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The Real War on Terror: Anti-Terror
Alex Steffen, 26 Aug 06

Bruce Schneier, the thinking person's security expert, has hit on an essential piece of the solution to terrorism: anti-terror.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.
And we're doing exactly what the terrorists want.
Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we're terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists' actions, and increase the effects of their terror. ...Imagine for a moment that the British government arrested the 23 suspects without fanfare. Imagine that the TSA and its European counterparts didn't engage in pointless airline-security measures like banning liquids. And imagine that the press didn't write about it endlessly, and that the politicians didn't use the event to remind us all how scared we should be. If we'd reacted that way, then the terrorists would have truly failed.
It's time we calm down and fight terror with antiterror

It's a damn good point, and one that we've made before, both about terrorism itself, and about how to talk to folks in a disaster. There is essentially no situation where panic and fear are helpful.

And in an age of citizen media, we're all part of the solution. Regular people have enormous power now to help moderate broadcast media coverage and police one another's remarks. It's time for an open, widespread and direct conversation about the real aims of terrorism and the risks it presents. If open security is to have any meaning, it will have to be thoughtful and rational, and the only way to move the debate in that direction is to shun and refute the arguments of fear-mongers.

This is not to say that we ought to stop trying to prevent terrorist attacks. Indeed, it would greatly increase the intelligence value of citizen reports if people were better informed and emotionally reassured. Calm responses and open approaches needn't conflict, and a non-hysterical approach to sharing the facts, including the actual risks involved, could actually reinforce a mature many-eyes approach, make us less vulnerable to attack, lead to more rational responses keep terrorists from succeeding in spreading terror, and save us all a lot of time at the airport.

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What is of grave concern to me is that established governments seem to be playing on the aura of fear as much as the bang boys themselves.

Open security, by all means.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 26 Aug 06

i completely agree with what u say and the effect it has on us,but sometimes even psychology of the citizens matters,take example of india where terrorist attacks r common thing but still ppl dont live in fear except in kashmir,last month there were serial bomb blasts in mumbai but from next day every thing was normal,even the way ppl think matters.its not just what measures govt takes.

Posted by: priyank on 27 Aug 06

I don't agree with what you've said because it sounds like Neville Chamberlain's style of reasoning. It amounts to appeasement.

I don't feel the Second World War would have been won by saying, "Let's not react, because that's exactly what they want us to do. Let's all just use maximum restraint, because that will solve the problem."

Contrived rationalizations don't stand up to reality.

Posted by: Sanjay on 27 Aug 06

Sanjay, one reason we continue to have war is that people mistake calls for a calm response with no response. Where in Alex' post does it say we would not have fought WWII? Calm can be incredibly powerful. Witness Gandhi and MLK Jr, for instance. It can even be ferocious and deadly, as in some aspects of the Allied response in WWII.

The point is in this sentence:

There is essentially no situation where panic and fear are helpful.


Panic and fear lead to actions that we regret. So do uncontrolled anger, greed, hatred, revenge, guilt, and misinformation. Calm actions -- from deep conversations, to citizen moderation of the mass media, to a firm hand against a "bad guy" who doesn't understand conversation -- yield much better results than those based on negative emotions.

Can our hearts be large enough to defend ourselves out of good will and compassion rather than fear and hatred?

Posted by: Kim on 27 Aug 06


I don't see that security officials who recommended a ban on carrying liquids onto airplanes did so by panicking, shrieking, or grumbling. Why describe security alerts as "pointless airline-security measures like banning liquids"?

Had someone boarded an aircraft with explosives or other harmful agents because bans were foregone, then the consequences could be serious.

As far as media coverage of terrorism is concerned, one could draw similar analogies with media coverage of environmental problems, and also similarly recommend avoiding fostering reactions of panic which would be unconstructive. However, upto a certain extent, emotions are what galvanize people into action, as opposed to continued complacency.

