Four Highly Effective Responses to Terrorism


1. Choose liberty over security.

2. See events like the Boston Marathon bombing -- by virtue of their rarity -- as evidence of our relative security, not as one more reason to feel afraid.

3. Understand that our relative security is guaranteed on the whole not by guards and guns, but by basic human psychology, which involves the remarkable nonviolence of the majority of human beings in ordinary circumstances. The exceptions to this rule, far from being minimized by repressive or violent acts, will only be multiplied by them.

4. In the name of both liberty and security: Whatever the ideology of the perpetrators of a terrorist act – right wing or left, Islamist or otherwise – do not make one event an excuse to clumsily demonize a large swath of largely peaceable humanity: conservative or liberal, Muslim or other.

-- Wes Alwan


  1. Andrew Richey says

    Whatever the ideology of the perpetrators of a terrorist act – right wing or left, Islamist or otherwise – do not make one event an excuse to clumsily demonize a large swath of largely peaceable humanity: conservative or liberal, Muslim or other.

    I am unclear as to the unit of measurement of “large swath”.

    Say, for example, that 20 to 30 percent of self-described Marxists, or Muslims, or Tea Partiers consistently respond to polls, in their own words, to the effect that such acts are justified, and a very very disturbing additional percentage agrees with the ends but not this very specific means, all the while cranking out a torrent of rhetoric about “watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants” or some other such very unmistakable threats.

    Does pointing this out constitute “demonizing” a “swath”, albeit possibly not a “large” one?

    • Alex says

      Actually, according to Gallup, Muslim Americans are less likely than other faith groups (including atheists and agnostics) to find the deliberate targeting of civilians to ever be justified.

      • Andrew Richey says

        I was raising a hypothetical, and specifically used tea party rather than islamic phraseology to illustrate the point.

        We are implored (rightly) not to demonize thoughtlessly. I am asking for just basic clarification of how to apply this rule. How am I supposed to heed a command if I don’t know when it does and does not apply?

        Surely, there is plenty of harmless rhetoric floating around which, in the immediate aftermath of a violent tragedy, appears tasteless. Surely we can say “I’ve got the opposition candidate in my sights!” or “let’s lock and load!” without being accused of inciting violence, even though this sort of thing ends up looking bad if some whackjob, for irrelevant reasons, literally opens fire on my political opponent.

        But just as surely, there must be some threshold of morally culpable discourse. You can only make so many hysterical pronouncements about how Obama is going to murder everyone’s grandma before you cross the line from hyperbole to genuine incitement to lunatic violence, and your discursive community can only contain so much of it before the entire enterprise becomes morally suspect. It is an abdication of cultural responsibility on the part of philosophy if it pretends not to notice the difference between blaming “environmentalism” for the Unabomer and blaming Islam for 9/11, or the militia movement for Oklahoma City.

  2. Paul says

    Thanks for this, Wes. I am also local to Boston, and your post expresses my greatest fear about this event. Given a choice between a security/police state and one in which events like this are possible, I unequivacally and unapologetically choose the latter.

  3. says

    I lived in Boston for a few years as a student (I’m working in the UK now). I knew people running in the marathon.
    I really appreciate your quick and thoughtful comments Wes. It’s good to establish that basic framework before jumping into the ring of public debate that is sure to follow.


  4. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Courage (to build on the wise words of Wes):

    As terrorism continues to occur, not only are our basic structures of law and order being challenged, but our individual perceptions and actions are equally being challenged. It becomes increasingly important to continue to hold strong to our basic beliefs in freedom while providing protection of those freedoms through security measures. Our freedoms are not only under threat from foreigners, but also from our own citizens, so we need to keep our focus on the proven violent few, rather than on the temptation to overgeneralize to races and people who live peaceable and law-abiding lives.

