terrorism works

I’m a criminologist by training, though I haven’t been actively studying it for the last four or five years. Like most folks, my initial response to the horrific events in Oslo and Utroya was almost purely emotional–shock, horror, some anger, a free-floating sense of unreality.

But good training always asserts itself and after a while I found myself paying attention to how individual people and the news media were responding to the event. Almost immediately people, including professional journalists, were speculating the attacks were the work of Islamic terrorists. They’d phrase it carefully, with comments like “This has the trademark signatures of Islamic terrorism” or “It could be some other group responsible, but the coordinated nature of the attacks suggests the perpetrator studied the tactics of Islamic terrorism.” The implication was always there–even if the bombing and shooting weren’t being done by Islamic terrorists, Islamic terrorists were still indirectly responsible for them.

I looked at the opinions voiced on FreeRepublic.com, one of the most vitriolic right wing conservative websites and found comments like these:

“Western Europe has but two choices: 1. Boxcars, or…2. Burqhas.”

“We’re fighting this war on terrorism the wrong way. Instead of us just reacting to the threats and spending trillions of dollars in the process, what we need to do is that every time there’s a terrorist bombing we should select a Muslim city, at random, and bomb a few square blocks…”

“May the soulless Muslim terrorists who did this, and who attacked innocent young people at a camp on an island, be caught promptly and dealt with swiftly, preferably without a trial”

When it became clear the perpetrator was a white Christian right-wing extremist, the people at FreeRepublic shifted their response:

“This would be a dream come true for MSM and the Democrat buddies.”

“I bet my bottom dollar, either the guy was schizophrenic/mentally ill or is linked to the Muzziggers.”

“I more than suspect it is a plant. Conservatives do not slaughter innocent children for any purpose. But a lib, a socialist deviant, would slaughter children while proclaiming to be a conservative in order to bring down conservatism.”

When they thought the perpetrator might be a Muslim, he was representative of the entire religion…but when he turned out to be a white Christian conservative, he became either a liberal stooge or a lone nut case. But surely, it would be irresponsible for people to think he could be representative of all white Christian conservatives.

What’s alarming is that what was being said on FreeRepublic.com was more extreme than what was said by mainstream news media, but they were making the same basic point: it’s either Muslims or somebody inspired by Muslims or a lone nut.

Here’s a true thing: the European Union’s “Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, 2010” reported that in 2009 there were “294 failed, foiled, or successfully executed attacks” in six European countries. How many of those 294 were perpetrated by Muslims or Islamic terrorists?


This isn’t to suggest that Islamic terrorists groups aren’t a threat–of course they are. But it’s important to keep that threat in perspective. Islamic extremists didn’t invent terrorism; it doesn’t belong to them. Those alleged ‘trademark signatures’ aren’t even trademark signatures. Coordinated attacks have been used by terrorists (and, for that matter, by military organizations) for centuries. The vehicle bomb? An anarchist opposed to capitalism packed explosives in a horse-drawn cart and and set it off on Wall Street in 1920–killed nearly 40, wounded around 400. And the first known motor vehicle bomb was detonated in 1927 by a white conservative Christian man in Bath, Michigan angry about taxes.

And guess what. It was a coordinated attack–the alleged signature of Islamic terrorists. Andrew Kehoe set off a firebomb at his house. While the authorities were fighting that fire, he detonated a bomb he’d planted in the local elementary school. When the police and firefighters and parents rushed to the school, Kehoe drove up in his car–which was packed with nails, metal tools, bits of steel machinery, anything that could act as shrapnel–and detonated the explosive. The butcher’s bill was 45 dead (38 of whom were children) and several dozen wounded. What was it somebody said on FreeRepublic.com? Conservatives do not slaughter innocent children for any purpose?

Terrorism doesn’t belong to any one group. It’s a tactic that’s been embraced by extremists of all stripes. And as shown by the responses in FreeRepublic.com, it’s a tactic that works. Those people have been thoroughly terrorized.

2 thoughts on “terrorism works

  1. Alas, there’s a lot of truth here. I’ve had thoughts along these lines for a long time.

    Shortly after 9/11, when the first anti-terrorism statutes started to work their way into Congress, I had a lively talk one night with some friends in which I said – and I still believe – that these laws aren’t worth their ink until they are instrumental in the arrests and convictions of radical Christians, fundamentalist gun owners, and anti-government militias.

    At the end of the day the enemy is radical intolerance, not any particular race or creed.


  2. Once I knew it wasn’t Jihadists, and had read about the Labor summer camp, I guessed it was a Norwegian angered by the presence of persons of the Muslim faith in his country.

    So I guess one can still blame Islam.


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