When We Call Criminal Acts 'Terrorism' We Destroy Our Rights And Sacrifice Our Principles

from the letting-the-terrorists-win dept

Every so often over the past decade or so in the “age of terrorism,” someone has raised the issue of why we treat “terrorism” as somehow distinct from criminal activity. We let the intelligence community, rather than law enforcement, focus on terrorism (even as some in law enforcement — notably, the FBI and the NYPD — have tried to redefine their missions as being about terrorism). In the past, I’ve actually seen the wisdom of treating terrorism and criminal activities as separate, especially when terrorism was part of a larger, coordinated effort (especially when connected with state-level actors). However, these days, we’re quick to call so much terrorism, it’s really problematic. And not just because of the semantic argument. This hit home reading Hamilton’s thought-provoking piece pointing out that “Terrorism Works.”

His argument, in short, is that terrorism “works” because our reaction to it generally is the reaction of those who have been successfully terrified:

Two men with a rifle paralyze Washington, DC for weeks. Two men with a couple of homemade bombs paralyze Boston for days. One man on a plane with a dud bomb packed inside his boots has an entire nation taking off its shoes at the airport for years to come. A small group of religious zealots send three U.S. presidential administrations down a nightmarish rabbithole of drone war, torture, and total surveillance of the citizenry.

Terrorism works. Against us, terrorism works very, very well. Our collective insistence on treating terrorist acts as something categorically different than crime?as something harder to understand, something scarier, something perpetrated not by humans but by monsters?feeds the ultimate goals of terrorists. It makes us dumb. It makes us primitive. It is our boogeyman, and no amount of rational talk will drive it out of our minds.

That point, that we treat terrorism as different than crime really hits home. When there’s a criminal spree — bank robberies, burglaries, car thefts — we may make certain changes in how we act (get better locks, security systems, etc.) but we don’t seem to change our entire national psyche. We don’t get terrified by crime. We take some actions to mitigate the risk, but we get on with our lives. When we call things “terrorism” we seem to let all perspective go out the window.

We switch from a mode of trying to minimize the risk to an absolutely impossible ideal of eliminating the threat entirely. That’s dangerous. It tosses out anything involving cost-benefit analysis. It tosses out common sense. And, most importantly, it seems to toss out our rights, privacy and freedoms.

There’s a way to deal with this and it’s to treat most of these things as criminal activity, and to react accordingly. But that doesn’t generate quite the same headlines or opportunities for politician grandstanding, so it probably won’t happen.

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Comments on “When We Call Criminal Acts 'Terrorism' We Destroy Our Rights And Sacrifice Our Principles”

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Andrew Norton (profile) says:

Right after Utoya, I wrote a piece for Falkvinge’s blog saying much the same thing, but in the opposite way.

And I think the best answer is that of Jens Stoltenberg at the time

“We are still shaken by what hit us, but we never give up our values. Our answer is more democracy, more openness and more humanity, but never naivete.”

(and for what it’s worth, I not only grew up in Liverpool during the IRA attacks of the 80s and 90s, I very narrowly escaped injury in the 93 Warrington Bombing, which the Boston bombing was nearly a carbon copy of 20 years [and one month] later. Terrorism actually means something to me personally, it’s not an abstract as for most people

Dave Cortright says:

Re: Re: Long term, the cure (living in fear) is worse than the disease (terrorist attack)

Schneier on Security—Excess Automobile Deaths as a Result of 9/11

Increased delays and added costs at U.S. airports due to new security procedures provide incentive for many short-haul passengers to drive to their destination rather than flying, and, since driving is far riskier than air travel, the extra automobile traffic generated has been estimated in one study to result in 500 or more extra road fatalities per year.

The Guardian—September 11’s indirect toll: road deaths linked to fearful flyers

…Professor Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specialising in risk, has estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the attacks – indirect victims of the tragedy.

Anonymous Coward says:


The true Terrorist’s are the governments that use this shit to justify the sacrifice of YOUR rights at the alter of Politics.

They have done far more terrorizing and destruction than a turd mudslime in a diaper hat could ever do now!

Bush help finish the Work of Osama, and Obama is helping every bit he can.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Of course you and Hamilton Nolan are right

I said much the same thing in https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20131010/17320524835/how-dream-spying-more-public-with-cameras-will-likely-decrease-public-safety.shtml over a year ago:

“The answer is thus not to add still more cameras: the answer is to refuse to give in. Terrorism doesn’t work if its targets — you, me, and everyone else — decline to be terrorized.”

This seems as good a time and a place as any to add a postscript to that piece. In it, I mentioned Erika Brannock, who (along with her sister) was standing near one of the bombs when it went off. Both were badly injured; Erika lost one of her legs.

Do you know what Erika did a year later, at the 2014 Boston Marathon?

She went back — to wait for her mom to finish, again — AND STOOD IN THE SAME SPOT.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you fight terrorism. You refuse to be terrorized. You refuse to give in to fear. You refuse to be moved. You refuse to yield.

No slogans, no drones, no troops, no battle plans, no speeches, no mass surveillance, no task forces, no legislation, no smart bombs: just raw courage. That’s all.

That’s how it’s done.

Erika Brannock did more to fight terrorism by quietly standing on a Boston sidewalk than the entire US government has done in the last decade-plus.

(If, like me, you find that courage immensely admirable, perhaps you might consider helping out with her medical/rehab: http://www.thebrannockfund.com You will have my sincere and profound gratitude should you so choose.)

Anonymous Coward says:

9/11 killed 3,000 people in 2001.
30,000 people committed suicide in 2001.

Every self-serving politician will grandstand about terrorism. None will grandstand about suicide prevention.

As part of the endless “war on terror”, Orwellian surveillance is increasingly forced on an unwilling public.

Yearly suicide rates have steadily increased since 2001, reaching 40,000 in 2012.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I understand and agree with your point (that we treat “terrorism” in a way that is massively disproportional with the actual threat), but suicide isn’t a great example, because suicide is a completely optional, personal activity where the perpetrator and the victim are the same person.

I think a better example is highway deaths. At 92 deaths per day, the odds are much greater that you’ll be one of them than that you’ll be killed by terrorists — and yet very few people are terrified of driving on the highway.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

As part of the endless “war on terror”, Orwellian surveillance is increasingly forced on an unwilling public.

Actually, one of the points of the article i gleamed was that it is increasing being forced on a very willing public. We live in representative democracies (those that live in a democracy) and they are very representative indeed.

Every population gets the government they want. Maybe not the government you want, but the government the vast majority of your neighbours and friends want, even if they never admit it too you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Every population gets the government they want.

In general, because of political parties, many people vote for the party they and their family have always voted for. Some people vote for who they think is the least worst choice from the major parties, and a few people vote for who they think is the best choice. The result is rarely the government that people really want, but rather the one that the swing voters think will be the least worse.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Every population gets the government they want.”

I disagree. Almost nobody in the US, regardless of political bent, wants the type government we have now. Not even most politicians.

What people get is not the government they want, but the government they will tolerate. As Thomas Jefferson said: “The amount of tyranny you get is the exact amount you put up with.”

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Almost nobody in the US, regardless of political bent, wants the type government we have now. Not even most politicians.

I think the politicians and some of those who fund them are the only ones who like it. They have the power to change things, so if they were really unhappy about it they would do something different.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

The politicians themselves, by and large, detest it. Seriously. The problem is that they don’t see any way of changing it.

They either love it or they’re really dumb, because they’re the ones who could change it. Rewrite campaign finance laws. They seem quite willing to do anything and everything in a completely self-serving way, it’s hard to believe they’re unwilling to do that in order to fix a problem that bothers them personally. They have staffs that could draft a law, they don’t even have to rely on lobbyists to write the law for them as usual.

So why did you conclude they don’t like it, and how do you explain their failure to change it?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

“So why did you conclude they don’t like it, and how do you explain their failure to change it?”

I conclude that they don’t like it both from talking directly with several of them and talking with people who talk with lots of them.

They can’t change it because the system itself has been corrupted to the point where it can’t be done. There are many factors going into this, from the money problem (the vast majority of a congressperson’s time is spent fundraising out of necessity — and that need for money is the main cause of the corruption of the system) all the way through to partisanship.

Changing it would require something that is politically impossible (for the time being): getting the majority of congress (and the entirely of congressional leadership) to work in unison to change it.

I have to include the leadership in there because there have been a number of times when congress was overwhelmingly in favor of action that reduces corruption, but party leadership ensured that the action would never happen anyway.

radix (profile) says:

Thank you

This sums up the thoughts I’ve been having lately, but couldn’t put into words.

The proper response to “they hate our freedoms” is NOT to simply give up those same freedoms. They won.

Somebody was shot in Chicago every three hours last year. How many of those became international news for a week? The WHOLE POINT of terrorism is to spread fear, but it would be impossible without a willing media to help them at every step. Not only did they win, they used the western media and politics as their two most potent weapons.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Thank you

…The WHOLE POINT of terrorism is to spread fear…

…with a political or religious message.

Robberies, rapes, drug dealing, and murders can spread fear. To combat such fears you carry on with your life and refuse to change. It works the same way with terrorism; just look to France for an example.

radix (profile) says:

Re: Re: Thank you

Those other crimes certainly can cause fear as a result of the action, but the intent is usually personal gain.

Terrorism, as indicated by the word itself, is about the feelings of others (terror) more than the perp.

As an aside, there’s not a reputable sports show on Earth who will intentionally show streakers or other trespassers in the field of play during a sporting event. They rightfully recognize that this would only encourage more of the same.

Murder is certainly more newsworthy, but isn’t it about time the media starts asking itself if granting too much attention to those seeking attention is simply encouraging more of the same?

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Re: Thank you

The WHOLE POINT of terrorism is to spread fear…

No, it isn’t.

It has been held that terrorism is to accomplish political aims by instilling fear. But it never has and never will: instead it instills obstinate determination.

There are two kinds of “terrorists” those who know this and those too stupid to know this. The former do it anyway for self gain (such as revenge) and are therefore criminals. The latter, being stupid, get arrested.

So the “terrorists” who matter are really just criminals. There is no meaningful distinction between the bomber, and the hothead who shoots up his office because the boss fired him.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Thank you

This. Look at the US reaction to terrorism: it did not instil obstinate determination at all. It instilled terror and panic both in individuals and in the government as a whole.

That is the entire goal of the tactic, and we have (and continue to) help the terrorists out by reinforcing that fear without them having to do another thing.

My go-to example of how awful this all is is 9/11. If the US didn’t freak out in blind panic like it did and treated it as a criminal matter rather than an act of war, the US and the world at large would be in a much better place than we are.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

And not just because of the semantic argument.

The only disagreement I have with your article is the semantic one.

It’s THE most important. When we allow government(s) (or anyone) to change definitions of words to suit themselves, we are actively allowing them to “socially engineer” the general populace.

As with crime/terrorism, you’ll find that the great majority of the country has already accepted that damned near ANY federal crime can be *justly* prosecuted as terrorism.

Hell, look at the acceptance of “secret evidence” the etiology of the word “evidence” is “out” (exposed) “to be seen”.

Geno0wl (profile) says:

Not Exactly

That point, that we treat terrorism as different than crime really hits home. When there’s a criminal spree — bank robberies, burglaries, car thefts — we may make certain changes in how we act (get better locks, security systems, etc.) but we don’t seem to change our entire national psyche. We don’t get terrified by crime.

Just to throw a monkey wrench at this point…how exactly would you define the “War on Drugs” then?

Anonymous Coward says:

Until this dumb “we dunt negotiate with terrurists” thing exists there is no hope of it getting dealth with. Most of these attackers tell the public exactly why they are doing it. Sure there is the occassional “you drew muhi” thing, but even these are just excuses. Their real problem is that the US has been at war with their countries for decades, demanding pointless sanctions that result in millions of people dying and the now popular lawless executions with drones.
This is the way they respond but honestly, there are millions of people in those countries who have spent the last few decades in constant terror because of the US.

All of this pointless shit could be avoided if the US government would stop being so fucking corrupt and stop its warmongering around THAT certain country which we cant even name without being called antisemites.

Jake says:

I’ve been thinking along the same lines for a long time. I’m English, and grew up in the 1990s; I was just getting old enough to take some interest in the news -or at least understand a bit of what I was hearing- when our domestic terrorists du jour were doing stuff like thoroughly trashing central Manchester with a truck bomb, bringing down Army helicopters and duking it out with the police -and the Army- with everything up to rocket launchers and crew-served machine guns.

I therefore find it slightly difficult to take the media or the government seriously when they describe lighting your car’s tyres on fire, driving into a concrete bollard and then accidentally setting your own trousers on fire before getting kicked in the nuts by a passing airport baggage handler while trying to run away as “terrorism”.

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m a little older than you (as I noted above, I was at the 93 Warrington bombing) and as a scouser, remember all of them only too well, but since 03 have lived in the US. there’s been a definite change. Up until Major, British politicians were all about projecting power and confidence (well, as much as Major could) and that particular ‘stiff-upper-lip-ness’ that’s quintessentially British.
Tony though, listened to his advisors (like Rupert Murdoch, and Mandy) and knew that ‘fear sells’, and that by providing the fear, AND promising to deal with it, you can stay in office easier. It’s the American way of dealing with it.

And shortly after 9/11, my (American) wife came back to the US to visit family, and then I had a job of my own in the US. I flew in to SF on Halloween, while there was a ‘terror warning’ on the 4 bay area bridges. There I saw firsthand the utterly useless, but panic-driven ‘response’, as I daily dealt with 3 of those bridges – I was staying in Sausalito, and we were filming on Treasure Island (yes, the same one as in Little Brother. we’d take the Richmond bridge way in the morning, and Golden Gate at night because of traffic flow) – and noted the military vehicles EVERYWHERE. They left an abandoned 2-ton box truck on the Bay bridge for more htan 3 hours after me and my driver reported it to the unit on the TI bridge exit (we could see it from the studio, and had put a spotter there just ‘in case’ – we had a lot of ROV’s and safety gear and wanted to be sure we could go radio dark if needed)

I’ve rambled a bit, but the end result is, it’s more profitable for politicians to sow fear, and then the solution, than to tell them to ‘keep calm and carry on’. Anyone can tell you that, while only these politicians can ‘deal’ with the issues they themselves are creating.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is because fear and panic drive newspaper sales like nothing else. The corporate media absolutely loves these stories, and when there aren’t enough of them to keep the ink flowing, they’re forced to start inventing them.

The Year-2000 catastrophe — the imminent collapse of the entire technology world due to a hidden programming bug — never happened, not even a tiny bit, but it sure got people’s attention while the scare lasted.

But had Bin Laden executed his famous skyjacking operation 2 or 3 years earlier, then it’s likely that “Y2K” would have never been invented, since the news media would have had something else to write about (and hence scare people about) as the century clocked over.

Would “terrorism” even exist without a hyper-rabid news media? Probably not. The copycat mass-shootings/school-shootings have become so trendy only because the media rewards these actions by making national celebrities out of these assassins. So the message is, if you’re a complete nobody (w/a few loose screws) who desires instant fame, there’s simply no better or easier way to get it. The media will gladly comply. And this guarantees that the death cycle gets repeated endlessly.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The Year-2000 catastrophe — the imminent collapse of the entire technology world due to a hidden programming bug — never happened, not even a tiny bit, but it sure got people’s attention while the scare lasted.

Do you suppose that’s because there never was a problem, or because billions of dollars were spent to fix it ahead of time? By the way, most of the “fixes” just pushed off the problem to 2040 (IIRC, somewhere around there). This will have to be addressed again for any old system still in operation then.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Keep Calm and Carry on, was ""

“Criminals should get Due Process,

Terrorists should be shot and thier(sic) bodies burned where they fall!” — A.C.

No. Mr. Masnick’s article has it correct.

Terrorists should be treated without particular distinction, just like any other suspected criminal – innocent until proven guilty, tried by their peers, and afforded every due process the law offers, including the right to effective representation, a timely trial, to be able to face their accusers and full access to the evidence against them, and accurate knowledge of how that evidence was acquired.

Failure to do so elevates those who would commit acts to inspire terror, and otherwise makes a mockery of the freedoms we supposedly hold dear.

If you would like to cause them some kind of harm, hit them where it hurts – show them you’re not so weak as to treat them like they’re special or some kind of existential threat.

Anonymous Coward says:

Boogeymen! Boogeymen! Boogeymen!

It is our boogeyman

This is one of the reasons terrorism fears are perpetuated. Politics requires a Boogeyman, someone big and scary that you need me, Your Humble Candidate, to protect you from.

Before terrorism, it was communism, before that, fascism, anarchists, Catholics, immigrants (repeatedly), Indians, southerners/northerners, British, etc., etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

It all started with movies about “terrorists” hijacking airplanes. Then it happened in real life with 9/11. People suddenly thought, “Wow, I’ve seen this stuff happen in the movies!”

We had the Oklahoma City bombing, but it didn’t have nearly the psychological effect on the public as armed religious zealots hijacking an airplane strait out of the movies.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think it has less to do with the movies than than with the xenophobia. There are probably more movies featuring domestic terrorism than international terrorism, after all.

The OKC bombing was less traumatic than 9/11 for two main reasons. First, it was done by an American citizen (and a middle-class white man, to boot) rather than people who can easily be cast as “the other”. Second, it was treated as a criminal act rather than the crazy way we reacted to 9/11.

Anonymous Coward says:

Expanding powers and abusing said powers in the name of a boogeyman were never a valid excuse for incompetence. If doing so really bags the real bad guys, then that doesn’t explain why said bad guys have gotten even worse over the years.

They’ve either done a shitty job fighting terrorists… or they’ve been doing a good job aiding them instead. A creep towards totalitarianism is exactly what the terrorists want, and the powers to be are giving them the gift that keeps on giving with each bad law and abused power.

Anonymous Coward says:

the biggest problems with the ‘remedies’ that are supposed to prevent terrorist attacks are that they are almost the same as the terrorist acts themselves with almost the same effects as the terrorist acts themselves. the difference is no carnage (thank goodness) but real delays and inconvenience. terrorists use shoes, everyone else then has to remove shoes. it’s the same with belts, with food, with bottles of liquid, the list is endless. on top of which we now have more and more surveillance (which will never be enough for governments until it is total) and it is being used for everything now, not just to try to prevent terrorist attacks but for letting governments know everything possible every day of every persons life under the banner of trying to ‘keep us safe’, the people are now being subjected to lives where there is no privacy and no freedom, just what bin laden said would happen. in actual fact, there is no need for terrorism because we are terrorising ourselves and our own governments are doing the rest!

Dan G Difino says:

Perpetual Terrorism

The problem with letting the woman and children of terrorists live is that these terrorists just keep on coming. The problem with making such a decision for the total decimation of these terrorist states is that no one apparently wants to make such a drastic call, and these terrorists just use that against the God fearing world. They see that as a sign of weakness and exploit that. It may be inhumane superficially to be merciful in this context, but the bigger picture has proven throughout history that someone has to fight for the self-preservation of what is truly right. If that means turning these terrorist states to glass, then so be it.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Perpetual Terrorism

Terrorism is a tactic. It’s not some kind of genetic disease. Specifically, it’s a tactic that is used when fighting an entity that is much stronger than you militarily. The use of that tactic is not limited to people from a few countries. Destroying nations that you deem to be “terrorist states” completely misses the point and would increase, not decrease, the amount of terrorism in the world.

Aaron T (profile) says:

Kinda sorta

I agreed with just about everything you said, except this:

That point, that we treat terrorism as different than crime really hits home. When there’s a criminal spree — bank robberies, burglaries, car thefts — we may make certain changes in how we act (get better locks, security systems, etc.) but we don’t seem to change our entire national psyche.

Sorry, but property crime has been treated differently from violence for quite some time here in the USA. But our miss-handling of terrorism is much closer to the War on Drugs and gangs. Much like having to take our shoes off at airports, now when you need a decongestant, many states require you to show a gov’t ID so they can keep track. Plenty of other parallels to be had if you look for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Terrorism" is a different category of crime

“When there’s a criminal spree — bank robberies, burglaries, car thefts — we may make certain changes in how we act”

These acts can’t be compared to “bank robberies, burglaries, car thefts” or even rape, which are crimes which have a easy to understand motive (money, sex). They’re instead more similar to things like serial killers, where anyone can be targeted without any apparent motive.

Andrew Norton (profile) says:

Re: "Terrorism" is a different category of crime

No, they have an easy-to-understand motive. So easy to understand, in fact, that it’s in the name.

Their motive is to make you be afraid. To either abandon your freedoms and liberties in a quixotic attempt to prevent these rare and selective acts from happening (what the western world has done for the last 15 years) or to give in so as to make them stop.

The other way to combat it is to not capitulate, and ignore it. To not give in to Terror, like Sarah turning to Jarrod and saying “you have no power over me”.

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