snatch Squad" hit their homes is their IP address was on a list supplied by a corperation...

Thus to many people outside the US the US has become a significant worry if not threat to their well being.

Keep an open if not cynical eye on what goes on and try to get as many different objectives as you can to form your own viewpoint on who are,

The good/bad guys doing good/bad things for good/bad reasons.

Then name them as you see fit.

WinterAugust 19, 2011 6:14 AM

@RSH
"While each terrorist group has advanced terrorism tactics in one way or another, none of them have stepped back and considered the full nature of terrorism and the optimum strategy and tactics."

I think your response is a very good illustration why those "fighting" terrorism have it so awfully wrong.

There are two types of "terror" groups: the boys "Brotherhood of the black hand" type of fraternities. This goes back to the roving bands of young unmarried men wielding terror in old Sparta and Classical India. They fall apart because they have no real cause, and the survivors get married and start a family.

The other type consist the discontent that fight a civil war, e.g., IRA, Bask, Palestinians, etc.

The first group is largely made up of losers. Ambitious men losing a foothold in their home society and looking for a new home. They fail in terror just like they failed in their original life. This is the Columbine massacre, but then on an international scale.

The second groups is fighting a local war. They have no reason to over-extend their war beyond need. In a war it is rather stupid to make more enemies than you need to. These groups invariably will evolve into organized crime when they lose their original cause (see the history of the Mafia).

So we end up with groups that want to "Go Postal" and destroy the whole world for some fake ideal, but consist of losers. And another group that just want to win a very particular, local war. They won't go postal because that would lose them the war.

None of your analysis will allow us to tackle the threats these groups pose.

Osama was in between. He wanted to drive out the royal house of the Saudis. Failing that he went "international". So Al Qaida tried to combine the two groups, going postal internationally AND take over Saudi Arabia. We all know where that lead: A band of losers fighting on too many fronts.

Al Qaida ended as just an empty Trademark with a franchise business.

CWAugust 19, 2011 10:21 AM

There is a difference between ordinary secular terror and permanent global Salafist jihad. Islam is a bigger and more comprehensive cause than the half-baked revolutionary Marxism or anarchism of the terrorist groups of the 70s. Al Qaeda could completely disappear but jihad would not - after all, it's been around for centuries in one form or another.

Richard Steven HackAugust 19, 2011 1:54 PM

Winter: The problem is that neither of those groups are threats to the US, absent US foreign policy perceived as negatively affecting them. (And it's more than "perception" for them, it's daily reality.)

The ONLY reason Al Qaeda attacked the US is because the US supports Israel and the corrupt monarchies of the region. Remove that support and Al Qaeda couldn't care less about the US. And removing that support wouldn't cost the US taxpayer a dime.

But it WOULD cost the military-industrial complex, oil companies, and banks BILLIONS.

So who is the "threat"?

CW: "Jihad" is a bogeyman. The Salafists are a tiny minority of Islam. Most Muslims couldn't care less about them. And they have enough conflicts even between Salafist groups - like most revolutionary movements - that they'd probably kill each other off before they managed to cause major problems for anyone else.

The Salafists are the equivalent of the anti-abortion freakshows in the US. Tiny, violent, irrelevant.

hungerburgAugust 19, 2011 3:54 PM

I like the psychological analysis done. I am getting tired of reducing anything to how our brains are /wired/ - as if that was less a mystery than psychology. Mr. Pinker et al, please show me how terror gangs natural selection, or I will dismiss the proposal as pure speculation.

Richard Steven HackAugust 20, 2011 2:47 AM

Nathan: That's not at all what happened in reality, however.

What happened instead is that the US used the attack to justify an invasion of Afghanistan which Bush had ALREADY PLANNED PRIOR to 9/11 for the purpose of getting a pipeline, and then to justify an invasion of Iraq which Dick Cheney HAD ALREADY PLANNED PRIOR to 9/11 to the extent of carving up the Iraqi oil fields.

The US response had NOTHING whatever to do with "not lying down" and EVERYTHING to do with taking advantage of the situation to push even further a foreign policy agenda which was the CAUSE of the 9/11 attack.

The US is the CAUSE and Al Qaeda is the EFFECT.

And who pays? The US taxpayer, the US military grunt on the ground who dies, and civilians all over the world who die. The politicians gain power, the military-industrial complex, oil companies and banks gain money.

MagnumAugust 21, 2011 10:11 PM

From the article:
"Terrorist movements, moreover, almost never achieve any of their strategic goals. Think about it. Israel continues to exist, Northern Ireland is still a part of Britain, and Kashmir is a part of India. etc"

Well that's because the victors define who the terrorists are.

Pinker even proves the point with his very first example!

Marian KechlibarAugust 22, 2011 6:40 AM

Magnum:

Yet another example: the tactics of FLN in Algeria was nothing short of terrorism, and they won outright.

renoXAugust 22, 2011 9:43 AM

@Winter: your assertation that there are only two groups of "terror bands" needs proofs: your reasoning seems to depends on people being rational which doesn't seem to me to be a reasonable assumption (take your pick: religions, fear of little green men, superstitions, etc).

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