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Helping Terrorists Terrorize: How Our Overwrought Reaction Fosters Radicalization

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"Americans refuse to be terrorized," declared President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, "Ultimately, that's what we'll remember from this week." Believe that, and I've got some great beach property in Arizona to sell you.

The Boston bombings have provoked the most intense display of law enforcement and media coverage since 9/11. Greater Boston was in full lockdown: "a ghost town," "a city in terror," "a war zone," screamed the headlines. Public transit was stopped, a no-fly zone proclaimed, people told to stay indoors, schools and universities closed, and hundreds of FBI agents pulled from other pressing investigations to exclusively focus on the case -- along with thousands upon thousands of other federal, state, and city agents equipped with heavy weapons and armored vehicles. It all came close to martial law, with all the tools of the security state mobilized to track down a pair of young immigrants with low-tech explosives and small arms who failed to reconcile their problems of identity and became amateur terrorists.

Not that the events weren't shocking and brutal. But this, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, where perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, it is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize.

There is nothing to compare to the grief of parents whose child has been murdered like 8-year-old Martin Richard, except perhaps for the collective grief of many parents, as for the 20 children killed at Newtown. Yet, despite the fact that the probability of a child, or anyone else in our country, being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun -- or even being slain by a lawnmower or an unregulated fertilizer plant -- our politicians and the public seem likely to continue uncritically to support the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of "zero-tolerance" for terrorism, as opposed to much more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. But given the estimated $300 million the Boston bombing has already cost, and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response. We can never, ever be absolutely safe, no matter how much treasure we spend or how many civil liberties we sacrifice.

Especially for young men, mortal combat with a "band of brothers" in the service of a great cause provides the ultimate adventure and maximum esteem in the eyes of many and, most dearly, in the hearts of their peers. For many disaffected souls in today's world, jihad is a heroic cause that holds the promise that anyone from anywhere can make a mark against the most powerful country in the history of the world. But because would-be jihadis best thrive and act in mostly small, self-organizing groups within networks of family and friends -- not in large movements or armies -- their threat can only match their ambitions if fueled way beyond actual strength by publicity. Today, whereas most nations tend to avoid publicizing their more wanton killings -- including civilian killings that might be labeled "state terrorism" (from ethnic cleansings to "collateral" deaths from drones) -- publicity is the oxygen that fires modern terrorism.

It is not by arraying "every element of our national power" against would-be jihadis and those who inspire them that violent extremism will be stopped, as President Obama once declared. Although wide-ranging intelligence, good police work and security preparedness (including military and law enforcement defense) is required to track and thwart the expansion of Al Qaeda affiliates into the Arabian peninsula, Syria (and perhaps Jordan), North Africa and East Africa, this is insufficient. Findings from research on "copycat suicide" (where the strongest indicator of the copycat effect is how much media coverage a suicide receives) clearly suggest that media restraint can reduce terrorist contagion. Indeed, as Columbia University epidemiologist Madelyn Gould noted: "We wouldn't have a billion-dollar advertising market in this country (the US) if people didn't think you could influence someone else's behavior."

The real rub stems from the broader problem of collective action: it is for our common good to deny terrorists media exposure, but each media outlet in a competitive and unregulated market is tempted to break the compact by trumpeting the news. The late Nobel Prize-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom spent the better part of her life trying to tackle the issue of how to better regulate "the commons" ("public goods," whether water and forests or information and media space). Poring over thousands of cases worldwide, she found local self-regulation to be the most efficient and enduring way to prevent overuse and abuse of the commons, and central government control to be the most problematic.

There are successful examples of media self-restraint from the past. In 1982, killings from cyanide-laced Tylenol in Chicago area stores were followed by myriad tamperings that were breathlessly covered by the media until public authorities and the media realized that this coverage was spawning more tamperings. The Department of Justice worked with the news media to tamp down the coverage and, mirabile dictu, the tamperings tapered. Of course, the news media back then was remarkably homogeneous compared to today, and it is undoubtedly easier to keep tamperings quiet compared to bombings in public places. But the principle remains the same.

We can break the real, if unplanned, alliance between terrorism and the media through better reporting for the social good, which may prove to be the best business strategy of all (people like business best that helps them and others find happiness, not fear). It's going to be a hard slog, I know: many men and women at senior levels of the government, military, intelligence and law enforcement understand that overwrought reaction to terrorism helps terrorists radicalize and terrorize, but the powerful if maladjusted relationship between the political establishment and media business drastically subordinates reason to sensation. (A senior FBI official once told me in a meeting at the British Parliament that "If I advocated anything less than zero tolerance for terrorism, they'd have me hanging from my balls from the dome of Congress"). Yet, if we can learn to practice restraint, and show the resilience of people just carrying on with their lives even in the face of atrocities like Boston, then terrorism will fail.

For more, see today's article in Foreign Policy

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at John Jay College, the University of Michigan and Oxford University, is co-founder of ARTIS Research and author of Talking to the Enemy.