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Myths of Terrorism

Seven Myths of Terrorism

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

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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.
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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.

Violent vs. Nonviolent Campaigns for Political Change

Figure 1. Success rate of campaigns for political change since the 1940s comparing violent and nonviolent methods reveals that violence is a failed strategy and nonviolence is the method of choice.22

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

Progress in Nonviolent Campaigns for Political Change

Figure 2. The percentage of successful campaigns for political change comparing violent and nonviolent methods.23

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

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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. END

  1. Quoted in: Perez-Rivas, Manuel. 2001. “Bush Vows to Rid the World of ‘Evil- Doers’.” CNN Washington Bureau. September 16.
  2. 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.
  3. Mueller, John and Mark G. Stewart. 2013. “Hapless, Disorganized, and Irrational.” Slate, April 22.
  4. Atran, Scott. April 22. “Black and White and Red All Over.” Foreign Policy, April 22.
  5. Scahill, Jeremy. 2013. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Sundance Selects.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The 9/11 Commission Report, 2004. xvi.
  8. Abrahms, Max. 2013. “Bottom of the Barrel.” Foreign Policy, April 24.
  9. Krueger, Alan B. 2007. What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 3.
  10. Bailey, Ronald. 2011. “How Scared of Terrorism Should You Be?Reason, September 6.
  11. Quoted in: Levi, Michael S. 2003. “Panic More Dangerous than WMD.” Chicago Tribune, May 26.
  12. Levi, Michael S. 2011. “Fear and the Nuclear Terror Threat.” USA Today, March 24, 9A.
  13. Levi, Michael S. 2009. On Nuclear Terrorism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 5.
  14. 2012. “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December. See also:
  15. Abrahms, Max. 2006. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work.” International Security, 31, 42–78.
  16. Abrahms, Max and Matthew S. Gottfried. 2014 “Does Terrorism Pay? An Empirical Analysis.” Terrorism and Political Violence.
  17. Cronin, Audrey. 2011. How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  18. 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.
  19. Stephan and Chenoweth, 2008.
  20. Chenoweth, Erica. 2013. “Nonviolent Resistance.” TEDx Boulder.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Graph rendered from data in Stephan and Chenoweth, 2008, op cit., Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011, op cit., and Chenoweth, 2013, op cit.
  23. Ibid.
Michael Shermer

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.

This article was published on June 14, 2016.


43 responses to “Myths of Terrorism”

  1. Drive Tone says:

    John Mueller’s “few of the culprits would be able to spell either [sharia or caliphate] seems to conflict with your Myth #4.

  2. gray man says:

    some things factually wrong.
    1. islam has used terrorism for 1400 years to conquer many civilizations … terrorism certainly works.
    2. some islamic countries have WMD.
    they most certainly would not be afraid to use them … they already have.

  3. Ted Black says:

    Two facts to consider when thinking about terrorism:

    1. Terrorism is a tactic, so it will never go away. We can now see this is an excuse for Forever War by the U.S.

    2. By definition the U.S. never commits an act of terrorism, no matter how many civilians are turned into bug-splat. I first noticed this in the Vietnam War, where anyone killed in a free-fire zone was by definition Vietcong.

  4. barry atkinson says:

    1. Especially from 1900, war is good business; profiteers, Wall Street. Anything that adds to GDP is good, right? So, look for it all to continue. Are there synthetic CDO’s yet so as to bet against peace?
    2. Christianity used to be horrible also, but has evolved beyond pogroms, witch hunts. Islam is just still horrible.
    3. The 90% who are good Muslims (peaceful) are immaterial. They do nothing to stop the 10’s of millions left who will bloodily remove an infidels head, maybe yours.
    4. Being humans, individuals matter to us. The smallest, most insignificant battle is a war is the the greatest in history if you are the one killed in it. To ‘statistically’ ‘prove’ that the numbers lost in terrorist attacks is not even a statistical bump borders on the asinine.
    5. Apples and fried chicken, the comparing and rationalizing of auto deaths and terrorist deaths. More die in air crashes, too. And hospital mistakes.
    6. Thinking of immigrating to the Elysian Fields, located somewhere, I hear, in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Libya, or Syria, or Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, or Mogadishu.
    7. Ugggh. Sorry for being politically incorrect. NOT.

