Why is Terrorism Terrifying?

March 3, 2016
Why is Terrorism Terrifying?
Scott Englund
Scott Englund Non-Resident Fellow, Counter-terrorism

In spite of hundreds of billions of dollars spent globally on counter-terrorism measures, and the extremely low incidence of terrorism in most of the world, people (according to surveys of U.S. residents) are still terrorized by remote and unlikely threats and believe countering terrorism ought to be a priority for their government.  Why is terrorism terrifying?  I offer three reasons why terrorism terrorizes so effectively:  First, it violates our sense of right and wrong, it violates the principal of distinction between combatants and non-combatants; innocent, unarmed people shouldn’t be intentionally killed by violent people.  Second, terrorism creates a feeling of vulnerability: terror attacks are not strictly random, but they are indiscriminate, and unexpected, preying upon the least defended targets.  Finally, when violence can be telegraphed in gruesome detail, sometimes in real-time, the viewers of remote violence empathize with the victims of violence, transmitting a threat even when no real threat exists.

This article will describe three avenues of attack used by terrorism and suggest that government efforts can both mitigate and contribute to public anxiety about terrorism.  I conclude that effective counter-terror policy requires resisting the temptation to over-dramatize threats by communicating threat information effectively to different populations, applying appropriately sized counter-measures, and ensuring that efforts to detect, disrupt and destroy potential threats are conducted carefully, proportionally, and transparently to the greatest extent possible.

Why are we terrorized?

Terrorism violates a deeply held sense of right and wrong.  Terrorists intentionally kill unarmed civilians indiscriminately.  The Just War Tradition promulgated by Catholic scholars over a millennium ago is the restatement of a widely understood principle that violence is unacceptable in most conditions, and it is forbidden to visit intentional violence upon unarmed civilians or “non-combatants.”  Accidents happen in warfare, and the innocent are killed as a matter of course; indeed in modern conflicts the number of non-combatant deaths have often been a significant proportion of the total number killed.  However, intentionally targeting and killing innocent, unarmed people are a fundamental element of how we understand terrorism.  Michael Walzer describes it as,

“terror is the totalitarian form of war as politics.  It shatters the war convention and the political code.  It breaks across moral limits beyond which no further limitation seems possible.”[1]

Any claim of “immunity” from the threat of being killed for a political purpose is denied by terrorists; whether a state who bombs whole cities to bring a rouge regime to its knees, or a suicide bomber who hurls herself into a market crowded with women and children, the intent is the same.  Under no circumstances could one justify the wholesale slaughter of 186 children and 148 adults in a primary school, as was done in Chechnya in September 2004, or murdering 141 at a school in Pakistan in 2012.  Terrorism is an affront to our sense of humanity, as Roman lawyer and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero said of pirates two thousand years ago, is true of terrorists today,

“For a pirate is not included in the list of lawful enemies, but is the common enemy of all; among pirates and other men there ought be neither mutual faith nor binding oath.”

Second, terrorism creates a feeling of vulnerability.  The terrorists who rampaged through a nightclub, restaurants and a sporting facility in Paris on a November evening in 2015 did so with intentionality and significant planning.  Their actions were not random or unintentional, they were methodical and—in a certain sense—rational, though amoral.  Groups and individuals seize upon violence as a political tool when they believe violence will get for them what they want.  So, while terrorism should not be understood as strictly random, it is indiscriminate and unexpected; terrorism scholar Lisa Stampnitzky has called it “violence out of place.”  Terrorists target places where people are likely to be unguarded and vulnerable, which is to say, almost anywhere people congregate and are at ease.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the Paris attacks highlighted the vulnerability of just such venues and described measures taken to harden “soft” targets,

“Measures to stem violence at many sports stadiums have grown increasingly strict in recent years — the National Football League, for example allows fans to enter with only small, transparent bags. Michigan State University’s Spartan Stadium, the on-campus venue that seats about 75,000 people, prohibited bags in 2011 after a Department of Homeland Security inspection.”[2]

When violence intrudes upon such places, it creates a sense of potentiality that exceeds the actual potential for violence.  People understand that they cannot be protected everywhere they go—and they would not want to be so intrusively secured—so terrorism preys upon a resulting sense of vulnerability.

