Terrorism’s Tunnel Vision

We are petrified by terrorism. And for good reason: terrorists indiscriminately kill American citizens, and so our deeply held national fear is founded on the possibility that we could be next. Yet, while there is rationality in the fear itself, the policies that emanate from the fear can verge on delusional. Terrorism gives us tunnel vision. As the current election cycle has shown, our fear of a deadly attack coerces us to construct a facade that makes terrorists out to be irrational beasts that were always destined to commit terrible atrocities. Terrorists’ sickening tactic of intentionally killing innocent people is never acceptable, but we often forget that there are material causes behind their actions. Our conception of terrorists makes them out to be hardly human entities without any underlying motivations outside of their hateful rhetoric, and this simplification causes grave missteps in our approach to dealing with the issue. Bombastic politicians are currently attempting to outdo each other in their policy prescriptions, advocating carpet bombing or murdering the families of terrorists as the only viable option to defeat this threat. What if the very policies in place to dismantle terrorism are aiding its spread?

How we explain terrorism has grave ramifications for how we attempt to stop it. We could rely on the most widespread narrative for explaining why terrorism exists. President George W. Bush articulated it best, stating, “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.” I’m sure ideology is a motivating factor for inspiring terrorists, but it can’t be the only reason behind such violent acts. On the whole, people are not pushed toward an ideology because of its hate. They are pulled in because of their fears. I hate the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIS, but because of my fear of ISIS’ tactics, my reaction to them is much more visceral. If terrorism is only fueled by ideology, the only way to stamp it out is to bomb and burn. Since fear is its primary root cause, however, we need to see where this fear comes from and work to mitigate it.

What environments breed fear? The American experience with terrorism demonstrates that a preponderance of civilian casualties generates the fear that death is around every corner. That said, let’s look at reality: over the past 10 years, there have been 71 American deaths by terrorism of all stripes (24 by “jihadi” terrorism). To put this in perspective, more people will be killed by deer in the next six months than were killed by terrorists over the last 120. This isn’t to say we should disregard the possibility for future attacks, but simply based off the numbers, we should have nightmares about Bambi, not Bin Laden.

Yet our bad dreams are occupied by ISIS and al-Qaeda because of the violent acts they commit against civilians. If this objectively small threat instills a powerful fear in us, what does this mean for countries that experience such tragedies more often? It isn’t a numbers game, as each death caused by terrorism is a heart-wrenching event. Nonetheless, the sheer number of people directly affected by terrorism in other parts of the world is staggering. Perhaps it would help to distill the term terrorism to its core: politically motivated violence with civilian casualties. Let’s strip away the connotations we assign to the word and posit the possibility that any political group that kills civilians aids the spread of fear in chaotic situations. This anarchy breeds terrorism. And while ISIS and al-Qaeda kill thousands, aggressive American policy is also a contributing factor in creating the turmoil that engenders terrorism.

While America certainly isn’t attempting to create disorder, let’s take a look at the unintended consequences of our actions. Iraq experienced 500,000 civilian deaths as a result of American invasion and subsequent occupation, 26,000 Afghan citizens were killed from American military strategy, and the drone program has a 90 percent civilian casualty rate. The countries that suffer most from U.S policy are the biggest breeding grounds for terrorism. This outcome, of course, is not our foreign policy’s aim—but one can see how the death of a father, sister, or best friend would inspire extremism in an otherwise rational person in order to gain a sense of control over his or her surroundings. The perception that American policy leads to civilian casualties and creates anarchic situations provokes fear and anger toward the U.S., and thus makes the job of radical recruiters easier. The answer to terrorist activity is not destabilizing the region through chaos-inducing regime change or bombing campaigns with high propensities for civilian casualties. These short-sighted policies only aggravate the issue.

Terrorists are not born. Terrorists are created—molded by a world collapsing around them so that the only semblance of safety lies in groups that feed off the amorality of anarchy. American policy has had a hand in creating chaotic situations that propagate terrorism, and yet we continue to have politicians who push for the same destructive policies that exacerbate the issue, preying upon our fear as a nation. It is not that this fear is unfounded. On the contrary, our feelings about terrorism are real and based on the possibility of a looming attack. But, due to this fear, we are locked into tunnel vision, constructing an idea of who our enemies are and preemptively concluding that their acts are detached from reality. This delusion engenders policy prescriptions that only make the problem worse, as we ignore the underlying material incentives for terrorist activity. In order to move forward into rational policymaking, we need to recognize that terrorists have tunnel vision too, but just like us, they have material reasons to see the world this way. Moreover, if we wish to truly step outside of the tunnel, we need to realize that perhaps America’s policies are partly to blame for why we are both there in the first place.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Staff

2 Comments

  1. The Game:

    Bringing other religions down to the level of Islam is a favorite tactic of apologists confronted with the spectacle of Islamic violence. Remember Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? How about Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer? Why pick on Islam if other religions have the same problems?

