Things That Go Bump

When you fly on commercial airlines a lot, your subconscious mind learns to recognize sounds that are normal and sounds that are unusual, even if you don’t know what they are. When the landing gear hydraulics are engaged, for example, you know that it’s just a routine noise without thinking about it.

Last spring I was on an airplane, 30,000 feet above wherever, when a loud, staccato pounding noise started up from somewhere near the tail section. Everyone on board knew immediately that it was not a normal noise, and looked up from whatever they had been doing to seek reassurance from the other passengers. It was clear to me that all of us felt the same thing, a stab of sheer terror.

The problem turned out to be something quite innocuous. A small boy had gotten himself locked in the restroom, panicked, and began desperately to pound on the door. I’m not sure what the flight attendant did to remedy the situation, but whatever it was happened very quickly.

Like cats after a dog leaves the room, we all relaxed and resumed our naps or books or video games as though nothing had happened, but the incident taught me something. I learned that the spread of terrorism throughout the world has been affecting us in a way that we rarely see, creating a well of fear beneath the surface that can be tapped into at any moment.

People who like statistics will tell you that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to die in an airplane, or to be personally involved in a terrorist event. That is technically true, but as someone who has twice been on airplanes that were struck by lightning, I can tell you that statistics mean very little when something truly scary happens, and the news has conditioned us to associate scary events with terrorism.

That’s the point, I guess, to make us feel unsafe and to give us the impression that the carnage will keep getting worse until our governments withdraw forces from parts of the world where the terrorists consider us to be occupying powers. That techniqueis nothing new, as you can find examples dating back at least 2,000 years, when there was an uprising against the Roman Empire in Judea.

In more recent times the British Empire was the target of terrorist attacks in a variety of occupied territories throughout the world. One of the better-known insurrections began in 1858 with the creation of an organization called the Fenian Brotherhood, later succeeded by the Irish Republican Army. Although most of Ireland would gain independence in 1921, the “troubles” would continue in Northern Ireland until 1994.

The term “terrorist” goes back to the French Revolution, which was punctuated by the infamous Reign of Terror from September of 1793 to July of 1794. The situation was entirely different from those which we generally associate with terrorism, as the reign was carried out by a political faction which had taken control of the French government. The Jacobins even provided trials, of a sort, for the 16,594 enemies of the state whom they executed by guillotine.

The common denominator between that and the other historical examples of terrorism is that it targeted certain individuals as a warning to anyone who was tempted to pursue a similar course. In many cases, terrorists attacked people who were perceived to be collaborators with invaders or oppressors.

It seems as though that formula has been abandoned by modern terrorists, who simply try to murder as many innocent people as possible. The “new” terrorist takes his own life in a crowded public place, or is killed by police, in a spectacular fashion that will attract the maximum media coverage. It doesn’t matter to him who the victims are, only that the rest of us know about it.

We certainly do, to the point where it makes you wonder whether terrorist attacks are actually increasing, or they are just getting more attention from cable news. Some studies have indicated that violence in the world, including mass killings, has decreased over the past 20 years, but incidents defined as terrorism have in fact been rising dramatically.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, over the past 16 years, the number of events has increased from a few hundred per year to around 4,000, and they are becoming more deadly. In 2014, for example, they accounted for 32,685 fatalities, an increase of 80 percent over the previous year. More than 97 percent of those deaths occurred in the Middle East.

If you’re like me, you might also wonder what effect terrorism has, or is likely to have, on your business. President Obama said last March that terrorism was not “an existential threat” to the United States, by which some people thought he meant that it was not a big deal, but I think he meant the remark literally, that terrorism was not going to annihilate our nation. That doesn’t mean it won’t have an effect.

Ten years after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, The New York Times published an analysis of the financial repercussions from 9/11. It estimated the physical rebuilding cost at $55 billion, business interruption at $123 billion, Homeland Security Department expenses at $589 billion, war funding at $1,649 billion, and future foreign commitments and veteran benefits at $867 billion. That comes to a total of $3 trillion, 283 billion.

Some estimates put the costs even higher, but in any event it’s an enormous amount of money that surely has a huge impact on our economy, and that of the entire world. You could argue that some of the spending has a stimulative effect, but it still has to come from somewhere, even if it gets added to the national debt. The way I look at it, it’s $3 trillion that won’t be spent on art supplies, or magazine advertising.

The macro-economic implications of terrorism clearly affect every business, but there is another factor that also worries me in relation to the retail industry. Places that have a lot of stores, such as shopping malls, downtown business districts and popular tourist spots, are high on the list of so-called “soft targets.” They are places that are very easy for any of us to imagine ourselves being, and very difficult to keep terrorists out of. The odds of an attack happening at your particular location may be extremely small, but the odds of shoppers getting spooked and ordering online are much higher.

The sad irony to the whole situation is that most historians and political scientists agree that terrorism doesn’t work. A study conducted by Columbia University professor Page Fortna, entitled “Do Terrorists Win?” analyzed 104 groups which had employed the tactic in an effort to win armed conflicts since 1989. Not one of those groups achieved its aims, and about the only thing terrorism accomplishes is that it prolongs the duration of wars.

The good news is that this seemingly interminable struggle will someday end, and the murderers will gain nothing from their slaughter of the innocent. I am reminded of a remark Ronald Reagan once made regarding another very long conflict. “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: we win, they lose.”


by Kevin Fahy, you can e-mail Kevin at

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