01 December 2015

Do We Fear Terrorism Mostly Because We Fear Conspiracies?

Ross Douthat, in his op-ed column at the New York Times, makes arguably the most credible argument I have heard to date for a reason to be more afraid of French style terrorist attacks than of domestic terrorists like the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, which isn't to say that I fully agree with him.

Basically, he argues, what makes certain kinds of terrorism so much scarier than ordinary crime, is not just xenophobia, but the fear that crimes committed by what appear to be organized conspiracies that defy and ignore the sovereign monopoly on violence are scary because they have the potential to escalate in a way that ordinary crime does not.
Now I too think that Westerners and Americans have a somewhat exaggerated fear of terrorism, and there’s no doubt that a certain kind of xenophobia enters into that equation somewhere. But there’s also something important missing in the comparison between a lot of the highly individual cases (Dear’s included, it would seem) that people want to label “right-wing domestic terrorism” these days and the kind of cases that involve an organized conspiracy (whether foreign or domestic) to commit mass murder for political ends.

Part of that difference rests on the obvious point that a conspiracy can, if allowed to spread and plot unchecked, do far more damage than any individual killer with a rifle, whatever his motivations. (You don’t have to go all the way with Dick Cheney’s 1 percent doctrine to see that it would only take one suitcase nuke to overshadow every spree killer that ever lived.)

But there’s a less obvious explanation as well, having to do with the role and purpose and claims of government, for why terrorist conspiracies might really deserve greater scrutiny, greater anxiety, greater fear. Namely, whatever the body count involved, by its very nature a terrorist group doesn’t only threaten individual lives. It also challenges the government’s monopoly on organized force, which is the state’s most basic (at least in social-contract theory) claim and guarantee. . . . it isn’t unreasonable for people to feel less safe, at some level, in a society in which organized factions and networks seem to be plotting murder with impunity than in a society that just has a variable crime rate. Yes, high crime rates eventually degrade public authority and public trust as well. But everyone understands that the government’s monopoly on force doesn’t enable it to protect you from every would-be killer … whereas many people think of organized violence as the first thing that the state is supposed to prevent, pre-empt, forestall. . . .

It’s for this reason, this particular fear of conspiracies against the public good, that the Mafia in all its varied forms is understandably seen as an important law enforcement target even though a neighborhood managed by mobsters might technically have a lower murder rate than certain inner-city districts or Appalachian counties. It’s for this reason that people understandably worry about ISIS-abetted radicalization among recent Muslim immigrants even though natives will probably commit murder at higher rates no matter what. And it’s for this reason (to pick a case where my fellow conservatives can be inclined to miss the point) that people in heavily-policed communities understandably regard lawless violence dealt out by police officers as a distinctive problem even though far more of their neighbors are killed by ordinary criminals — because cops are vested with the authority of the state, which makes their corruption and conspiratorial self-protection far more insidious than everyday street crime even if it leave fewer people dead.

None of this means, again, that the public’s specific anxieties about conspiracies and terrorism are necessarily rational. (They call them “conspiracy theories” for a reason.) But there is often a certain kind of rationality, at least, behind the various “scares” that political violence (or the fear of political violence) can provoke. They tend to peak when there seems to be a clear danger that the violence is actually organized, as opposed to just random people popping off, and then diminish once the conspiracy in question is either broken up or proven to be less terrifying and pervasive than once thought.
He goes on to acknowledge that there have been times during which, for example, the anti-abortion movement did include an organized violent conspiracy, but doesn't believe that this is the case now.

I am somewhat inclined to part ways with Douthat on that score, because while right wing terrorist violence doesn't necessarily involve a single organization, it is still systemic and it still does involve influential movement leaders who openly argue that violence is justified who regularly incite grass roots violence.

For example, consider what one sitting state legislator in Colorado said in response to the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs:
Adams County state Rep. JoAnn Windholz blames Planned Parenthood for the Nov. 27 shooting, at its Colorado Springs clinic, that left three dead and nine injured. She is one of the few Colorado Republicans to issue a statement in the wake of the attack. “Violence is never the answer, but we must start pointing out who is the real culprit. The true instigator of this violence and all violence at any Planned Parenthood facility is Planned Parenthood themselves. Violence begets violence. So Planned Parenthood: YOU STOP THE VIOLENCE INSIDE YOUR WALLS.”
When respectable elected officials from one of the two major political parties (and it is almost always the same one) blame the victim of a mass shooting that kills a law enforcement officer, leaves five more law enforcement officers shot, killed an enlisted Army soldier, and killed another innocent woman for a criminal shooting spree, the feeling that these attacks are more than just random is pretty pervasive.

And, she isn't alone in her violence inciting rhetoric.

The fact that a violent political movement has a grass roots decentralized organizational structure, rather than constituting a tightly organized conspiracy, doesn't mean that people who commit crimes on its behalf are just random criminals.

Still, Douthat does have a point.

Mass shootings that really are random mass shootings that aren't part of any violent political movement are scary only because lots of random people die in them.

In contrast, really scary acts of terrorism are frightening because they are part of a conspiracy or political movement that has a violent agenda that will continue long after the perpetrator of the particular incident is dead or incarcerated for life (the clearance rates for mass shootings in public places or involving family members is literally 100% according to a study looking at decades of such incidents).

On the other hand, Douthat also rightly acknowledges that just because there is a certain logic to fearing conspiratorial violence more than random violence, this doesn't mean that this fear makes an real sense in terms of the actual harm to public safety posed by such attacks which really does have something to do with modern humans being ill equipped to evaluate risk accurately in an environment unimaginably different from the one that they evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to cope with effectively and rationally.

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