9/11 and the Failure of Terrorism

On this day eighteen years ago, al-Qaeda carried out the most ambitious and deadly terrorist attack in history. The Islamist group hijacked four large commercial jets and crashed three of them into major U.S. targets: the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. (Courageous passengers stormed the cockpit of the fourth hijacked plane, blocking its planned strike but leading to a crash in rural Pennsylvania, with all aboard lost.) The two towers fell, the Pentagon was partly wrecked, almost 3,000 people died, and Americans were terrified. The attack’s immediate success probably surprised even its planners. So what did 9/11 achieve for al-Qaeda? Nothing. In fact, the attack led to disaster for the Islamist group. That’s because terrorism does not work.

9/11 Didn’t Work

9/11 attacks on NYC Continue reading “9/11 and the Failure of Terrorism”

Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak

A prominent Trump supporter recently offered a view that seems to represent much of the nation. “When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential TV host, “I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.” Few would doubt that Donald Trump is mean, but what makes Pastor Jeffress thinks he’s tough? What makes millions of Americans think Trump is tough when, in fact, his behavior suggests he’s unusually sensitive? What, for that matter, makes us think ISIS is tough — so much so that “looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS” becomes the top priority? The answer is that Americans have been fooled by bluster and the tactics of the weak.

President Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly and carry a big stick"
President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Bluster means loud, boastful, and threatening talk. It’s meant to give an impression of power. Terrorism plays a similar role, and in fact you might call it geopolitical bluster. It is devastating for its individual victims, but it has no military impact. So on a geopolitical scale, between nations, a terrorist attack is a loud, threatening statement. Continue reading “Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak”

Governments can’t stop terrorism any more than lions can stop flea-bites.

When a single man can kill eighty-four with a truck, it’s time to let go of the illusion that governments can keep us safe from political violence. Lone-wolf terrorist attacks have become part of modern life, and no one can change that. We should accept it and at the same time recognize that we Westerners still live far safer lives than any people in the history of the world. Instead of sacrificing civil rights in favor of persecuting suspected minorities — in a doomed attempt to stop lone wolf terrorists — we should focus on preventing the most devastating attacks, by denying terrorists access to nuclear power plants, airports, and weapons of mass destruction. Continue reading “Governments can’t stop terrorism any more than lions can stop flea-bites.”

Terrorists and Barbarians

Vive la France
Vive la France

In the wake of terrorist attacks like Friday’s mass killings in Paris, we often call our enemies “barbarians.” They are not. Barbarians like the Vikings, Huns, and Xiongnu lived on the fringes of civilization and preyed on their richer and more settled neighbors. But they did not hate their victims. If fact, they often admired them and adopted their ways. The barbarians were not intolerant. Nor were they even immoral by the standards of their times, since few pre-modern societies condemned violence against outsiders. Barbarian raiders were just opportunists; looting and pillaging offered their fastest route to wealth. Continue reading “Terrorists and Barbarians”

European Antisemitism Isn’t Back

Islamist attacks on Jews have triggered repeated warnings about the return of antisemitism to Europe. Benjamin Netanyahu recently capitalized on the concern by suggesting European Jews flee to Israel. One American commentator went so far as to invoke Hitler’s last will and testament, suggesting the Nazi dictator’s ideology has come back far faster than Hitler himself predicted. But do these terrorist attacks really return Europe’s Jews to the dangers of the Nazi era, or to the antisemitism of Europe’s last few centuries? No. Continue reading “European Antisemitism Isn’t Back”