    Otherwise, in the psychological violence of falsely judging others, we are likely thereby to reduce psychological freedom for others and for ourselves, and we are also more likely to vote for politically increasingly restrictive measures which can falsely imprison the majority in order to keep us “secure” from the minority. There is an inverse relationship between security and freedom of the user, as you may have noticed applies the use of the internet. Increased security and you have less freedom of access, while total freedom of access allows for invasion of privacy. The same occurs for political and personal freedoms versus security, and there is a balance to be kept: freedom without security is chaos, and security without freedom is imprisonment.

    So in the post-911 world, perhaps our most important challenge is increasingly to develop the security of our own character and will to act courageously and wisely in the face of violence—each individual doing their part to engage and resist violence both in our external environment and in our internal character.

  5. Jonathan Bean says

    I wish these points were sarcastit, because I disagree, what good is freedom now for those that were killed due to lack of security. I advocate a solution that is pre-emptive to mass acts of violence. We need better technology and methods to detect those who are prone to be violent. What good is privacy if you are killed for having too much of it. What do you suggest is the solution, you say a lot about what we should not do but what about what we should do, where are your solutions. I hope this blog becomes more solutions oriented rather than just describing problems and what not to do. We have enough of those descriptions and they are not as helpful as encouraging solutions. I must ask what your intentions are in making this post. Sorry for being blunt but I am struggling to find and be part of the solutions for the problems of the world. I mean what effect do you hope to have on your audience? Sorry if constructive criticism is not welcome, but the world needs more solutions. Maybe you can post my story about a solution called “the discontentment survey” search that phrase in google to see it.

      • Jonathan Bean says

        I am implying a solution that involves caring for those who have tendencies for violence. We should consider forming a massive expert task force to use the tools available and research better tools that can predict violence, then we would treat them with dialectical therapy, medications, tend to the causes of their discontentment, and teach them to handle emotions well. Here is the article I wrote on the subject of what this task force might be and do.
        The tool exists and is called the violence forecasting clinical assessment tool, the “HCR-20-C”. It was mention in the interview with Teo, the leader of the study that confirmed the tool’s efficacy, that came out in the March-April issue of “The Futurist” that I found at the library.
        We should use this tool on everyone for everyone’s well being including the disaffected well-being.
        If you did not have the skills to deal with your emotions but did not know of this deficiency, wouldn’t you want people to determine that you lack these skills and then teach you them even if you resisted at first. Eventually people will be happy to have learned of their emotion handling deficiency and to get treatment/education.

    • Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

      Hi Jonathan,

      Since this is a philosophy forum I will address the lack of philosophical inquiry that your statement shows. You claim that the comments here call for inaction, but that only comes from your point of view that pre-preemptive violence or “security measures” can stem these atrocities. This does not take into account that firstly, calling people to consider ideas before acting is not a call to inaction, just a call for deliberation in the face of disaster. Secondly it does not take into account that we (as a country) have already spent several times more than the rest of the world to do exactly what you claim we should do, preemptively strike our enemies and clamp down on civil liberty in the name of security, all to no avail in the face of this tragedy. Lastly, on the point of finding solutions, that is the job of democratic processes and science in my opinion, we are here to make sure that the people in charge of those positions are not chasing their own tails trying to solve the wrong problems. I hope that through further thought and consideration, you can see the value in what a philosophical community can add to this problem, rather than expect everyone to be up in arms and ready to draw and quarter some other human being for their horribly irrational and deluded view of the world.

