‘Beyond the Manhunts: How to Stop Terror’ – a GPS special premieres 10 a.m. & 1 p.m. ET this Sunday
By Richard Barrett, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Richard Barrett is a director of the Soufan Group,a security consultancy, and former coordinator of the United Nations’ al Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team. The views expressed are his own.
Terrorism is scary – that’s how it works. It aims to cause political change by creating public fear; and for so long as there are extremist groups that see terrorism as an effective way to promote their cause, it will remain a feature of our lives. But the less terrorism succeeds in achieving its objective, the less attractive it will become as a political tool. No effort, however large, can hope to eliminate terrorism altogether, as the attacks in Boston have shown, so we should do more to undermine its impact by finding ways to reduce public fear and moderate the political response.
Adequate security measures are also important, but they should be kept in proportion to the threat and focused as much as possible on the sort of investigative and disruptive activity that does not come much to public attention. Protective measures that are heavy-handed and dramatic run the risk of raising public anxiety, so allowing the terrorists to achieve their aim without even having to mount an attack. It is a fine line between providing the public visible reassurance that they are well protected and amplifying the threat beyond the reality, but it is a line that should be drawn.
The Boston attacks, despite the media feeding frenzy, showed that the American public in general has developed a certain amount of resilience since the attacks of 9/11. The reaction to Boston stayed in Boston and focused on the victims and on the investigation, not on the possibility of more bombs going off elsewhere. It helped that the Tsarnaev brothers were quickly identified and found, but despite the horrific pictures and the 24/7 coverage, even most Bostonians seemed ready to carry on with their lives much as before – insofar as police and security force activity and the lockdown of the city would allow.
Also, there were few signs of any backlash against a wider community, even after the Tsarnaevs’ background became known. Certainly, some people in the public eye tried to make political points about immigration, but they got little traction, and if one of the motives of the crime was to drive wedges between various sectors of society, it failed completely.
In the United Kingdom, the government previously sought to address the causes of violent extremism by paying greater attention to the immigrant communities from which terrorists like the July 2005 London bombers emerged. This turned out to be counter-productive, as while the communities welcomed the attention, they resented that it came only as a result of the violent acts of an unrepresentative few, and often showed little understanding of the community’s dynamics. A better model is to treat all society the same, and see terrorism as a way to stress its cohesion around a common set of values. After all, it is only with the help of the community that the authorities will be able to uncover future Tsarnaevs before they attack.
Building community resilience and cooperation requires the sort of mature and measured political response that was also evident after Boston. There was no rush to judgment as to who might be responsible, no second guessing the possible motives behind the attacks, and a free hand given to the investigators. Let us hope it remains like that. There is an almost irresistible temptation for some to try to score political points by apportioning blame beyond the terrorists themselves. This again runs the risk of raising public anxiety that safeguards are insufficient or that they are poorly applied.
It is of course sensible to try to draw lessons from every new attack so as to help protect against the next one, but this should be done objectively and in a way that puts as much emphasis on the efficiency of the response as on the adequacy of the protective measures. Clearly, politicians should also look at the possible reasons behind a terrorist act, and, if there are any that deserve attention, do something about them; but it is surely wrong to exploit public fear for political gain. By using terrorism as a way to compete for political support, especially by arguing for enhanced security measures of dubious value or inquiries that aim more to identify political failings than procedural improvements, politicians merely raise the levels of public anxiety.
As for the security response, let’s be realistic and balanced about that too. To promise complete security is to promise failure, and while the public will accept certain security measures as sensible precautions against the risk of harm, anything too intrusive, unless obviously worthwhile, either raises public fear by making the threat seem much larger than it is, or induces a loss of confidence in the authorities by appearing to go far beyond what is necessary. A couple of days ago I was asked to take my shoes off before going into a federal building to pick up a tax form. That would seem to fit squarely into the second category.
Since the attacks of 9/11, terrorism has become a constant theme in the news, a central topic of political debate, and the reason for ubiquitous security measures. Our obsession has continued despite the chance of anyone dying from terrorism in the United States being so small (it was about 1 in 20 million for the five years 2007 to 2011). Before Boston, it seemed that finally we were beginning to ease down, and we must not let these attacks put us back on full alert; that would be to hand the Tsarnaevs a victory. In fact, we would achieve more by doing less.
Security measures are most effective, whether as a deterrent or as a defense, when their purpose is clear and the people applying them know what they are trying to achieve. All too often, security has become mere theater, and imposed unthinkingly without any regard to the actual danger. The term “security” has become an unchallengeable excuse for any restriction on our daily activities that would otherwise seem unreasonable. It has made us exaggerate the threat and has unreasonably increased our fear of being harmed. Terrorism is just another form of violent crime, and fortunately a very rare one. We should treat terrorists accordingly, and not confuse fame with infamy.
The more we revile terrorists and, while paying all necessary attention to the victims, deny any impact to their crimes, the less terrorism we are likely to suffer.