Recently I attended a talk hosted by a candidate for local sheriff who, as both a candidate for that office and a veteran law enforcement officer, talked about security on a personal level and local level in regards to terrorism. Perhaps the central point of the talk was a concept referred to as “run, hide, fight,” pushed by the FBI and other federal agencies. This idea suggests that, in the event one should find themselves in some sort of large public attack, they should seek to do those three things in that order of precedence, meaning one should first seek to escape the scene, hiding if that’s not possible, and only fighting if all the above fail. This is an important mode of response when it comes to personal safety. However, it is also a limited and reactionary one, one that reflects the flawed approach that the United States and other nations often take on the matter of terrorism. When many people think of terrorism they think only of the attacks that terrorist make, only seeing the surface level manifestations of the phenomenon from which they must run, hide, or fight. To put it simply that would be not seeing the forest for the trees. Terrorism presents a real threat to democracy that calls for more than a military or security response and must be dealt with at a systematic level.
The definition of terrorism is tricky and can sometimes be unclear so I shall explicitly give the one that I’m using. Terrorism is the act of using fear and intimidation as tools to achieve a socio-political goal that cannot be achieved through normal means. Terrorists also typically lack the power to directly confront an organized military, hence why most terror attacks target civilians and why most terror groups utilize guerrilla warfare tactics. All of this is anathema to democracy. A small minority of individuals using violence to push their agenda undermines the very concepts of majority rule, elections, and the will of the people. Indeed, with the exception of a handful of anarchist groups in the late 19th century, every terrorist organization in the modern era has attacked democracies almost exclusively. Part of the reason behind this is ideological opposition to the democratic western powers specifically, but it is further pushed and enabled by the fact that terrorism is, by its nature, counteractive against democracy itself. It is important to remember that terrorism is not just random attacks but that it is a logical and rational course of action, if a horrendously violent one, and that it targets some of the very core concepts of democracy. So, just as terrorism, in many ways, attacks democracy and democratic government at a systematic level it is necessary that we find means of preventing terrorism to an equal degree.
The concept of “run, hide, fight,” is a reflection of the United States’ general attitude and policy in regards to terrorism. Namely that it is a security and military issue, a view that was in place before the War on Terror began and became only more entrenched after it. It makes some sense, terrorism presents a violent threat to people’s lives and terrorism is a form of guerrilla warfare, a strategy used when one cannot face the full might of an enemy’s military force. One usually faces violent threats with violence and one can counter guerrilla fighters by simply pitting them against the power that they couldn’t fight in the first place. There have been instances of military victories over terror groups in the past, as seen with the Tamil Tigers, a terror group operating out of Sri Lanka. The first terrorist organization to make large scale use of suicide bombers, it was at one time considered by the United States government to be one of the most dangerous organizations in the world. Despite this, however, the group was dismantled by the Sri Lankan military in 2009 with foreign aid, mostly from China. Aditionally, this demonstrates that terror groups can be defeated through force, though it comes with some caveats. One, defeating the group does nothing to address the underlying issues that gave rise to it, allowing another group to take the Tamil Tigers’ place to champion their cause. Secondly, it is only one instance of such a strategy working. You could, conversely, look at cases like Al-Qaeda, which remains a major international terror group despite the death of Osama bin-Laden and being a focal point of the United States’ military efforts for nearly two decades. Furthermore, even looking at the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, which only happened after 30 years of insurrection and civil war, military confrontation with terror groups leads to drawn out and costly conflict where the enemy is actively looking to avoid military forces and strike elsewhere. While military response is natural and to some degree necessary in order to assure basic security it isn’t a long term solution and will often lock you in a long and costly guerrilla war where the battlefield can’t be contained to just a battlefield. In light of this it is necessary to find other means of curbing terrorism.
As previously mentioned terrorism is by its nature rational in that there is a purpose that it is trying to fulfill. Terrorist attacks cannot be treated as isolated events that can’t be predicted. They are not the kind of mass killings that are perpetrated by unhealthy, deranged minds who’s thought processes are so intrinsic to them and their specific condition that it can be difficult to ascertain. That is a separate issue entirely from this, though no less important. Terrorists, if I can paint with broad strokes, are rational in many ways. Their attacks have a specific purpose behind them and they have goals beyond pure destruction, they are trying to create as much fear as they can so that they can leverage it in order to attain a political or social goal. Therefore it is possible to understand and to a certain degree predict the actions of terrorists and plan for that. In the short term that means that we directly confront their plans before they come into fruition, stopping terrorists while they are still preparing for their attacks, but this often does nothing more than deal with the symptoms of much larger problems. Terrorists, at least those who form the central parts of a terror group, typically take up the role in response to some sort of perceived disadvantage relative to an outside group. That group can be ethnic, religious, national, or any number of divisions that you can can think of between people. Of a group of people who resent their disadvantaged position in society a small number can be radicalized by any number of processes that will turn them into terrorists, willing to use violence to achieve goals they see as necessary and impossible to attain by any other means. This presents options of preventing people from become terrorists. One is to prevent individuals from radicalizing, however, there are no clear or precise means or doing this, as radicalization is a deeply personal thing that can’t be systematically dealt with. That leaves the other and only real one of these options, removing the inequality that gives rise to the radicalization. Now of course total equality is a pipe dream, if it were possible the communists would have done it decades ago, but there are still steps that can be taken. Improvements in the living standards and political standings of disadvantaged groups can help to dissuade future generations from taking up terrorism. Without the previous disparity future generations will see less of a reason to use violence to change it. This is a long term solution and may not see dividends for years, perhaps decades. You can’t sit back and let terrorists blow things up hoping that the next generation of kids will decide not to run around blowing things up.
These must be taken together, as military operations and increased security help mitigate risks in the short term but ultimately perpetuate the situation. Fixing social inequality, on the other hand, can help in the long run but sees almost no short term gains. Therefore it is logical to pursue both at the same time, as one will deal with the immediate threat and the other will solve the deeper, long term issues. However, this is a careful balance, it is difficult to convince people that you are working to help their societal woes while your soldiers are shooting people who at least claim to represent them and civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. There is no clear solution to terrorism and that is why it has been one of the persistent problems of our time. Until a solution can come into effect, however, we, as individuals, will have to just continue running, hiding, and fighting.