Ten years on, and I remember it well. I was at the Melbourne University gym when it happened, I had just finished doing weights and as I came out of the weights room into the main foyer, there was a small crowd gathered around the TV screens. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center” someone said, anticipating my query. I watched the live report for a short while, and as I was about to leave (it was about 11 at night) the second plane crashed into the south tower.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I quickly rushed home and flicked on the news. It didn’t seem to matter which channel I chose, as everyone seemed to be reporting on the same thing. This was a big deal, that much was clear. Details slowly began to emerge – two planes, three planes, no four planes, another one crashed into the Pentagon. It was all too much. At that moment, I was very glad that I was in Australia, quite literally on the other side of the world, and that I was far away from it all.
So it’s been 10 years since that day and much has changed, but have the changes been for the better? On the 12th of September, French newspaper Le Monde ran the headline “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans). You would be hard-pressed to find a Frenchman agreeing with that sentiment now. The world seemed to change in some kind of profound way that day, it seemed to lose a bit of its innocence – of what innocence it had left.
It seems strange. Nearly 3000 people died that day, and that’s not a lot. Many more people die every day from hunger, disease, and civil conflict, so what’s the big deal? In our minds, this seems much worse, because it’s not just about the number, but the intent. All the other deaths seem less significant because they are the result of a system where people are, on some level, trying to do the right thing. Even people who die due to the criminal negligence of a dictator do so because, in some strange way, that dictator thinks what he is doing is “right”.
What makes the September 11 attacks significant is their intention – to terrorise. To paraphrase a quote from one of my favourite films, The Dark Knight – “some people just want to watch the world burn”. It is perhaps not quite so simple – the organisers of the attacks weren’t just destroying for destruction’s sake, they were trying to instil fear into a population, and in that aim they succeeded admirably. How do you deter someone who’s willing to die just to get to you? How do you disarm someone who uses ordinary commercial airplanes as weapons? How do you defend against fear?
Some ice hockey coaches say that the best form of defence is to attack. Sadly the principles of ice hockey don’t apply to international conflict situations, and here’s why: In ice hockey, both teams are evenly matched – they have the same equipment, the same number of players, and play by the same rules, and have the same criteria for victory – this is not true of terrorists. We on the one hand would like to stop them from killing innocent people, while they cry victory when we’re scared. So what is the best way to respond to terrorism? It certainly isn’t to attack and kill terrorists, as they seem not to mind death so much.
I suppose the only benefit that can possibly come from killing terrorists is that being dead makes it difficult to terrorize. The killing of Osama Bin Laden is certainly a blow to terrorism, but unless the root causes are addressed, the setback will only be temporary. Taking a few key players out of a hockey team might make them suck out loud for a while, but as long as players want to be good at hockey, the team will eventually come back. So what’s the key? How do we construct a world where people don’t want to be terrorists?
Think about it this way – if ice skating wasn’t fun, if manoeuvering a puck around with a stick wasn’t fun, and if scoring goals and winning games wasn’t fun, then nobody would want to play hockey. Luckily, the aim of terrorism is well-defined – to terrorise. Do something nasty like blowing up a bus, if people become scared and change their behaviour to reflect that, then you’ve won. Looking at it this way, the odds seem stacked in their favour. I mean, it’s not really very difficult to scare us, and here’s why:
Think of a lottery. I think people who buy lottery tickets are idiots because the chance of winning is so minuscule that your expected value (the probability of an event, multiplied by the value outcome of that event) is actually much, much, much lower than the value of your ticket. You may as well flush money down the toilet if you’re going to buy lottery tickets. But why do so many people buy lottery tickets? Because winning would be really great. We know this because it’s on TV, we see people winning lotteries and buying lots of cool stuff. Of course, if the TV actually showed us a representative sample of lottery participants, you would have maybe 10 years worth of shots of people saying “oh well, I didn’t win this time” for every minute of people saying “yes! I won the lottery”. But our minds don’t work like that anyway, we’ll only remember the exciting “winning” scenes and forget the rest.
Terrorism is like a reverse lottery. We see these two massive buildings collapse after airplanes fly into them, and all the chaos that ensues. We see photos of mangled buses. We see videos of people getting their heads sawn off. All pretty horrible stuff, and it scares us. But statistically, it shouldn’t. The probability of you succumbing to an act of terror is insignificant. You’re much more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident. But the images that stick in our heads are the high-impact, low-probability events… because that’s just how our minds work.1
So not being scared would quickly take the wind out of the sails of would-be terrorists, but for many reasons this is difficult to do. We can try, of course, but we’re never going to get around the fact that images of innocent people being killed in horrible ways is going to make us scared that something similar might happen to us. Not reporting it might be a possibility, but I am of the view that that would be irresponsible journalism. Reporting it in such a way as to diminish its impact would also seem to me to be poor journalism, even though it would be preferable to the sensationalization that does sometimes grip the news/entertainment media in the relentless battle for TV ratings.
