By Jim Walsh
June 21, 2016
Yes, I wrote that headline. Your views on terrorism are a plate of scrambled eggs consisting mostly of fear and fiction. I’m not picking on you. I’m not. Well, not entirely.
When it comes to terrorism, the media have done a poor job of providing context and have frequently rushed to judgment, invoking the “Islamic terrorism” tag when it was premature to do so. The Orlando attack is simply the latest example of the 24-minute news cycle insisting on “the answer” just hours after an attack. (To be fair, journalists are human beings, and they are subject to all the emotion and error that plague the rest of us.)
I am less sympathetic to the politicians. Many of them are also human and honestly believe the falsehoods they propagate. Others are more clever. They know better but won’t let facts get in the way of a good talking point, especially when the camera lights are aglow. This smaller but particularly cynical set of office seekers are primarily interested in self-advancement, not national security. If whipping up hysteria about terror and Muslims is good politics but bad public policy, so be it.
And to be clear, terrorism is a complex phenomenon. Not all of it fits into neat categories. And while research on terrorism is light years ahead of where it was even 10 years ago, there is much that even the experts don’t know.
But, gentle reader; you too have had a role in this. The press and political aspirants have rightly judged that that you will respond to their excesses with either votes or page views. You are prone to leaping to a conclusion or a stereotype and then clinging to it — even when confronted by evidence.
Evidence, such as:
After a sharp rise in recent years, terrorism around the world declined in 2015 by nearly 15 percent.
Nearly 80 percent of all terrorist attacks take place in five countries: Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. Since 9/11, only half of 1 percent of all terrorism deaths occurred in the West.
Contrary to the commonly held belief, “Islamic fundamentalism was not the primary driver of lone wolf attacks, with 80 percent of deaths in the West from lone wolf attacks being attributed to a mixture of right wing extremists, nationalists, anti-government elements, other types of political extremism and supremacism.”
In the U.S., you are more likely to be killed by your spouse than a terror attack carried out by an Islamic extremist (or an immigrant).
You are thousands of times more likely to be killed by mundane, everyday causes than you are by terrorism. That’s a hard number to wrap one’s head around. Not twice as likely. Not three times as likely. Thousands of times more likely.
Unfortunately, the problem is not simply our emotional attachment to empirical fallacies. We double down by employing“logic” that mixes different problems into a hulking mass we call “Islamic terrorism.”
Consider the Orlando attack. The perpetrator verbally invoked ISIS, so that must mean he was an Islamic extremist, right? Well, that was the story on the first day. Since then, the FBI and others have started to walk that back. We still do not have a definitive assessment of Omar Mateen’s motives and behaviour, but his horrific crimes may turn out to be more about a particular form of mental illness or hate combined with easy access to military style weapons than any religious beliefs.
So how should we disentangle this snake pit of motivations? How do we tease out what is cause and effect, and what is window dressing? One approach is to use a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which ISIS or violent Islamic extremism did not exist. Would he have committed this crime anyway? Would he have found some other ideology or excuse for his actions? If the answer is yes, then it is difficult to code this as Islamic terrorism or any kind of terrorism, really. And in turn, that suggests a completely different set of policies that we should pursue to prevent this from happening in the future.
It is not enough to say, well, all terrorists are crazy (another myth) or to retreat to “it’s complicated.” Yes, it’s complicated, just like health risks can be complicated, but if we get the diagnosis wrong, then we will get the prescription wrong.
None of this is meant to suggest that terrorism is not a threat. It is — in part because we play into the terrorists’ narrative and make it scarier than it is. And as 9/11 demonstrated, high casualty terrorism is exceedingly rare but enormously consequential, often because of how we react to it. But if we are serious about preventing the next Orlando, then we may have to give equal and separate attention to risk factors that have nothing to do with “Islamic terrorism.” And we can start by substituting facts for fears and logic for labels.
Jim Walsh teaches at MIT, focusing on international security. He has traveled to both Iran and North Korea for talks with government officials