Paul Pillar

What Terrorism Alerts Say about Ourselves

The uselessness to the public of the recent vague official alerts about possible terrorist attacks in Europe has been noted by several commentators.  Our government told us not that we should revise travel plans but that we should take sensible precautions such as being aware of our surroundings.  Sounds like standard advice for any foreign traveler, terrorist threat or no terrorist threat.  The public consequently is as bemused as it was by those stoplight charts about levels of terrorist threat for which former homeland security czar Tom Ridge was criticized when he introduced them.

So why do governments put out such useless advisories?  The direct reason is that political leaders and other government officials do so to try to mute the inevitable recriminations if a terrorist attack actually occurs.  There still will be recriminations, but at least the government will be able to say that it was not caught flat-footed.  The more fundamental underlying reason has to do with the attitudes that we, the public, have toward terrorism and toward what our government ought to do about it.  The main reason the incentive is so strong for officialdom to try to mute recriminations is that the public expects perfection in counterterrorist performance.  As Jonathan Evans, the head of Britain's internal security service, MI5, observed, American media [although it's really not just the media but Americans in general] assume "that terrorism is 100 percent preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure."  Evans, who appropriately described this assumption as "nonsensical," lamented that the attitude had begun to infect some British thinking, as reflected in the United Kingdom's own vague terrorism alert this week.

Such alerts also perform a reassurance function for the public.  They encourage us to think the comforting thought that, although there are terrorist dangers out there, the authorities seem to be at least somewhat on top of the situation.  Given the general perception that  we live in an era of terrorist danger, the public would be disturbed if it did not get one of those advisories every now and then.  If it didn't get any, the public might start to think that the government was asleep at the switch.

The public perception that the alert fosters does not correspond to reality.  The bad news is that the very issuance of such an alert indicates that the authorities are not fully on top of the situation, in the sense that if they had sufficiently detailed information about any terrorist plots, they would have rolled up the plots and there would be no reason for an advisory.  The good news is that the advisory, the attention, and the enhanced security countermeasures that often go with them may cause any real plotters to call off their plans and to look for another time and place to attack.  When no attack comes, we the public do not know if it is because of that sort of effect on terrorists' thinking or because there never was a plot in the first place.  Often the authorities don't know either.

This is but another instance of the public being prone to having very inaccurate perceptions of terrorist threats, and how they vary over time.  The public thought the terrorist threat was far higher on September 12, 2001 than it had been on September 10, but the actual threat did not suddenly skyrocket like that.  The public perceptions, or rather misperceptions, are a function mostly of how much time has transpired since the last big terrorist attack, and to some extent of what other problems may be on our minds.

Much of terrorism and counterterrorism has to do with what is going on inside our minds.  In fact, that's what terrorism is fundamentally all about--influencing the emotions and perceptions of an audience much wider than the physical victims of terrorist attacks.  We could mitigate the impact of terrorism enormously by cultivating more resilient and realistic public attitudes about it.  But we have hardly even tried to do so.  There are several reasons for that, including the sway of the "war on terror" concept, with anyone who argued that terrorism is a problem to be managed rather than a war to be won being pilloried as a weak-willed softie.

It is politically very difficult to cultivate resilience and realism on this subject.  Look what happened to President George W. Bush when he once let out a sensible comment that a "war on terror" could not really be "won."  His political opponents immediately pounced on his remark, and he quickly backtracked to the customary rhetoric about winning.  Maybe Americans will adopt a more realistic attitude toward terrorism and counterterrorism, and be stronger for it, only after being steeled by additional terrorist attacks.  According to Bob Woodward's latest book, President Obama made a comment something along those lines--and look at how his political opponents pounced on that remark.