In The Moral Arc I document a number of areas of moral progress, including the abolition of slavery and torture, the invention of rights, the expansion of civil liberties, the granting of the vote to blacks and women, gay rights and same-sex marriage, animal rights, the spread of liberal democracies and market economies, the decline of homicides, genocides, and even the percentage of populations who die in wars and revolutions. Whenever I recount this litany of good news for people, however, they inevitably ask “what about terrorism?” After all, a news cycle doesn’t go by without a report of a suicide bombing or terrorist attack of some sort. Isn’t terrorism an example of moral regress?
Actually, the long-term trends even for terrorism are in the right direction. Compared to other forms of violence such as homicides and genocides, which themselves are on the decline, deaths and injuries from terrorism are statistical noise. More important, in terms of making political change, violent terrorism is a failed strategy that is on its way out. Why, then, do so many of us fear it?
Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare by non-state actors against innocent noncombatant civilians. As its name suggests, it attempts to gain power by evoking terror. This tactic raises our alarmist emotions, which in turn confounds our reasoning, making clear thinking about terrorism well nigh impossible. I suggest that there are at least seven myths that have arisen that need to be debunked to properly understand the causes of terrorism and to continue to reduce its frequency and effectiveness.
Myth # 1: Terrorists are pure evil.
This first myth took root in September, 2001 when President George W. Bush announced “We will rid the world of the evildoers” because they hate us for “our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”1 This sentiment embodies what the social psychologist Roy Baumeister calls “the myth of pure evil,” which holds that perpetrators of violence act only to commit senseless injury and pointless death for no rational reason. The “terrorists-as-evil-doers” myth is busted through the scientific study of violence, of which at least four types motivate terrorists: instrumental, dominance/honor, revenge, and ideology.2
In a study of 52 cases of Islamic extremists who have targeted the U.S., for instance, the political scientist John Mueller concluded that terrorist motives include instrumental violence and revenge: “a simmering, and more commonly boiling, outrage at U.S. foreign policy—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, and the country’s support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict.” Ideology in the form of religion “was a part of the consideration for most,” Mueller suggests, “but not because they wished to spread Sharia law or to establish caliphates (few of the culprits would be able to spell either word). Rather they wanted to protect their co-religionists against what was commonly seen to be a concentrated war upon them in the Middle East by the U.S. government.”3
As for dominance and honor as drivers of violence, through his extensive ethnography of terrorists cells the anthropologist Scott Atran has demonstrated that suicide bombers (and their families) are showered with status and honor in this life (and, secondarily, the promise of virgins in the next life), and that most “belong to loose, homegrown networks of family and friends who die not just for a cause, but for each other.” Most terrorists are in their late teens or early 20s, especially students and immigrants “who are especially prone to movements that promise a meaningful cause, camaraderie, adventure, and glory.”4 All of these motives are on display in the 2013 documentary film by Jeremy Scahill called Dirty Wars, a sobering look at the effects of U.S. drone attacks and assassinations in foreign countries such as Somalia and Yemen—nations with which the U.S. is not at war—in which we see citizens swearing revenge against Americans for these violations of their honor and ideology.5
Myth # 2: Terrorists are organized.
This myth depicts terrorists as part of a vast global network of top-down, centrally-controlled conspiracies against the West. But as Atran shows, terrorism is “a decentralized, self-organizing, and constantly evolving complex of social networks,” often organized through social groups and sports organizations, such as soccer clubs.6
Myth # 3: Terrorists are diabolical geniuses.
This myth began with the 9/11 Commission report that described the terrorists as “sophisticated, patient, disciplined, and lethal.”7 But according to the political scientist Max Abrahms, after the decapitation of the leadership of the top terrorist organizations, “terrorists targeting the American homeland have been neither sophisticated nor masterminds, but incompetent fools.”8 Examples abound: The 2001 airplane shoe bomber Richard Reid was unable to ignite the fuse because it was wet from the rain and his own foot perspiration; the 2009 underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab succeeded only in setting his pants ablaze, burning his hands, inner thighs, and genitals, and getting himself arrested; the 2010 Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad managed merely to torch the inside of his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder; the 2012 model airplane bomber Rezwan Ferdaus purchased C-4 explosives for his rig from FBI agents who promptly arrested him; and the 2013 Boston marathon bombers were equipped with only one gun for defense and had no money and no exit strategy beyond hijacking a car with almost no gas in it that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev used to run over his brother Tamerlan, followed by a failed suicide attempt inside a land-based boat. Evidently terrorism is a race to the bottom.
