Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Responses to terrorism ... After the second wave of bombings in London, a friend of mine there asked how I thought we should be responding to terrorism.

It's taken a few days, but here are my thoughts so far. (The first two are fairly obvious, the latter two perhaps less so.)

1. Distinguish between arbitrary and deliberate targets. The World Trade Center or Pentagon are deliberate targets. The #30 bus is not. Nor is anything in Cody, Wyoming. As a result, fortify strategic locations, but don't waste resources on buses, trains, or minor urban areas. The local county sheriff does not need any cool new toys to defend himself against Osama bin Laden.

2. Distinguish between arbitrary and deliberate means. Knapsacks and briefcases are an arbitrary means. Planes are deliberate. Consequently, pass legislation to make it harder for terrorists to gain control of an aircraft, but do not mandate random searches of backpacks. The latter will no doubt lead the police to more dime bags and illicit ritalin, but it will not produce any explosives.

3. Recognize and address our (neuro-)psychology, not theirs. Here's what happens when you open your eyes: First, the visual data of everything you see is scanned through any number of visual centers in your brain. Second, once one of those visual centers recognizes a specific shape, pattern, or image, that image then gets scanned through an emotional center, which matches it with the appropriate instinctive response. (This is why children smile upon seeing their mother, but flinch upon seeing a snake.) Third, if the emotive response is strong enough (but not so strong it dominates our response) we deliberate the image consciously. So the trouble with terrorism is the way it cuts straight to the second step of that process. When the only images of Muslim men that we see are violent ones, we become wired to treat Muslim men either defensively or aggressively. Since this is not a deliberative response, it's incredibly difficult to address. But it's not impossible: the more Muslims we encounter peacefully, both in person or on television, the weaker that instinctive response of fear will become.

4. Have perspective. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, terrorism is not an issue of state security or ideology. Muslim terrorists in particular are not trying to win territorial sovereignty over the states they attack. Nor are they trying to persuade them to adopt their own model of social organization. What they are trying to do is influence the foreign policy of those states. Consequently, terrorism as a threat differs greatly from our past struggles against fascism and communism, each of which sought to extend its sovereignty and its ideology over foreign countries. However we respond to terrorism, we should always bear in mind, then, that this is a fight over the margins of our civilization rather than its core.


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