Joseph S. Nye Jr.
Courtesy: Shizuoka Shimbun
American politics has been captured by the issue of terrorism since last November’s attacks in Paris by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and, more recently, the killings in San Bernadino, Calif. Recent polls show that one in six Americans, or 16 percent, now identify terrorism as the most important U.S. problem, up from just 3 percent last month. This is the highest percentage of Americans to mention terrorism in a decade, although it is still lower than the 46 percent measured after 9/11. The effect has been particularly strong in the Republican presidential primary, boosting the position of the front-runner, Donald Trump, who has been particularly tough in his anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The following truths can help put this in perspective:
• Terrorism is a form of theatre. Terrorists are more interested in capturing attention and putting their issue at the forefront of the agenda than in the number of deaths they cause, per se. The barbaric beheadings by ISIS that are disseminated over social media are designed to shock and, thereby, capture attention.
• Global terrorism isn’t new and takes a generation to burn out. A century ago, the anarchist movement killed a half-dozen heads of state for utopian ideals. Four decades ago, the “new left” red brigades and red army factions hijacked and killed across national borders over a generation. Today’s jihadist extremists are a venerable political phenomenon wrapped up in religious dress. Many of the leaders are not traditional fundamentalists, but people whose identity has been uprooted by globalization and who are searching for identity in the imagined community of a pure Islamic caliphate. Defeating them requires time.
• Terrorism is not the biggest threat that people face in advanced societies. Terrorism kills far fewer people than auto accidents or cigarettes. Indeed, terrorism is not even a big threat. The odds of being killed by a terrorist are comparable to the odds of being struck by lightning. Radical Islamic terrorism kills fewer Americans than attacks by disgruntled employees at their workplace and school shooters.
• Terrorism is like jiu-jitsu. The smaller actor uses the strength of the larger actor to defeat him. No terrorist organization is as powerful as a state, but if they can lure the state into self-defeating actions, they can hope to prevail. This is what Al Qaeda succeeded in doing when it lured the United States into Iraq in 2003.
• Smart power is needed to defeat terrorism. Smart power is the ability to combine hard and soft power successfully. Hard military and police power is needed to kill or capture the hardcore terrorists, but the soft power of attraction and persuasion is needed to inoculate those whom the hardcore are trying to recruit. That is why attention to narrative and how our actions play on social media are as important as precision air strikes. And, it is also why Donald Trump’s rhetoric about excluding Muslims from the United States endangers us all.
Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Is the American Century Over?”