What else motivates terrorists? What in the world goes through someone’s head when they strap explosives to themselves and willingly commit their lives to the act of instilling fear in others? I believe it is hopelessness. The kind of hopelessness that is fed by extreme poverty and hunger. The kind of hopelessness that grows in the mind, not only of those who are marginalised by a particular society, but by a whole world who seems indifferent to their humanity.
Ask yourself: why wouldn’t I be a suicide bomber? Well, I have things to look forward to. I’m going skating tomorrow night, and I don’t want to miss out on that. I’ve got a good education, and with it good career prospects. I’m surrounded by people who care about me, who would probably miss me if I became a suicide bomber. Someday I might want to have kids and watch them grow up, and being a suicide bomber kind of puts an end to all that. I can make a positive difference in people’s lives, and I feel like I owe it to these people to stick around and not deny them that.
My guess is that the average suicide bomber probably doesn’t think most of those thoughts. The average suicide bomber probably doesn’t come from a wealthy background, or live in a wealthy country. The average suicide bomber probably isn’t terribly well-educated either. My guess is that there needs to be a very high degree of desperation in a person’s life for them to want to end it as a suicide bomber. Of course, this is not to say that the above is true for all terrorists. The organizers and financiers, who are often wealthy and educated, are often also far less willing to strap a bomb to themselves, instead leading others to do it.
Before we start to point fingers at Islam, we should remember that there are something like 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, and the number of terrorists is far, far lower (think of those lottery tickets). Islam has simply been unfortunate enough to be the dominant religion in many of the places where terrorism germinates. Earlier in history, when abject poverty was far more evenly distributed around the world, Christians (during the crusades) also did very many very nasty things to non-christians, often quoting scripture as justification for it.
I’m sorry to say it, but the terrorists are winning. We’re scared of them. In many parts of the world, people are more concerned about terrorists than climate change (which, unlike a lottery ticket, will most definitely affect them). They say that they want to destroy western civilization, and we’re so scared that some of us have taken up arms. Some nut in Norway got so scared of Muslims that he went a killed a bunch of his own people. A handful of countries got so scared that they spent a great deal of money and human lives (many more than were lost when the twin towers fell) on invading two sovereign countries. These conflicts have exacerbated strains in international relations, and depleted the treasuries of countries who could really have used a bit more financial stability.
And for what?
A few heads on pikes. That’s all. The ill will that our war on terror has fed will fill the ranks of terrorist training camps for years to come. We would have been better off just taking three trillion dollars and distributing a thousand dollars to each of the poorest 3 billion people in the world. We would have lost a whole lot less lives, and founded a 3-billion-strong fan club of western civilization. Of course, I’m not a big fan of supply-side economics, or the kind of international aid that just gives people money, but it’s a sobering thought that so much money has been spent. Money that could have been spent a little more wisely.
So it’s been ten years since it happened. Those who perpetrated those cowardly acts are mostly dead now, which I suppose is a good thing. But the price has been great, too great. We’ve spent too much money, and lost too many lives. In doing so, we’ve also sown the seeds for more hate. We say that we’re fighting to preserve our way of life, but we should remember the values that our way of life is built upon. Our way of life isn’t just about shiny buildings, and public transport – it’s about ideas, and principles… those ideas and principles are invulnerable to bullets and bombs, or so we thought. If all it takes is a few collapsing buildings and exploding buses for us to abandon those principles, then the terrorists have already won.2
If we truly want to honour those who died in terrorist attacks, both on September 11 and elsewhere, then we should remember this. We must remember what it is that our way of life is built upon. We must not give in to fear. If the terrorists want to make martyrs of the cowards who perpetrate terrorist attacks then let us also give meaning to our own victims. Let their deaths not be in vain, but let their memory serve as a constant reminder that we are better than them. But to truly be better than them, then we must fight with our ideas, and not with our guns. That is how to honour the victims of 9/11
- Of course, there are changes in behaviour that aren’t nonsensical. Airport security increases make sense because they would lower the probability of these events happening. Not going outside out of fear of explosives in trash cans however, doesn’t change the probability of these events happening. ↩
- If we start violating our own laws just to get to terrorists (imprisonment without trial in a legal black hole named “Guantanamo Bay” is an example) then we’re no better than they are. ↩
I was under the impression that a lot of the evidence pointed to the terrorists being middle-upper class. If so, then the whole ‘they are willing to die because their lives are terrible’ line doesn’t explain their motives at all – and makes the underlying problem something else entirely.
yeah… you’re right. I’m confusing general civil conflict situations with international terrorism, where the people are much better-resourced.
