The Chronicle Review


August 07, 2011

Since 9/11, pundits and politicians proclaimed that terrorism had made America "vulnerable" and "fragile," and that it threatened to do away with "our way of life" or "civilization itself."

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.

It all seemed plausible at the time. But today tourists are vacationing, commuters are commuting, shoppers are shopping, planes are flying, and the modern state, our way of life, and civilization itself seem to have survived. Probably fewer than two dozen people have been killed by terrorists on American soil since 9/11, a death toll that is dwarfed by those from wars, automobile and household accidents, and other causes of death we routinely tolerate. Perhaps many terrorist plots were foiled by color-coded alerts, the confiscation of nail clippers at airports, and the girding of rural post offices with concrete barriers. But it seems just as likely that something was systematically wrong with the prediction that terrorism posed an existential threat to the West.

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. Terrorists are communicators, seeking publicity and attention, which they manufacture through fear. They may want to extort a government into capitulating to a demand, to sap people's confidence in their government's ability to protect them, or to provoke repression that will turn people against their government or bring about chaos in which the terrorist faction hopes to prevail.

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.

But the psychological payoff of terrorism is limited, and ultimately self-defeating. It's a seldom-appreciated fact, documented by the political scientists Max Abrahms, Audrey Cronin, and others, that 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? 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? 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.

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. There are no sovereign states in Kurdistan, Palestine, Quebec, Puerto Rico, Chechnya, Corsica, Tamil Eelam, or the Basque Country. The Philippines, Algeria, and Egypt are not Islamist theocracies; nor have Japan, the United States, Europe, and Latin America become religious, Marxist, anarchist, or new-age utopias.

Even when they are not rooted out by states, terrorist groups carry the seeds of their own destruction. As they become frustrated by their lack of progress and as their audiences start to get bored, they escalate their tactics. They start to target victims who are more famous, more sympathetic, or simply more numerous. That certainly gets people's attention, but not in the way the terrorists intend. Supporters are repulsed by the "senseless violence" and withdraw their money, their safe havens, their reluctance to cooperate with the police, and their resistance to an all-out crackdown.

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

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. His new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, will be published in October by Viking.


Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan R. Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.