Myth # 4: Terrorists are poor and uneducated.
This myth appeals to many in the West who like to think that if we throw enough money at a problem it will go away, or if only everyone went to college they’d be like us. The economist Alan Krueger, in his book What Makes a Terrorist, writes: “Instead of being drawn from the ranks of the poor, numerous academic and government studies find that terrorists tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families. Among those who have seriously and impartially studied the issue, there is not much question that poverty has little to do with terrorism.”9
Myth # 5: Terrorism is a deadly problem.
In comparison to homicides in America, deaths from terrorism are statistical noise, barely a blip on a graph compared to the 13,700 homicides a year. By comparison, after the 3,000 deaths on 9/11, the total number of people killed by terrorists in the 38 years before totals 340, and the number killed after 9/11 and including the Boston bombing is 33, and that includes the 13 soldiers killed in the Fort Hood massacre by Nidal Hasan in 2009.10 That’s a total of 373 killed, or 7.8 per year. Even if we include the 3,000 people who perished on 9/11, that brings the average annual total to 70.3, compared to that of the annual homicide rate of 13,700. No comparison.
Myth # 6: Terrorists will obtain and use a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb.
Osama bin Laden said he wanted to use such weapons if he could get them, and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge pressed the point in calling for more support for his agency: “Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted.”11 But as Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us, “Politicians love to scare the wits out of people, and nothing suits that purpose better than talking about nuclear terrorism. From the Bush administration’s warning in 2002 that the ‘smoking gun’ might be a mushroom cloud, to John Kerry in 2004 conjuring ‘shadowy figures’ with a ‘finger on the nuclear button’ and Mitt Romney invoking the spectre of ‘radical nuclear jihad’ last spring, the pattern is impossible to miss.”12
But most experts agree that acquiring the necessary materials and knowledge for building either weapon is far beyond the reach of most (if not all) terrorists. In his book On Nuclear Terrorism, Levi invokes what he calls “Murphy’s Law of Nuclear Terrorism: What can go wrong might go wrong,” and recounts numerous failed terrorist attacks due to sheer incompetence on the part of the terrorists to build and detonate even the simplest of chemical weapons.13 In this context it is important to note that no dirty bomb has ever been successfully deployed resulting in casualties by anyone anywhere, and that according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—which tracks fissile materials— “most reports of lost or stolen material involve small or short-lived radioactive sources that are not useful for an RDD [radiological disbursal device, or dirty bomb]. Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling an RDD. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all unrecovered sources over the past 5 years would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source.”14 In short, the chances of terrorists successfully building and launching a nuclear device of any sort is so low that we would be far better off investing our limited resources in diffusing the problem of terrorism by other methods.
Myth # 7: Terrorism works.
In a study of 42 foreign terrorist organizations active for several decades, Max Abrahms concluded that only two achieved their stated goals—Hezbollah achieved control over southern Lebanon in 1984 and 2000, and the Tamil Tigers took over parts of Sri Lanka in 1990, which they then lost in 2009. That results in a success rate of less than five percent.15 In a subsequent study, Abrahms and his colleague Matthew Gottfried found that when terrorists kill civilians or take captives it significantly lowers the likelihood of bargaining success with states, because violence begets violence and public sentiments turn against the perpetrators of violence. Further, they found that when terrorists did get what they want it was more likely to be money or the release of political prisoners, not political objectives. They also found that liberal democracies are more resilient to terrorism, despite the perception that because of their commitment to civil liberties democracies tend to shy away from harsh countermeasures against terrorists.16 Finally, in terms of the overall effectiveness of terrorism as a means to an end, in an analysis of 457 terrorist campaigns since 1968 the political scientist Audrey Cronin found that not one terrorism group had conquered a state and that a full 94 percent had failed to gain even one of their strategic political goals. And the number of terrorist groups who accomplished all of their objectives? Zero. Cronin’s book is entitled How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. It ends swiftly (groups survive only 5–9 years on average) and badly (the death of its leaders).17