  5. Ms. Carlsen says:

    Of course terrorists are organized. But there are several various organization, each with their own goal. All terrorists do not belong under one administrative umbrella.
    As to who becomes a terrorist, the focus here is on USA. Members of the Boko Haram probably have many among them who don’t care about ideologies. They get to wear uniforms, and shoot people, and steal stuff, and rape school girls. Much more fun than civil unrest, demonstrations, negotiations, slow political change – boring stuff. Had these persons lived in USA, they would probably have been members of criminal gangs. But they don’t live in USA. They live in Africa. So Boko Haram still hold hundreds if not thousands of girls and women captured. I wonder – would USA tolerate hundreds of their female citizens being kidnapped and used as slaves, for heavy work and rape? Neither the UN nor USA seem to find it necessary to do anything to help these girls and women. You see, there is no money in helping them, nor political profit. War against terror, indeed!

  6. Anthony says:

    Surely, re “myth” no 5, terrorism would indeed be a deadly problem if it were not for the continued massive counter-terrorism security measures that are undertaken continuously all over the world at enormous expense… e.g. in airport baggage checks, intelligence gathering etc.,

  7. BillG says:

    It’s a myth that terrorism does not work? Try telling the people of Orlando that. After the marathon, Boston almost came to halt before the threat was eliminated.
    Or how about the the hassle and HUGE expense on airport security??
    If it is a myth that terrorists are organized, I question the real political motive of these losers who perhaps just seek attention and the power of disruption.

  8. Alan Buckle says:

    After 9/11 bin Laden announced that he had won. From his point of view, the enormous (and continuing) security and other costs forcibly assumed by the USA after 9/11 were the definite demonstration of an unlimited victory. The 9/11 cost in human life was great, but over time, less significant than the indefinite and multitudinous costs to US citizens, and those of other countries.

    I had also read that he stated that the idea of 9/11 came to him as he watched American built jets piloted by Israelis firing rockets into high rise buildings in Beirut. If true or not I do not know.

    Perhaps if successive Administrations could have been allowed to be more even handed in managing US relations with Israel, matters may have taken a somewhat different turn. Perhaps we will never know.

    But is not the uncertainty surrounding Pakistan the most serious problem? There you can have state operated terrorism with real nuclear weapons………..

  9. Hugo Lindum says:

    There are several issues with this piece but I’ll concentrate on torrirists not being successful.

    The FLN in Algeria started as a terrorist organization and eventually threw the French out of Algeria.
    The terror attacks on the Spanish train system in March 2004 led to the withdrawal of the Spanish from the coalition in Iraq 5 weeks later.
    The IRA campaign wasn’t successful in uniting Ireland but it was certainly successful in getting Catholics an equal deal in Ulster and ultimately led to their leaders becoming the leaders of the N Ireland government.
    The Stern Gang (and others terror groups) certainly contributed to the establishment of the state of Israel, and their group went on to provide several Israeli political leaders.
    In more recent times, terror attacks on US and British troops ultimately led to the coalition cutting their losses and running from Afghanistan and Iraq.
    One could even argue that 9/11 was successful drawing the USA into ultimately futures wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The above is no doubt not an exclusive list. But what Michael fails to discuss is terror when used by the state – where it was very successful in many countries including the Nazis in Germany and Stalin in Russia.

  10. Traruh Synred says:

    Syria? Started out as peaceful, but regime responded with unprecedented brutality, resulting in terrorist (former Saddamites) hold territory.

    What a mess! With so-called Islamic State holding ground.

    Still not a real threat to us accept if we shoot ourselves in the foot by over reacting.

    The Brits had a 911 equivalent everyday during the Blitz and it did not take down the country. 911 was terrible, Orlando is terrible, but they’re not an existential threat unless we make ’em so ourselves.

    “I’ve seen the enemy and he is us.”

  11. Dr. Sidethink says:


    Does the Quran state that Islam is
    “God’s only true religion ??” or not?

    Does this imply that in the final washout, all other religions must be destroyed ??,

    Pease’s Fourth Law

    Any questions that shouldn’t t be asked, Must be asked.

