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The anatomy of terrorism
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Forsyth County News


Today, the subject of terrorism is like the action of a latent volcano. It’s constantly boiling below the surface, coming to the top when an act of violence is attempted or when new countermeasures are implemented. Recent examples were, on the one hand, the attempt to use large toner cartridges to carry explosives, resulting in restrictions on the transportation of such cartridges and, on the other, the deployment of graphic body- scanners and the implementation of invasive, intimate body pat-downs.

It’s easy to dismiss all the actions taken by government as overkill -- but what value shall we place on human life?  The measures taken since 9/11 seem to have thwarted terrorist’s activities in this country (if measured solely in terms of killing people), but at what cost?

The task of protecting against terrorist actions is probably one of the most challenging that exists today. Everything seems to be in the terrorist’s favor -- anonymity (vs. people in uniform on a battlefield), targeting flexibility and “unconventionality” (vs. a focus on military capabilities), individual or small group action (vs. mass troop movements) and the psychological impact and reaction of those being terrorized. It is worth exploring a few of the critical aspects involved in the actions and impact of those who seek to disrupt, kill and destroy in the name of their causes.

First, terrorist activity doesn’t have to succeed to be successful. The terrorist plays a mental game. The disruption or notoriety that is the true objective can be accomplished even if the specific plot fails. Predictable human reactions often give the terrorists most of what they set out to achieve. All that is normally needed is that the intended victim be aware of the plan or action (thus the media becomes a vital element of terrorist action). Censorship was accepted as a necessity in World War II. Today, anything goes, and with the Internet and modern communications technology, there may be no other alternative anyway.

The economic cost to society has been enormous. Billions and billions of dollars have been spent on security systems, diverting funds that might be available for finding alternative energy sources or new cures for disease. And the loss in human productive life, if one adds up the time lost by complying with subsequent security measures, has been incredible. The disruption to trade and tourism has been equally substantial. And now, each time a terrorist tries to use another delivery method, additional restrictions or security checks are added to the growing list:  shoes, computers, cigarette lighters, manicure kits, water bottles, cosmetics and now large inkjet cartridges, among others. If terrorists really exercise their imaginations, there may be few things that are not subject to detailed scrutiny or exclusion.

The activity has affected society in other ways. We have had to examine many of our own moral standards, which, unfortunately, often play into the hands of the terrorists. In most cases we have consciously or unconsciously decided that maintaining these standards is more important than the lives that may be lost -- which in itself may be inconsistent with the value we place on life. Interestingly, the switch to pat-downs and body scans seems to be one of the first major departures from our normal moral standards, but it is largely directed against us, rather than the terrorists. Our focus seems to be on preventing terrorists from successfully carrying out their plots -- somewhat akin to swatting mosquitoes in a swamp. But, as mentioned before, even an unsuccessful attempt carries a major element of success in the fear and disruption that it creates.

Torture to obtain information, even to save lives, is out. But not for the terrorists! Profiling is also out, at least in this country, despite the fact that it contributes to effective deterrence elsewhere. In some countries, retaliation against the families of terrorists has proved to be an effective way to deter future terrorist activities. But killing possible innocents is not acceptable to us today (although it is a key principle of terrorism). Interestingly, in the past, in more traditional warfare settings, even we did not hesitate to hasten victory by bombing civilian targets. Today, we are enormously concerned with “collateral damage.” A recent U-Tube offering shows a Russian military group overcoming a group of Somali pirates. It provides an interesting contrast to our approach where they are tried and, if convicted, sentenced to prison. The Russians handcuffed the pirates to their ship and then blew it up. By escalating the price it is likely that the pirates will seek other prey before they hit another Russian vessel. We hold the moral high ground -- but possibly at the expense of continued high-jackings and eventual loss of innocent life. We do not seem to have come to grips on whether or not we are at war, and even if we decided that we were, whether we are willing to pursue the most effective ways to fight back. But “effective” and “moral” are not equivalent concepts.

A second point is that one person or a tiny group can have an incredible impact. It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack. We tend to avoid thinking in statistical terms when it comes to human life (not so in all other societies). Although it might be hard to justify the incredible expense on an economic basis, there seems to be little alternative if we want to save lives. There are a lot of mosquitoes to swat and that requires a lot of time, energy and money.

We are a risk-taking society. Taking and accepting economic risk has been one of the values that have built our society. But we take risk in other areas as well. In 2009, we lost 34,000 people in car accidents. To maintain a lifestyle, we accept that risk -- no one entertains the idea of eliminating cars, or setting a 10 mph speed limit. The CDC estimates that in 2007, 37,600 people died from alcohol related problems (excluding accidents and homicides). Prohibition didn’t work and was repealed long ago. In 2006, 31,000 people died from gunshot wounds (interestingly, more than half of those being suicides). Yet the majority of us still accept gun ownership as important. But when it comes to terrorist activity, there is a tendency to try to do the impossible – to totally eliminate risk. We end up like the puppy that constantly chases his tail but can never quite make it. We need to be willing to tolerate some level of risk. This is the only way to deny terrorists satisfaction from their efforts -- and make sure that they don’t achieve their ultimate objectives. Panic and undermining our lifestyle is the terrorist objective.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, terrorism cannot be stopped by focusing on detecting and forestalling terrorist acts. It is just a matter of time, no matter how comprehensive the screen, before something or someone gets through. Terrorism can only be stopped at the source. And that is a tough task, made increasingly difficult by the need to take action on other nations’ soil.
Military action may buy time, but it is also likely to harden resolve and encourage more and “smarter” terrorism. The causes of terrorism must be eliminated, and that can only be done from within, by changes within the societies that spawn terrorist action. It’s not having more to lose if terrorist activity continues, but more to gain if it is stopped that is likely to lead a population to apply pressure to police itself. But this is an extremely difficult task in the realities of today’s world. Yet, think of the cost of terrorism within this country and add to it the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan -- what might we have been able to accomplish had we applied those resources (money and manpower) to help eliminate the root causes at the points where they are created? But, of course, that is a rhetorical question, since we would be unlikely to impose such a burden on ourselves without a 9/11 type of provocation.

Years ago I visited a commune in China. I watched, enthralled, as a group of pre-schoolers, dressed impeccably, performed dance routines with the precision of the Radio City Rockettes. Only after a few minutes did I feel a sense of foreboding. What it must have taken to program these children in this manner? But it can be done. And unlike dance routines, significant parts of the world are programming their young people to hate. This is the real challenge. De-programming that hatred takes more than jobs and economic rewards, although that is a start. If we want to defeat terrorism, we must find ways to deal with the world differently -- to better understand the processes taking place, to find ways to reverse them and to be more receptive to the options that we must pursue.

We need to continue to pursue tough methods to prevent terrorist acts while developing and implementing sympathetic responses to the conditions that spawn such activity. The challenge is not only in what we see happening today but in the need to undo what has already been done and that may remain a legacy for generations to come. But we need to start now!

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at