Opinion: We can deny terrorists their power

May 26, 2013


I have not seen the video.

Not saying I won’t, but for now, I’ve chosen not to. To rush online and seek out cell phone footage of two fanatics with machetes who butchered a British soldier in London on Wednesday, to watch them standing there, hands painted red with his blood, speaking for the cameras, would feel like an act of complicity, like giving them what they want, like being a puppet yanked by its strings.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of visceral revulsion, we forget an essential truth about terrorism. Namely, that the people who do these things are the opposite of powerful. Non-state sponsored terror is a tactic chosen almost exclusively by the impotent.

These people have no inherent power. They command no armies, they boss no economies, their collective arsenals are puny by nation-state standards. No, what they have is a willingness to be random, ruthless and indiscriminate in their killing.

But they represent no existential danger. The United States once tore itself in half and survived the wound. Could it really be destroyed by men using airliners as guided missiles? Britain was once bombed senseless for eight months straight and lived to tell the tale. Could it really be broken by two maniacs with machetes?

Of course not.

No, terrorism’s threat lies not in its power, but in its effect, its ability to make us appalled, frightened, irrational, and, most of all, convinced that we are next, and nowhere is safe. Here, I’m thinking of the lady who told me, after 9/11, that she would never enter a skyscraper again. As if, because of this atrocity, every tall building in America — and how many thousands of those do we have? — was suddenly suspect. And I’m thinking of my late Aunt Ruth who, at the height of the anthrax scare, required my uncle to open the mail on the front lawn after which, she received it wearing latex gloves.

I am also thinking of the country itself, which, in response to the 9/11 attacks, launched two wars — one more than necessary — at a ruinous cost in lives, treasure and credibility that will haunt us for years.

Have you ever seen a martial artist leverage a bigger opponent’s size against him, make him hurt himself without ever throwing a punch? That’s the moral of 9/11. The last 12 years have shown us how easily we ourselves can become the weapon terrorists use against us. This is especially true when video footage exists (How many times have you seen the twin towers destroyed?). After all, getting the word out, spreading fear like a contagion, is the whole point of the exercise.

That could not have been plainer Wednesday. Having reportedly run the soldier, Lee Rigby, down with a car, having hacked him to pieces with machetes, these men did not blow themselves up and they did not run. No, they spoke their manifestoes, their claims of Muslim grievance, into the cell phone cameras of passers-by.

Almost instantly, this was all over television and the Internet. Almost instantly the voices of impotent men were magnified to a global roar. Almost instantly, we all stood witness.

Terrorism uses its minimal power to achieve maximum effect and this is easier than ever on a planet that is now electronically networked and technologically webbed. Our connectivity is an exploitable vulnerability.

But in the end, no, these people cannot destroy us. Can they grieve us? Certainly. But they cannot destroy us unless we help them do it.

Their most lasting violence is not physical, but psychological — the imposition of fear, the loss of security. We cannot control what such people do. But we can control our reaction thereto. So let it be finally understood: From time to time, we will face the desperate evil of impotent men. But the only power they have is the power we give them.

I propose we give them none.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

Finally something from Leonard that I agree with. If we didn't sensationalize these acts of wanna be Martyrs there may not be as many of them. Why do they Kill in the name of Allah? I think it is because the Muslim community condones the practice. It will continue to happen until the "Peace Loving Muslims" step up and condemn these killings. I don't see that ever happening. Until it does, this will continue and can only be stopped by other Muslims. So, as Leonard says, pull all public stories and pictures of these events to minimize the resulting effects.

50YearResident 4 years, 10 months ago

Are there any Muslims reading this that will publicly denounce the actions of these two men in London? If so, post is up here for the World to see. Waiting.............

voevoda 4 years, 10 months ago

50YearResident, Obviously, you are not listening to the response of the Muslim community, if you think that Muslims aren't condemning these killings. They do, unequivocally. They call the terrorists false Muslims. When they become aware of plots to engage in violence, they report them to the authorities. I saw their statements, 50Year Resident. See, for example:





How loudly do they need to speak to get your attention, 50YearResident?