Finally, the present world of communications enables the gruesome residue of terrorist violence to be transmitted globally, almost instantaneously.  When remote violence is telegraphed directly to the multiplicity of communication devices that are ubiquitous in modern society, the reality of terrorist violence becomes more salient for those not directly affected.  Psychology research has found that although people can readily differentiate between what they see on a screen and the reality that is around them, witnessing the effects of terrorism remotely can induce post-traumatic stress, and can increase anxiety and fear.  Even simulated death and injury can create realistic physiological responses that resemble anxiety, sadness and fear.[3]   Experimental research has concluded that broadcasts of terrorist violence can directly affect the mental health of viewers,

“the mass media has an impact on the psychological well-being of viewers.  Specifically, television broadcasts of political violence and national threat have the power to increase personal levels of anxiety among viewers.”[4]

Remote pain and suffering is thus transmitted and experienced vicariously by people practically situated beyond the violence.

Terrorism is effective because it attacks on three related fronts:  First it violates deeply and almost universally held sense of right and wrong, that the innocent should not be intentionally killed by anyone.  Second, it creates a sense of vulnerability that far exceeds the actual threat, terrorism inflates its own terrifying effect.  Finally, transmitted almost instantaneously in high-definition video, people far from an incident of terrorism internalize the violence they have witnessed remotely; with the aid of modern mass-media, terrorism invades safe spaces to rob people of their tranquility.  Governments have an obligation to secure their people from harm, and political leaders find it beneficial to ensure that their people also feel secure.  Next, what do governments do in response to the tripartite terror described above?

What do governments do to respond, and does it help?

When an incident of terrorism occurs, political leaders quickly denounce the perpetrators, condemn indiscriminate violence, and seek to punish the guilty.  This responds to the nature of terrorism as an act that transgresses widely held understood norms of behavior.  When people do wrong, they are shamed and punished and the wider public is reminded of what is right and wrong.  Secondly, governments typically do things that are beyond the public’s eye to limit the range of potential targets for terrorist violence.  When attractive-looking balusters are erected to screen off vehicle traffic from public buildings, pedestrians might not be aware of the actual purpose for the new architectural features.  Intelligence gathering and analysis is conducted clandestinely to detect and disrupt plans to conduct terrorist violence.  Quietly hardening targets and stopping a violent act before it is conducted reduces the options terrorists have in selecting and carrying out an attack.  Finally, governments do highly visible things to deter and disrupt terrorist violence.  Every time they have to take their shoes off and have their luggage x-rayed or inspected, travelers are reminded of their government’s efforts at keeping them safe.  Some have called this “security theater:”

“If there is a measure that makes passengers feel substantially safer, it would have to be considered a benefit, even if the measure itself does not actually enhance security” [5]

Though extremely expensive high-tech scanners might not reduce the probability of terrorist violence that is in proportion with their cost, their very presence and the ritual of a security screening might make passengers feel more secure.

In spite of these efforts, it is perfectly understandable that the American public is so fearful of so remote a death because they are encouraged to think by the Department of Homeland Security that, “today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon,” and that they are, “relentless, patient, opportunistic and flexible,” modern terrorists represent, “a new kind of enemy—one that hopes to employ terror against innocent civilians to undermine their confidence in our institutions and our way of life.”   Reminders of an abiding threat persist, as the U.S. Director of National Intelligence testified to a congressional committee in early February 2016:

“We saw in the November Paris attacks, returning foreign fighters with firsthand battlefield experience pose a dangerous operational threat.  ISIL [Islamic State, Daesh] has demonstrated sophisticated attack tactics and tradecraft.  ISIL’s leaders are determined to seek to strike the US homeland—beyond inspiring homegrown violent extremist attacks.  Although the US is a harder target than Europe, ISIL external operations remains a critical factor in our threat assessments in 2016.”

Persistent, vague, and non-specific reminders about the possibility of terrorist violence can have the effect of numbing the public to the threat itself.  Similarly, simultaneously reminding the public to be vigilant but also go about their lives normally can produce highly discordant cognitive responses.  Taken together, people have possibly altered their beliefs in such a way as to find threat warnings less credible.

Vague threat warnings, without instructions as to how to respond, followed by no attacks become associated with each other and are these threats are eventually believed to be not credible.[6]  The absence of specific instructions about how to respond and the absence of details about the nature of the threat have made government warning systems ineffective or even maladaptive, i.e., not making people aware of a threat or by increasing anticipatory anxiety.[7]  Anxiety can result in less support for a more aggressive counter-terror policy while threat awareness tends to increase support for higher-risk military and law-enforcement strategies.[8]  Therefore, government warning systems may have raised general anxiety while simultaneously inuring the public against actual threats of violence.   Persistently vague warning may make people less responsive to a threat while specific actionable information will spur a response.

