May 24, 2013 by Bruce Wallace, 121Contact
"Intelligence (noun). The ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations." 
America is losing the “War on Terror.” In the aftermath of 9/11 we suffered from panicked, instinctive reactions that have driven errors in preparation, immediate response, long and short term planning, This led to policy decisions that make us more, not less, vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The distorted thinking and over-reactive responses also negatively impacted our justice system and collective sense of values.
The errors. Perhaps the most important strategic error was our declaring a “War on Terror,” with its implication of the possibility of a final victory. The war rhetoric guides our responses to violent actions that have unexpected results exactly because we are dealing with terrorist mindsets and not with classical, international conflicts.
The Drone war generates more terrorists than it kills because of the recruiting power of the perceived atrocities that the U.S. commits with its targeted killings and consequent deaths of innocent civilians. The insertion of American troops into Arab lands has become a powerful part of al Qaeda’s global narrative of terrorism. They refer these ‘occupations’ often in Inspire Magazine and other media, to justify martyrdom operations. The creation of Guantanamo Prison, the use of extraordinary rendition, torture and the creation of numerous ‘black sites’ are also used as recruitment inducements.
The Presidency has taken extraordinary powers unto itself making the Office of President judge, jury, and final word on assassinations of both citizens and non-citizens alike. There has been a strong backlash among local populations that serves to engender widespread and strong resentment against the U.S. This serves to radicalize people already suspicious of American motives. The radicalized are those most prone to take the next step: becoming radicalized to violence. (Moghaddam) Our policies are aiding the difficult emotional step of accepting, as honorable, the indiscriminate killing in the name of a ‘higher’ cause, i.e., becoming a terrorist.
At home we have taken drastic, and sometimes ludicrous, measures to ‘ensure safety.’ The Patriot Act has taken constitutional rights away from Americans. The Homeland Security airport procedures and random searches in subway stations have become expensive exercises that serve mainly to terrorize people who are going about their daily business. Media, Government, and Law Enforcement ‘experts’ have consistently framed the dangers as imminent when they are of relatively low risk. Little of their pronouncements are backed by science. Our overall response to 9/11 was and continues to be one of exaggeration and narrow-mindedness.
Why have we made Errors in Judgment? The sciences that study thought processes, especially those manifest under stress, are revealing distortions in logic that act beneath our usual awareness. These distortions cause errors in thinking and lead to inevitable errors in judgment. This logical chain is demonstrable in the laboratory and is predictable, mainly within the science of cognitive and social-cognitive studies. Psychological influences on our individual and group responses to fear and outside threats are measurable and help to explain our individual, national, and government reactions to 9/11.
Cognitive science teaches us that negativity bias causes us to pay attention to and give more weight to our fears of attack than is warranted by facts. It’s only natural, as is the effect of loss aversion. This fear of losing our lives moves the government and the population at large to accept huge costs to avoid what might be small chances of attacks. Threats generate changes in thought that are more conservative and more accepting of immediate violent solutions. (Cohen) International war becomes an acceptable, even welcome, response. Under stress we tend to replace logical thinking with black and white views, rigidity, and closed-mind perception. (Hudson)
These mechanisms facilitate the manipulation of popular perceptions. What the ‘experts’ say tends to be taken, by most people, at face value with little critical thought.
Primary Misunderstandings. Basic flaws in understanding the nature of terrorist organizations and their mindset lead to false conclusions about the best way to thwart their efforts. This interferes with our critical ability to “Pay attention to the impact of US action/policy on Terrorism’s thinking, beliefs, and goals.” One example was the persistence of “Black Sites”, at one time involving over 50 countries, which yielded little actionable data but functioned as a constant source of propaganda for terrorists. In each of those countries the local Islamists have ‘proof’ that the local government is a partner to the America’s anti-Muslim crusade.
Targeted killing has likewise been more advantageous to al Qaeda than to the “War on Terror.” The ‘top level terrorist operatives’ that are assassinated are quickly replaced and the effect on the terrorist groups is generally minimal and short-lived. The longer-term effects of our quick-response violence against terrorists is an area worthy of more study.
Bakker and Veldhuis delineate a number of misperceptions that skew decision making about strategy, tactics, and policy:
- Western fear is not commensurate with the numbers of actual incidents.
leads to overreaction which can lead to extreme policy decisions which can
generate the backlash of increased recruitment power to terrorists.
