The war on terror is over – the terrorists have won
And why the Bush and Obama administrations are complicit in the terrorists’ victory
As 21st century Americans, we have seen the “War on Terror” become a phrase increasingly used to invoke unbridled, unfathomable, unimaginable fear. With the 9/11 attacks, terrorists wanted to not only bring fear to our soil but to make it an endemic characteristic of our culture. This is one critical aspect by which terrorists measure their success – how afraid they make their enemy. Instead of rationally assessing the true damage that could be wreaked on the American people by terrorism (which is far less than common wisdom or the national dialogue would suggest), our government succumbed to this fear-fuelled (indeed, some may even say fear-mongering) mindset.
With the revelations that the NSA has been systematically violating the fourth amendment by spying on every single American without a warrant or probable cause, it is now evident that the ubiquity of fear has pushed our culture to gradually accept the degradation of rights that we have held sacrosanct for over two hundred years and for which countless courageous Americans have shed blood defending. It is breathtaking that the only “oversight” that has been implemented in this egregiously illegal activity is a secret court that rules in secret, based on secret interpretations of the law, detached from any semblance of an adversarial judicial system that is the foundation of our rule of law. Indeed, some of the most recent revelations in this ongoing crisis has shown that, unsurprisingly, this secret oversight has been entirely ineffective and that the NSA has been able to collect internet communications on thousands of Americans without warrant for reasons unrelated to terrorism. The increasing frequency with which fear is used to justify the erosion of human rights is evidence that foreign terrorists have already succeeded in making fear not just a fleeting but rather, at the very least, a semi-permanent aspect of the American culture and political dialogue.
However, this victory would not have been possible were it not for the Bush and Obama Administrations’ willingness to embrace and maintain that fear in order to consolidate unchecked power in the executive branch of the government, which has subsequently been used to subvert Constitutionally delineated rights. This is exactly what the terrorists wanted to happen when they launched their attack in 2001.
Anticipating the immediate disgust that critics will inevitably feel towards the title of this article, I feel compelled to respond up-front that: no, recognition of defeat is not synonymous with its consummation. Rather, attempting to more fully understand the causes behind our loss will help us recalibrate our sense of what it means to be an American in the 21st century, and, hopefully, derive more rational policy that will lead to greater success, security, and protection of human rights for all Americans in the future.
The “War on Terror” as a “War of Ideas”
One of the few enlightening points offered to us by former President George W. Bush was the notion that the War on Terror is a different type of conflict: it is a “War of Ideas.” This conflict has been expressed variously by different commentators, but the crux of it in the West has been represented as “free and democratic systems of government” versus “oppressive religious-fundamentalist institutions.” While there is certainly some truth to this framework, fundamentally this “war” has really been about far baser ideas that instead appeal to a section of the human psyche that is perhaps not even sophisticated enough to understand the subtleties of battling political institutions.
Advances in neuroscience tell us that there are sections of the human brain that are used for rational thinking and others that are responsible for unconscious, instinctual reactions. While I doubt that President Bush gave quite this level of consideration to the meaning of “ideas” that he was referencing in his catchy, pub-friendly phrase, these ideas are, in many ways, much more akin to instincts that the “rational” sections of our mind aren’t fully responsible for processing. The “ideas” in the “War of Ideas,” distilled to an essence, and as represented by the dialogue employed by the US government, has really been a struggle between 1) the sensation of collective fear and 2) the sensation of collective security.
Fear prevents us from assessing risk accurately
A careful distinction must be made here: the “sensation” of fear felt by a large group of individuals does not necessarily mean that that fear is fully rational. Steven Pinker, in his extraordinary study on the history of violence “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” describes terrorism as “a form of asymmetrical warfare . . . which leverages the psychology of fear to create emotional damage that is disproportionate to its damage in lives or property.” He goes on to reference studies in cognitive psychology that have shown that the manner in which humans perceive risk is not determined by unbiased, realistic measurements of the probability that a particular event will occur, but rather by mechanisms in the brain that place undue and inaccurate weight on:
2) Dread, or peoples’ tendency to worry primarily about worst-case scenarios, such as those that are “uncontrollable, catastrophic, involuntary, and inequitable (the people exposed to the risk [i.e., the suicide-terrorists] are not the ones who benefit from it [i.e., the terrorists who didn’t kill themselves])”
Pinker references studies suggesting that these “mental hobgoblins,” as he calls them, represent a “legacy of an ancient brain circuitry that evolved to protect us against natural risks such as predators, poisons, enemies and storms.” In a pre-state world devoid of statistical datasets that can today be used to more accurately assess risks, these seemingly over-developed, irrational fear mechanisms would have served as useful heuristics for allocating caution towards a variety of natural dangers.
