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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)

I've written about all this before, but I think it bears repeating: terrorists aren't stupid, nor are they ignorant. Numerous studies have found that terrorists tend to be well educated, have middle class backgrounds, and have attended secular, rather than religious, schools as children ("The Root Causes of Terrorism"). Unfortunately, a number of our leaders (and potential leaders) seem to think that they stupid and/or ignorant. To wit:
  1. First, there is the contention of some that if attendees at the nightclub in Orlando had been better armed, they could have defended themselves. Seriously? Have those who make this claim really thought this through? If would-be terrorists plan to attack a venue where people are carrying (or at least they believe are carrying) concealed weapons, they won't bring semi-automatic rifles like the Sig Sauer MCX that Omar Mateen used in Orlando. Instead, they'll adapt to the situation and show up with suicide vests (or something similar) that they'll trigger before anyone can uncarry one of their weapons.
  2. Then, there is the argument that banning Muslims will prevent terrorists from entering the United States. This is even more ridiculous. Do you really think that a Muslim terrorist seeking to enter the U.S. will admit to custom officials that they're Muslim. As the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer noted the first time Trump floated this idea, "If you think that bloodthirsty terrorists — 'people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life,' as Trump describes them — will feel honor-bound to tell the truth to an infidel customs officer. They kill wantonly but, like George Washington, cannot tell a lie."
  3. Finally, there is the belief that all would be terrorists need is more education. The unspoken assumption is here is that terrorists are acting out of ignorance (although not necessarily out of stupidity). Again, however, this is completely wrong headed. As someone with three masters degrees and one doctorate, I clearly value schooling, but education by itself will not do the trick. As I note above, the average terrorist (and not just the leaders) tends to be well educated, especially when compared to the societies from which they come, so obviously something more (or less) is needed.
Put simply, terrorism is a complex phenomenon that doesn't lend itself to easy answers. Elsewhere, I've discussed how we might be able to prevent, detect, and disrupt future terrorist attacks ("On the Complex Nature of Countering Terrorism"), but as Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt has noted, "there is a virtually infinite array of incredibly simple strategies available to terrorists... [thus] if terrorists want to engage in low-grade, low-tech terror, we are powerless to stop it." ("Terrorism, Part II"). I'm not sure I agree that we're completely powerless, but if we keep treating terrorists as stupid (or ignorant), they will continue to outwit us and we might as well be.

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