Dear Terrorized,

Like most Westerners who were enthralled in the non-stop news network coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attack and subsequent manhunt, the only attention I gave to the initial reports of the Baga massacre was annoyance that it was interrupting the Charlie Hebdo reporting. I'm ashamed to say it was my girlfriend who first spotted the hypocrisy. And she brought up an excellent point which I would later hear echoed by some media outlets as the Charlie Hebdo hysteria wound down. Why did 17 deaths in Paris get infinitely more media attention than the up-to-2000 civilians killed by Boko Haram several days earlier in Nigeria?

Theories range from bad internet connections to overt racism. I doubt the discrepancy can be chalked up to something as innocent as "technical difficulties," but I don't think it happened because white people hate black people either. It sounds to me like something between those two extremes- a run-of-the-mill case of ethnocentrism. It's easier for most people in Europe and North America to imagine themselves as a writer in Paris than as a villager in Nigeria.

But there's an even bigger imbalance here, one so obvious it seems to go overlooked; accepted without examination. Why is terrorist violence worth more of my attention than non-terrorist violence?

Why should I care what thoughts were going though someone's head when they pulled the trigger? At the end of the day, the result is the same regardless of motive. Now I realize that motive matters in the American justice system. Killing someone accidentally is punished more leniently than killing someone intentionally. And killing someone out of passion (although sometimes more sensationalized by the media) is punished more leniently than killing someone for money. And killing someone because of their skin color, gender, or sexual orientation is punished even more harshly because the slaying perpetuates deeper societal divisions. But I'm not talking about punitive sentencing for terrorists, I'm talking about public spectacle.

Like Schrödinger's Cat, we the observers are intrinsically entangled with the phenomenon which we are observing. Unlike liquor store robberies, jealous spouses, or perhaps even hateful bigots, terrorism is as much a message as it is an action. Terrorism is almost a form of media in and of itself- a channel by which those who are otherwise marginalized can communicate with a wider, international audience. I see a close parallel between the phenomenon of terrorism and the mass shootings which take place at a school or movie theater. Both are carried out by histrionic personalities with a deep desire to be noticed on a large stage. Both are carried out for the intended purpose of being picked up by news outlets and fed to an international audience. Both have grown in proportion with international media outlets and the 24-hour news cycle. As perverted as it might sound, we all feed each other in this bizarre circle-jerk; our incentives are all aligned on some level. The violent individual gets attention, CNN gets a story, and the public gets a spectacle. Everybody's "happy."

And the conversations we have while watching these spectacles are just infantile. After each attack pundits starting spewing the old "could it happen again and could it happen here?" line. The answer is yes, and yes, respectively... and your hysteria is helping to insure that it will. 

"How can we be safe? What's the strategy to stop terrorists in the future?" the pundits wonder. The strategy to stop any individual in a population of over 7 billion from picking up a gun or sharp object and killing people with it? There isn't one. If we knew how to stop people from picking up simple tools and killing each other then murder wouldn't be a thing anymore.

And this is why these "War on ______" concepts are so obtuse. Take your pick. The War on Poverty. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. Unlike real wars, which have realistic, definable, strategic goals that can actually be fulfilled, these wars on concepts are about changing human nature, an illusory goal destined to failure from its inception. Can you imagine any future scenario in which not one of the seven billion humans on the surface of the globe dares imbibe a mind-altering substance? Do you think there's going to be a day when even the laziest alcoholic on earth can't find poverty, no matter how deep into the bottle they search? Does it really sound feasible that a time will come when it's no longer possible for anyone on the planet to grab a ubiquitous kitchen utensil and stab someone with it in the name of any cause that person wants to claim inspired them? You'd have more luck declaring war on flatulence. And in most cases actually winning one of these wars would have ramifications a thousand times more terrifying than the ill being combated. Imagine a world in which every individual is micromanaged under such heavy surveillance that you couldn't slip a knife or a blunt into your pocket without being arrested. 

And so here we are. Instead of taking a few reasonable precautions like reinforcing cockpit doors, keeping tabs on fissile materials, infiltrating radical organizations, and avoiding unnecessary or self-serving military interventions, we have a global War on Terror. An unwinnable war with irrational expectations of human behavior. A black hole we shovel money, lives, and liberties into, laughably out of proportion to the actual risks posed by terrorism. We are all unintentionally complicit. We are all acting as the terrorists' force-multiplier. Actual terrorist attacks are just little triggers to get the giant moving. We inflict the vast majority of the damage upon ourselves in our misdirected fear and rage.

Terrorism will never stop. It doesn't even make sense to think that it will. But this self-imposed, post-9/11, "Age of Terrorism" will be over on the day that we all stop responding to attacks by going ballistic and start responding to them like we do when someone shoots the gas station attendant- by grimacing and saying, "I guess there'll always be some assholes out there, huh?"

Sebastian Braff


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