      • Jonathan Bean says

        Certain actions are necessary in order to uphold certain values to certain degrees. If we value privacy highly we must prove this by paying the price of insecurity highly. Though if we want to prove that we value security highly we must pay for it by sacrificing our sense of privacy, which is more valuable is the question we should discuss. What good is privacy if you are not alive to “enjoy” it. If you value the rights of society as opposed to the rights of the individual you will want the society to thrive and survive more so than any other life. Society is earning its rights slowly but is bound to succeed in overcoming the rights perceived “individualities”.
        I think democracy works best when everyone is responsibly informed, educated, and given the tools of reasoning. Everyone should be involved in every decision to some degree. I propose a solution to democracy that involves the production of a program and system that evaluates everyone’s values, beliefs, and opinions to determine what values prevail and then how those values should directly influence the policies. It would be Technological government 2.0. First it would be implemented in simulations of how things would change. I wrote about it here:

    • Dominic says


      do a little research on guerilla war, irregular war, and counter-insurgency warfare. you will see that there is NO pre-emptive solution to it. States simply cannot pre-empt this kind of action, and the states explicitly admit it. Which is why we talked so much about “hearts and minds” when we went into Afghanistan. Which is also why Wes is correct.

      • Jonathan Bean says

        We are dealing with a radical belief/mind and so preemptive action should be dealing with the belief/mind of people in general. Specifically, radical Islamic extremism should be dealt with same way we treat these extremists in our country, they need mental health services and that is what should be the preemptive action. I hope that we treat them as would like to be treated if we were born into a system of belief that caused us to do mean things. We must deal with the belief system rationally. We need massive scaled citizen to citizen interaction and education of these people. I am against any violence. Ideally we deal with people even our “enemies” in a holistic way that proves to everyone that we care for all life holistically. We need to care for every need and aspect of a everyone if we are to be an empathetic society.

  6. Profile photo of Simon Borrington says

    Sound words Wes.
    Tentatively, I would further suggest that we can never fully protect ourselves against any anger, for whatever reasons, that reduces any individual, or collective, to this level of hate, in the same way that we can never guarantee against personal or social tragedy despite however many personal and social safeguards we put into place.
    Furthermore, if we do not agree with the haters then we must avoid contributing to the levels of hate in the world. Sensible precaution is a rational response; stereotyping, disenfranchisement, and the restriction of personal liberty are not – they raise the levels of hate in the world.
    Having lived and worked through the IRA London bombing campaign of the 1970s, my suggestion, meant in no way to be taken as facetious, is start signing up for next years marathon today.

  7. Brian says

    Well said. I would add simply, “The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized“. Schneier has other cogent essays about the importance of resilience, intelligence and general preparedness, rather than a focus on specific events or tactics.

    To Jonathan Bean, in additino to pointing to Schneier as an excellent source of solutions, I would suggest that no amount of security, no matter how Orwellian, will prevent all acts of senseless violence. Trying to achieve that leads only to a morass of unintended consequences, and we’ll still have bad things happening. And, as tragic as the Boston event was, if you’re that concerned about a repeat I suggest you first look at banning cars. Over 30,000 people were killed by cars last year. Events like Boston don’t even come close to being the worst threat we face each day.

  8. Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

    As was mentioned on our terrorism episode, it’s important to, in determining what “we” should do, to figure out what “we” is referring to. No one’s saying that law enforcement or the CIA shouldn’t do its thing, but merely that we as a culture should not overreact and become fearful in a way that in turn distorts the political process, say, by allowing us to irrationally go to war against a country that had nothing to do with these particular attacks just to be proactive.

    The connection between the culture and the actions of the government is indirect and complicated, and all of Wes’s recommendations here have to do with what you, 99.995% of the potential audience, should do, who are not directly responsible for counter-terrorism activities. Encouraging us all to pitch in and spy on our neighbors and avoid public places and buy gas masks would be the futile alternative to what Wes has suggested.

  9. says

    I was emailed this link by a relative and thought it was very poignant, I really enjoyed it! I’m not sure how much it ties into this and whether or not it is appropriate, but I recently had an article published on a current affairs website that might contribute to the discussion:

    It certainly agrees with the fourth point made.

    The rarity of these attacks do highlight cause for less panicking and a more measured response.

  10. Dominic says

    Brilliance from Wes Alwin, as usual. You should blog more Wes, although your usual posts are pretty long and well researched, so it makes sense you do it less often


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