April 17, 2013 | New York Daily News

Why Boston Isn’t the New Normal

The more nihilistic the cause, the harder terrorist groups have to look for recruits.
April 17, 2013 | New York Daily News

Why Boston Isn’t the New Normal

The more nihilistic the cause, the harder terrorist groups have to look for recruits.

It is an oft-repeated aphorism that because terrorism is designed to frighten us, one of our best defenses is simply not to let it do so. Sometimes, that is difficult in a free and open society such as ours: We are surrounded by limitless possible targets, ranging from public events and mass transit to restaurants and major hotels.

Hence, we have reactions to the Boston attack such as Ron Fournier’s in the National Journal. Fournier writes that the Boston attack is notable “for its social significance,” for the fact that “death at the finish line in Boston makes every place (and everybody) less secure” — including malls, churches and schools. He fears that this attack might signal “a ‘new normal’ for America,” leaving “no place and nobody” feeling safe again.

Expressing concerns that no doubt some Americans share, Fournier asks, “Does the nightmare begin with Boston?”

Yet in times of tragedy and anxiety, it is worth dwelling not only on our vulnerabilities, but also our resiliency and strength. We still do not know the perpetrators of this gruesome tragedy. We do not know whether they are enemies foreign or domestic, and what cause they believe this atrocity served.

But one thing the past 11 years of fighting a deadly and persistent terrorist foe have shown us is one of our great strengths — the fact that the glow of terrorist violence is dimmer than our adversaries would like.

Al Qaeda did all it could to try to rally American Muslims to their cause. At times, it seemed that the jihadist group could be succeeding, as when cases of jihadist terrorist attempts spiked in 2009 and 2010. This convinced many analysts that domestic attraction to the jihadist cause was rising, and would continue to grow.

However, such cases have since declined, and the assessment of the Rand Corp.’s Brian Michael Jenkins in his 2011 study “Stray Dogs and Virtual Armies” still stands: that, overall, “the turnout is tiny” for the jihadist group’s cause.

The past 11 years have also seen other kinds of terrorist violence, including that inspired by political extremism of the right and the left, racial supremacy, social causes (such as ecoterrorism) and single-issue fanaticism (such as anti-abortion terrorism). But none of this has risen to the level where it fundamentally challenges our society.

For perspective, levels of terrorist violence over the past decade have been lower than they were in the 1970s. As Jenkins notes in another study he authored, “Would-Be Warriors,” in the 1970s there were “60 to 70 terrorist incidents, most of them bombings, on U.S. soil every year — a level of terrorist activity 15 to 20 times greater than seen in most of the years since 9/11, even counting foiled plots as incidents.”

From 1970 to 1978, terrorist incidents in the U.S. claimed 72 lives, which is, again, greater than the loss of life we have seen through terrorist violence since the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, 9/11 is the precise reason there has been a greater fear of terrorism than there was in the 1970s — and justifiably so. Before 9/11, it was conventional wisdom in the field that terrorists “want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead.”

The Sept. 11 attacks showed that some terrorists did, in fact, want a lot of people dead, and also possessed the means to inflict mass casualties. Several attempted attacks since then have been designed to kill large numbers of Americans, including a plot foiled in 2006 that intended to blow up several planes bound for the U.S. from Britain using liquid explosives.

But there is a simple reason we haven’t seen terrorists striking one soft target — such as buses, pizzerias and amusement parks — after another on U.S. soil over the past decade: They have not been able to attract enough people to their cause. And for the immediate future, it is highly unlikely that any violent cause will be able to mobilize enough manpower to strike indiscriminately and at will in the way Fournier fears.

Indeed, the darker and more nihilistic the violence any group or cause inflicts, the more difficult it will be to draw the requisite number of foot soldiers to maintain such a pace of attacks.

Over the longer term, if we see nonstate violence rise to epidemic levels, it will likely arise from the perception that our nation’s challenges are insoluble: that our economy will continue to worsen, our debt will continue to rise and our political system is too broken to address these problems.

But we are not there yet. At this point, we need not worry about a bomb in every church or school. And the best thing we can do to avert such a dark future is work to address the very real problems that can make our society appear weaker and uglier — and can make violent causes that seek to crush the system more attractive.

Gartenstein-Ross is a visiting research fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

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