Do We Have Any Clue How to Fight Terrorism?


On the 12th anniversary of 9/11, Dylan Matthews decides to find out whether we’ve learned much of anything about fighting terrorism. Luckily, a trio of researchers produced a broad review of the counterterrorism literature in 2009. Unluckily, they didn’t find much to review:

The first problem the review identifies is that barely any of the terrorism literature even tries to answer questions about effective counterterrorism. “Of the over 20,000 reports regarding terrorism that we located,” the authors write, “only about 1.5 percent of this massive literature even remotely discussed the idea that an evaluation had been conducted of counter-terrorism strategies.”

They found 354 studies that did, however. Further culling left them 80 studies that could be reasonably said to evaluate the effectiveness of counterterrorism measures. Of these, only 21 of those 80 studies “appeared to at least attempt to connect an outcome or effect with a program through a minimally rigorous scientific test.” Of those 21, only 10 met the Campbell review’s methodological standards. Three of those were medical studies dealing with the effects of bioterrorism, leaving seven for the review to consider.

But wait! It’s even worse than that. Not only did they find only seven relevant studies—which is probably less than the number of studies of LOLcats in popular culture over the past decade1—but those seven studies were all basically negative. None of the counterterrorism strategies studied actually reduced terrorism.

In fairness, it’s possible there are classified studies we don’t know about. It’s also worth pointing out that supposedly rigorous academic studies aren’t the be-all and end-all of human knowledge. It’s perfectly reasonable for us to take actions based on our best intuitions about how our fellow human beings react to various carrots and sticks.

Nonetheless—and even granting that this is a difficult area to study—this is a pretty remarkable finding. You’d think that testing our intuitions about what works and what doesn’t would be of far greater interest that it is. I guess we’d all rather just blather and toss bombs around instead.

1After I wrote this, I got curious. Are there more studies of LOLcats than of counterterrorism strategies? That depends on your definition, but at the very least it’s a close call. A quick search of Google Scholar turned up an awful lot of citations for LOLcats. Among them were “Wants moar: Visual media’s use of text in LOLcats and silent film,” “I @m teh 1337 h@xx0r: A closer look at Internet Englishes and their sociolinguistic implications,” “I Can Haz an Internet Aesthetic?!? LOLCats and the Digital Marketplace,” and “I Can Has Cultural Influenz?: The Effects of Internet Memes on Popular Culture.” Among other things, this demonstrates that scholars of popular culture all apparently think they’re a lot cleverer than they really are.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest