May 12

Is the War on Terror Over?

I’ve been reading a very interesting book over the weekend called The Gift of Fear. It was written by Gavin de Becker, who is an expert at analyzing the causes of violence and has received numerous awards for his work in the field. The book is fascinating on its own, primarily because it clearly shows that one of the most surprising and often seemingly incomprehensible aspects of our society is actually predictable, understandable, and, to some extent, preventable. The account of violent activity is detailed and valuable. One aspect of it, however, piqued my interest in terms of its relevance to international terrorism. According to de Becker, there are four elements that are almost always present in the mind of someone who commits a violent act. He labels these elements JACA: Justification, Alternatives, Consequences, and Ability. The basic idea is that a person who threatens violence will usually only act on it if they can justify to themselves or rationalize their behavior, if they see very few alternatives to violence as practical or desirable, if they are willing to accept the consequences of the act, and if they believe they have the ability to engage in the violence in an effective manner. Often these beliefs are delusional to a certain extent, but in the absence of sincere beliefs about these issues, people will almost invariably choose a non-violent alternative.

In terms of the war on terror, the death of bin Laden seems to have gone a long way in stripping terrorists of each of these elements. First, bin Laden was a charismatic leader; he convinced his followers of the justice and necessity of their actions, and he served as a symbol of powerful defiance and leadership in what he was able to convince people was a just cause. This may be hard for us to accept, but many people in certain parts of the world respected bin Laden and acted to follow him. Without him, there is far less of a voice to rally people to a strong feeling of justification that accompanies decisions to join or fund such a group. In addition, President Obama has handled this killing brilliantly. Bin Laden was killed in a way that makes it almost impossible for people to view him as a martyr for the cause. He was treated with respect and dignity in his burial by following his religious customs, he acted in a cowardly manner by using human shields, and gruesome pictures of his corpse have been kept from the public so they cannot be used to stir fervor of sympathy for him merely in virtue of the horrors of his death. There is good reason to think that the death of bin Laden will greatly diminish the justification most people were able to create for supporting or joining his cause.

In addition, recent events have made it clear that there are viable alternatives in the Muslim world to terrorism as a means of improving the lives of the citizens of those nations. Recent revolutions, and the inactivity or support of America and the rest of the world in those revolutions have given people suffering through these regimes legitimate cause to believe there is an alternative to terrorism as a means of improving their lives. In addition, since they are home-grown, there is more of feeling of control over one’s own life here, the loss of which is usually central to a feeling of having no better alternatives. In the presence of this alternative, if it can be maintained, there is far less reason to support drastic measures like terrorism in order to improve one’s state, and recruitment and funding are almost certain to drop. Relatedly, when one has hope for a better future, one automatically has more to lose and is therefore less willing to accept the consequences of violence. These elements go hand in hand in predicting a diminished availability of resources for future terrorist acts.

Finally, these points together greatly diminish the ability of terrorists to carry out their actions. With fewer recruits and less funding, terrorists will have a much more difficult time carrying out their plans. Terrorism will, of course, never end, but in all likelihood its scope of importance and the severity of its effects will be greatly diminished because their ability to create and deploy successful large-scale actions will greatly diminish. Terrorism will likely return to its former state of diminished relative international significance rather than maintaining a central stage of world importance and a corresponding power over world events. There is no need for a war against something like that.

I do not know who deserves credit for all of this, or how long it will take for these effects to occur. I’m guessing it’s sooner than people think, though. It is nearly impossible to tell whether or not people would have felt empowered to rebel if Bush’s wars hadn’t made it clear that there was external support for regime change. It is probably true that Obama’s ability to divert or limit anti-American sentiment encouraged people to pursue other options and lessened the strength of a scapegoat to keep people feeling hopeless. It is also certainly true that Obama’s handling of the killing of bin Laden will greatly help in preventing people from finding as many grounds for maintaining the fervor of their commitment. But so long as we don’t let a dangerously shallow and obscene figure like Donald Trump or, to a lesser extent, Sarah Palin reinvigorate these attitudes by foolishly choosing them make important decisions in these matters, there is good reason to believe that the fervor will die down, the lives of people throughout the Muslim world will blessedly improve, and the war on terror and its justification will end not just because we have decided to stop giving it that name, but because it no longer has a basis for existing.

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