Keeping Terrorism in Perspective
By Scott Stewart
As we conclude our series on the fundamentals of terrorism, it is only fitting that we do so with a discussion of the importance of keeping terrorism in perspective.
By design, terrorist attacks are intended to have a psychological impact far outweighing the physical damage the attack causes. As their name suggests, they are meant to cause terror that amplifies the actual attack. A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort. Certainly, al Qaeda reaped such a maximum return from the Sept. 11 attacks, which totally altered the foreign policy and domestic security policies of the world's only superpower and resulted in the invasion of Afghanistan and military operations across the globe. Al Qaeda also maximized its return from the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, which occurred three days before the 2004 Spanish general elections that ousted the ruling party from power.
One way to mitigate the psychological impact of terrorism is to remove the mystique and hype associated with it. The first step in this demystification is recognizing that terrorism is a tactic used by a variety of actors and that it will not go away, something we discussed at length in our first analysis in this series. Terrorism and, more broadly, violence are and will remain part of the human condition. The Chinese, for example, did not build the Great Wall to attract tourists, but to keep out marauding hordes. Fortunately, today's terrorists are far less dangerous to society than the Mongols were to Ming China.
Another way to mitigate the impact of terrorism is recognizing that those who conduct terrorist attacks are not some kind of Hollywood superninja commandos who can conjure attacks out of thin air. Terrorist attacks follow a discernable, predictable planning process that can be detected if it is looked for. Indeed, by practicing relaxed, sustainable situational awareness, people can help protect themselves from terrorist attacks. When people practice situational awareness collectively, they also can help protect their communities from such attacks.
A third important component in the demystification process is recognizing and resisting the terror magnifiers terrorist planners use in their efforts to maximize the impact of their attacks. Terrorist attacks will cause tragedy and suffering, but the targeted population can separate terror from terrorism, and minimize the impact of such attacks if they maintain the proper perspective.