The goal of terrorism is not to inconvenience you at the airport


"Oh my, getting on a US plane is so unpleasant with these new security measures. Truly, the terrorists have won."

I have seen the above statement made in a bunch of places, almost exclusively with regard to TSA security screening fiascos (link goes to the Bruce Schneier's extensive backscatter controversy summary). Mostly on Slashdot.

Each time I see it I have to rebut it individually, but I'm tired of that, so here it is once and for all.

The terrorists have not won, because the goal of "the terrorists" is not to give you a hard time at airport security. The terrorists don't care how long it takes you to get on a plane, or whether you are allowed to take liquids or sharps with you. The terrorists don't care about invasive body scans and searches, be they electromagnetic or physical. They don't care about seeing you naked.

They don't care about your freedom (if they did, the Statue of Liberty would have been the target). Then don't even care that it makes it harder for them to get on the plane.

Get over yourself. This is not about you.

What was the motive for 9/11? United States foreign policy in the Middle East. This is what the perpetrators themselves claimed.

What was the goal of 9/11? It wasn't "kill thousands of people". Terrorism is a distinct methodology from supervillainy. "Killing and frightening people" is, by definition, the means, not the end. The desired long-term outcome is much less clear-cut and I don't have the resources to answer that. Presumably, the goal was to effect a positive (from their perspective) change in US foreign policy, and presumably, what with the two wars launched in the wake of the attacks, the attacks failed catastrophically in this goal. If I'm wrong, I'm sure someone will correct me in the comments below. I do know, though, that the reason why a suicide bomber kills himself may be different from the reason why his handler talks him into killing himself, and likewise at each step up the chain of command. And if I'm correct that these goals were not achieved, it may be reasonable to assume that further attacks might not even happen because of their disastrous negative effect.

So have the terrorists won? Maybe, but they have complicated and subjective victory conditions. Which don't concern you, personally, in any way.


You've still "lost", of course. Freedom and liberty and privacy and so on. But that's a different game entirely, between you and the airport people.

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Discussion (18)

2010-11-20 13:57:03 by pascal:

Well part of the terrorists goal is also to instill fear in their targets. It can be as effective as actually doing anything (see pre-emptive strikes. Just by creating a potential threat, they caused action).

So in that regard the terrorists are actually being helped by the state: Bin Laden releasing some video doesn't scare people half as much as the "reassuring" presence of police armed with automatic weapons in public places. Surely there has to be some immense danger here… blowing the threat way out of proportion helps the terrorists.

For example, in Germany this week a minister of interior suggested people should alert the police if any of their neighbors were "strange looking" or "speaking in foreign languages". The vast majority of the foreigners under suspicion won't be terrorists. But faced with racism and islamophobia, some may become interested in "alternative solutions" as promoted by the extremists. Being a nice neighbor didn't help obviously. Getting more people interested in their "cause" isn't the terrorist's goal, but it sure helps them.

2010-11-20 14:11:42 by qntm:

Firstly, instilling fear is a means, not an end. Nobody short of a Scooby-Doo villain sets out with the stated goal of scaring people. Fear and violence are means by which terrorists try to make more important things happen. So additional fear coming from a different source doesn't directly contribute to that goal.

Secondly, *what* people are afraid of is critical to the process. Fear is an ineffective strategy. If people are ill-informed, or the public mood is misjudged, then the public reaction (and the reaction the public demands from its elected representatives) will not be what the terrorists expect or want. And if the fear is coming from a third-party source like the government itself, then that fear isn't even under the terrorists' control. People need to be scared on the terrorists' terms or the terrorist agenda doesn't get anywhere. So, again, government response to terrorism frequently does not actually help the terrorists.

2010-11-20 16:13:33 by Bauglir:

Well, to an extent, at least, the responses of the government serve to legitimize and expand the fear of terrorist organizations in the first place by making them out to be a larger threat than they actually are. This does give them some pretty good publicity in terms of leverage for what their actual goals may be, but that is definitely tangential to the point that they aren't setting out to "destroy our freedom" or anything.

2010-11-20 18:33:07 by Snowyowl:

AFter reading and the references, my understanding was that their goal was to start a war, and then force the USA into a war of attrition against a resistance force using guerilla tactics (the same tactics that worked in Vietnam). They would then trigger more similar conflicts across the world and eventually collapse the US economy under the strain of too many engagements. The USA would then be unable to support Arab states in the Middle East, and Al-Quaeda would then install their own government across the region.
There are a lot of reasons why I think this would never work, the main one being that the USA is just too big to be collapsed by such a small organisation as Al-Quaeda. There is no way the terrorists can ever win.

Damn non-zero-sum games. It's so annoying when everyone loses.

2010-11-20 18:34:19 by Snowyowl:

...and come to think of it, we weren't ever allowed to take sharps on the plane.

2010-11-20 18:45:37 by qntm:

Well, I stand corrected, maybe "two wars" was part of the plan after all. (Although I am having difficulty finding an authorship date for Saif al-Adel's "Al Quaeda's Strategy to the Year 2020" cited indirectly in that Wikipedia article, the extracts from which only appeared in 2005, long after the two wars in question began. Taking responsibility for something which you didn't either predict or intentionally trigger is a known technique to make a covert organisation look bigger and more competent and powerful than it really is. This is why, for example, the IRA historically delivered coded warnings before their bombings.)

Still, I hope this doesn't undermine my primary point that "make people wait in line" hasn't even been retroactively made into part of the plan.

2010-11-21 00:56:53 by dankuck:

So nobody won? Terrorism is not zero sum?

2010-11-21 14:25:54 by pozorvlak:

Interesting that I read this on the same day as this news article: Tl;dr: yes, making you wait in line (or rather, making Western governments spend billions on extra security) really is part of the terrorists' plan.

2010-11-21 15:00:38 by qntm:

That still doesn't undermine my point. The document referred to in that NYT article reads like PR. "Whatever happened, that was our plan all along. In fact, it's just a small part of a much larger plan. We're clever and big and scary. Anything bad that happens to America was our fault."

And even taking the claims as gospel, this is *still* not about people waiting in line. It's about hitting America economically while it's economically vulnerable. Inconvenience to travellers is incidental. Especially since that was a *cargo plane*.

2010-11-21 15:18:49 by Snowyowl:

You make a good point. I'll try and look for sources written before 2001 or shortly afterwards.

2010-11-22 02:45:29 by MillaTheIcecarl:

This is fascinating, and now I can't help but wonder how you could effectivly collapse the U.S. economy...
*retreats to volcano lair)

2010-11-22 14:32:08 by Gregg:

> I can't help but wonder how you could effectivly collapse the U.S. economy...

Backing securities with sub-prime mortgages?

2010-11-22 17:03:41 by qntm:

Yes, the really smart move would be to mastermind another, similar such crisis.

Of course it was/is a hugely complex crisis with many different causes, requiring far too much incompetence to be carried out deliberately in any capacity. So the really REALLY smart move is to wait for another crisis to roll around and then claim responsibility for it.

2010-11-23 04:00:18 by Val:

By inconveniencing you at the security check, they did not won. But by making you fear to travel to a destination of a suspected next target where the chance of dying in a car accident is actually still a hundred times higher than dying from the terrorist attack, they achieve at least some of their goals.

2010-11-25 14:16:53 by JohnnyRocketfingers:

These security measures are not reasoned responses to terrorism but rather emotional ones made out of fear, so in that regard I would say they have won. They have forced us to alter our behaviour because of what they have done.

They hadn't achieved this in the past, because we simply carried on with our lives after such terrorist acts but 9/11 seemed to be the one thing that changed how we perceive airport and air-plane security.

Maybe the terrorists didn't win on their objectives(whatever they are), but I could say that we have failed in -our- objectives as we continually erode civil liberties in the idea it is making us more secure against terrorists.

2010-11-26 13:53:29 by Wisdo:

Well put, but a little vague on the actual goals. The precise goals (as defined by Al Kaida) were to take REVENGE (for US navy shelling of civilian tower blocks in Lebabon int he mid eighties) and to register their annoyance with american soldiers stationed in Saudia Arabia - which they consider to be a magical place which ought to remain unsullied by dirty foreigners.

As such 'their' goals are 1. not that complicated. 2. based on an interpretation of the world that Pat Robertson would agree with.

But who exactly are "they"? People say "the terrorists" as if they were a football team or something. The reality is, Osama bin laden was simply a delinquent troublemaker with too much money (dont worry its all gone now), sponsoring anyone with a mind to take any kind of action against the "great Satan". He did something similar in the war against the USSR in afghanistan - where he was widely known as a fantasist.

However the subsequent colossal blunder of invading Iraq has acted as a self fulfilling prophecy, enabling thousands of dissaffected muslims to blame america for their problems, some imagined - some all too real.

So who are the terrorists? they are the dead guys from 911. They are Osama and his helpers. They are George Bush and his helpers. They are those whose families and homes have been smashed by 'the war on terror' and they are a very few misguided young men who are only doing it because everyone else seems to be.

2010-11-29 21:47:23 by eufreka:

It seems to me that by turning Mainland USA into a third-world crisis zone, complete with multiple checkpoints, interrogations, searches, and related indignities...all totaling a reduction if not loss of personal privacy, freedom, security, comfort, etc. they have FULLY succeeded in bringing their *living condition* (which they found objectionable) to every US citizen (inhabitant?)...and not surprisingly, many of *us* find it just as objectionable.

2011-10-20 18:43:37 by donRoberto:

bin Laden's goal was, at its grandest, to bring about a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. Bond-villain-worthy in its scope, but essentially unrealizable.

However, on a smaller scale, bin Laden would have been satisfied with destroying the United States. Terrorists, even terrorists with nuclear weapons, are not an *existential* threat to the United States: the chances of a terrorist group gaining enough nukes to destroy the US are simply too small to consider plausible, although biowarfare is a possibility if it could kill everyone in the US. However, that would likely kill everyone everywhere else, too, and ObL may have been many things--most of them disgusting--but he was not a world-destroying cartoon supervillain).

The United States is not its people or its territory so much as it is the ideals manifested in the Constitution. And those have been severely weakened by "antiterrorism" measures since 9/11. Andrew Sullivan has an interesting commentary on this ( -- your parser doesn't seem to like the hyperlink), where he points out that

::Bin Laden and his henchmen failed, in other words. But our own fear won. Fear stopped us, overwhelmed us, as our ra-tion-al-ity
::deserted us. Yes, it was understandable, given what we endured that September morning. But we need to admit that our response
::was close to fatal. A bankrupted America that tortured innocents and disregarded its own Constitution is barely recognizable
::as America

I was on a conference call yesterday that was scheduled to be about current information on terrorists and terrorist methodology: about half to two-thirds of it was spent discussing the Occupy movement, who are anything but terrorists. That's how far we've come in eroding our national identity, our essence as a free country. Airport inconvenience is just an aspect of it: it's the warrantless wiretaps, the renditions, the indefinite detentions, the torture: all these are indications of erosion of the Constitution, of what makes this the United States. If we surrender our Constitution and ideals, then bin Laden has not destroyed us; we have done it to ourselves, but the end result is the same.