    • Hugo Lindum says:

      “Does the Quran state that Islam is
      “God’s only true religion ??” or not?”

      Answer: Yes.

      • David Murphy says:

        So does the bible – all three ‘religions of the book’ hold that value

  12. Jill McClary says:

    It was wonderful to have such a concise and clear view of terrorism. I have lived and worked in Muslim countries and I defend them publically because I know the number of these terrorists is very very small given the vast populations of Muslim-dominated parts of the world. I also despair when the word “terrorism” is bandied about to apply to anyone doing something you rather they didn’t.

    I am particularly disgusted by Donald Trump. That young man who killed or wounded over 100 people was a VERY disturbed individual. I think in his loneliness and pain he found a place to belong and a creed to abide by. The U.S. can not deport these people because they are American by birth. My personal belief is, that while cutting down on the number of assault weapons is OK, it will mean littl

  13. ingrid edelmann says:

    Here is my response to this Shermer piece:

    1. It is an oversimplified approach to a highly complex and continually morphing challenge. Terrorism is not a static notion as Shermer presents in this quick-fix article. I am not surprised to find that a significant compendium/bibliography of work on terrorism is neither quoted nor referenced in this article: Schmid’s work at The Hague on Terrorism.

    2. Michael Shermer wants to paint a rosy picture on a very complex subject which has been treated with Shermer’s typical cherry picking style. He attempts to argue that the moral arch mathematics can be argued even in the midst of the chaos of terror. In the end if we just stop being scared and put on our rational thinking caps, we end up winning over terror. The problem here is that fear is a legitimate component and cannot be eliminated as simply as Shermer would like. The rational human is also an emotional human and has always been. It is the primordial condition from which we emerged. The fight-or-flight instinct is and has been our way out of danger. And, sadly, danger has been chasing us since we first emerged.

    This notion that there are myths that we can dispel about terrorism is a kind of self help nonsense of quick fixes that snake oil salesmen have been selling us for millenia.

  14. Paul Nowosielski says:

    Although everybody may have a valid point, the result of the terrorist acts creates Mass Hysteria. This element is further amplified by the news media and then the Politicos. Terrorism uses an extraordinary amount of public resources, and in the end does not change or stop the problem. I think Mr. Shermer is right on with the analysis even if we don’t like what the science says! Does anyone have a solution to the problem of terrorism? I think not. We can argue among ourselves, but no answers are coming out, only arguments on how we’re all not identifying what is going on here.
    At least Mr Shermer lays out plenty to think about!

    • Marc Schneider says:

      So, is your point that we can’t do anything about terrorism so don’t worry about it?

  15. Kent McManigal says:

    “Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare by non-state actors against innocent noncombatant civilians.”

    It’s disingenuous to exclude “state actors” from the definition (I realize this isn’t the fault of the author). Government is the largest terrorist organization on the planet, with many opposing branches.

  16. Harold L says:

    I have not read all the literature, but it seems relevant to contrast terrorism for a political goal with little popular support vs terrorism or a political goal with much popular support (and as part of a larger strategy).

    I think much of the terrorism of the 70s and 80s, as well as US white-national would count as the former, while “radical Islam” counts as the latter. Thomas Fischer pointed out the success of the ERA. One could argue that the PLO has been successful (it hasn’t been killed off), as well.

    This coupling with popular support is one reason why President Obama’s denial of the importance of naming “Radical Islam” as the “enemy” is a problem. The lack of a name leaves unaddressed the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations (?CAIR) that seek Sharia in the US or Muslim hegemony in general, but not through terrorism.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Since when is CAIR or even the Islamic Brotherhood seeking to impose Sharia in the United States? That’s a ridiculous notion.

  17. DanVignau says:

    This could use a chapter on what the US thinks it has accomplished in its war on terror in the Middle East: Cheaper Oil, Giving the terrorists an excuse to attack us, Using bombs to goad them to organize against us so that our military industrial complex can grow?