I don't feel the answer is to avoid issuing alerts such as bans on liquids. Clearly, if these are necessary to maintain passenger safety, then they'll have to be resorted to. I also feel that criticism on what not to do, should also be supplemented with specific alternatives on what to do. Otherwise, it's very easy for us to all issue armchair critiques. Goodwill and compassion are very vague/bland prescriptions for very serious problems. It is through inaction and insufficient action that we allow problems to get worse.

Posted by: Sanjay on 27 Aug 06

It is through inaction and insufficient action that we allow problems to get worse.

I think that anyone who believes they can assess what "insufficient action" is might wish to reexamine things. Life is imperfect, so we as humans are ultimately incapable of assessing the effects, from the immediate to the long term, of what actions we take. And because life isn't a controlled experiment with only on variable, there will never be consensus about how things played out and what were the causes for this or that.

"Compassion" may be a bland prescription, but in the face of a situation, specifically in the United States, of pervasive vitriol and fear-mongering, asking whether the fear is the problem itself, as FDR claimed it was long ago, is a worthy question to ask.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 27 Aug 06

correction: "... only ONE variable..."

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 27 Aug 06


I think it's extremely disingenious to compare our current circumstance with the circumstances that lead up to World War II. To compare Schneier's call for calm, careful examination of what actually works to contain terrorism to Chamberlain's approach shows a poor understanding of history in my opinion.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 27 Aug 06

Pace, that's your opinion, and I'm afraid I don't share it. I think if one is going to categorize something as fear-mongering, they ought to be specific as to what they consider to be fear-mongering. Frankly, I don't consider the ban on carrying liquids to be fear-mongering or pointless when it was done as a safety measure. What alternative was there -- to not declare a ban when there was a reasonable concern that explosives might be carried aboard in this way?

I'm fine with calm and careful examination, but it shouldn't be an excuse for apathy. When the Kyoto protocol was being recommended for adoption worldwide, the opposition counseled calm and careful examination over adoption, which was basically diplo-speak for not doing anything.
They also used words like 'hysteria' and 'fear-mongering'.

Lastly, just as the Sierra Club suffered controversy when some from the political right tried to hijack its name to promote their own agenda, I feel that WorldChanging should similarly stay away from political slants that would needlessly affect its credibility and objectivity before its readership. To me, that's just common sense.

Yes, I'm sure the temptation is there for some to declare their support for Israel or Hamas as their prism for a vision of human betterment, even by discussing proxy issues of their respective means and methods -- but I don't think it's why most people visit this site. There are plenty of other more politically-oriented discussion sites where people with opposing views have open, thorough, free-for-all debates on terrorism, etc, but I don't feel that this place is a proper venue for that.

Posted by: Sanjay on 27 Aug 06

I think that a point that needs to be made is that there isn't much evidence that restricting liquids or x-raying shoes is actually making us any safer. Go read Schneier (who knows more than either of us) on these questions, and see if you can refute his arguments.

But even more to the point, one can take reasonable anti-terror precautions (the most effective of which, by all accounts, mostly involved intelligence and police work) without inciting fear and panic.

And, in a time when much of the debate about the future is dominated by fear of terrorism, not discussing it on this site, which is about how to build a better future, would be, it seems to me, irresponsible.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Aug 06

Let me pose another anti-terror solution. Let's start talking about and addressing the real reasons why the terrorists exist or how they seem to get so many to join them. Our government tells the public the terrorists hate freedom, or that democracy will make terrorism go away. What a load of crap. Ask almost any man on the street or student in the classroom as to what Al Qaeda's demands are? They won't have a CLUE! Until we can figure out how to choke off the fuel, the fire will continue to blaze, and Alex's solution to ignore the heat and smoke just doesn't sit well with me.

Let me make a suggestion as to the root cause - one that I'm sure will generate some flame mail towards me. It is us. It's OUR (or maybe more our government's) behavior that has caused so many common men to join the ranks of organized terrorists. Poverty and radical religion are also causes, but they don't explain why the terrorist direct their anger at us.

