The best way to fight terrorism is to ignore it

terrorismLast week, the global intelligence company Stratfor finished a series about terrorism. Their final article, “Keeping Terrorism in Perspective” is especially important for travelers. The entire series is fascinating and enlightening and I recommend it highly.

In a nutshell, the analysts at Stratfor say terrorism is not going to go away and can never be entirely defeated. No government, even the most authoritarian, can keep its people and property entirely safe. Also, public and official reaction can often be more harmful than the attack itself.

To take an example from history, at the turn of the last century in Barcelona there was a wave of anarchist bombings. While most of the bombs were small and did little damage, they caused a general panic. Sidewalk urinals became popular targets. It was a public place where a man could be alone for a few moments to plant a bomb. After several explosions in urinals, the city got rid of them. The anarchists moved on to other targets and the entire male population became burdened with a major inconvenience.

A modern example of how terrorism can have an effect far beyond its ability to do damage is the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid. After Reid failed to ignite his shoe bomb on a flight, airport security responded by forcing everyone to take off their shoes. The authors of “Superfreakonomics” did some interesting math on this, “Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. . .Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.”Terrorism is used by groups that are not powerful enough to attain their goals politically or militarily. While terrorist attacks can be deadly, they don’t pose a fatal threat to states or economies except by consent. Terrorists rely on public reaction to increase their effectiveness. Media hype, Internet rumors and finger-pointing politicians accusing their opponents of being “soft on terrorism” all act as, what Stratfor terms, “terror magnifiers.” As Stratfor says, “A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort.”

In a very real way, a panicky public becomes the terrorists’ ally. Stratfor points to the massive economic upheaval and paranoia after 9/11 as a bad public reaction that increased the terrorists’ success. Less successful were the London bombings of 2005, which saw Londoners back on public transport and going to work the next day. This minimized the economic damage the terrorists had hoped to achieve.

So, will ignoring terror attacks make the terrorists go away? Sadly no, but it will lessen the damage they do. Of course travelers should be cautious and practice situational awareness. Beyond that they shouldn’t change their behavior at all, since that plays into the terrorists’ hands.

To use a personal example, the recent terrorist attack on tourists in Ethiopia will not stop my plans to return there this year. With the increased security in Ethiopia in the wake of the attacks, Ethiopia is probably safer than when I was there in 2011, and to change my plans would only give the terrorists what they want — undercutting the nation’s tourist economy and dividing people with fear.

Terrorist attacks are like other types of violent crime in that they can happen anywhere. I’ll be careful when I’m in Ethiopia just like I was the last two times, but no more careful than I am anywhere else. I’m more nervous walking the streets of London on a Saturday night than traveling in Ethiopia. I’ve had my life threatened in London. That’s never happened in Ethiopia.

There are already experts taking active steps to fight terrorism. Western governments have foiled numerous plots and the Navy Seals tagged Bin Laden. You can help them by chilling out and enjoy your vacation. Doing otherwise only encourages our enemies.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.