- Threat assessments become possibility-based, rather than statistically arrived at, vastly inflating the danger.
- Primarily due to the fact that “perceived collective fear of terrorism can contribute to elevating real fear of terrorism, irrespective of whether the perception of shared fear is accurate or not,” we find ourselves in panic mode when a thoughtful, measured response would be more appropriate. (Bakker, Veldhuis)
Simple finance also plays a role in exaggerating threats. The media know that sensationalism sells. They cash in whenever they get the opportunity to heighten our fears with graphic depictions of the latest terrorist attack. We also should not ignore the effect of corporate influence on Congressional approval of vast sums allocated to questionably effective anti-terrorist initiatives, equipment, and munitions.
Managing Perceptions as Part of Counterterrorism. The government, academia, science, and the media all have important roles in correcting the perceptions of terrorism and its impact, both real (historically) and potential for two main reasons. Distorted reasoning leads to:
1) The adoption of ineffective counterterrorism measures, and
2) An enormous waste of money.
If we exaggerate threats and perceive them as imminent when they are not, then we risk suffering the stress-amplified impairment of confirmation bias (assuming our worst fears are reality) which can lead us into restrictive modes of thought just when we need maximum flexibility and openness. Terrorists have proven to be highly adaptable, changing effectively as we try to limit their actions. We, on the other hand, have proven to be rigid in our thought and slow to adapt to rapidly changing tactics.
Those in leadership positions must learn to recognize when psychological pressures compromise intelligent thought. The general populace must also learn to realistically assess the world around them before they make decisions as to personal safety and who to vote for.
Science has shown us these mechanisms that interfere with rational decision making. We now have to disseminate that knowledge so that we can all be better at resisting the terrorist’s aim of inducing panic and irrational thought.
In the aftermath of a terrorist action it is important to manage fear. This requires preparation beforehand as well as coordinated activity as part of the response. Our natural tendency assume the worst (negativity bias), fundamental attribution error (painting terrorists as madmen), and media’s propensity for sensationalism all have to be mitigated to ensure intelligent decision making on the part of government, and intelligent response on the part of the public. Distortions that occur right after an attack tend to persist and further cloud perceptions and, therefore, policy making. Scientific risk assessment, clear information about preparedness, realistic assessment of the perpetrators, and robust communications networks can help ease the emotional effects of terrorism. (Breckenridge and Zimbardo)
Obstacles to Progress. There are many obstacles to thinking effectively about terrorism. Three are particularly harmful. The first because it irrationally affects who we elect as decision makers; the second and third because they have a pervasive effect on the population as a whole.
1) The power of self-interest: There is a tension between seeking the greater good and striving for our own well-being. Official seeking office may pander to fear by increasing the public’s anxiety,
2) Media may frame events in the most inflammatory way to increase circulation, and
3) The apathy of the populace may work to maintain the status quo. People have the power to alter the direction of political, educational, and communications discourse, but only if they are willing to work toward those ends.
The great power amassed at the head of political, media, and corporate entities presents a formidable wall that leads to frustration on the part of those seeking change, which leads to apathy in the face of hopelessness. These elements define a self-feeding, societally self-destructive set of mechanisms. But there is a way out.
Keys to success. The critical path to a future in which we can apply more intelligent handling of the terrorist threat lies within educational sphere. Institutions of learning have access to the thought processes of young people. While they are learning to apply intelligence to solving problems we can enlighten them as to the real-world factors that can influence the clarity of their thinking. Awareness of cognitive mechanisms that can interfere with logical thought should be part of the teaching curriculum at all levels, from pre-school through advanced studies. In this way we will arm our citizens with the tools required for an intelligent approach to the existence of terrorism in our world.
We also have to work to mitigate the current impairments to judgment by exposing the general public to the distortions that are guiding today’s policy decisions. This calls for more government transparency and requires cooperation of the media. Both are extremely difficult goals. Although there is some movement in this direction, more would be helpful.
President Obama’s May 24, 2013 speech contained acknowledgement of some of these problems and mostly vague promises to take steps in the right direction. Even if he can convince Congress to implement his proposals it will not be enough.
America can move to more efficacious actions, but only if we seek an unbiased truth. We must admit our errors, do the necessary research, and implement strategies and tactics based upon sound science.
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