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The Problem with Too Much Terrorism

By Peter Atwater 

In the instant following the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the first reaction among spectators and participants was that a construction crane had collapsed. At the time, cranes were a common sight across the Boston skyline and given the extreme nature of the noise, people immediately tied the two together. That a terrorist bombing had occurred didn’t cross people’s minds until moments later.

Last month, likely even before the unmarked white Renault truck had come to complete halt in Nice, the reaction was different: It had to be an Islamist terrorist attack. The same response happened the following week in Munich.

The most powerful input to cognitive ease is repetition. See something enough and it becomes true. One is an event; two is a pattern; three is a trend; four is fact. That is how our brains handle information.

Like it or not—and to be clear I don’t—we now have reached the point where any violent event will be immediately considered a terrorist attack, if not an Islamist terrorist attack. Due to repetition, terrorism has become normal.

I can’t emphasize enough the significance of this milestone. Empathy and sympathy no longer feel sufficient. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, tweets of “Je suis Charlie” and messages of solidarity were fitting. But we’ve now been not just Charlie, but Paris, Orlando, Brussels, Istanbul, Nice, Baghdad, and Dhaka. As one post-Nice image conveyed, we are now épuisé—exhausted. We have had enough.

Over the next weeks and months, I expect that we will see a major reaction by policymakers to the recent wave of attacks. For public officials terrorism can’t be normal. The repetition of violence to which we now have become accustomed must cease. Attacks must once again be seen as an extreme exception—moved in our brains back to a place where, when they occur, they cause cognitive strain. As a result, national intelligence and domestic security forces’ existing programs will be aggressively expanded.

But a substantial increase in anti-terrorist resources will be just a part of the response. To get a sense for what else is ahead, I would draw your attention to what the Wall Street Journal editorial page said the morning after the Nice attack:

Now the question isn’t whether the [controversial state of emergency announced by the French government following last November’s Paris attacks] went too far, but whether it went far enough. Nobody doubts the importance of civil liberties, but surely one of them is the right to watch fireworks without fear of being bombed, shot or run over by terrorists."

Across Europe and America, we will see a major expansion in anti-terrorism efforts that trample civil liberties and that materially impact the free flow of labor, goods, services, and capital. Not only will these efforts go unopposed by voters, but given the deterioration in social mood and our associated heightened states of xenophobia and nationalism, I expect that the public will eagerly and enthusiastically embrace these efforts—agreeing with the sentiment expressed above that policymaker actions to date have not gone far enough. In the U.S., gun control, Washington’s third rail, will almost certainly be swept up in the response as well—with or without constitutional consideration. To the general public, terrorism in all of its forms is now a clear national security threat. Voters’ impatience will force political leaders to adopt policies that are as effective at stemming lone wolf police killings as they are at preventing coordinated Islamic State attacks.  

The repetition of violence—no matter its source—must cease.

Needless to say there will be clear beneficiaries and victims of what is now ahead. Those consulting firms and anti-terrorism technology companies closest to the further mobilization and militarization of public services against terrorism will reap huge rewards while those seen to be potentially aiding or abetting terrorists will face intense scrutiny and challenge. Those in financial, social media, and internet communications “networks” will be especially hard hit as policymakers seek to not just disrupt, but to end, the funding and promotion of terror cells. Think Dodd-Frank-for-terrorism with enormous public support for overarching and overreaching authority with enormous unintended consequences. Where policymakers eight years ago sought to eliminate risk-taking in the banks, today they want to eliminate terrorism at all cost. And if you thought the traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel in New York was bad before, just wait. After the Nice attack, every panel truck and moving van is now a terror suspect. In much the same way long airport security lines have become the norm since 9/11, so too will be vehicular inspection into and out of the world’s largest cities.

Finally, the recent terrorist attacks coincident with current weak social mood favor the rise of authoritarian leaders. With confidence low, voters across Europe and the United States will eagerly follow those who promise clear retaliatory measures.

People abhor uncertainty even more than they crave certainty. As voters and policymakers unite to fight terror and end our current uncertainty, large, highly visible national security forces will become the norm in our cities while behind the scenes civil liberties will be thrown over as investigators filter terabyte after terabyte of financial and personal records.

The war on terror, begun after the Sept. 11 attacks, is about to expand aggressively. I would advise planning accordingly.  

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Peter Atwater is the president of Financial Insyghts LLC and the author of Moods and Markets. An adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, he writes and speaks frequently on the role of confidence in economic, financial, and political decision-making.

[Photo courtesy of frankieleon]

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Anonymous's picture
Equal protection for enemies?


None of the above would be necessary... but for the importation of enemies to Western civilization. Grandmothers are frisked so that the likes of the Khan family can go unmolested? It's kill or be killed time... we better have a stomach for it.

Anonymous's picture
Well said


Very good article.
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