1: “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the old adage regarding newspaper headlines.

And, it’s more true than ever today.

Yesterday, we looked at the data regarding deaths due to terrorism.

“Though terrorism poses a minuscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do,” Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

2: “Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast reach of the media,” he notes.  “A group or an individual seeks a slice of the world’s attention by the one guaranteed means of attracting it: killing innocent people, especially in circumstances in which readers of the news can imagine themselves.

“News media gobble the bait and give the atrocities saturation coverage.”

Our brains are wired first to watch out for danger.  Which is one of the primary reasons human beings have survived and thrived, and that there are now 8 billion of us on the planet.

“Something is uniquely unsettling about the thought of a human being who wants to kill us,” Steven writes, “and for a good evolutionary reason.  Accidental causes of death don’t try to do us in, and they don’t care how we react, whereas human malefactors deploy their intelligence to outsmart us, and vice versa.”

Publicity is the primary goal for many terrorists.  Research done by legal scholar Adam Lankford who has examined the motives of the overlapping categories of suicide terrorists, rampage shooters, and hate crime killers shows: “The killers tend to be loners and losers, many with untreated mental illness, who are consumed with resentment and fantasize about revenge and recognition.  Some fused their bitterness with Islamist ideology, others with a nebulous cause such as ‘starting a race war’ or ‘a revolution against the federal government, taxes, and anti-gun laws.'”

Steven writes: “Killing a lot of people offered them the chance to be a somebody, even if only in the anticipation, and going out in a blaze of glory meant that they didn’t have to deal with the irksome aftermath of being a mass murderer.” 

Other terrorists have specific political goals.  They “belong to militant groups that seek to call attention to their cause, to extort a government to change its policies, to provoke it into an extreme response that might recruit new sympathizers or create a zone of chaos for them to exploit, or to undermine the government by spreading the impression that it cannot protect its own citizens.”

The only problem with their approach?  It doesn’t work.

Terrorists’ “small-scale violence almost never gets them what they want,” Steven writes.  “Separate surveys by the political scientists Max Abrahms, Audrey Cronin, and Virginia Page Fortna of hundreds of terrorist movements active since the 1960s show that they all were extinguished or faded away without attaining their strategic goals.”

In time, terrorist movements “sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear,” he notes. 

“It happened to the anarchist movements at the turn of the 20th century (after many bombings and assassinations), it happened to the Marxist and secessionist groups in the second half of the 20th century,” and Steven predicts, “it will almost certainly happen to ISIS in the 21st.”

3: In the meantime, we would be wise examine how the media covers terrorism.

One change recommended by Adam Lankford and sociologist Eric Madfis is “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them, but Report Everything Else,” which is based on policy in Canada for juvenile shooters already in effect in Canada. 

Steven urges the media to  “examine their essential role in the show business of terrorism by calibrating their coverage to the objective dangers and giving more thought to the perverse incentives they have set up.”


More tomorrow.


Reflection: Does any of the information Steven presents regarding terrorism surprise me?

Action: Discuss with a colleague, friend, or family member.

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