Terrorism Makes Shrapnel Of Fools
I was passing thru a metal detector and I asked, “What’s the point? You could still sneak in a plastic explosive”. Then my friend told me - you need metal to make an effective bomb. Like nails or ball bearings, to cause the most casualties. You need shrapnel.
In the wake of a terrorist attack, ignorant people are the shrapnel. They spread rumors, divide communities, physically attack and humiliate each other, throw out democratic values and empower unscrupulous politicians. The initial bomb blast is just the first part of a terrorist attack. The real damage comes with the human shrapnel.
Terrorist attacks do not in themselves cause significant physical damage in a war sense. In 2017 there were less than 20,000 deaths in terrorist attacks. That’s the less that was lost in one day of the Battle Of The Somme. But even those terrorist deaths tell us something about the power of over-reaction, when people lose their damn minds.
On 9/11 (2001), the United States lost 3,000 souls in the single deadliest terrorist attack in history. In response to that, the country lost its damn mind, attacked and occupied related and unrelated countries and ended up essentially spreading this terrorism virus all over the world. Even the ISIS inspired attacks on Sri Lanka could be considered continuing shrapnel from this initial over-reaction.
In the process the US also reduced their own citizens civil liberties and began inculcating (more) divisive racism, especially against Muslims, into their politics. Not to mention spending $5.9 trillion of their treasure on these wars since 2001, and sacrificing their soft power and reputation across the world. And of course we now have more terrorism than before.
As Yuval Noah Hariri writes, terrorist think more like dramatists than generals. They have limited powers of action, so they try to provoke a reaction.
Terrorists calculate that when the enraged enemy uses its massive power against them, it will raise a much more violent military and political storm than the terrorists themselves could ever create. During every storm, many unforeseen things happen. Mistakes are made, atrocities are committed, public opinion wavers, questions are asked, neutrals change their stance and the balance of power shifts. The terrorists cannot foretell what the result will be, but they have a much better chance fishing in such troubled waters than when the political sea is calm. (The Theatre Of Terror)
Where I disagree with him is that the results of this are unpredictable. By now you can generally be sure that enough people will lose their minds that other extremists can take advantage to ‘get tough’ while actually becoming shrapnel. Enough people are about as dumb as ball bearings.
A terrorist attack is just the detonator, boosted by the media, spread across an explosive population, primed with ignorance, hatred and fear. A suicide bomber is not the bomb. We are the bomb.
You can see it happen in the latest deadliest attacks, in my home, Sri Lanka. Nearly 300 people were killed in horrific Easter bombings that targeted churches and hotels. The entire country reeled and grieved and then the shrapnel really started to spread.
In the weeks following the attacks there were mob attacks on Muslim homes and businesses, motorcycle mobs roaming the street with clubs and knives, burning, looting, beating and killing. Suspects were bailed out by prominent politicians and the President was silent. Later an imprisoned mob leader was pardoned by the President and he vowed to unleash pandemonium the next day.
Under this is a fetid well-spring of real popular demand for this collective punishment of part of our own society. People gleefully circulate memes calling for boycotts of ‘Muslim’ businesses (which employ and serve everyone). The police arrest Muslims and ask the crowd for complaints after. Muslim Ministers resign rather than expose their people to mob violence. These people have become shrapnel. They are tearing the economy and lives and bodies long after the blasts.
In this case, the goals of ISIS are precisely what their shrapnel is accomplishing. To separate the Muslim community from the broader population. To radicalize young men and women humiliated and harmed by the state and their neighbors. To spread more chaos. To keep the explosion going.
It’s hard to tell anyone this, because they feel like they are fighting terrorism. The people on Facebook groups, looking up director boards to see what companies have Muslims. The people on WhatsApp, sending scholarly looking screenshots explaining how Islam is inherently violent and bad.
The people that should step back and know better unfortunately have their incentives aligned with the terrorists as well. The media gets more views than ever, and the more they amp up the threat, the better their numbers get. Politicians get an easy source of support and convenient cover for any other mischief.
It’s really a stunning piece of jujutsu, using the opponents body against themselves. If you hit a country with a bomb blast in the right place, their media, politicians and people will begin flailing and punching themselves in the face.
This is all of course too complicated and long. It’s also not as dramatic a story as we tell our children or ourselves in movies — that there are bad guys and if we’re strong and we punch them enough they’ll go away and everything will be fine.
The best reaction to terrorism is for the general population to carry on and for professionals to carry out boring, largely invisible security and intelligence work. But the people want to do something, because the media makes it look like they are under attack, because they could have been at that church or train station. So you get more media-ready actions, like wars, and arrests, and crackdowns, at the cost of untold human suffering. It’s the wrong reaction, it’s in fact what the terrorists want, but that’s how powerful this virus is.
As the Buddha said:
Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy, or a hater to a hater, an ill-directed mind inflicts on oneself a greater harm. (Dhammapada)
This is of course very hard. It is the hardest thing to calm and steady ones own mind, let alone the churning, roiling hive mind of a population. But if you are truly serious about fighting terrorism, you have to get serious about fighting the terror within yourself. You have to dig deep through some emotions and find love. And you have to extend that love to your fellow human beings. You have to defend values and the rights of other people. You have to keep fighting even when it feels impossible and like the walls of stupid are falling all around you.
Because the alternative is becoming part of a bomb. The alternative is being human shrapnel. The alternative is being a fool, being weaponized and used, bringing yourself and your children nowhere nearer to safety.