Policy and Terror: A lethal combination

2015-11-22 13:12

While there is no universal consensus on the definition of terrorism, there is an important shared core component; incitement of fear and terror. So by definition, terrorism relies on fear and anxiety within a society to further its goals.

Multiple studies have shown that fear and anxiety distort the decision-making capacity of individuals and groups. Government decisions that are driven on such fear and anxiety can often lead to catastrophic results. The War on Terror was the perfect embodiment of this lethal combination.

After the events of September 11, American and British policy-makers exploited the state of fear in Western societies and launched the ‘War on Terror’. The policy led to the proliferation of terrorism around the world and completely destabilised the Middle East. Contrary to what the Bush Administration led the American people to believe, the War on Terror has not made the West a safer place. Instances of terrorism, particularly home grown terrorism have spiked since 9/11. The bombings in Madrid, London and Boston, followed by more recent attacks in Paris are examples of this phenomenon.

The core objective of terrorism is to perpetuate mass anxiety and create a sense of confusion and hysteria. This can have both intended and un-intended consequences. For example, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, many individuals in the United States chose to travel around the country by driving rather than flying with a plane. Figures show this led to thousands of additional road accidents and deaths. Had those individuals managed their fears of terrorism and chose the safer option of flying, perhaps many of them would be alive today.

In 2013, the Associated Press’ Twitter account was hacked by ‘Cyber-Terrorists’, who sent a false tweet about an explosion in the white House. The panic, and mass hysteria led to the tipping of the stock market, which resulted in the loss of $136billion dollars in a matter of hours.

The bombardment of fear, often through the media, can paralyse nations and lead to harmful social attitudes and policy-decisions, which can further exacerbate the impacts of terrorism. Incited by fear, societies often descend into a state of racism and xenophobia against the social groups associated with the extremists, in this case Muslims. Such attitudes, especially when perpetuated collectively can polarise societies and lead to the marganilastion and isolation of groups. Terrorist organisations exploit these sentiments in an attempt to create an environment of “us versus them” in order to radicalise marginalised groups in support of their cause.

Policies and social attitudes that are grounded in fear, anxiety and ignorance are knee-jerk reactions that generally increase the impacts of terrorism and strengthen the claims of the terrorist organisations. So, by managing our fears and anxieties perhaps we can reduce both the intentional and the un-intentional impacts of terrorism.

By Siamak Sam Loni

Siamak Sam Loni is an ex-officio member of the Leadership Council of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UN SDSN) and the Global Coordinator of SDSN Youth. 

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