Like most people, I was shocked at the bombing during the Boston Marathon. Television footage showed the devastating injuries caused when a bomb explodes, however primitive or home-made. I vividly remember as a young child overhearing my parents talk about the dismembered bodies on the streets of my home city, Dublin, after a bombing in 1974 (that killed 26 people and an unborn child). But for most of my life, almost all terrorist activity took place within the border of Northern Ireland about 70 miles away, far enough away for me to be immune to daily realities, but near enough to be part of my consciousness.
Although Boston grabbed the headlines, terrorist acts are perpetrated regularly. On the day of the Boston attack 75 people were killed in Iraq, the day before 35 were killed in Somalia, and the day after 22 were killed in Pakistan and 16 injured in Bangalore, India.
My main reason for studying Politics and International Relations is to help me understand the world around me. For some, understanding terrorism is impossible. How can you understand a suicide bomber who is prepared to blow themselves up for a cause? Or someone who would kill innocent people indiscriminately?
But study terrorism and you will find that, by in large, terrorists are neither insane or immoral. Rather, they are rational political actors who use violence against civilians to further a political point, like defeat capitalism, overthrow a government or restore the caliphate. According to Louise Richardson, author of a great book What Terrorists Want, terrorists seek revenge, renown and a reaction (preferably overreaction). Revenge is something that they take for themselves, but renown and reaction is something that we grant to them. Saturated media coverage of the Boston bombings granted the perpetrators renown and locking down the entire city of Boston granted the reaction that they sought.
In the week of the Boston bombing, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was buried. Her political legacy might be hugely divisive, but her reaction to the IRA bombing of the Conservative Party conference in Brighton in 1984 was a textbook response. Rather than create publicity and reaction, she changed her clothes, dusted herself down and continued attending the conference as if nothing happened.
Of course, governments are under pressure to show force in the wake of a terrorist attack. It is safer for politicians to overreact: if nothing else happens it proved that they were right to overreact, and if something else happens it also proves that they were right to overreact because a further threat existed. Part of the power of terrorism is that it provokes a reaction that is out of proportion to the threat that is posed. In the aftermath of a bombing it is easy to feel unsafe. The random nature of the attack does just that.
But statistically, there are greater threats to us as we go about our daily life, like car accidents. Our response to terrorism needs to be apposite and be in relation to the real threat posed. As Richardson said in a talk at the Carnegie Council (which is well worth a read or listen): “It’s time that we got ourselves out of this false sense of insecurity…[Terrorism] will never pose an existential threat to this country [the USA], and the biggest threat it poses to us is that we will work ourselves into overreacting to the threat that it actually poses.” Whether the huge amount of money spent on increased security in the aftermath of 9/11 is justified is the subject of another great book, Terror, Security, and Money by John Mueller and Mark Stewart. (You can find a good summary here or a video here)
Terrorism is complicated. But it can only be defeated through understanding. And understanding terrorism doesn’t mean sympathising with it. Counter-terrorism policies are most effective when a government and security forces try to learn the terrorists’ appeal and operations. History shows that – with two or three exceptions – military force alone as been inadequate at defeating terrorists. Ultimately, our own reaction will also help defeat it. If we, as citizens, grant terrorists the renown and reaction that they seek, then they have clearly won.