Countering Violent Extremism: The quixotic quest for a rational policy on terrorism

In preparation for the White House’s summit on countering violent extremism on February 18, my colleague and erstwhile co-author Dan Byman has written another incisive and important piece in the Washington Post. The article exposes some of the most pernicious myths about violent extremism, reflecting Dan’s many years of study in the field. It should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the issues at stake in the summit. 

But, of course, if the organizers read the piece carefully, it is not clear that they would have the summit at all. The unstated bottom line of the piece is that there few effective policy responses to the problem of radicalization, and that in any case, it is not clear that a grand global effort at counter-radicalization is justified by the severity of the terrorism problem. In such circumstances, a massive international summit seems like overkill and unlikely to result in a smarter approach to terrorism.

So why hold the summit at all? Because in the wake of a horrific terrorist attack, the body politic demands a response. And so this is the response. It’s a better idea than invading some random country, restricting civil liberties, or torturing extrajudicial detainees. But it remains a colossal waste of time and effort.

A better response would be to try and understand why the body politic continues to demand policies that careful researchers like Dan have long since proven are ineffective or even, as I have argued elsewhere, sometimes counterproductive.

Transnational terrorism is often cited as a uniquely 21st century threat to global order. But how specifically does terrorism challenge global order? Terrorism is a weapon of the weak, meaning terrorists cannot directly threaten strong states. For terrorism to threaten strong states or world order, it depends on a state doing stupid things in response, in other words on a reaction born of public fear and political cowardice. For terrorism to be effective, it requires that we are afraid.

So maybe it is time to start attacking that fear directly, rather than through a quixotic quest to eliminate terrorism or radicalization. We don’t have a global summit to reduce crime after all, nor do we believe that it can or must be eliminated to preserve order. Maybe we should consider instead a summit on societal resilience. That summit would help Americans understand that terrorism really isn’t much of a threat to their lives or values. And then perhaps they would be less afraid.