Responding to Terror


Terror compels fear unlike other threats. After Paris and San Bernadino, after all of the Islamic State group’s attacks and propaganda, after the naming of Washington as a target and after the Central Intelligence Agency’s admission that an the Islamic State group attempt on the United States is inevitable life in Washington changed last Fall. Even within SAIS’ own lecture halls of level-headed and cold-blooded analysis, we began to speak of the Islamic State group in special tones.

But why?

Why are Americans, or simply people in general, so afraid of terror? So afraid of something that is so unlikely and relatively harmless in even its most deadly years? Terror was conceived as a tactic that preys upon our brain’s overactive amygdala as it searches for danger a threat whose strength relies on improbability rather than likelihood. But this still defies all proportionate logic. We can accept over 30,000 annual auto deaths, over 30,000 annual gun deaths and somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 annual deaths related to obesity. Yet a rough average of 30 U.S. terror- related deaths is too high a cost to bear.

Perhaps the answer comes from attaching a utility to terrorism. Automotive, obesity and even gun deaths can all have utilities attached to their causal factors. David Foster Wallace, in one of the more insightful 9/11 retrospectives, called for the creation of the democratic martyr. He proposed that a “certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea”, requiring that we instead celebrate victims of terrorism as “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”.

Yet we do not need martyrs to justify recourse internally, and nor do we need them to convince others to feel sympathy for the victims of 9/11. The world’s largest defense spender cannot coherently claim the same strategy as Hamas’ families. Furthermore just how congruent is the Martyr with the American idea?

Searching for a societally sustainable response a response that doesn’t leave us quaking in fear of the Islamic State group while on the metro when we should be quaking in fear of Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and cable combustion the answer must come indigenously from our own society. We have never found an adequate response to terrorism, and turning to the cultural classifications of sociology explains why. Historically, culture comes down to two basic conceptions: dignity and honor. Traditional honor culture is best characterized by the duel: personal reputation must be defended with force. Dignity culture emerged through the 19th and 20th century in direct opposition. Rely on central authority, settle disputes peacefully, avoid foes and resort to legal intervention only when necessary. Turn the other cheek and internalize. It worked well when communities all looked the same.

Maybe our old dignity culture is especially vulnerable to terror. Turning the other cheek and internalizing only helps terror strike deeper. When observing the spectacular failure of central authority is the only action available, fear is the only response. Consider how Tom Ridge instructed Americans to buy up duct-tape to seal their homes, how television channels were affixed with terror alert levels and how one man in Connecticut sheathed his house in plastic wrap. Fear encased all.

Yet culture is changing. Sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning labeled the new shifts as the emergence of a culture of victimhood. In the culture of the victim, tales of oppression are trumpeted out to evoke sympathy and unity from a fragmented society while demanding help from central authority. The trigger warning and the microaggression become everyday tools in a world where graduate professors face charges of racism over describing the terms of racism in courses about discussing racism.

SAIS professors speak of their dread when imagining their future students from this culture, but maybe there are positives. Victimhood culture has brought the hashtag campaign along with it. Je Suis Charlie, We are all Parisians, Bring Back our Girls, Boston Strong and so on. If terrorism works by targeting individuals to make them feel isolated and unsafe social media campaigns can unite the populace to react as one. The emphasis on a strong collective government is now switched to a strong collective politic. The hashtag might not be desirable but it could have a silver lining. Unity, strength, and maybe sustainability, through numbers.