Terrorism and Ordinary People

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Essays on Terrorism
Benjamin Kuipers, PhD, Professor, Computer Sciences, University of Texas at Austin The following three essays discuss the causes and cures for terrorism. They were written at particular points in time and include references to specific events, but the principles they describe are timeless, I believe. “How to Defeat Terrorism” was written in May 2004, at a time when the U.S. occupation of Iraq could see no light at either end of the tunnel. “Identifying Terrorists as a Diagnosis Problem” was written in December 2002 as a critique of the proposed “Total Information Awareness” program. It has been lightly edited to remove references to TIA, since many people have forgotten it. “The Seeds of War (a parable)” was written shortly after 9/11. In all three essays, I highlight tempting courses of action that not only won’t work but which would make things much worse. Do you remember learning to ride a two-wheeled bicycle? First you learn to steer, to turn the bike in the direction you want to go. Then, you learn what to do when the bike starts to lean over. Since you want to go back upright, there is an irresistible temptation to steer towards where you want to be. Do this, and you’re flat on the ground in an instant. The hard part about learning to ride a bike is learning to do just the opposite: to steer into the lean. Then, the bike picks itself right up and you can stay balanced. Your first instinct is exactly wrong. You have to learn to overcome that instinct and do the opposite in order to ride a bike. It’s much the same with fighting terrorism.

How to Defeat Terrorism
Terrorism is a tactic used by a small set of extremists to fight against an overwhelmingly powerful opponent while surrounded by a large population that mostly just wants peace and quiet. Terrorism can be defeated. To do this, first we need to understand how terrorists are kept away in the best case, then how terrorists can fight against this mechanism, and finally what works and what doesn’t work to foil those aims. The Thin Blue Line Although terrorists are not merely criminals, it is helpful to think about what keeps criminals under control in our society. Ask any police officer: it is not the police and the courts who keep criminals at bay. It is the society as a whole. It is the ordinary people who call the police when they hear a problem starting. It is the ordinary people who trust the police and cooperate with them to bring criminals to justice. The “thin blue line” only works when it is backed up by the vast majority of ordinary people. This, by the way, is why police brutality is so damaging to law and order in our society. If ordinary people lose trust in the police, they won’t call and they won’t cooperate. If they fear that calling the police to quiet down a loud party could result in their neighbors’ kids being shot dead, they won’t call. And they also won’t cooperate in more serious cases. Without community backup, the “thin blue line” starts to feel very thin indeed. And criminals become bolder. Law Enforcement Executive Forum • 2006 • 6(5) 189

Likewise with terrorists. Terrorists are defeated when the large majority of the community feels that they can trust the local authorities to maintain law and order and work for the common good. Then, ordinary people will turn the terrorists in to the authorities when, or even before, they strike. The Unabomber was an insane but highly intelligent man living alone in the woods, writing a manifesto, and killing and maiming people with mail bombs. After his manifesto was published, he was turned in to the FBI by his brother, who recognized the writing and made the correct but agonizing decision to be loyal to society over blood. We can only wish that a relative or neighbor of Timothy McVeigh had been in a position to make a similar decision before he struck in Oklahoma City. In even the best, most civilized, law-abiding society one can imagine, there will be small numbers of extremists...
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