In fact, like the many other forms of moral progress tracked in The Moral Arc, nonviolent forms of political change have now overtaken violent forms. The political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have documented this change. They entered all forms of both nonviolent and violent revolutions and reforms since 1900 into a database and crunched the numbers.18 Results: “From 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns worldwide were twice as likely to succeed outright as violent insurgencies.” Chenoweth added that “this trend has been increasing over time—in the last 50 years civil resistance has become increasingly frequent and effective, whereas violent insurgencies have become increasingly rare and unsuccessful. This is true even in extremely repressive, authoritarian conditions where we might expect nonviolent resistance to fail.” Why does nonviolence trump violence in the long run as a means to an end? “People power,” Chenoweth says. How many people? According to her data, “no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population— and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.” Further, she notes, “Every single campaign that did surpass that 3.5 percent threshold was a nonviolent one. In fact, campaigns that relied solely on nonviolent methods were on average four times larger than the average violent campaign. And they were often much more representative in terms of gender, age, race, political party, class, and urbanrural distinctions.”19
How does this nonviolent strategy translate into political change? If your movement is based on violence, you are necessarily going to be limiting yourself to mostly young, strong, violence-prone males who have a propensity for boozing and brawling, whereas, Chenoweth explains, “Civil resistance allows people of all different levels of physical ability to participate—including the elderly, people with disabilities, women, children, and virtually anyone else who wants to.” It’s a faster track to the magic 3.5 percent number when you’re more inclusive and participation barriers are low. Plus, you don’t need expensive guns and weapons systems. Civil disobedience often takes the form of strikes, boycotts, stay-at-home demonstrations, banging on pots and pans and other noise generators, and—like a scene out of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still—shutting off the electricity at a designated time of the day. A diffuse group of isolated individuals scattered about a city employing such measures is difficult for oppressive regimes to stop. Plus, by including the mainstream instead of the marginalized in your movement, your shock troops are more likely to know people on the other side. In the case of Serbia and its dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Chenoweth notes that “once it became clear that hundreds of thousands of Serbs were descending on Belgrade to demand that Milosevic leave office, policemen ignored the order to shoot demonstrators. When asked why he did so, one of them said: ‘I knew my kids were in the crowd.’”20
There is one more benefit to nonviolent resistance: what you’re left with afterward. Nonviolent campaigns of change are far more likely to result in democratic institutions than are violent insurgencies, and they are 15 percent less likely to relapse into civil war. “The data are clear,” Chenoweth concludes: “When people rely on civil resistance, their size grows. And when large numbers of people withdraw their cooperation from an oppressive system, the odds are ever in their favor.”21 Figure 1 and Figure 2 show these remarkable trends.
We must be vigilant always, of course, but the data lead to the unavoidable conclusion that in the course of history terrorism fails utterly to achieve its goals or divert civilization from its path toward greater justice and freedom, unless we fall victim to fear itself.
- Quoted in: Perez-Rivas, Manuel. 2001. “Bush Vows to Rid the World of ‘Evil- Doers’.” CNN Washington Bureau. September 16.
- This taxonomy of violence types comes from: Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking, 508-509. Pinker notes that there are many taxonomies of violence, citing, for example, the four-part scheme in Baumeister, Roy. 1997. Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. New York: Henry Holt.
- Mueller, John and Mark G. Stewart. 2013. “Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational.” Slate, April 22.
- Atran, Scott. April 22. “Black and White and Red All Over.” Foreign Policy, April 22.
- Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Sundance Selects.
- The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004. xvi.
- Abrahms, Max. 2013. “Bottom of the Barrel.” Foreign Policy, April 24.
- Krueger, Alan B. 2007. What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 3.
- Bailey, Ronald. 2011. “How Scared of Terrorism Should You Be?” Reason, September 6.
- Quoted in: Levi, Michael S. 2003. “Panic More Dangerous than WMD.” Chicago Tribune, May 26.
- Levi, Michael S. 2011. “Fear and the Nuclear Terror Threat.” USA Today, March 24, 9A.
- Levi, Michael S. 2009. On Nuclear Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 5.
- 2012. “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December. See also: http://www.almanac.org/world/archive/dirty_bombs.shtml
- Abrahms, Max. 2006. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” International Security, 31, 42–78.
- Abrahms, Max and Matthew S. Gottfried. 2014 “Does Terrorism Pay? An Empirical Analysis.” Terrorism and Political Violence.
- Cronin, Audrey. 2011. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Stephan, Maria J. and Erica Chenoweth. 2008. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 1, 7-44. See also: Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press.
- Stephan and Chenoweth, 2008.
- Chenoweth, Erica. 2013. “Nonviolent Resistance.” TEDx Boulder.
- Graph rendered from data in Stephan and Chenoweth, 2008, op cit., Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011, op cit., and Chenoweth, 2013, op cit.
Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. His book The Moral Arc is now out in paperback. Follow him on Twitter @michaelshermer.