The declaration of a “global war on terror” has been criticized for being conceptually misguided and damaging potentially more effective strategic communication efforts.[9]  A “war” against terror has been called essentially unwinnable, that vanquishing a psychological response to a particular form of violent political expression is fundamentally impossible.[10]  Aggressive military action such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, special operations activity to kill or capture terrorist group leaders and the continued detention of terror suspects as enemy combatants has had the effect of highlighting the coercive and lethal elements of the United States’ counter-terror strategy.  Certain highly publicized scandals have become irrevocably identified with this strategy and these have negatively impacted American image and reputation abroad.[11]  This negative attention comes precisely when, according to a broad consensus of experts, the United States must rely more heavily upon its ability to persuade and influence through the implementation of an effective strategic communication plan.[12]

Photos of American soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison shamed counter-terror operators and policy makers, and made their mission even more difficult.  That incident—along with the collateral damage resulting from even the best precision-guided munitions—served to reinforce how extremists employ narratives to recruit support for their cause.  Former Commandant of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, in a 2010 speech concluded that,

“The complete moral and ethical collapse of one army unit [the abu Ghraib military police battalion] completely overshadowed and neutralized the many hard fought tactical successes and boosted recruitment for anti-US Islamist extremists.  This ethical lapse created foreign fighters and increased casualties to coalition and Iraqi security forces”

Aggressive capture, detention, and interrogation of suspected terrorists, done with the intent of degrading a terrorist group’s battlefield effectiveness, instead had the opposite effect.

Balancing threats and countermeasures

Sometimes seemingly effective counter-measures like public warnings can dull attentiveness, or even needlessly heighten fear; aggressive security campaigns can actually make people less secure.  Counter-terror policy must be carefully crafted to ensure that 1.) people are both made more secure and made to feel more secure at home—a difficult balance; and 2.) ensure that while deterring and disrupting terror organizations abroad, the application of lethal force does not create more enemies than friends.  This requires resisting the temptation to over-dramatize threats by communicating threat information effectively to different populations, applying appropriately sized counter-measures, and ensuring that efforts to detect, disrupt and destroy potential threats are conducted carefully, proportionally, and transparently to the greatest extent possible.



[1] Walzer, Michael.  1977.  Just and Unjust Wars, New York: Basic Books:  p. 199

[2] “The Attacks in Paris: Security At ‘Soft Targets’ In Spotlight” The Wall Street Journal, 16 November, 2016, A:11 by Scheck, Justin; Cohen, Ben; Ellen Emmerentze Jervell

[3] For example see: Shoshani, A., & Slone, M. (2008). Efficacy of clinical interventions for indirect exposure to terrorism. International Journal of Stress Management, 15(1), 53-75. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1072-5245.15.1.53; Ravaja, N., Turpeinen, M., Saari, T., Puttonen, S., & Keltikangas-Järvinen, L. (2008). The psychophysiology of james bond: Phasic emotional responses to violent video game events. Emotion, 8(1), 114-120. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1528-3542.8.1.114

[4] Slone, Michelle.  2000.  “Responses to Media Coverage of Terrorism,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44(4): 508-522.

[5] Mueller, John & Mark G. Stewart.  2011.  Terror, Security and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits and Costs or Homeland Security.  Oxford: Oxford University Press., p. 156

[6] Sinclair, Samuel Justin & Daniel Antonius.  2012.  The Psychology of Terrorism Fears. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] McDermott, Rose & P.G. Zimbardo.  2007.  “The psychological consequences of terrorist threat alerts,” in B. Bongar, L. Brown, Beutler, L.J. Breckenridge & P. Zimbardo, eds.  The Psychology of Terrorism.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[8] Sinclair & Antonius 2012

[9] For examples see: Goodall, H.L. Jr., Angela Trethewey & Steven Corman.  2008.  “Strategery: Missed Opportunities and the Consequences of Obsolete Strategic Communication Theory,” in Corman, S.R., A. Trethewey & H.L. Goodall Jr. eds. Weapons of Mass Persuasion.  New York: Peter Lang;  Halverson, Jeffry R, H.L. Goodall Jr., & Steven Corman.  2011.  Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan;  Ross, Christopher.  2002.  “Public Diplomacy Comes of Age,” The Washington Quarterly, 25:75-83.

[10] Post, Jerrold.  2007 The Mind of the Terrorist: The psychology of terrorism from the IRA to al-Qaeda.  New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

[11] Goldsmith, Benjamin E. & Yusaku Horiuchi.  2009.  “Spinning the Globe?  U.S. Public Diplomacy and Foreign Public Opinion,” Journal of Politics, 71:863-875.

[12] For examples see: Corman et al 2008; Lord, Carnes.  2006. Losing Hearts and Minds?  Westport, Conn: Praeger Security Intl.