How Not to Stop Terrorism

There is a chess book called How Not to Play Chess. The book shows all the things that good chess players must not do (for example, “Avoid mistakes” and “Don’t relinquish the initiative.”). It is a different way to approach chess strategy, but looking at the game from that different vantage point helped me see many different ways to improve my game.

This essay is in the same vein. Let’s outline some of the strategies that will not stop terrorism.

Building a wall will not work. In WWII, the French built the Maginot line, a string of defenses to keep the Germans out. What did the Germans do? They went around the wall, through Belgium and the Netherlands. If Mexicans are determined to find a way in, they will. They can take boats up the Gulf Coast. Cuban refugees took rickety boats across Atlantic ocean waters to Florida. Traversing the Gulf would be easier, though still treacherous. Desperate people will take extreme measures to survive. They already have.

And that is only the average Mexican, with very modest means. Think how much easier it would be for a well-financed terrorist to bypass a wall. Remember the tunnels the Mexican drug cartels built into Arizona? I predict that if the wall gets anywhere close to being built, there will be a network of underground tunnels before it is ever finished.

So, a wall won’t help.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is killing all terrorists. Upon closer analysis, this idea makes building a wall seem as normal as filling potholes.

Ted Cruz talked about bombing ISIS until the “sand glows in the dark.” Trump said he would “bomb the shit out of them.” These simplistic taunts – I hesitate to call them policies – have major flaws.

Bombing strikes of this magnitude are bound to inflict casualties upon the citizenry we are supposedly trying to protect. Many years ago, I read in a “News of the Weird”-type publication of strange-but-true news stories. In a northern town, a floating chunk of ice – a mini-iceberg – was threatening to damage a causeway. Town engineers devised a plan to use explosives to destroy the mini-iceberg. The explosion destroyed the causeway.

Even if unintended casualties were avoided, killing ISIS fighters will not discourage people from joining the fight. In fact, it will only encourage them. These are people who have subverted mainstream Islam and enticed their followers by saying that seventy-two virgins await martyrs for the cause in heaven. To paraphrase a line from Blazing Saddles, we can’t bomb them; it will only make them angry.

To have a fully successful bombing campaign, then, it must kill absolutely every ISIS fighter and potential ISIS sympathizer. Since new converts join because their friends are killed by the enemy’s bombs, that could potentially mean everyone – ISIS fighters, ISIS supporters, Muslims, Arabs, liberals – would need to be killed. You see where I’m going with this?

So, bombing won’t work either.

What will stop terrorism?

The title of this piece suggests that I don’t know what will work, but I hope it is plainly obvious to people what won’t work. The two policies I discussed won’t work because they don’t consider the mind of the terrorist. Building a wall assumes that terrorists will think, “Wow, that’s a huge wall. I’ll never get past it. I give up.” Bombing assumes the terrorists will think, “If they bomb us, I might be killed. That would be a bad thing. I better stop fighting.” Those thought processes are naive.

We need to try to consider the mind of a terrorist. I suspect one driving thought process is “we have a mission to convert all people to Islam – the right form of Islam. If we stop before that goal is completed, we are not being true to Allah.” Building walls and dropping bombs would be ineffective against this thinking.

I believe any approach to fighting terrorism needs to start with the terrorists’ hearts and minds.

Let’s discuss their beliefs with them. At the very least, it will show that we are interested, and validation goes a long way toward mutual understanding. If we press many terrorists, I suspect we will find very few who are willing to die for their beliefs.

The die-hard terrorists will need to be defeated militarily. There is probably no other good option. But, we must also point out to the wannabe terrorists that the die-hards we are stopping do not represent the vast majority of Muslims in the world.

We then can find out what the actual bee in their bonnet is. I doubt it is that everyone is an infidel and must be stopped. There may be issues of religious persecution, economic inequality, and the like. While these issues are not easy to solve, there is at least hope of a solution.

People may say this is a naive hope. I think it’s equally naive to think that we can stop terrorism with useless walls or indiscriminate bombing. At least, if we try to work on their hearts and minds, any unintended consequences will be more positive.


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