  18. SkeleTony says:

    @Bill Morgan,

    You misunderstand what Shermer is saying. He is not saying that YOUR opinion or my opinion of what is “evil” does not exist. He is saying that the Saturday morning cartoon villain styled terrorists who believe they are doing evil for evil’s sake, do not exist. Hitler thought he was saving his people from some evil threat. Osama Bin Laden thought the same thing. Almost none of these guys are trying to do evil as they see it. They are trying to do good, as they see it because in their minds (rightly or wrongly) they are fighting against an evil super power.

  19. skeptonomist says:

    Actually a protracted campaign of violence can eventually get results in convincing occupiers or oppressors that it is not worth the effort to continue the subjugation. It can become too expensive in comparison to the benefits of occupation. The breakup of the British Empire is a major example. Israel, Ireland and many other countries in Africa and Asia eventually gained independence. Of course if the occupying power is really ruthless or considers the territory of vital importance this may not succeed.

    The US spent vast amounts in invading Middle Eastern countries, and now spends vast amounts and is restricting civil liberties to try (futilely) to prevent terror attacks. There are two main rational reasons for this: 1) leaders get a boost from small successful wars; and 2) the US considers it necessary to “control” or a least have a major presence in the Middle East because of the need for oil. If the population were not so irrationally afraid of the quantitatively negligible attacks the expensive anti-terror measures could be reduced, but this would not change the perceived national interest because of oil in the Middle East. This may be a case in which the occupying power – the US – considers the territory or influence therein indispensable. If the occupation continues the terror attacks probably will also.

    Thus the dependence of the US on foreign oil (even indirectly) can be considered a major quasi-rational cause of terrorism.

  20. ACW says:

    I don’t have time to argue all my disagreements with this article. Particularly in the wake of Orlando. I will simply say, folks, don’t replace your copy of Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer with this. (How did he get through this entire essay without once acknowledging the existence of Hoffer’s book or any of its insights?)

    • MiddleClass says:

      Most won’t have to worry about their copy of Hoffer’s book because the readers of this magazine typically don’t read and certainly wouldn’t purchase such drivel.

  21. Jay says:

    Have you considered that a basis of some terrorism is holy-book (Christian and Islamic, which share the story of Lot, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, despite modern geological and volcanic explanations for such an event) injunctions against homosexuality which are simply outdated and therefore should be deleted, changed or re-interpreted to conform to current social practices? Here are a few links you might use:

    There are, of course, numerous hits one would obtain on an internet search for discussions about homosexuality and any religion or any civilization extant before or after, say, the year 1,000 C.E., to allow for the development of Islamic hadith.

    I find it interesting that while early Islamic injunctions claim that there were no earlier examples of homosexuality, the Greeks (but not them alone) were famous for the practice, notably among military elites. Is this just an example of Mohamed’s ignorance of earlier civilizations, or is it wilful Islamic ignoring for a theological purpose?

  22. Bill Morgan says:

    Islam is an EVIL religion. Some tenets of Sharia Law include:

    A thief is punished by having a hand cut off.
    Homosexuals are to be killed.
    Adulterers are to be stoned to death.
    A man may divorce his wife at any time.
    A man may have up to four wives.
    Anyone who leaves Islam is to be killed.
    Anyone who engages in Blasphemy of Islam or the Prophet is to be killed.
    If Infidels refuse to convert to Islam, they are to be killed.

    This is pure EVIL!

    • Marvin Doolin says:

      A problem with your point is that most, if not all of your examples could be supported by the Bible. Too many who condemn Islam as evil fail to recognize that Christianity has been, and in some cases is still as backward. Too often the loudest outcry against Sharia Law comes from those who would impose their own religious law if they could, and they seem entirely oblivious to the paradox.

      • Dr. Sidethink says:

        it seems that you are suggesting that because something is supported by the Bible,, that makes it bullshit.

        or is this a mock sillyjism for Logic 101 students ??

        Sick Transit

        Dr. S

        • Freegarry says:

          Dr. S. That’s not at all what he said. He was simply making the point that each ot those “horrible” traits of Islam which are supported by the Koran, are also found to be tennets held by Bilbe believing Christians and supported by the Bible–and yes–those things are bullshit!

      • Mike says:

        The crucial difference being that many Muslims seem to still take those tenets seriously, and act on them, while few if any Christians do.

