By Joseph S. Nye
11 February 2016
American politics has been captured by
terrorists. In December 2015, polls showed that one in six Americans, some 16
percent of the population, now identify terrorism as the most important
national problem, up from just 3 percent in the previous month. This is the
highest percentage of Americans to mention terrorism in a decade, although it
is still lower than the 46 percent measured after the 9/11 attacks.
The effect of this change in public opinion
has been particularly strong in the Republican presidential primary. Terrorism
is a problem for the US, as the attack in San Bernardino, California in
December showed. But it has been blown out of proportion, both by the
presidential candidates and by a news media that adheres to the old adage, “If
it bleeds, it leads.” To put terrorism in proper perspective, Americans — and
others — should bear in mind the following considerations.
Terrorism is a form of theatre. Terrorists
are more interested in capturing attention and putting their issue at the
forefront of the agenda than in the number of deaths they cause per se. Daesh
pays careful attention to stagecraft. The barbaric beheadings that are
broadcast and disseminated through social media are designed to shock and
outrage — and thereby capture attention. By exaggerating their effect and
making every terrorist act a lead story, we play into their hands.
Terrorism is not the biggest threat facing
people in advanced countries. Terrorism kills far fewer people than auto
accidents or cigarettes. Indeed, terrorism is not even a big threat — or a
small one, for that matter. One is likelier to be struck by lightning than to
be killed by a terrorist.
Experts estimate that an American’s annual
risk of being killed by a terrorist is one in 3.5 million. Americans are more
likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home
appliance (one in 1.5 million), a deer (one in two million), or on a commercial
airliner (one in 2.9 million). Around 6,000 Americans die annually from texting
or talking on the phone while driving. Terrorism kills fewer Americans than
attacks by disgruntled workplace and school shooters. Terrorism is not World
Global terrorism is not new. It often takes
a generation for a wave of terrorism to burn out. At the beginning of the 20th century,
the anarchist movement killed a number of heads of state for utopian ideals. In
the 1960s and 1970s, the “new left” Red Brigades and Red Army Faction hijacked
planes across national borders and kidnapped and killed business and political
leaders (as well as ordinary citizens).
Today’s jihadist extremists are a venerable
political phenomenon wrapped in religious dress. Many of the leaders are not
traditional fundamentalists, but people whose identity has been uprooted by
globalization and who are searching for meaning in the imagined community of a
caliphate. Defeating them will require time and effort, but Daesh’s parochial
nature limits the range of its appeal. With its sectarian attacks, it cannot
even appeal to all Muslims, much less Hindus, Christians, and others. Daesh
will eventually be defeated, just as other transnational terrorists were.
Terrorism is like jiu jitsu. The smaller
actor uses the larger actor’s strength to defeat it. No terrorist organization
is as powerful as a state, and few terrorist movements have succeeded in
overthrowing one. But if they can outrage and frustrate citizens of the state
into taking self-defeating actions, they can hope to prevail. Al-Qaeda
succeeded in luring the US into Afghanistan in 2001. Daesh was born in the
rubble of the subsequent US-led invasion of Iraq.
Smart power is needed to defeat terrorism.
Smart power is the ability to combine hard military and police power and the
soft power of attraction and persuasion. Hard power is needed to kill or
capture die-hard terrorists, few of whom are open to attraction or persuasion.
At the same time, soft power is needed to inoculate those on the periphery whom
the die-hards are trying to recruit.
That is why attention to narrative and how
US actions play on social media is as important and as necessary as precision
air strikes. Antagonistic rhetoric that alienates Muslims and weakens their
willingness to provide crucial intelligence endangers us all. That is why the
anti-Muslim posturing of some of the current presidential candidates is so
Terrorism is a serious issue, and it
deserves to be a top priority of our intelligence, police, military and
diplomatic agencies. It is an important component of foreign policy. And it is
crucial to keep weapons of mass destruction out of terrorists’ hands.
But we should not fall into the terrorists’
trap. Let the actions of thugs play out in an empty theatre. If we let them
take over the main stage of our public discourse, we will undermine the quality
of our civic life and distort our priorities. Our strength will have been used