Posted by: erik on 27 Aug 06


But the stuff about explosive liquids is simply not feasible. (Good analysis here).

So leaping up and banning all liquids and gels within 24 hours of this "incident" was a fear-based, panicky reaction. How hard would it have been to consult a few experts and find out the real story, like The Register was able to do?

It's not easy to stand back and reflect when scary things happen. But the more people who do so, the more likely it is that the panickers will also be able to stop panicking. That helps everyone.

There are enough agitated minds in the world. These are the minds that cause the problems.

We can each serve by not adding one more to the conflagration.

Posted by: Kim on 28 Aug 06


Try giving George Orwell's 1984 a read. They use fear and hate to control the masses. The inner circle of people participate in the "three minutes hate" where everyone gets crazy everyday at their hate for the "terrorist" Goldstein (who by the way the government made up). The masses or proles had to worry about a slow constant bombardment by rocket bombs which could strike anywhere at any time (and the government was shooting them).

This analogy sounds suspiciously like what is going on today. Setting up Sadam or Bin Ladin for everyone to hate and having random "terror alerts" to keep people scarred.

The cost of freedom is ever vigilance. This does mean that we need to watch for shoes bombs and bottles of water. It means that the people have to guard against the government taking our freedoms just to make life “easier” or “safer”.

I am not saying that there should be no anti-terrorism or no security screening, just that their should be rational decisions backing them up.

More people die everyday of car wrecks then have ever died from terrorism. Not 100% sure on this, but it is probably correct. We are misplacing our fears on what the government is flashing in front of us. I am more scarred everyday on my commute to work then I have ever been flying and statistics back up my fear.

Posted by: Joe on 28 Aug 06

"I don't feel the Second World War would have been won by saying, "Let's not react, because that's exactly what they want us to do. Let's all just use maximum restraint, because that will solve the problem."

Ok, I believe this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how this "war" is different from wars such as WWII.

In conventional warfare, both sides just wish the other would surrender and stop fighting (but of course, they do not wish to surrender themselves). The ideal situation for an aggressor nation is to find that its army is unopposed and can claim territory and resources at will.

This is quite the opposite of what is happening today. Al-Qaeda and other such groups need to use guerilla warfare (or "asymmetrical warfare") and actively seek conflict. Guerillas want to strike and have the enemy react in a way that exposes its weaknesses. That's what they strive for: A reaction.

This contrasts sharply with conventional Great Power war, like in WWII, where combatants would rather have their opponent not act--because they were large enough and strong enough to make meaningful gains in the form of holding territory and resources. This is why Hitler tried very hard to keep the other Great Powers from declaring war while he swept up Poland, Austria-Hungary, etc. Aggressive, military reactions from his enemies were contrary to Hitler's wishes.

Al-Qaeda cannot make material gains against the organized system of Western nations--but it can provoke them into doing things that embarass them and show that their power isn't as all-mighty as many assumed it to be. Aggressive military reactions are precisely what bin Laden wants. He wants to be a celebrity and he wants to rally people to his cause. What better way to do this than to have the US start doing some of the bad things that bin Laden claims it does?

We are serving ourselves to him on a platter.

Posted by: Bolo on 28 Aug 06

People have already mentioned Orwell's 1984. I would like to paraphrase a line from a Tracy/Hepburn movie, Keeper of the Flame, 1942: "If you can frighten the people, you can confuse them. And if you can confuse them, you can control them." We now even have the scientific evidence that this is true. When we are truly frightened, our "emotional" brain overrides our "thinking" brain. It's time to stop being afraid and start thinking before we act. Addages like "think before you speak" and "measure twice, cut once" come to mind.

And rational thinking is not appeasment. If rational thought had been the basis for Chamberlain's decisions, I vouch to say that he would not have acted as he did. Instead, he failed to acknowledge Hitler's actions and believed his words instead. He ignored the age old adage "actions speak louder than words." He wasn't thinking, he was afraid of war with Hitler.

Posted by: TXrobbins on 28 Aug 06



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