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The Nature of Modern Terrorism

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The Sunday morning talk shows have finished dissecting last week's events in Boston wrapping up a week of continuous news coverage. Some comments over the past week have been insightful, such as Fareed Zakaria's remarks about protecting soft targets. Not all broadcasts, however, achieved Zakaria's level of sophistication. One cable network erroneously reported the arrest of a prime suspect, and all television news coverage broadcasted footage of the explosion over and over again. Breathless voice overs, reporting false information, and repeatedly rebroadcasting the attack increase the power of terrorism. It's time for the media and news consumers to step away from drama. Americans need to understand the nature of modern terrorism.

Many Americans have not yet come to grips with the meaning and function of terrorism in the modern world. During President Bush's administration, federal officials described terrorism as a war and they responded accordingly. The military even developed an acronym for it -- GWOT for Global War against Terrorism. Things changed with President Obama. Officials were loath to even utilize the term terrorism, preferring legalistic jargon about violent criminal extremists. All of this is understandable because terrorism is not a physical object that can be touched and measured. It is an abstract idea that means many things to many different people.

Regardless, security forces and citizens in general need to understand the full implications of modern terrorism. The reason is simple. Methods for engaging in political violence have changed, and multiple forms of terrorism will probably dominate the "battlefields" of the twenty-first century. In fact, the future probably will not bring many battlefields, but it will involve increasing amounts of subnational and individual political violence.

Although the term terrorism has been around since the French Revolution and it has been used to describe a variety of differing activities over the past two hundred years, modern terrorism is a new phenomenon. It requires supporting systems from the technological world. First, to be effective, terrorism must be seen and heard. As one terrorist commander summarized, it is better to kill one person in front of a camera than to kill a hundred in a secret location. Terrorists need an audience.

The second aspect of modernity's impact on terrorism involves mobility. This can be done locally or globally. The goal is to get to the target and get away. An attack can originate in the hills of South Waziristan and be carried out in London, or can be launched from a local neighborhood in Boston because the supplies needed for an attack can be gathered from a distance.

Finally, the modern world provides weapons or materials that can be turned into weapons. These devices, in turn, are more powerful than instruments of the past. They can be used to kill a relatively large number of people. The destructive power of weapons-grade or homemade explosives have only increased since the Second World War.

These three factors -- instant communication, mobility, and access to destructive technology -- mean that terrorism will continue to plague the world. Any small group of people or even an individual can participate. Two people can bring Boston to a halt.

All of this implies that Americans need to begin to understand a new enemy. Terrorism is not a war in the traditional or constitutional sense. Terrorism is a method of fighting and it requires innovative tactical and strategic responses. It also requires responses that emphasize rationality over emotion. The first step to developing rational responses is to understand the nature of modern terrorism.

Several fundamental concepts should guide anti-terrorist policies. When not used as a tactic in guerrilla war, terrorism is essentially a problem for law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Military force should be used sparingly and in support of law enforcement. There is no psychological pattern of a terrorist and no single path to radicalization. Rather, all types of people follow multiple trails to terrorism. One of the best tools in the anti-terrorist arsenal is to develop law enforcement agencies that act as extensions of neighborhoods. These agencies can root out all types of problems before they happen, including terrorism. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) represents the most effective unit combatting terrorism. JTTFs across the country have stopped several attacks in recent years. Finally, it would be helpful if the mass media, especially cable news, would spend time explaining the complex background of modern terrorism. This would be much more responsible than breathlessly awaiting the next stage in a terrorist drama.

Terrorism is not going away. Defense expert Thomas P.M. Barnett points out that the economic relationship dominating the world's leading powers makes the "next big one" unlikely. There will, however, be lots of "little ones." Since we will be fighting the "little ones" for the foreseeable future, we should understand what they are and how to fight them.

Jonathan R. White teaches in the Meijer Honors College of Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan. He also serves as a consultant to law enforcement agencies and military forces. He is the author of Terrorism and Homeland Security and Defending the Homeland.