However, with the access to information that we have at our fingertips today, these overdeveloped fear mechanisms can backfire and lead us to grossly overestimate the probability of an extremely unlikely event that is either exceptionally novel or that invokes unusual fright. In fact, our natural ability to assess risk is so poor that even small steps taken to avoid what seem to be particularly dreadful attacks can actually increase an individual’s risk of dying. For example, in 2002 approximately 1,500 Americans “died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destinations out of fear of dying in a hijacked or sabotaged plane unaware that the risk of death in a plane flight from Boston to Los Angeles is the same risk of death in a car trip of twelve miles.”, Stated slightly differently, more Americans died in 2002 in car accidents while trying to avoid terrorist attacks than there were people in all of the airplanes involved in the 9/11 attacks, due to the much higher probability of death from automobile accident than from terrorist attack.
A terrorist’s mind is especially frightening because it, too, is governed by a form of reason
An objective declaration of victory can only be ascertained when it is understood for what each party is fighting. In the case of the “war on terror,” this requires the uncomfortable mental exercise of putting oneself in the mind of a terrorist in order understand their goals and aspirations. This will help the average American (or any other non-terrorist) understand why terrorists do the horrible things that they do, and why they often do so voluntarily. While it may be easier, both from the perspective of the average person who abhors violence, as well as from the soapbox of a politician who seeks to aggrandize power through fear, to simply demonize terrorists as “evil” and of harboring a “hatred of our freedoms,” this sort of pseudo-propaganda does little to bolster our understanding of why such attacks are planned and executed.
In the Art of War, Sun Tzu said, “To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.” Similarly, to know the terrorist we must take the precarious step into his mind to see why he fights. This shift in perspective will cast light on the fact that many, if not most, of their primary objectives have already been accomplished. Only when we recognize our hitherto blind denial of this defeat will we be able to truly fight back and beat the ideology of terrorism.
Why do terrorists commit terrorism?
So, why do terrorists commit terrorism? To answer this question we must first attempt to understand what terrorism actually accomplishes, separated from the politically motivated, hyperbolic rhetoric that is usually used to describe it.
Terrorism, contrary to (often incorrect) popular knowledge, is not a particularly lethal risk, relatively to the other dangers that Americans face on a daily basis. The average American is far more likely to die from a myriad of daily activities, local violence, or healthcare-related accidents than they ever will be from a terrorist attack. In 2007 more than 40,000 Americans were killed in traffic accidents, 20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, 3,000 by drowning (including 300 in bathtubs), 3,000 in fires, 24,000 from accidental poisoning, 2,500 from complications of surgery, 300 from suffocation in bed, 300 from inhalation of gastric contents, and 17,000 by “other and unspecified nontransport accidents and their sequelae.” Let that sink in for a minute. Approximately 128,000 people died from unfortunate yet common events that most Americans wouldn’t even let enter into their daily consciousness. And yet, even in 2001, the year in which America experienced the deadliest foreign attack on its soil, the average American was nearly 8 times more likely to die from accidental poisoning, and over 13 times as likely to die from hopping in their car and driving to the grocery store as they were from a terrorist attack.
Even when considering terrorist attacks versus domestic violent crime, terrorism represents a fraction of the risk than does simply living in the United States. In 2001 the rate of death by terrorism in the United States was approximately 1.0 person(s) in 100,000, whereas the homicide rate in the United States that year was 5.6 persons in 100,000. In other words, in 2001 the average American was 5 and a half times more likely to be murdered just by the nature of living in this country than they were to be killed in a terrorist attack. To emphasize the point, these statistics are from the year in which we encountered the most lethal attack on American soil ever.
By contrast, what if we look at terrorist-related deaths in the average year, namely, one that does not include the most lethal foreign attack on American soil ever? Astonishingly enough, in every year but 1995 and 2001, more Americans were killed by lightning, deer, peanut allergies, bee stings, and “ignition or melting of nightwear” each than by terrorists attacks.
