Terrorism: May 22, 2001


critically ill patients. Have a nice day.

Terrorists Don't Want to Kill You; One of the dirty little secrets of terrorism is that a terrorists main objective isn't to kill people, but to scare them. This often gets overlooked when the media jumps on any event that might be a terrorist act. The 1996 explosion of Flight 800 off the coast of New York was a classic example. This wasn't even a terrorist act, it just looked like one. MSNBC hauled me in right away as a terrorism expert and my first comment was that the crash was probably the result of mechanical failure (the explosion was too large for any bomb a terrorist was likely to use.) This was not well received. The media thrives on bad news and mechanical failure doesn't make the cut. But I was called back on camera a few days later when pundits were speculating that a ground to air missile had done the deed. I pointed out that the aircraft was too high for a portable missile to reach it. And a larger missile would have been much more difficult to hide. That was the end of my career as a terrorism expert on MSNBC. It turned out that Flight 800 did go down because of an electrical problem in a nearly empty fuel tank. And no missiles were involved. But this aspect of the story got much less attention. 

Even without terrorists involved, Flight 800 turned out to be a terrorist act. Airport security was tightened once more and media ran terrorism stories for months. Millions of airline passengers were terrorized. The U.S. Postal Service even got involved, making it illegal to put a package weighing more than a pound in a mailbox. Instead, you had to take it to a post office, where crack anti-terrorism experts behind the counter would determine if you were mailing a bomb to someone. That rule is still in effect, even after everyone concluded that there was no terrorists involved with flight 800's demise. 

Keep in mind that your chances of getting killed in an act of airborne terrorism are less than fatal events like; lightning strike, tornadoes or hurricanes. You have more to fear from driving to the airport than from terrorist activity.

So why are we terrorized?

Blame it on technology, for these days bad news travels farther and faster. For thousands of years, terror was a local thing. In fact, most terrorist acts today are strictly local. We sometimes hear of terror attacks in far off places like Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Chechnya and Indonesia and don't give it another thought. But let an airliner get attacked anywhere and the media jumps all over it. Air travel and mass media have changed terrorism over the last half century. Even though flying is safer than any other form of transportation, it scare people. And media loves stuff that scares us. If terrorists want to be media stars, they can do it. 

The procedure is simple.

First, you organize a peaceful lobbying organization for your cause. This outfit is also used to collect money for the worthy cause the terrorists are killing people in the name of. Most terror organizations are backed by a peaceful group that supplies money for the terrorists and press releases for the media. Now here's the catch. Terrorism is dangerous to the terrorists as well, especially international terrorism. It's not easy to pull off. And if Americans are involved, you will probably be caught and punished. Blowing up airliners is particularly inflammatory. It's dangerous to be associated with successful terrorists. So terrorist front organizations rarely say anyone they are associated with committed a particular attack. But plenty is said about how whoever did it was forced to do so by whatever injustice the terrorists were spreading terror in the name of. And the point is made. People are terrorized and organizations that use terrorism get attention without getting blame and retribution.

International terrorists are nothing without the media. Local terrorists can, and often do, terrorize quite successfully using just word of mouth. Many nations control their media quite effectively. While all news of terrorist activities cannot be suppressed, a forceful government can keep down the constant repetition the media is fond of when they have a terrorism story.

The media makes all the difference. Don't believe it? Well, then consider people killed by lightening each year. World wide, over five thousand people get zapped fatally, and many more are injured by these bolts out of the blue. For sheer terror, you can't beat lightning. But the media doesn't cover lightning strikes the way they cover terrorism. The rationale being that you can't do anything about lightning, while you can deal with terrorism. Lightning is mindless, terrorism seeks specific targets. Actually, you can do a lot to avoid lightning and many fatal zappings are quietly avoided each year. As for terrorism, the most dangerous international terrorists just want to kill Americans. Not very selective, at least lightning only shows up when the weather conditions are right. You can do something about terrorism, you can't do much about terror as long as news organizations are looking for hot headlines. 

But this brings us back to the original point. Terrorists don't want to kill you, they just want to terrorize you. If terrorists really put all their efforts into killing people, they would soon disappear as an organization. It's dangerous being an active terrorist. It's much less dangerous, and far more effective, to be a terrorist who mainly issues press releases. 

So relax, press releases tend to be annoying, not fatal. And seek shelter if you find yourself


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