I wonder if they will just go away if we ignore them.
Nice article on the emotionally-driven misconceptions of terrorism; definitely much more objective than anything that could make it into the mainstream media. I’d like to point out a few more emotional misconceptions you missed.
1. Dying in a car accident is certainly much more likely than dying to terrorists, but that chance is still minuscule compared to the chance of dying from the cumulative effects of an unhealthy lifestyle (see http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/cause.php ). I would also suggest that death from a lifestyle disease is much more painful than either the car accident or the suicide bomber.
2. You claim terrorists are cowardly. How do you substantiate this statement? In most countries, soldiers who give up their lives to carry out the orders of their superiors are awarded great recognition for bravery. As for their strategy, a civilian target, although morally questionable, makes perfect sense when you lack the resources for a full-scale attack and your goal is publicity-based. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call them brave, I just don’t see any justificable for a “cowardly” label. The reason I object is that this sort of thinking goes hand-in-hand with the “terrorists aren’t people” viewpoint, which leads to an “us against them” mentality, and ultimately, war.
3. You claim that the primary purpose of terrorism is to instil fear in a population. This is a gross oversimplification; fear is usually a factor, but typically a means to an end. For example, Al-Qaida’s primary goal is and always has been the reinstitution of the Caliphate in the Arab world. Their main quarrel with the US is that American influence in the Arab countries has pulled them further from Sharia law, and this influence is hard to shake because of the then-predominant view of the US as an overwhelming power. Thus, their likely goal in the September 11 attacks was to demonstrate American weakness to the Arab people, with any fear felt by Americans simply a side-effect. While most people would agree that this is not a reasonable course of action, it certainly makes sense, unlike “they just want to make us scared”.
1. very true. Dying from an unhealthy lifestyle however is largely the fault of the person living the unhealthy lifestyle. Dying from a terrorist attack is not the fault of the person who dies. I’m not sure what the statistics are on car crashes, but I’m pretty sure that the chances of you dying in a car crash and it NOT being your fault is still much higher than your chance of dying in a terrorist attack.
2. The situation of a soldier dying for their country and a terrorist dying in a suicide bombing are very different. The target is irrelevant to my use of the label. The reason I say they are cowardly is because they have no intention of facing the consequences of their actions. A soldier faces a potentially fatal situation but takes full responsibility for his actions regardless of whether he emerges alive or otherwise (and he would prefer to emerge alive). The terrorist faces a definitely-fatal situation knowing that he won’t be around to face the consequences of his actions. That is what makes the action cowardly.
3. You’re right, I am simplifying things greatly… probably too much. Crashing planes into buildings in a foreign country cannot directly contribute to the reinstitution of the Caliphate, so we examine how it does it indirectly. I believe that it only shows weakness if the result is a great deal of fear. If the twin towers crashed to the ground, and everyone just shrugged it off like it was nothing, the impression of demonstrating American weakness among Arab people would probably not be felt. A dog barks, and if its prey cowers, then it believes it can attack, because the fear shows weakness. But if its prey doesn’t react in a cowardly way, then it won’t attack because it doesn’t believe its prey is weak.
This is all just speculation of course (and I really should check the comments on my website more often, sorry for the late reply)
1. Good point about the not-your-own-fault.
2. I don’t agree with this. How is certain death cowardly while probable death is brave? Consider how the film 300 is a depiction of ultimate bravery (in the majority opinion of our culture, at least). Suicide bombers choose certain death attacks when probable death attacks reduce the probability of success unacceptably; the latter simply isn’t an option in most cases. Sometimes it is, and the terrorist has survived to face the consequences (I’m thinking of Timothy McVeigh). The organisers usually claim responsibility for the attacks, and certainly suffer whatever consequences follow. Finally, there’s the argument that many suicide bombers believe in consequences in the afterlife, and in any discussion of bravery, it is mindset rather than fact which is important.
3. I’m not sure your analogy works (a dog won’t bark at a bear for the purpose of intimidating another dog), but I guess you’re probably right on your main point.