  23. Terry says:

    The terrorists also win when they cause us to change our lives and abandon our principles. The Patrior act, the DHS, not speaking out against islamism (see Flemming Rose: A Tyranny of Silence), INS checkpoints 100 mi from the border, drone strikes killing Americans, Guantanamo, Libya gun running, are but a few ways we’ve over reacted. And the mass migration of Muslims into Europe is a non violent invasion currently beyond the magic 3.5% – that is effective at spreading fear and distrust and changing the culture.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      @Terry agreed.

      In fact, the terrorists achieved a huge success when they provoked America to over-react and become ‘the bad guys’ in many people’s eyes. Polls show that many think America is the biggest threat to global peace, not terrorists.

      If the terrorists goal was to weaken America’s influence around the globe they accomplished it very well.

      BTW: Where is the boundary between targeting civilians and ‘collateral damage’? Is there a significant moral difference wanting to kill someone and not caring about killing others aside from the target?

    • Pete says:

      Good point, Terry. When we abandon parts of our Bill of Rights in exchange for safety and security, terrorism wins.

  24. Brian says:

    This article comes up pretty short in answering its opening question, doesn’t it – why do people fear terrorism? You can present them all these statistics, but that won’t change a thing for most people, will it? And there are valid reasons. The biggest one being that acts of terror are generally out of our control as far as personally guarding ourselves against them. We can personally take all kinds of steps to avoid 99% of the homicides that take place, but we generally can’t do that with terrorists, aside from never going outside our home. This is because they strike randomly and unexpectedly in ways that are difficult to predict and thus avoid. When you break down the numbers, most homicides are much more predictable and thus avoidable. The article also doesn’t really address how debunking these myths will cause terrorism to lessen. Do terrorists really care whether or not people believe these things? No – they just want to kill, for whatever twisted reasoning they have. Which, in the end, should be feared. So what’s the point of this article?

  25. Richard Gordon says:

    To summarize:
    1. Blame the victim, not the terrorists.
    2. Terrorists are nice guys, in it for the sport.
    3. Terrorists are stupid.
    4. Terrorists are smart.
    5. Terrorists don’t kill enough people (yet).
    6. All nations states wanting or having nuclear bombs are not terrorists.
    7. Terrorism will decline if we do nothing about it.
    I’m skeptical. There is risk and dread risk. The latter is often characterized by a small probability of a major catastrophe. Cumulative ordinary risk indeed often exceeds the results of dread risks. An example: traffic deaths in California run about 2500 per year. Cumulative deaths from earthquakes in California since 1811: 3475. Why worry about earthquakes? I’d guess, living in California, you don’t?

    • Dr. Sidethink says:

      sic dixit Snortimer Merde
      the world’s leader of clear and accurate reading skills.

    • Bad Boy Scientist says:

      @Richard It is easy to dispel anything if you first mischaracterize it. We call this tactic: shooting strawmen.

      I thought it as pretty clear what Dr Schermer was discussing. That said, I, too, wonder if some of those ‘myths’ were truly debunked. (Really, poverty has little to do with it?)

      I appreciate the fact that Dr Schermer wrote a column on a topic which is relevant to us today and one which is surrounded by many misconceptions. I do wish he hadn’t written it as a ‘debunking’ of ‘myths’ about terrorism. I think it would have been more powerful if he’d presented it as an explanation of how terrorism isn’t so simple and thus we need to take a more sophisticated approach to it.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I agree. Shermer seemingly thinks we need not worry about terrorism simply because it doesn’t fall neatly into the “terrorists are evil” category and “it doesn’t work.” The whole point of terrorism is to attack stronger countries asymmetrically-you don’t need to wipe out the entire population for it to be a problem. Of course, people are fearful of terrorism even if the chances of any given person being the victim of terrorism is small. What were the odds that those people running in the Boston Marathon would die in a terrorist attack.

        The whole idea that “terrorists are not evil” obviously depends on your definition of evil. If the notion is that they are not all psychopathic, nihilistic killers, that is probably true but it doesn’t mean their acts aren’t evil. No doubt there are political motivations for most acts of terror, but, in many cases, the motivations are so extreme that no reasonable policy could be designed to meet those demands. ISIS, for example, wants to create a Islamic caliphate with, apparently, no Western influence in the areas they consider to be historically-or even not historically-Islamic. You can’t reasonably say that, even if Western policy is a motivator, that we can simply eliminate terrorism by changing the policy when the demands are so maximalist.

