The Starving Terrorist

Between January 1st and April 14th, 2013, world-wide terrorist incidents were credited with 1,930 deaths [1]. On April 15th, 2013, a series of terrorist attacks across Iraq left 75 people killed and 356 injured [1]. In the US on this same day, best estimates indicate more than 500 people were killed by medical malpractice [2], and 80 people died in auto accidents [3].

In other news, two brothers captured the attention of a nation with some pressure cookers and black powder at the Boston Marathon. Result: 3 dead, 264 injured [1].

As humans in the 21st century, we are numb to death in the abstract. We are unmoved by statistics, because we have to be. Mourning the loss of thousands every day is a task which we are not physically or mentally capable of, and so we learn to accept, or at least ignore it. To truly affect us, death has to touch someone we are connected to; family, friends, neighbors, co workers.

Terrorism in the 21st century, then, is more an act of morbid art than of wanton slaughter. An effective terrorist creates a story, one which touches the heart of his audience. Higher death counts work against the terrorist; the more people die, the less likely we are to empathise with the victims. Instead, he must create an overly-complicated plot, with arcane motives and arresting plot twists, ending in the death of a few characters we connect with the most.

This means that fighting terrorism is not accomplished by lowering death tolls or killing insurgents. Instead, the best way to kill off a terrorist is the same as with any artist; by paying no attention to his work.

For more thoughts on the motives and methods of terrorism, read “Terrorism is not about Terror” and “Terrorism is not Effective”, both by the semi-anonymous blogger ‘gwern’. Both essays make some interesting points about the apparent incompetence of terrorists. Also (somewhat) related to this topic is this fantastic infographic on death in the 20th century. I’ve touched on some serious topics here, and I’d love to get your opinion; just hit that reply button. Thanks for reading!