It’s not surprising that Americans are frightened by terrorism, Richard K. Betts of Teaneck said. But perhaps they shouldn’t be.
Dr. Betts will talk about terrorism at 10:30 a.m. on January 28, at the opening day of the winter session of the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. Dr. Betts has a formidable array of titles — he is the Arnold A. Saltzman professor of war and peace studies, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and director of the international security policy program at the School of International and Public Affairs, all at Columbia.
And that’s just what he is doing right now. Dr. Betts came to Columbia with a long resume filled with work in intelligence and international affairs.
From all that he has learned, Dr. Betts says that although it is understandable that we are scared by terrorism — and that in fact it is genuinely terrifying — “if we look at the data, the numbers of people killed, and the damage done in this country, it is low, and that is particularly true when you compare it with other dangers that we live with and take for granted.
“We are about a zillion times more likely to be killed getting into our car and driving somewhere than we are by a terrorist attack.”
It is true, of course that terrorist attacks “have a dramatic psychological impact, so it is understandable that we are concerned about them. We do have to take strong action against them to keep them from becoming more damaging. But for now, the actual risks still are low.
“That could change if terrorists get weapons of mass destruction,” Dr. Betts said. “That is the highest priority for counterterrorism — to prevent terrorism from getting those weapons. That would change the situation.”
Terrorism is so, well, terrifying because “it is a kind of threat that doesn’t seem normal,” he continued. “It seems outrageous. It doesn’t seem logical to many people, even though if you look at the background of the terrorism in detail, in most cases there is a logic to it. Groups use terrorism to try to promote their interests. And the idea that someone is trying to kill us makes it different than a traffic accident. That’s why we worry about it, even though the actual odds of being hurt by a terrorist aren’t that high.”
Although, he added, “the dangers of terrorism are exaggerated if you are living in the United States. If you are living in Syria, it is a whole different story.”
The Islamic State, as Dr. Betts calls the monstrous organization that others call ISIS or ISIL, presents “a new and alarming aspect of terrorism. It is a group that is not only unusually brutal, even by the brutal standards of terrorists, but it is gaining control of territory in parts of the Middle East. That’s what makes it different from groups like Al Qaeda, which is a threat but doesn’t control territory and doesn’t act like a state.
“Islamic State also seems to have the capacity to inspire alienated people in various parts of the world to do freelance terrorism. That’s what seems to have happened in San Bernardino. Those two wanted to be part of the Islamic State, and they did it on their own.
“That can be especially dangerous, and it can happen anywhere.
“You can have a million law-abiding, patriotic Muslims, but it only takes a handful of deviants to set up an incident like the one in California, or in Paris.”
There is much about terrorism that is new, Dr. Betts said, although of course some of it is age-old, particularly if you define it “as the use of fear for political coercion. But it is new in the sense that it is a bigger phenomenon now than it was during the Cold War. And also we don’t have as many other serious security threats competing for our attention as we did during the Cold War. For both those reasons — more of it, less of anything else — terrorism is much higher on our agenda now than it had been.”
Something else that has changed is how the Internet and social media have become useful weapons in a terrorist’s bomb storage unit. “It is now much easier to recruit people, to inspire frustrated and alienated people to join terrorist organizations,” Dr. Betts said. “And it also facilities lone wolf terrorists by providing ideas and encouragement to isolated people who can go off on their own. It can even encourage more people to think about what upsets them, and become more alienated than they would have otherwise. It was harder to do that in the old days.”
Dealing with terrorism can be difficult, Dr. Betts added, because of the law of unintended consequences, because what you do to limit it can cause a reaction in the other direction. “You might call it strategic judo,” he said. “We can use drone attacks to kill terrorists, and that helps, but the collateral damage angers people and can turn them into terrorists although otherwise they would not have gone in that direction. It is hard to find a solution that is very effective but does not have two edges.
“The main problem with terrorism is not catching or killing terrorists when we know who and where they are. It’s finding out who they are and where they are.”