As we struggle to find the right response to modern terrorism we must face a politically incorrect fact: Lots of our people and institutions love terrorism. They thrive on it, cultivate it, promote it, and provide it with the oxygen it needs to proliferate. Donald Trump is one of those people. Know your enemy.
The purpose of terrorism is to spread fear in a target population. Terrorism usually conceals weakness. By frightening a target population, an organization creates an illusion of power. That illusion of power becomes a weapon that the target population unleashes on themselves.
Job One for a leader fighting terrorism is to tamp down public fear by introducing a sense of perspective. Terror isn’t terror if people are not afraid.
Job Two is to quietly build a counter-terror infrastructure capable of identifying and stopping perpetrators. I lived in London in the 90’s at the height of The Troubles. Life in London was punctuated by almost daily terror threats. Brits responded with unflappable indifference. In the news, bomb warnings and explosions were relegated to a space on between traffic and weather. The British in the 90’s benefited from a leadership that understood how to fight terrorism and, more importantly, wanted to win. Meanwhile, police and military worked constantly to pressure these groups, placing them in a tightening vice between ineffective tactics and tightening enforcement.
There are people and institutions that benefit from terrorism. Terror tactics undermine free markets, trade, tourism, pluralism, and every institution that thrives on trust-based interactions. An atmosphere soaked in indiscriminate violence is fantastic for authoritarians. Unlike the British government in the 90’s, Donald Trump fosters terrorism because it furthers his political goals.
Trump’s tactics in promoting foreign terrorism differ from his methods for fostering domestic terror. At home, he spreads white supremacist terrorism by legitimizing their themes and goals, promoting their leadership, and downplaying their activities. One of his first acts as president was to end federal monitoring of domestic terror groups. When domestic terrorists attack non-whites and religious minorities, he makes no mention of their actions. Even without Trump’s megaphone, immigrant groups and minorities targeted for marginalization still get the message. In fact, when it comes to domestic terror, Trump’s silence acts as promotion, amping up the fear. It communicates to minority communities that they can’t count on protection while suggesting to white terrorists that he supports their objectives.
By contrast, Trump is the world’s foremost promoter of Islamist terrorism. No one in ISIS works as hard or as successfully as Donald Trump to tout the group’s achievements and overstate their reach. Trump has invested far more energy in promoting ISIS than in getting any domestic legislation passed. Donald Trump is determined to help ISIS achieve its primary strategic goal in the west – terrorizing you.
When the Mayor of London took the strategically appropriate move of calming the public after the latest attack, Trump undermined him in the most public way possible. He did this because Trump shares more strategic goals with ISIS than he does with the Mayor of London. Trump cannot afford to have ISIS demeaned or defeated. Like other ambitious authoritarians, Trump depends for his political survival on a terrified public. Groups like ISIS are Trump’s critical partners in promoting a narrative of neurotic fear among a western population otherwise deprived of existential enemies. Donald Trump needs ISIS like he needs oxygen. That’s why he does their publicity work for them.
Here are a few facts about modern terrorism.
More Americans are killed every year by their furniture than by terrorists. An American is statistically more likely to be killed this year by a gun-wielding toddler than by a terrorist. Terrorism is as much of a threat to US interests as we decide to make it. Donald Trump wants that threat to be enormous, so he lies about it.
Of those few terrorism deaths in the US, the overwhelming majority are committed by non-Muslim white people. White domestic terrorism is growing under Donald Trump, because he has fostered and protected it.
Islamist terrorism is a very small threat to Americans, or to Europe. Domestic terrorism is a larger, but still small threat. Terrorism is ineffective against a confident, courageous population that refuses to wet their pants in fear.
Know your enemy. Know yourself. Win.
*Post-script: There’s another institution that loves terrorism that deserves some attention. A profit-driven 24-hour cable news industry thrives on anything scary, especially if it features footage of explosions. If cable news had proliferated to the current degree in Britain back in the 90’s, it would have been far more difficult for the government to fight the IRA successfully. Profit-driven endless news is a sump of neurotic, context-free fear.