        I certainly agree that there is a lot of hysteria around terrorism and that we need to think more clearly about it. But, Shermer seems to imply that it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal, in part because it is so random. And saying that non-violent methods of political change work better than violent methods is probably true but sort of irrelevant to those who practice terrorism because they don’t believe that. And, while it is true that deaths from terrorism is a small segment of the total number of homicides, that misses the point. Most homicides are directed at someone. The entire point of modern terrorism is that it is directed at basically anyone.

        I suspect that the extreme forms of terrorism, such as ISIS practices, will eventually subside as it has in the past. It certainly isn’t existential to western civilization. But, trying to pretend it is not a significant problem shows a rather odd emotional disconnect from the real world.

        Having said this, I do find the media-driven wallowing in grief and mourning after every attack to be somewhat counterproductive. That seems to me to be what the terrorists want, to know that they have driven a stake through our collective hearts.

  26. Miguel says:

    While I agree with most of the article, I think it has some major flaws and very weak reasoning. First, it is way too US-centric, the vast majority of examples provided refer to Islamic terrorism directed against the US, and all the figures to “prove” that terrorism is not a deadly problem refer only to attacks on the US. Sadly, many other countries suffer terrorism that works differently and that is probably much more deadly. Americans are not the only ones in this planet!
    Then, some of the myths are pretendedly dispelled just because someone says so. For example, in myth #4 (that terrorists are poor and uneducated) the article just mentions the opinion of Kruger and takes it as gospel. Even the quote that closes the paragraph, which mentions apparent consensus on this by most experts, is taken from a book by Kruger. Not very convincing.
    Finally, there is a blatant contradiction regarding myth #2 (that terrorists are organized). In the very same paragraph that attempts to prove (and once again, just by quoting the opinion of one single expert) that terrorism is not organized, it says “…ofte organized through social groups and sports organizations…”. Well, how do you organize something that is not organized???. It gets worse a few lines below; when trying to dispel the myth that terrorists are diabolical geniuses it says “…after decapitating the leaderships of the top terrorists organizations…”. OK, so they are not organized but they form organizations??? How’s that possible???
    Actually, this myth#2 is probably the one in which I more strongly disagree with the author, who conveniently avoids mentioning infamous terrorist groups that were highly organized, such as IRA or ETA. Not sure if this is done on purpose or if it is just ignorance derived from the American navel-gazing that permeates the whole piece…

  27. Thomas Fischer says:

    Dear Michael,
    interesting as always and I agree mostly.
    I am not quite clear: who is a terrorist? While indiscriminate attacks on civilians can always be considered terrorism, is the same true for attacks on representatives of occupying forces? Where is the demarcation line between terrorism and the right to resist oppression (apart from the interesting statistics on the relative success of different strategies).
    Where the partisans fighting occupation in WWII terrorists? The occupants said so.
    Or the IRA? Was the peace process in Northern Ireland the result of the “fight” of the IRA or the political negotiations? It seems very hard to disentangle.
    Is the West Bank occupied by Israel, and if so, are the inhabitants allowed to fight the occupation and with what means?
    Quite apart form this, it seems obvious that “we would be far better off investing our limited resources in diffusing the problem of terrorism by other methods.” But would investing in fighting the 13,700 homicides at home (does this figure include accidents with weapons like toddlers shooting their parents?) not even be more pressing? Not to mention racism and hate as exposed so tragically last Sunday. Here again attaching the label of “terrorism” seems fundamentally misleading.
    All the best

  28. Simon says:

    A couple of points.
    Terrorists ability to attack with chemical weapons is also very limited. Aum Shinrikyo carried out the Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. They had billions of dollars, proper scientists and engineers and they still only managed to kill a handful of people.

    Fear of flying killed more people who switched to the roads than died in the twin towers. The only thing we have to fear….

  29. John Wetherall says:

    Much needed article, thanks Michael. superbly written.

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