Terrorism is a unique form of violence in that there is a significant discrepancy between the amount of fear and the quantity of deaths it causes. Terrorists take unique advantage of our inability to rationally assess risks and use that to further whatever their cause may be. As Pinker points out, “Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the word itself makes clear . . . they are communicators, seeking publicity and attention, which they manufacture through fear.” Perhaps these individuals would like to wreak as much havoc on our society as possible, but, unfortunately, terrorists are not idiots. They recognize that more highly damaging attacks are increasingly difficult to orchestrate, for the longer a plot exists the higher the probability that it will be discovered and foiled. Even with the data available to us thus far it seems exceedingly unlikely that a terrorist attack would ever be able to exceed the annual amount of deaths caused by, say, accidental poisoning (which is equivalent to eight 9/11’s worth of deaths each year, and how often do you maintain an existential fear of accidental poisoning?). It seems more likely that terrorism, as the ideology’s namesake implies, aims to inflict, through fear, the highest psychological damage possible from whatever deaths or violence that it can cause.
How do we know that terrorists realistically seek high psychological return on deaths inflicted? Well, for one, they brag about it. I’m recreating the following passage from “The Better Angels of Our Nature” in its entirety to give context to the bin Laden quote:
The 9/11 attacks also took on a portentous role in the nation’s consciousness. Large-scale terrorist plots were novel, undetectable, catastrophic (compared to what had come before), and inequitable, and thus maximized both unfathomability and dread. The terrorists’ ability to gain a large psychological payoff for a small investment in damage was lost on the Department of Homeland Security, which outdid itself in stoking fear and dread, beginning with a mission statement that warned, “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” The payoff was not lost on Osama bin Laden, who gloated that “America is full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east,” and that the $500,000 he spent on the 9/11 attacks cost the country more than half a trillion dollars in economic losses in the immediate aftermath [emphasis my own] (346)
Terrorists obviously strive to kill people. But they don’t murder blindly. They pick attacks that 1) will have a high likelihood of success and that 2) will inflict the highest psychological impact possible on the target population.
Aside – a necessary response to an inevitable counterpoint
I have thus far argued that, based on the likelihood of terrorist attacks, and taking into consideration existing historical data, the probability of one attack occurring that comes anywhere near the number of deaths caused annually by car crashes is very low. This invariably invites the “what if” question – or, what if a terrible terrorist attack occurs that does in fact cause a one-time impact on par with the amount of annual automobile deaths (~40,000)? Just because the probability of this event is low does not mean it is zero.
While this is a reasonable objection that could potentially support the unconstitutional activities that the NSA has so far undertaken, it ignores the reality of decreasing marginal utility associated with uncovering the next terrorist attack. Decreasing marginal utility is a fancy way of saying that preventing the first 30% of potential terrorist attacks is much easier than preventing the next 30% of terrorist attacks and each increment becomes increasingly more difficult to prevent. This phenomenon is true in many activities – if you’re fishing for minnows, it’s fairly easy to throw a net out and collect 50% of the fish in a school, but it is exceedingly difficult to get 100% of them. Therefore, while it may be relatively easy to prevent 50% of attacks, preventing the next 40% (90% in total) is more difficult. Preventing the last 0.5% is harder still or, in the real world, likely impossible, and requires an even greater expenditure of energy and, potentially, an abdication by the citizenry of their civil rights.
What we as Americans need to recognize is that trends thus far indicate that the rate of terrorist attacks and the likelihood of dying in a terrorist attack now (based on historical data) is very, very low. What would we be willing to sacrifice to attempt to control for that last 0.5%? Would we be willing to give up what makes us Americans? The Bill of Rights? The rest of the Constitution? What if, even if we did this, we could not eliminate that remaining 0.5% risk? Would we still be willing to give up our right to privacy, to free speech, to protection against cruel and unusual punishments, for the hope of possibly eliminating that final 0.5% risk? To me, after performing the reductio ad absurdum on this counterpoint, it really does appear quite weak.
Ultimately, the logic I have just presented is only even necessary if one assumes that the NSA’s massive dragnet surveillance is effective in preventing those final marginal attacks. So far, we have been told by spy officials that these spy programs prevented 54 terrorist plots, and yet the administration has only spoken specifically about the 2009 plot to bomb the New York City subway which, as has been amply documented, was actually uncovered by ordinary police work. Congressmen Holt has gone as far to write this figure off entirely, saying, “I learned that the heads of the NSA and other intelligence agencies are schooled in secrecy and deception. You can’t always believe everything they say . . . They say these have stopped 50 attacks or something like that, and though I’m not on the intelligence committee right now, and I can’t speak item-by-item, I can be pretty sure that there’s probably not too much truth to it.” Additionally, NSA Deputy Director Inglis has publically admitted that, at most, one terrorist attack has been prevented with the phone meta-data surveillance program. As Americans, are we really willing to set the Constitution aside to protect against, maybe, one terrorist attack in 13 years? Maybe we’ll protect against that one, but after having given the executive branch unchecked power and the right to spy on all of our private activities, we will still not be able to avert all attacks, as is evidenced by the Boston Marathon bombing. The administration seems intent to keep the public focused on the (appearingly weak or unsubstantial) potential of benefit, but to rationally assess these programs we must also be vigilantly mindful of their enormous social costs.
