When rational terrorism meets irrational victims

­­­­­­Who knows how many car accidents there were today in Israel?

How about guessing how many people were subject to violent and random acts of violence in NYC yesterday?  And what if I told you that in the past weekend, 14 teenagers were killed from gun shots in Chicago?

Are you afraid? Do these events scare you?  Do they infuse anxiety into your daily lives? Did you avoid getting into a car lately due to the fear of being in a car accident?

Didn’t think so.

Here in Israel, in light of the recent stabbing attacks, more and more people are using taxis due to their fear of being stabbed.  Do you realize that in doing so these people actually increasing their risk of injury or death (the chances of being in a car accident in Israel today are dramatically higher of being stabbed).

This is irrational behaviour at its best and the core component the stabbers rely on for the success of their efforts.

Counter intuitive and crazy as it may initially sound — these stabbing terrorists are not the ones disrupting our lives — we are!  These attacks may be the guillotine, but we are the ones that willingly pull the string that brings the blade down on our necks.

Why, you ask?

For the terrorists, these attacks are not about the actual number of people they manage to kill or injure. They are about getting attention and bringing their issues back to center stage. They are equally about disrupting our daily routines and harming our quality of life. They are about making us afraid.

But because these attacks have very limited tactical success (very few people actually get hurt) and because they are too few to represent a rational statistical threat to most Israelis, the only way to infuse fear into our lives is to fool us into believing that we are actually in real, clear and present danger. But they can’t achieve this alone. They need a partner. Someone or something that can make these attacks seem more dangerous then they really are.

That’s where our local media outlets come in.

News about attacks

After all, when something’s on the news — it must be important.  And when it’s on the news ALL THE TIME and broadcasts with highly detailed, HD close ups of bodies, blood, weeping victims and shattered glass everywhere… it must really be important.  And dangerous.

When our leading news reporters, analysts and politicians relate to these stabbings as real threats to our national security and spend full days and full nights reporting them and discussing them — we, the people, will rightly be affected and rational fear will turn into irrational anxiety.

It’s the meaning that is attributed to these attacks and the massive amplification of their impact by our mass media and our social media practices that turns them into real terrorism.  Without this kind of media coverage, they would be nothing more than low impact acts of violence and with no nationwide impact – motivation to keep doing it would die out very quickly, without one shot being fired.

None of this means that we should not pay attention to these incidents at a national and political level and ask ourselves some tough questions. We must observe and acknowledge these as symptoms of deeper problems and act to resolves these deeper problems as quickly as we can, with commitment, morality, dedication and creativity.

But if we wish to truly rid ourselves of these types of terror attacks, we must embrace a different counter-terrorism strategy. One that focuses on the strategic impact these attacks are trying to have (causing anxiety) rather than just focusing on the tactical impact (preventing the attack or its ability to kill or injure people).

Our counter-terrorism strategy must be to refuse these terrorists the collaboration they have come to rely on from us.  We must stop this obsessive media coverage and emotionally charged commentary that is used by reporters and analysis and which creates a misleading framing of reality for the common viewer.  These attacks may be early indicators of much bigger problems and dangers — at a national level, but in and of themselves, they are not a real threat.

We must understand that we are in a “Paradox of Rationality”.

Contrary to what we think: we are not the rational player we like to believe we are, and the terrorists are not the irrational individuals we make them out to be.

These attackers are perfectly rational.  You may think them to be irrational fundamentalists.  you may think that anyone that is willing to sacrifice their lives in the attempt to take ours are clearly irrational beings.  But at the end of the day, their actions generate the exact results they aimed for and in a remarkably efficient way: creating attacks that require minimal cost and effort but that they know will generate maximum impact — because of how we will respond to them as a society.

We, the victims, are tragically and painfully irrational.  You may think that we are modern, educated, moderate and progressive and that all these make us rational.  But when you look at how we respond to objectively small, local incidents that manage to injure very few people (especially compared to other dangers in our lives) and which have little to no direct impact on our national security, you must conclude that we are severely irrational – and this is what makes these attacks so devastating.

Bottom line:  we don’t need more police coverage or lessons in how to treat a stab victim or how to disarm a person with a knife.  We need to stop scaring the crap out of ourselves in a way that turns these small and meaningless attackers into large and terrifying shadows that loom over every inch of our lives.

About the Author
Ariel Halevi co-founded Debate Company (now Vayomar) together with Gur Braslavi back in 2003. Ariel holds an MA in Homeland Security and Counter Terrorism and a BA in Government and Diplomacy from the Interdisciplinary College in Hetrzlia (Israel). Prior to his studies, Ariel founded and managed several Israel hi-tech companies. Ariel holds a Master’s degree in Government specializing in National Security Studies and Counter-Terrorism (at the school for International Students conducted in English). During his academic studies, Ariel was the President of the competitive Debate Club at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and was the Debate champion in Israel for two consecutive years and in Oxford, England.