Reality Check

Whenever there is a major terrorist attack, psychology shifts from the assumption that terrorism is something that too much is made of, to the opposite end of the spectrum, the sense that another attack is likely at any moment. On the surface, this is visible in that every stray box is suddenly a potential bomb and there is a huge upsurge in reports on random items or random people who might be terrorists. Police cordon off areas as they must and search diligently and with caution, looking for explosives. That is not a fast process. They must assume that there is a bomb there and proceed accordingly. When there is speculation that there may be a bomb in a location, the media begins broadcasting the news that the search for an explosive is taking place, with pictures and tension escalating. Any frightened individual can trigger the event and there are many frightened people out there. Indeed, it is a sign of sanity to be afraid.

This is an important point about terrorism. In the wake of an attack, everyone is appalled and then terrified of where the next attack will be. Over time, the feeling of rational dread dissipates. It is difficult to maintain rational fear in the absence of horrendous events. Then people start making the case that not only is the fear irrational, but that it allows the terrorists to win. In other words, the argument is that fear is pathological. At its most extreme point the argument is made that the government is using the fear of terrorism to justify intrusions into our private life and that all the measures that were taken were not only unnecessary but intended to make the government more powerful. Further down the road, the argument is made that the government itself planned the terrorist attacks in order to impose a police state.

And then another terrorist attack occurs in a place that Europeans and Americans notice (Paris, not Beirut) and the cycle begins again.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said we had nothing to fear but fear itself. In the context in which he said that, during the Great Depression, there was a great deal of truth to it. Lack of confidence will destroy an economy. We had to get rid of fear. That same truth applied to terrorism is far less persuasive. Fear does not generate terrorisms. The political agenda of the terrorists drives terrorism. The politics sometimes has nothing to do with the target country, but everything to do with the arcane politics the terrorist is involved in at home. Anyone who is not frightened of terrorism is out of touch with reality. The inability to understand that the lack of terrorist attacks for years does not mean that one won’t happen near you tomorrow, is itself a kind of pathology, an amnesia in which the amnesiac looks down at the person who remembers well that terrorism can strike at any time even with the best security procedures in the world.

The issue is how to handle the fear. The first step is to understand it. Anyone who wants to carry out a terrorist attack and is indifferent to his life can do so. Any small group with some training can certainly do so. We cannot protect ourselves from the act. We must protect ourselves before the act takes place, by vigilance, which rarely works, or by preventing the attackers from attacking. That is a good idea but how do we prevent that. The beginning of all wisdom is not being dumb. So you begin with the obvious.

Historically, terrorism has been used by many groups. At this point in history, the overwhelming number of devastating attacks are carried out by Muslim extremists. There are very few Muslims who are willing to carry out such attacks either because they do not believe in terrorism, or they do not want to die. Nevertheless, there is a small number of Muslims who wish both. They do not look different from Muslims who don’t. Therefore, our goal is to keep Muslims who do want to commit terrorism far from us, while accepting other Muslims into our communities. This is a reasonable plan. However, given that we have no way of distinguishing between the two, we are caught on the horns of a dilemma. We cannot protect ourselves from Muslim terrorists without getting all Muslims away from us. But doing that is inherently unjust.

Justice is not a trivial matter. Patrick Henry said: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” To put this notion into this context, Henry is saying that justice involves risk. Punishing those who did nothing to deserve punishment, because we cannot know who is a terrorist, may provide life and safety but are purchased at the price of chains and slavery. And we can extend it make the case that intrusions into our privacy to protect our life and safety is the price we pay for something nobler than life. Our liberty.

And then we look at a child who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon terrorism and we say, surely our liberty can be restrained so that that may not happen. Surely it is not our fault that some Muslims commit terrorism and surely it is not unreasonable that our privacy be limited in some way, so that no other child can be mutilated. And the key to this dilemma is to understand that unless we take radical steps, another child will be disfigured if not this week or this year, then at some point. But you are not permitted to make this decision under the influence of amnesia. It did happen. It will happen. Something can be done. But that something is only attractive with the bile of an attack still in your throat. Over time the bile settles and you think you are getting wise. You aren’t.

The immediate response to Paris has been that Europe’s borders have returned, and the dream of the EU of a Europe without borders, is now in a coma if not yet dead. In the United States, the debate over the right to privacy and terrorism has raged for years, and victory is driven by how recent the terrorist attack was. Under these circumstances, caught between safety and liberty, between graciousness to refugees and a child without legs, no rational discussion can be held. And the Republic, and all the Republics, are being corroded continually by not finding a balance.

In the end, the answer would seem to lie in this. Bar all Muslims, and some will come in pretending to be Mexicans and terrorism will be harder but still doable. Arguing that terrorism is something we will have to learn to live with is outrageous. It is not something we can learn to live with.

The trick is to defeat the terrorists. To defeat the terrorist requires cunning, ruthlessness and the willingness to make other children suffer. It requires that we recognize a universal truth: that our children mean more to us than those of others. There is no war without the suffering of innocents. And no war that can be won without the annihilation and capitulation of the enemy. We know where ISIS is. We know they can be destroyed. We know we do not have the force to destroy them. We know we can raise the force to destroy them. Even that will not stop all terrorism. But the willingness to honor Machiavelli’s teachings about whether it is better to be loved or feared, and accept that fear is better not only because it is more permanent, but because they do not love us anyway—that teaching is the exit from our nightmare, a nightmare born of delicacy. How the war is to be waged is another question, but not nearly as mysterious as the choice between a child’s legs and the right of a Muslim to be secure in his own home, regardless of the horrors committed by a violent jihadist who he never met.

George Friedman

George Friedman is an internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures.

Dr. Friedman is also a New York Times bestselling author. His most recent book, THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond, published February 25, 2020 describes how “the United States periodically reaches a point of crisis in which it appears to be at war with itself, yet after an extended period it reinvents itself, in a form both faithful to its founding and radically different from what it had been.” The decade 2020-2030 is such a period which will bring dramatic upheaval and reshaping of American government, foreign policy, economics, and culture.

His most popular book, The Next 100 Years, is kept alive by the prescience of its predictions. Other best-selling books include Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, The Next Decade, America’s Secret War, The Future of War and The Intelligence Edge. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Dr. Friedman has briefed numerous military and government organizations in the United States and overseas and appears regularly as an expert on international affairs, foreign policy and intelligence in major media. For almost 20 years before resigning in May 2015, Dr. Friedman was CEO and then chairman of Stratfor, a company he founded in 1996. Friedman received his bachelor’s degree from the City College of the City University of New York and holds a doctorate in government from Cornell University.