Why seek high psychological impact for a small investment?
With the necessary aside completed, let us return to the terrorist’s mindset. Terrorists aim to cause fear for a number of reasons, one of the most obvious of which is to influence the policy of those who they see as enemies (in this case the United States). Since terrorists are fighting an asymmetric war where they lack the firepower to influence global politics through strategic negotiations, they feel that the only other option at their disposal is to affect change through the infliction of massive and wide-spread fear.
Fear is the terrorist’s primary political currency – without fear they could not drive the global conversation, and they would immediately lose the power to influence their enemies. If you could magically turn off the unconscious portions of our brain that process fear, the terrorists would immediately lose the majority of their power as their actions would instead only be recognized as extremely unlikely events that have a very low probability of hurting anyone, relative to driving your kids to school in the morning.
Delving further into the terrorist’s mind requires the difficult step of understanding that they see us as their mortal enemy. They wish to inflict fear upon their enemy, us, in order to influence our policy in a way that would change our behavior, which could potentially mean less involvement in their countries (or a myriad of other reasons). However, as in most wars, one party seeks the destruction of their enemies through whatever means necessary. In the case of terrorists versus the United States, they cannot and likely will not ever be capable of matching our firepower. But they can use fear to erode the legal and moral infrastructure that supports and gives the United States, their enemy, strength and global political influence.
Without the (likely unknowing) cooperation of our government, terrorists’ aim to invoke a state of complete and ubiquitous fear would not be possible. Through violent attacks terrorists seek to rip apart the fabric of democracy that has held America together and made it the superpower it is today, for this would mean the demise of our country (at least as we have come to know it). Terrorists know that, as history shows us, the first step towards destroying a powerful nation (and therefore its global influence) is by abolishing the rights of that nation’s citizens, and in order to accomplish this they must take advantage of the following:
1) An environment of extreme fear in their enemy’s nation which can then be used by their enemy’s leaders as an excuse to wipe away the rights of that nation’s citizens, and
2) Leaders in their enemy’s country who are willing to act on that fear and actually execute upon the destruction of those rights.
Have the terrorists achieved these two goals? And how are the Bush and Obama administrations complicit in the terrorists’ victory?
Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is an uncontroversial yes. By generating a culture of extreme fear in the wake of 9/11, the terrorists absolutely achieved their first goal. With the passage of the Patriot Act and, more recently, the revelation of massive, unconstitutional spying perpetrated by the NSA and both the Bush and Obama administrations, they have also achieved the second. By forcing Americans to forfeit their constitutionally protected rights, the terrorists have also effectively influenced American policy in a way that would never have been possible if we had instead accurately sized the risk that such terrorist attacks pose.
Were it not for the Bush administration passing the Patriot Act, and the Obama administration severely misusing section 215 of that act to allow and grow the NSA’s capability to conduct blanket, unwarranted surveillance and subsequent shrouding of the process in absolute secrecy via the FISA courts, the destruction of our Constitutional rights and foundational American values would not have been possible. In other words, the terrorists have already won, and were it not for the Bush and Obama administrations they never would have been able to achieve this victory.
Ok, so the terrorists have won. But how bad is it?
Given the data, I am personally far more worried and fearful about an authoritarian superpower without accountability than I am about the exceedingly low chance that I will ever be a victim of a terrorist attack. When I step back and rationally assess the data, I am simply not that afraid of terrorism because I know that the chances of me getting killed or seriously injured in everyday activities is far, far higher. Reason tells us that we should be more worried about driving a car than about terrorism, because we have a far higher chance of being killed by it, and yet we still drive our cars every day with relatively little or no fear. Who among us would be willing to sacrifice our 4th and 1st Amendment rights to decrease the rate of automobile accidents by 7.5% a year, which would represent 3,000 American lives (or the amount of people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attack) saved each year? My guess is most people would respond to that question strongly in the negative.
