The six dangers of overreacting to terrorism

Terrorism is a problem to be managed, rather than an existential threat. Our response to the issue needs to be rational and proportional to avoid unintended consequences. 

By: /
November 9, 2015
A New York City policeman, part of the Hercules counterterrorism police deployments, stands guard as commuters walk past the the building housing the Consulate General of Canada in Midtown, Manhattan October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
We have to deal with this new type of threat in a way we haven’t yet defined…With a low-probability, high-impact event like this… If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”

- Vice President Dick Cheney, November 2001

Overreacting to terrorism is understandable. After a terrorist attack, the adage “better safe than sorry” is often used to justify efforts to do everything possible to fight back, and prevent a similar event from ever occurring again. Human beings also tend to focus more on spectacular events than on more latent, long-term developments that are equally or more damaging. Behavioural economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, security expert Bruce Schneier and others have notably pointed to the availability cascade which leads us to overestimate the likelihood of rare events. As social psychologist Scott Plous puts it, “the more available an event is, the more frequent or probable it will seem," and “the more vivid a piece of information is, the more easily recalled and convincing it will be.”

Politically, overplaying the terrorist threat carries little cost, and may serve to justify new policies, attract more investment, or gather popular support. As Peter Feaver, former senior official at the National Security Council (NSC) under President George W. Bush, once noted: “The political penalty for being wrong about the threat or underestimating it is much more severe than the penalty for overstating it.”

And yet, overreacting can actually make things worse. The 2003 military invasion of Iraq led to a sharp rise in terrorist attacks in the country, from six attacks in 2002, to 78 in the first 12 months after the invasion, 302 in the second 12 months, more than 500 in 2005, over 1,000 in 2007, and more than 3,000 a year in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Database. In 2014, Iraq accounted for approximately 25 percent of all terrorist attacks, 30 percent of deaths, and 44 percentof injuries worldwide.

Specifically, there are six main dangers associated with overreacting to terrorism.

1. Overreaction leads to opportunity costs

Typically, the energy and money that are spent to counter terrorism are therefore not spent on other, more important threats, risks and broader socio-economic developments. These may include organized crime, cyber security, climate change, or building relations with Russia or China. Since 9/11, opportunities have arguably been missed because we focused too much on terrorism. The national security and foreign policy priorities of Western governments were to some extent skewed towards terrorism.

In Canada, many of the law enforcement resources devoted to tackling organized crime and the illicit trade were shifted to national security and terrorism shortly after 9/11, and the same process has reoccurred in past couple of years. In October 2014, RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson told a Senate committee that 300 investigators had been reassigned from organized crime cases to domestic terrorism plots, and the number has risen to at least 500 since then.

2. Overreaction creates fear

This fear is often based on a sense of priorities with some disconnect from reality. For instance, according to a Chatham House – YouGov survey, inhabitants of Britain are more likely to consider terrorism as the biggest threat to the UK if they live outside the historically more affected regions of London/Northern Ireland. 

Similarly, a study by the START Consortium at the University of Maryland found that Americans are more likely to think about the possibility of a terrorist attack than hospitalization or violent crime victimization, although statistics point to a much smaller likelihood.

As Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, wrote in a 2007 Washington Post op-ed on how the war on terror has created a culture of fear: “Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”

Reactions to terrorism are often much more emotional than rational, but governments should aim to address those fears and misperceptions.

3. Overreaction to terrorism leads to discrimination, especially against Muslims

Shortly after 9/11, a so-called “voluntary interview program” was launched in the U.S. in order to compile a list of foreigners whose characteristics were similar to those of the hijackers. Characteristics included type of visa, country that issued passport, age, and the date of entry into the U.S. In other words, a branch of the U.S. government specifically targeted a group of innocent individuals (7,000 people were on that list) based on the mere similarity of their profile to those of the perpetrators of 9/11.

In the UK, stops and searches of individuals of Asian origin carried out under counterterrorism powers increased three-fold after 9/11, and five-fold after the attempted attacks in London and Glasgow in 2007. Under Section 44, after appropriate authorization, a person could be legally stopped and searched by police officers to look for articles that could be used to carry out acts of terrorism, regardless of whether there was reasonable suspicion that these objects were being carried, or that these acts of terrorism may occur in the area covered by the authorization. Between 2001 and 2010, Section 44 was used for over half a million stops that have led to only 283 terrorism-related arrests and zero conviction for terrorism-related offences.

4. Overreaction leads to inadequate, ineffective and harmful foreign policies

Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria accounted for 78 percent of terrorist fatalities worldwide in 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Database. The challenges in those countries are much more diverse and complex than just terrorism. They pertain to weak governance, corruption, human rights abuses carried out by governments, the lack of socio-economic opportunities, inequalities, etc. Those are crucial issues for national policymakers and the international community to address, and an approach primarily or too heavily centred on counterterrorism is often binary, and may hamper that broader focus. 

Similarly, overreacting to terrorism has had negative side effects on drug policy and cyber security, two areas that are important to tackle yet are often confused with terrorism through misguided, simplistic and heavy-handed strategies against “narcoterrorism” and “cyberterrorism.”

5. Overreaction often means terrorism is used as a political tool

A number of stakeholders may resort to that tool or label, including:

  • authoritarian regimes, in order to delegitimize political opponents and protesters, as has recently been the case in Libya, Syria, Russia, Sri Lanka, or Egypt
  • Western governments, to gain support for military interventions, or for new laws increasing powers of intelligence agencies
  • researchers, consultants, analysts, private companies and others to raise funding for their own work

The case of Canada’s Bill C-51 is pertinent here. Despite a low terrorist threat in the country, the bill, now known as the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, substantially increased the powers of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) without strengthening review and oversight. It broadened the definition of terrorism to the point where violent political protests could fit the new legal criteria (terrorism is now defined as “activities that undermine the sovereignty, security of territorial integrity of Canada, or the lives or the security of the people of Canada”). And arrests without a warrant are now possible if the police believe an individual may carry out a terrorist attack.

In return, this results in further inflating the terrorist threat, thereby creating an atmosphere in which overreactive policies can be seen as legitimate. 

6. Finally, overreacting to terrorism endangers privacy

The leaks by whistleblower Edward Snowden have demonstrated the extent of intelligence programmes and activities by the NSA, the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and others very often in the name of the war against terrorism, which again is not as significant a threat as we often think.

Canada’s new Liberal government has an opportunity to rein back on previous knee-jerk reactions, including Bill C-51, the misguided idea of a travel ban to terrorism hotspots, and the dangerous legal precedent of revoking Canadian citizenship from individuals convicted of terrorism offences. The war on terror has indeed produced clear lessons on the unintended yet foreseeable negative consequences of overreacting to terrorism, an important problem that we can manage and mitigate, but that is not an existential threat.

This article draws on the author’s latest book, “Counterterrorism: Reassessing the Policy Response” (CRC Press, Taylor & Francis, July 2015). The Canadian International Council and Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies are co-hosting a lecture on the topic on Nov. 10 in Vancouver. More details are available here.