I never lost much sleep over what happened to the people we hunted that were doing the types of things that made us hunt them. Chances are, if we came knocking at your door, you were strapping bombs to teenagers or murdering women and children in markets. If we found you, I always felt that you got what was coming to you. We didn’t violate the basic human rights of the people we were after. That was more about our dignity than theirs though. I’ve got no compassionate vein for terrorists. I’m a decade removed from the fight now and the only thing I regret about that work was the ones we couldn’t stop. And the people they hurt.
I learned a lot of lessons about the way the world works looking at it through that brutal lens though. The most important of which is just how far people are willing to go to gain power over others.
Terrorism is about power. You can try to make it about other things if you want to. You can try to make it about a religion or a people or a culture. And you can point to the origin of its perpetrators as cause for your case. If you do it long enough and loud enough, people will follow you. And then you’ll have some power too. Because our response to terrorism can also be about power. You can use it to fire up your political base through tough talk. Or you can do the same thing for the other side by signaling tolerance.
Here’s a hint. If your response to terrorism is anything other than behaving like your society is stronger than a handful of organized criminals, then there’s a good chance that you’re losing the fight against it.
Here’s a second hint. Stronger isn’t safer. Stronger is stronger. Stronger is knowing you’re not safe and that you’re never going to be safe and going ahead and doing what the world expects of its lead dog anyway. Because fuck those guys.
I can demystify a little of how the global terrorism game works. It’s not a complicated problem. It’s hard. But it’s not complicated. The second half of the 20th century was the safest time in the history mankind. What little violence there was, was focused in a narrow region, the Middle East and Northern Africa. The cause of that violence was generations in the making. It involved colonial rule, poorly drawn borders, western interest in oil and about a thousand other things. Over the last 25 years, violence has increased in those regions due in no small part to failed western intervention. And now, there is death and destruction the likes of which we haven’t seen in generations in far off lands no American will ever travel to.
In Iraq, half a million people have died from war related violence since 2003. In Syria, another half a million have died and 22 million more have been displaced. It’s the largest movement of people since World War II. A hundred thousand have died in Afghanistan. Another half million died in the Somali civil war. 120,000 died in the Lebanese civil war. 30,000 died in the Israeli wars over the last thirty years. All in, over the last fifteen years, more Muslims have been killed in violence in a region that’s smaller than America than there were Americans killed in all the combined U.S. wars in our 240-year history. Which means one thing. Life has gotten very cheap in that part of the world. And it’s remained very expensive in ours.
When you have that type of market inefficiency, it’s only a matter of time before someone goes in search of arbitrage. In the investment world, arbitrage is buying something in one market and selling it in another for a better price. In terrorism, it’s doing something in someone else’s back yard that no one would even notice in yours and getting the president of the United States to start a Twitter war with the Mayor of London because of it. It’s extremely effective. And it’s not going away as long as life is as cheap as it is in the places it is.
It’s how you can make power out of no power at all. Terrorism, after all, is a game of power.
It’s starting to feel like we’re losing that game. And that maybe it’s not really that close. We’re divided and fighting amongst ourselves. The free, democratic industrial nations of the world are turning on each other. We’re making NATO into a transactional relationship. We’re pulling out of mostly symbolic climate agreements to show how little we feel like we need to cooperate with anyone. We’re spending endless civic resources and public mind-space investigating our politicians with law enforcement because we’re electing people who can’t figure out how not to look and sound like they absolutely have to be investigated.
The present American state of mind is the goal of any global terrorist network. We don’t trust our government, our free press or our allies. We are isolated and turning inward. We’ve surrendered massive amounts of global influence, leverage and prestige in return for fear.
The truly ironic part is it’s not the terrorists that actually get to benefit from their victory. They can’t. They’re a bunch of crooks with homemade explosives, small arms and vans that won’t be around long enough to see how this one actually ends. But while we were fighting over exactly how to eliminate the non-threat of terrorism, North Korea was launching ballistic missiles into space and telling us they can carry nuclear warheads. And China, with several orders of magnitude more resources than us, has maintained double digit economic growth rates for three decades and is literally building territory further and further into the Pacific.
Someday, we’ll look back at the dangers that global radical Islamic terrorism brought us and wish like hell for the safety of our present times. Until then, I hope we can muster up a little of that stuff people used to think of as particularly American.