It seems to me, 50YearResident, that you don't hear when Muslims condemn violence because you want to believe that all Muslims support violence, that Islam is a religion of violence. Why else would you put "Peace Loving Muslims" in quotation marks and capital letters, except to express derision about Islam as religion?

George Lippencott 4 years, 10 months ago

Exactly what does this mean. Are we to allow them to kill Americans indiscriminately here on our own soil? Are we to look the other way when innocent American tourists are killed while touring? I do not think we have willed them any more power then would naturally be theirs given that the "cull" the herd. Maybe that is OK for some of you but not for me.

Sure, we need to pick our wars carefully. Unfortunately sometimes the enemy picks the war and you only have a choice of fighting back or accepting their terms. Burkas anyone?

voevoda 4 years, 10 months ago

You, itsjusme, are as deaf as 50YearResident, if you think that Muslims are not condemning terrorism. They certainly are! But on what basis do you make Muslims corporately responsible for the evil-doers who arise out of their community? Are you to blame for the Christian who committed the act of terrorism against the Sikh temple last year? Why didn't you restrain him? Did Christians, by their silence, by their lack of action, facilitate the extremist in their fold? They must somehow have pressure put on them. If you don't agree, itsjusme, that Christians are equally responsible for acts of violence committed by Christians as you want Muslims to be for Muslims, then you are apply to others a standard you do not observe for yourself.

George Lippencott 4 years, 10 months ago

If some segment of the world Muslim population is condemning radical Muslim terrorists why is that not better known? I sure have not seen many (if any) reports of such condemnation on my 24/7/365 blaring news channels (all of them)

jafs 4 years, 10 months ago

That's a very good question, but we can't answer it for you.

You should ask the various news sources that you use - it would be interesting to hear what they'd say. If you're interested in news sources that do report that condemnation, there are a couple of extensive lists of links in above posts you can check out.

voevoda 4 years, 10 months ago

You must access different news sources from the ones I consult, Moderate. Maybe you should stop getting your news from the "blaring news channels" and start reading on-line news providers. CNN and the Washington Post websites, which I and tomatogrower cited, certainly are known to you. If you want information about what Muslims are thinking, you ought to consult reputable Muslim sources. You could start here, and find more Muslim condemnations of terrorism than you can imagine:


George Lippencott 4 years, 10 months ago

I read the NYT and the WP every day. Little mention. I did note that a Muslim group in Britain denounced the killing of that soldier. That is the majority of references you listed above. Hope those condemnations continue but this case does not prove your point. I recall little clamor from any Muslim group when they beheaded our troops or journalists.

I also wacth CNN every morning.

Once again a

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

I think his message is if we let fear overcome us, and if we hide in our bunkers, and if we pass laws that take away our rights, and murder Sikhs, because they "look" Muslim, etc, then the terrorists have won. You can hide away in fear if you want, but then you have lost.

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

Ok, the sun is out and the pavement is not wet, but in your opinion it's raining.

George Lippencott 4 years, 10 months ago

Of course you are always right. What makes your opinion superior to others to the extent you belittle them. Must be the same arrogance that led to the IRS, AP, Fox, Gun running, illegal appointments, ad nausea.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 10 months ago

Why did people stand there and calmly record this on their cells?

At one point the man giving the reasons for what they did says that he is sorry that women had to see that, but in his country women see blood all the time. Which is true, there are terrible things going on in parts of Africa. So, is he saying that if the British see blood on their streets, they will move to stop it in his country?

He was very cool and calm as he was talking, no agitation, no anger.

tomatogrower 4 years, 10 months ago

That was the scary part, his calm. If he is concerned about violence in his country, I can't figure out why he doesn't go back to his country and try and change things for the good. Terrorists, if they really have a "cause", lose any support for that cause, because of the their behavior. When are they going to learn that?

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