Why Terrorism Matters

Jonathan I. Katz

The terrorists of al Qaeda killed 2998 people on September 11, 2001. This is fewer than the number of Americans killed every month in highway accidents and about the same as the estimated number who die every ten days as a result of medical mistakes. Yet we consider terrorism to be an urgent national problem and an important threat, justifying a pervasive range of security measures of dubious value ranging from the inconvenient (long lines at airport security checkpoints) to the humiliating (public pat-down searches of people who could not conceivably be terrorists, such as old people in wheelchairs and small children) to the frankly ridiculous (it's now illegal to take photographs in the New York subway). In contrast, automobile accidents and medical errors are accepted as inevitable features of everyday life, justifying only modest efferts to reduce their frequency.

We can understand this only if we realize that we have values other than life itself, values that we sometimes consider more important than life. This should not surprise us, although we may not often consider it: the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor". The order of this list, and the invocation of sanctity to describe honor (but not life, which ranks even below fortune) indicates the relative order of importance.

The reverence accorded to honor is not just an affectation, or even a deeply held belief, of 18th Century gentlemen. The ancient Athenians (or Thucydides speaking through them; Peloponnesian War 1.75.3) considered honor to be one of the possible justifications for war. Cultures with a strong rule of law have reduced the toll of personal disputes over honor by outlawing lethal duels or by enacting rules to reduce their lethality (for example, the Central European custom of a century ago that drawing any blood satisfied the honor of both parties, so that the goal of a duel became to inflict a superficial flesh wound, and the resulting scar became a badge of honor). Even today, while most of us would never consider a duel as an appropriate means of satisfying insults to one's honor, a large fraction of homicides are the results of perceived slights to honor in a subculture in which they are called "disrespecting".

Why is honor so important to us? A biologist might simply argue that this is programmed in our genes, but that begs the question, for it does not explain why this trait, that would seem to make us court unnecessary danger, should have evolutionary value. Analogous issues arise in discussions of altruism, or family loyalty, and have generally been resolved by showing that these traits, though apparently disadvantageous to their bearer, at least in the short term, in fact facilitate the propagation of his genes.

A similar basis exists for the importance of honor. It serves as a substitute for a dangerous trial of strength. If a man has proved himself honorable he and his rivals can avoid a dangerous fight over his resources--- food, territory in which food is found or raised, and reproductive access to women (for women honor is traditionally defined in terms of chastity, which is directly related to the ability to attract the support and protection of a man by ensuring that her children are his and that her fertility is not impaired by venereal disease).

As the ancient Greeks realized, honor plays a similar role in the relations between states. As discussed in some detail by Donald Kagan (On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace, Doubleday 1995), the Peloponnesian war began with the Corinthians' offended sense of honor. States that respect each others' honor can coexist in peace and enjoy its benefits of prosperity, trade, and the absence of death or destruction. Mutual acceptance of the concept of honor is a device for avoiding armed conflict, and makes it unnecessary actually to determine which is stronger.

Our founding fathers considered their honor to be at stake because of abuses by the King of England's government, detailed in the Declaration, that seem remarkably mild by modern standards. There were no arbitrary imprisonments for dissent or summary executions. No one had even been transported to a remote colony as punishment. Why did they consider their honor to be at stake?

The answer is probably because if they accepted these infringements of the traditional rights of Englishmen (Blackstone's famous remark about the officers of the King being unable, by law, to enter an English home, however humble, without a warrant or the consent of the proprietor dates from this period) the path would be open to worse tyranny, including that we associate with 20th Century totalitarian states, as well as examples known to the founding fathers such as arbitrary executions in earlier epochs of English history. Honor was invoked because failure to defend abstract rights that were a matter of honor would imply that at a later date a tyrant need not respect even the lives of his subjects.

Terrorism is important far beyond its death toll (even in Israel during the worst of the intifada acts of terror killed a fraction of the toll of automobile accidents) for two reasons: First, because is a challenge to our honor, as reflected in our ability to defend ourselves. Second, because it is a challenge to the legitimacy of the state that protects us against, for example, al Qaeda requiring us all to convert to Islam on pain of death. The second threat may seem remote (traditionally, although not always, Islamic states tolerate unbelievers who accept second class citizenship, including payment of a special tax to reflect their status, and the danger that we would be conquered and ruled by al Qaeda is remote), but it is implicit in the first threat, just as the persecutions of Bloody Mary or the Bloody Assizes of 1685 were implicit in the milder oppressions of the government of King George III.

In fact, with only a murder or two (rather "small potatoes" on the scale of terrorism we have become accustomed to), the Islamists have obtained a de facto power of censorship. As a result of their threats of further violence, almost no Western newspaper has been willing to reprint the famous Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad or any similar material that the Islamists have decided is out of bounds. That is much more power than anyone else, including the governments of democracies, has.

Terrorism usually has a calculated political objective; it is not a random outburst of fury at a supposed ``provocation''. Sometimes the objective is censorship; very few newspapers have been willing to reprint the Danish cartoons, although they often reprint cartoons that mock and insult others, and many governments have refused to take public positions they fear might offend terrorists. There was almost no reporting of the Palestinian occupation of south Lebanon because of intimidation of the press. Yassir Arafat launched the second intifada in support of a specific territorial objective in Jerusalem. The September 11 attacks had the goal (achieved) of removing U. S. forces from Saudi Arabia, where they had been defending against Saddam Hussein since the first Gulf War.

Terrorism is important and a threat not because of the people it kills but because of the power it grants its practitioners. It is not just murder; it is an attack on our society and our political independence. The murder of Theo van Gogh intimidates individuals; terrorist acts with random targets intimidate entire societies.



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Jonathan Katz
Sun Apr 6 2008