Data and terror

paris terror1

I recently attended a half-day seminar at the Institute of Peace in Washington DC, on what I thought was a provocative question:  “Does better data make for better counterterrorism policy?”

Only four days had passed since the attacks in Paris.  However, the event had been scheduled long before, and the presenters made it clear that they were pure of heart about their data, and had no wish to chase headlines.  The Parisian dead hovered over the proceedings like unquiet ghosts.

Because the presentations were not for attribution, I won’t name names, but will enter into the spirit of the thing and concentrate on the message – the data itself.  (The source publications for the material can be found here and here.)  As is typical of large data arrays, there were no dazzling revelations, but much that should clarify our picture of reality.

  • In 2014, terror attacks proliferated in regions already torn by violent conflict.  Eighty percent of all fatalities took place in five countries:  Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
  • Europe, which experienced severe bouts of leftist-oriented violence in the Seventies, is now enjoying a remarkable decline in domestic terrorism.  Into this peaceable kingdom the murderous practices of the Middle East are being drawn as if by a vacuum.
  • Individuals unaffiliated with organized groups are responsible for most terror attacks in the US, and to some extent in Europe:  the infamous “lone wolf,” refined into “lone actor” by a presenter.  Of great interest to me, as an indicator of our historical moment, is the fact that most of these individuals lacked coherent ideologies.  They acted from what I (but not the presenters) would call nihilism.

The most significant finding was dealt with, I thought, rather thinly.  The year 2014 turned out to be the deadliest on record since the US government began collecting this type of data.  The trend lines are sobering and don’t require sophisticated analysis:

terror fatalities1

It becomes even more difficult to avert our eyes from the emerging human disaster when terror attacks with at least 100 fatalities are charted.

terror fatalities2

So much for the data.  To me, at least, it spoke loudly and eloquently about our bloody hour, and threw a cold, harsh shadow over the future.


The people who presented this information, and much of their audience, were cast in a certain mold.  Most were highly educated and knowledgeable, fluent in the bureaucratic-academic style, and idealistic in a DC-institutional way:  they very much believed what they did mattered.  They took their data seriously, and relished finding “correlations” – whether “social cohesion” was more important than economic factors in the formation of young terrorists, for example.

At the same time, they spoke mainly to each other, and for each other’s benefit, at a great distance from the public.  Each belonged to and no doubt hoped to rise in some steep hierarchy of authority – the US government, the university, the advocacy world – and all projected a sense that they, with their data, were in the business of puncturing “conventional wisdom.”  While public opinion was never openly disparaged, eyes rolled on several occasions:  because people believed that terror was the scariest way to die, because few realized that thirteen homicides were committed globally for each terror fatality.

Data fired their zeal and mission, data provided them with a livelihood, and data allowed them to float, like gas balloons, above the common crowd.

In the end, I suppose, everyone in that gathering at the Institute of Peace behaved like what they were:  members of a thriving enterprise, the terror industry.  This happens in Washington whenever the government has an uncomfortable situation on its hands.  Great sums of money are spent, people and companies are hired, trained, and funded, solutions are debated in newly-minted jargon, and an industry is born.  Incentives work entirely against fixing the situation in question.  What would happen to all the jobs if such a thing happened?  Washingtonians tremble at the memory of the Sovietologists, who once lorded over the largest franchise in town.  Today, they are ashes and dust.

So the business of terror data gatherers is to gather data on terror, while that of terror analysts is to analyze the data, and at intervals they meet in half-day seminars, under the auspices of a grandly-named institution, to remark on how much progress has been made.  For there are always innovative methodologies, and there is always progress being made.  And if the proceedings seemed remote from ordinary concerns, by compensation (and as is the fashion) much praise was heaped on the sitting administration, which had bravely called for more “rigor and research” on terrorism.

Someone in the audience (I will let you, good reader, guess who) finally asked the obvious question:  “We have reams of data, yet all the charts show a huge spike in terror fatalities.  Can you name an instance, supported by good evidence, of better data making for better counterterrorism policy?”

I heard the audience gasp, and a flicker of consternation crossed the pale faces of the presenters.  They recovered quickly, however.

The data, said one of them brightly, shows that whatever we are doing isn’t working very well.


Data is only as good as the categories into which it is forced to fit.  As the clock ticked toward noon and lunchtime in the Institute of Peace, the categorical assumptions holding up the terror industry could be roughly discerned, like bone beneath the skin.

They went something like this.

Peace and tranquility is the normal human state, among individuals and between societies.  We are a species of natural-born humanitarians.  (Or how else could an Institute of Peace come to be?)  Violence is a deviation from the norm, which must be explained.  Systemic violence is a form of pathological behavior, like autism or bipolar disorder.  Political terror, therefore, is pathology, a sickness, a “cancer,” a morbid abnormality calling for intervention and, with luck, a cure.

The young men and women who massacred 130 innocents in the theaters and restaurants of Paris were carriers of a deadly but preventable virus.  Terror researchers stood in the same relation to that horror as pathologists in the Center for Disease Control would to a severe outbreak of avian flu.  They weren’t interested in spectacular events:  their job was to protect and immunize the population.

A cure was possible, at least in principle.  All we need is rigor and research.  Whatever we have done since 9/11 hasn’t worked very well, but that just means we should try harder.  We should gather more data, make more correlations, test more hypotheses, until the inevitable scientific breakthrough arrives.  (By then, inshallah, all the people in the room will have retired.)  Persistence, of the well-funded kind, is the key.

This, let me suggest, is the opposite of cynicism.  The sophisticated minders of terror data, like the most naïve Americans, looked on the placid surface of their social relations, and discovered universal forms.


There is another, older vision of human relations – one that would treat the Paris atrocities as one more episode in the ongoing tragedy that is the human condition, and explain US failure to stop terrorism as a case of looking for what can’t be found.

Aristotle held war to be the normal condition for the human race.  Violence, he observed, helped to sustain the social order and preserved the city from foreign attack.  The US government endorsed this grim vision to the extent of paying for a permanent War Department from the birth of the republic until 1947, when it became the Defense Department.  Since the name change, we have fought wars in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq – a far perimeter of defense.

We need only accept that war and violence are at least as natural as peace and tranquility for the entire project of the terror industry to come undone.  Our enemies must be seen to act from normal human motives, and are no longer vectors of psychopathology.  They promote a system that is morally monstrous, but so did the Third Reich and the Soviet Union before them, and few scholars, back in the day, imagined that Germans or Russians might be cured of their ideology.

The Islamic State wants what we have:  power.  That’s perfectly rational.  They strike at Western countries where we are most vulnerable, in the openness of our societies.  That’s also rational.  They slaughter innocents in their own territories to sustain a peculiar social order, and they murder civilians in famous cities like Paris to garner attention and strut before the world (and potential recruits) as dragon-slayers.  This may be morally repulsive but is a coherent strategy.  So far, it’s been successful.


If the dark Aristotelian vision is correct, all the data in the world, with all the correlations and contextualizations, won’t persuade IS supporters to abandon their cause.  In World War II, the Germans and Japanese fought to the bitter end.  They were not persuaded.  The Soviet Union collapsed because of economic weakness, but Russia remains a strategic opponent, and its ruler openly mocks our humanitarian pretensions.  He is not persuaded.

The “war of ideas” isn’t a geopolitical debating society, in which we demonstrate to Islamists the error of their ways.  It’s a contest of the tenacity with which each side holds its core beliefs.  If we fudge or lean in the direction of our adversary, he will interpret our behavior as a measure of his success.

The tragic outlook, however bleak and unforgiving, should feel like liberation to every member of the US government, from President Obama to the meanest keyboard-pusher in the terror bureaucracy.  They need no longer pose as therapists to perpetrators of political murder.  They cannot be expected to master a science that doesn’t exist.  They are now released from that illusion.

Their job, rather, is to nurse and deploy the power of the United States, in order to keep us safe and protect our way of life.  Since, on this view, the world of human affairs is a cockpit of ruthless competition, the task will be tough enough:  but it lies within the realm of possibilities.

Data-gathering is still important.  We need to know where we stand.  But if the data is to be meaningful, we must not impose our categorical fantasies on it.  Instead, we should accept every painful perspective, and let the data tell us what it will.

Right now the data is saying that a quarter of the world is exploding in violence, while a quarter is blessed with relative peace – and the violent portion profoundly hates and wishes to destroy the peaceful one.  I’m not in the prophecy racket, but unless the trend lines drastically improve, the probability seems very high that there will be more terror attacks and more innocents killed, not just in France or Turkey or Lebanon, but here in the US.

If the worst happens – if the tide of blood and death from the Middle East once again sweeps over our shores – I would like to think that our government has prepared a more effective response than therapeutic formulas.

This entry was posted in analysis, cataclysm, democracy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Data and terror

  1. David Duke says:

    Your concluding remarks call to mind the sixth chapter of the Revelation to St. John, specifically with reference to God’s limitations on the reign of violence: And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth. (Rev 6:8 ESV)

  2. Capital says:

    “We need only accept that war and violence are at least as natural as peace and tranquility for the entire project of the terror industry to come undone. Our enemies must be seen to act from normal human motives, and are no longer vectors of psychopathology.”

    Effective US policy (with regard to IS/terrorism) really hinges on the truth content of these two sentences.

    1. “We need only accept that war and violence are at least as natural as peace and tranquility…”

    War and violence are natural under CERTAIN conditions. Peace and tranquility are natural under CERTAIN conditions.

    2. “…for the entire project of the terror industry to come undone.”

    If the project of anti-terror experts is to create conditions in Problem Regions in which peace and tranquility are natural human proclivities, I’d imagine they’d have the right Ideal. Unfortunately, for reasons you mentioned above, it may be impossible to do this.

    But what’s the alternative? ISIS is essentially decentralized to the extent their propaganda/recruitment methods transcend borders. Can you really kill an ideology with bullets? How can you prevent lone actors from self-radicalizing within Western borders?

    Your post was incredibly thought provoking, but I feel like WAR! is almost as useless a strategy as playing Therapist at this point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s