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Boston Marathon

“The discrepancy between the panic generated by terrorism and the deaths generated by terrorism is no accident. Panic is the whole point of terrorism, as the root of the word makes clear: ‘Terror’ refers to a psychological state, not an enemy or an event. The effects of terrorism depend completely on the psychology of the audience. Terrorists are communicators, seeking publicity and attention, which they manufacture through fear. They may want to extort a government into capitulating to a demand, to sap people’s confidence in their government’s ability to protect them, or to provoke repression that will turn people against their government or bring about chaos in which the terrorist faction hopes to prevail.

Cognitive psychologists such as Amos Tversky, Daniel Kahneman, Gerd Gigerenzer, and Paul Slovic have shown that the perceived danger of a risk depends on two factors: fathomability and dread. People are terrified of risks that are novel, undetectable, delayed in their effects, and poorly understood. And they are terrified about worst-case scenarios, the ones that are uncontrollable, catastrophic, involuntary, and inequitable (that is, the people exposed to the risk are not the ones who benefit from it).

These psychologists suggest that cognitive illusions are a legacy of ancient brain circuitry that evolved to protect us against natural risks such as predators, poisons, storms, and especially enemies. Large-scale terrorist plots are novel, undetectable, catastrophic, and inequitable, and thus maximize both unfathomability and dread. They give the terrorists a large psychological payoff for a small investment in damage.

But the psychological payoff of terrorism is limited, and ultimately self-defeating. It’s a seldom-appreciated fact, documented by the political scientists Max Abrahms, Audrey Cronin, and others, that terrorism was far more prevalent before our so-called age of terror than during it, and that all terrorist movements die. Remember the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Front de Libération du Québec, the Symbionese Liberation Army? The 1960s and 1970s saw hundreds of bombings, hijackings, and shootings by various armies, leagues, coalitions, brigades, factions, undergrounds, and fronts. Where are they now? Over the years, terrorist groups collapse as their leaders are killed or captured, as they morph into political movements, or as they fizzle out through internal squabbling and the defection of young firebrands to the pleasures of civilian life.

Terrorist movements, moreover, almost never achieve any of their strategic goals. Think about it. Israel continues to exist, Northern Ireland is still a part of Britain, and Kashmir is a part of India. There are no sovereign states in Kurdistan, Palestine, Quebec, Puerto Rico, Chechnya, Corsica, Tamil Eelam, or the Basque Country. The Philippines, Algeria, and Egypt are not Islamist theocracies; nor have Japan, the United States, Europe, and Latin America become religious, Marxist, anarchist, or new-age utopias.

Even when they are not rooted out by states, terrorist groups carry the seeds of their own destruction. As they become frustrated by their lack of progress and as their audiences start to get bored, they escalate their tactics. They start to target victims who are more famous, more sympathetic, or simply more numerous. That certainly gets people’s attention, but not in the way the terrorists intend. Supporters are repulsed by the ‘senseless violence’ and withdraw their money, their safe havens, their reluctance to cooperate with the police, and their resistance to an all-out crackdown.

Audrey Cronin nicely captures the conflicting moral psychology that defines the arc of terrorist movements: ‘Violence has an international language, but so does decency.'”


From Steven Pinker’s short article “Terrorism”, published by The Chronicle of Higher Education to commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001.

I’m suspicious of the idea that in the aftermaths of acts of senseless violence — such as Monday’s massacre in Boston — we should enter a sanctioned period of unquestioned collective mourning. Oftentimes, pious newscasters will utter in hushed tones statements like, “Well, now is just a time for grieving,” or “Let’s not get into the politics of this event yet.” Of course those who want to grieve should be allowed to, and comforted, for as long as they wish. Yet there should be no stigma placed on cold rationalism in moments like these.

As many cultural critics and political scientists have discussed, part of the reason for America’s folly in responding to the attacks on 9/11 stemmed from the population’s inability to coolly comprehend the nature of the event, and thus to demand a just and proportionate response. Clearly September 2001 is not April 2013, but hopefully we have learned something like our lesson. Hopefully our feelings for the victims of this terror will not cloud our judgement in pursuing and prosecuting those guilty. Hopefully the collective we can absorb the following two quotes, which were addressed to the individual,

“You must have your heart on fire and your brain on ice.” – Vladimir Lenin

“Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.” – Henri Bergson

And I hope this post and the one previous to it represent, in microcosm, the best of those dignified sentiments.