Incompetent Terrorists

Examining the Glasgow terrorist attempt, Tim Harford speculates on why terrorists may be so incompetent. On first blush, his question seems all too sensible. I mean, we’ve been hearing “chatter” since before 9/11, have seen or read about multiple “just released” videos (so much so that it’s practically become a genre!), in the States have measured our lives in shades of yellow, orange, and red, but have not, for all this, been subject to another 9/11. Indeed, the closest we have come was the latest steam explosion in New York, tragic but hardly terrorist.

Harford’s larger point is that terrorist attacks are not simple. They require strategic planning and precise implementation. They are more apt to go wrong than right.

But I find myself a little baffled by his sense that terrorists may be incompetent. That assessment only works if we describe terrorism as loud bangs and many deaths—a not unrealistic description. Focusing less on noise and death, we might be able to understand the psychic afterlife of terrorism.

For, to be sure, 9/11 changed the U.S. psyche. Terrorism means that we live in a state of what Mad Moody calls “Constant Vigilance!” Even those who consider themselves to be fairly rational and unflappable (though, to be fair, my sample population are academics and we’re all a bit paranoid anyway), have a heightened awareness of vulnerability. It is to be found in the small starts and jumps that demonstrate our changed relationships to space and sound. Even those who dismiss 9/11 as a government conspiracy have a relationship to terrorism, the only question being the source of danger.

I find it premature, if not foolhardy, to conclude that most terrorists have failed. Indeed, their greatest success may not lie in body counts, but in the psychic atmosphere they have helped create.