It’s likely that government officials would respond to this line of rational saying that we need unconstitutional surveillance to keep the risk of terrorism at as low a level as possible. But, as the Global Terrorism Database shows us, that’s simply not true. Rates of terrorism are currently (in 2013) about where they were during the 30 years preceding 9/11, and we did not have unconstitutional spying programs (that I’m aware of) to protect us then – so why do we need them now? The idea that “everything has changed after 9/11,” a line of faulty reasoning often employed by the administration, stands unproven, untested and unsupported by data. Instead, the data does suggest that 9/11 was statistically an extreme outlier, and not the beginning of a new trend. With the data easily at our disposal it becomes increasingly evident that we, the American people, have let the Bush and Obama administrations use the language of fear rather than the process of reason to hijack the conversation in order to change domestic policy and begin to destroy our constitutionally protected rights.
History shows us that when civil liberties begin to erode, and unchecked power becomes consolidated in one branch of the government without transparent oversight, the descent into a darkness marked by the subjugation of citizens without the requirement of suspicion is not far off. Even in recent history we need look no further than the examples of the Argentinean military dictatorship, Pinochet’s rapid ascent in Chile, or the collapse of the Weimar republic, just to name a handful, to see what happens when human rights violations are increasingly tolerated in the public’s consciousness. I’m not saying that the United States is quite that bad yet, but I am saying that it would be naïve for us to think that a similar slide could never occur here. The annals of history are full of accounts of proud peoples whose own destruction could never have been conceived of at the height of their power. We should heed history’s lessons with caution, and react accordingly.
If the terrorist’s have secured their victory, Can we still fight back?
Luckily, the answer to this question is a resounding yes. While the terrorists have secured one of the key victory’s they sought, we can overturn their success by destroying the conditions through which it was achieved.
First, we must lift the dark shroud of terror which has cocooned our collective ability to think rationally for the last 12 years. While I believe that the data more or less achieve this, it is not yet widespread knowledge. The American people must become familiar with and understand the low risk of danger that terrorism truly poses, and for this to happen the data must be disseminated more widely.
Second, we must steadfastly resist the rights violations that Bush and Obama have permitted under the irrational plague of fear that the terrorists effectively catalyzed. A necessary step to this is forcing the legislative branch to wake up from their smug complacency and perform more diligently the duty of accountability that their job requires. Without these two presidents’ complicity and Congress’ almost impressive laziness, the terrorists would never have been able to achieve the massive policy change that marks the culmination of their success.
The only way to truly beat the terrorists and overturn their success is to 1) stop being afraid, which is a rational decision based on the data, which will 2) allow us to force the government to stop destroying our rights in the name of that fear. We must not let people like Osama bin Laden take advantage of the part of our psychology that drives us into an irrational, fevered frenzy that compels us to debase our country’s foundational principles; for it is through this very debasement in which they find their victory, and for which the Bush and Obama administrations are fully and necessarily complicit.
“Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”
– Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers
Whenever discussing homicide statistics, a certain level of de-personalization occurs which, while not at all desirable, is somewhat necessary when looking at numbers and figures. Please note that purpose of this article was not to negate terrible loss of life and tragic human suffering that occurred on 9/11, but rather to put it into the context of the terrible loss of life and tragic human suffering that occurs every year in our country from daily activities that are not as often or widely recognized and almost never reported on. If we would not sacrifice our Bill of Rights to reduce the number of annual accidental poisonings by 12.5%, which would represent a 9/11 worth of deaths each year, then why are we willing to do it for 9/11?
 Source: Associated Press Alert dated August 21, 2013, 3:08 PM EDT.
 Pinker, “Better Angels of Our Nature” p. 345
 Psychology of risk: Slovic, 1987; Slovic et al., 1982. See also Gigerenzer, 2006; Gigerenzer & Murray, 1987; Kahneman, Slovic, & Tversky, 1982; Ropeik & Gray, 2002; Tversky & Kahneman, 1973, 1974, 1983.
 Pinker, “Better Angels of Our Nature” p. 346
 Pinker, “Better Angels of our Nature” p. 345
 Excess deaths from avoiding plane travel: Gigerenzer, 2006. Estimated that 1,500 Americans died in car accidents because they chose to drive rather than fly to their destination out of fear of dying in a hijacked or sabotaged plane.
 Rates of death: National Vital Statistics for the year 2007, Xu, Kochanek, & Tejada-Vera, 2009, table 2.
 Global Terrorism Database, START (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, 2010).
 FBI press release, “Crime in the United States, 2001,” dated October 28, 2002. https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/crime-in-the-united-states-2001-1
 Pinker, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” p. 345.
 http://reason.com/blog/2013/06/10/did-nsas-prism-program-help-foil-2009-ny, http://www.buzzfeed.com/bensmith/public-documents-contradict-claim-email-spying-foiled-terror, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113453193
 Global Terrorism Database, START (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism).