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.