In the New York Times this weekend, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “[W]e may be tired of this ‘war on terrorism,’ but the bad guys are not. They are getting even more ‘creative.’”
On September 26th, the New York Times reported in a story by Scott Shane:
Many students of terrorism believe that in important ways, Al Qaeda and its ideology of global jihad are in a pronounced decline — with its central leadership thrown off balance as operatives are increasingly picked off by missiles and manhunts and, more important, with its tactics discredited in public opinion across the Muslim world.
Who’s right? Should we be more concerned or less?
Well, the statements are not inconsistent. But unlike the analysts cited in the news story, columnist Friedman uses loaded terms and broad generalizations like “war on terror”, “bad guys”, and “creative” to misconstrue the nature of the terrorist threat.
Friedman says “war” a dizzying seventeen times in his short column, misdescribing the many different efforts that go into suppressing terrorism, dissuading terrorist recruits, and capturing or killing terrorists.
He lumps all terrorists together as “bad guys” despite expert counsel against assuming they have similar aims and motives, or that they collaborate.
And “creative”?—well, putting a bomb in your keister is creative, but it is not an effective way to harm anyone other than yourself.
But don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. The point is not to dismiss terrorism as a threat. It’s to know that terrorists are fallible, al Qaeda is on the wane, and law enforcement is on the case. In terrorism, we are not confronted by anything close to an existential threat.
Friedman’s column is a reach, and it does a distinctly bad job of working with any of these subtleties. (The only reason I feel compelled to call them “subtleties,” I suppose, is because they seem to remain beyond the grasp of an otherwise intelligent and thoughtful New York Times columnist.)