    The Truth:

    Because they don’t.

    Regardless of what his birth certificate may or may not have said, Timothy McVeigh was not a religious man (in fact, he stated explicitly that he was agnostic and that “science” was his religion). At no time did he credit his deeds to religion, quote Bible verses, or claim that he killed for Jesus. His motives are very well documented through interviews and research. God is never mentioned.

    The so-called “members of other faiths” alluded to by Muslims are nearly always just nominal members who have no active involvement. They are neither inspired by, nor do they credit religion as Muslim terrorists do – and this is what makes it a very different matter.

    Islam is associated with Islamic terrorism because that is the association that the terrorists themselves choose to make.

    Muslims who compare crime committed by people who happen to be nominal members of other religions to religious terror committed explicitly in the name of Islam are comparing apples to oranges.

    Yes, some of the abortion clinic bombers were religious, but consider the scope of the problem. There have been six deadly attacks over a 36 year period in the U.S. Eight people died. This is an average of one death every 4.5 years.

    By contrast, Islamic terrorists staged nearly ten thousand deadly attacks in just the six years following September 11th, 2001. If one goes back to 1971, when Muslim armies in Bangladesh began the mass slaughter of Hindus, through the years of Jihad in the Sudan, Kashmir and Algeria, and the present-day Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq, the number of innocents killed in the name of Islam probably exceeds five million over this same period.

    Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 innocents in a lone rampage on July 22nd, 2011, was originally misidentified as a “Christian fundamentalist” by the police. In fact, the killings were later determined to be politically motivated. He also left behind a detailed 1500 page manifesto in which he stated that he is not religious, does not know if God exists, and prefers a secular state to a theocracy. Needless to say, he does not quote any Bible verses in support of his killing spree, nor did he shout “praise the Lord” as he picked people off.

    In the last ten years, there have been perhaps a dozen or so religiously-inspired killings by people of all other faiths combined. When such a small handful or loners act in isolation, it can legitimately be chalked up to mental illness or (at best) genuine misunderstanding.

    By contrast, Islamic terror is organized and methodical. Islamist groups span the globe with tens of thousands of dedicated members, despite intensely targeted counter-measures, and supporters numbering in the tens of millions. They are open about their religious goals and they kill in the name of god each and every day of the year. Verses in their holy texts arguably support them. There are none who will even debate them.

    No other religion is doing this. So while some Muslims may pretend that other religions are just as prone to “misinterpretation” as is their “perfect” one, reality says otherwise.

  2. Islam and “terrorism” have been intimately linked since Mohammed. Mohammed led Muslim jihadists into 60 battles.resulting in terror -rape, enslavement, torture and death – for their victims.

    You’re very typical. You excuse Muslims when they gang-rape teenage girls, or burn children to death, or kill polio workers. You excuse the Muslims for throwing acid in the faces of school girls, or for throwing homosexuals off of rooftops. You are part of the problem.

    In your mind Islam’s conquest of lands from Indonesia to Morocco and from the Maldives all the way to NW China was not done by violent jihad and in the name of Allah, but was done through peace, compassion and tolerance. You are part of the problem.

    It is people like you who enable jihad. You are part of the problem.

    Did you know that Muslims have been waging jihad against southern Asia for 1,000 years? Did you know that Afghainstan was once home to a Buddhist civilization but that it is now 100% Muslim. Not one Buddhist left living. Is that because the Buddhists drove the Muslims to a killing frenzy because they were meditating too loudly? You are part of the problem. You enable jihad by making excuses for it.

    Did you know that in Islam’s jihad against southern Asia that 70 MILLION Hindus have been killed. Did you even know that? If you did then your opinions border on insanity.

    Seventy MILLION! Think about that. That is more people killed than by Hitler, Stalin and Mao all put together. Think about that. Visualize the women and children’s faces as they see their loved ones torn to shreds, their heads placed on spikes.

    You are part of the problem. Go ahead, play your mental gymnastic games so as to rationalize Islamic barbarism. Go ahead support those who are committing genocide against the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Coptics and the Animists.

    You are a Muslim apologist. You twist the truth and excuse the inexcusable. Shame on you. Shame on you. Shame on you and even more shame should be cast at the professors who are feeding your madness. They are the true criminals in this ugly game.

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