asymmetricHave you ever heard of an Asymmetric weapon? In military parlance, an Asymmetric weapon is one which in some way has a dramatic effect for a small expenditure of effort or money.  A shoulder launched ground-to-air missile that brings down a multi-million dollar aircraft is Asymmetric.  The suicide attack by a small boat on the U.S.S. Cole on October 12, 2000 was Asymmetric in that a small boat and several hundred pounds of explosives inflicted major damage on the ship and took the lives of 17 American sailors.   Improvised Explosive Devices like those used on roadsides in Afghanistan and Iraq are Asymmetric when a few dollars in explosives take out a Humvee.  I couldn’t help but think of the term watching events unfold in Watertown, MA, yesterday.   Virtually an entire city had been shut down by the pursuit of a single 19-year old man.  Hundreds of law enforcement officers and millions of dollars of equipment were arrayed against a man too young to play in the NBA.   And on Monday, two miscreants with nothing to give the world and two homemade bombs killed three, and injured nearly two hundred.  Very Asymmetric.

But terrorist acts, particularly in the United States, are Asymmetric in another way.  The odds of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack in the United States are miniscule.  According to Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the odds of dying in a terrorist attack is about 1 in 88,000.  For comparison, the odds of dying by falling off a ladder is estimated at 1 in 10,000.  An article in Psychology Today titled The Boston Marathon Bombing: Why Terrorism Works, says, It rips us so harshly and suddenly out of our comfort and complacency, calling up from our subconscious the always lurking but mostly suppressed truth that we are never as completely safe as we tell ourselves we are. Against our routine lives and normalcy, the out-of-the-blue suddenness and brutal violence of these attacks summons our survival instincts with a wrenching power.  And the Weatherhead Center adds, People overestimate risks they can picture and ignore those they cannot. Government warnings and 24–hour news networks make certain dangers, from shark attacks to terrorism, seem more prevalent than they really are.  In other words, terrorism is Asymmetric in that it creates fear out of proportion to the actual danger.

Maybe we can reduce the possibility of terrorist attacks by being more vigilant about what goes on around us, but beyond that we depend on our law enforcement to prevent acts like the Boston Bombings.  It is the nature of a free and open, life-loving society that it will be vulnerable to attacks with simple devices in the hands of deluded individuals.  But if terrorism works because of its power to create fears asymmetrically beyond the actual danger, we fight terror every time we remember we’re a lot more likely to die in an auto accident than at the hands of a terrorist.  And we go about our lives accordingly.

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2 Comments on “Asymmetric”

  1. Once upon a time, women were less likely to marry after age 40 than to die in a terrorist attack. I’m hoping, in a really weird way, that stat has changed. 🙂

  2. As you know, in 1993, al Qaeda tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They just failed on that occasion. And we, the United States, had been the victim of terrorist attacks by al Qaeda on more than a handful of occasions in the 1990s. What happened on 9/11 that is so important is that they proved beyond a doubt that they were not the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, which is what we thought was the case before 9/11. When we realized just how competent and dangerous they were, we then began to hypothesize what might happen if they got ahold of weapons of mass destruction, and particularly, if they got ahold of nuclear weapons. So the terrorism problem has been with us for awhile, and most IR theorists have spent some time thinking about it. But what has changed over the past year is the magnitude of the threat. We understand that we’re up against a much more formidable and much more dangerous adversary than we thought was the case throughout the 1990s. So that’s point number one.

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