[These days I don’t seem to know my vocabulary very well. For instance, I do know that terror means “extreme fear[1];” I get that one right. But when I go to “terrorism” in the dictionary I get a mealy-mouthed explanation along the line of “[uses] violence and intimidation in [an] attempt to achieve political aims.[2]” There’s no mention of “extreme fear” or any kind of fear, for that matter. So if some woman pushes me at a polling booth, breathes in my face, and tells me who to vote for, is she a terrorist? If so, she might be in real trouble. These days, I’m told, we’re in a war on terrorism.

Fred’s back, this time with a short piece on real terrorism, you know, the kind that involves decapitations, public burnings, stoning, exploding jackets and the like. I know, that’s hardly a nice topic for the Christmas season, but hey! We publish our ideas when we get them, and who knows when the next real terrorist might strike?  

Fred’s thesis is that terrorist acts often don’t frighten us – the general population – as much as the experts, and the terrorists, think.  Fred’s notion is a bit counter-intuitive, I suppose; it’s certainly not the view of our media, who morbidly focus on each and every incident, reporting every detail and rumor, while excitedly telling us not to give into fear; but, he says, history bears him out. And what minor historical event might he be referring to? Why, World War II, which ended 70 years ago, and certainly was a big deal. It was historic in every sense of that word.

The modern terrorist directs his [or her] violence against civilians in order to break the will of an enemy population. By that definition, the aerial bombardment used by both sides in WW II might also qualify. After all, what the combatants did was rain death down from the skies to win a war. However, and most importantly, it did not work as expected. But that’s Fred’s story, so I’ll let him tell it.]

Thanks, G. In spite of what people think today, we can learn a lot about current events simply by looking at the past. There’s no need to keep repeating our mistakes if we just read a little bit. With that in mind, I spent some time last week going through Herman Kahn’s great and upsetting work, On Thermonuclear War.[3] As you know, that book is a thicket of analyses and scenarios for nuclear war and how to avoid it. But it was published in 1960, only 15 years after WW II, so a lot of the analytic work is based on experience from the pre nuclear era. That’s the part that’s useful for today’s discussion. In particular, I looked at the chapter he called The Real Past.[4]

At the beginning of WW II many people thought air power would win it, and quickly.[5]  Why? For two reasons:

  1. The British, for one, grossly over-estimated the lethality of potential German air attacks on the British homeland [and their own attacks, I guess, going against Germany]. Official Government estimates were that the Germans, if they mounted an air attack, would “achieve about 50 casualties per ton of bombs dropped, one-third of which would be fatal.”[6] In actuality, Kahn reports, casualties during WW II were one-tenth of that.[7]
  2. In World War I the British had found that even “a small bombing attack could come close to paralyzing a city.”[8] So, they reasoned, if a small attack was bad, then one ten times larger would be ten times as bad, and one 100 times larger would be 100 times worse, etc. That’s what’s known as a simple, linear progression. In reality, the human animal doesn’t react that way to stress.

[Good summary. Why don’t you talk more about lethality and stress? And, by the way, how do they relate to terrorism?]


To discuss this I have to talk about strategic bombing as that concept was used during World War II. Wikipedia tells us that it was “the sustained aerial attack on railways, [harbors], cities, workers’ housing, and industrial districts in enemy territory.”[9] The idea behind it, of course, was to attack an enemy’s war-fighting capability as well as its troops on the ground. Industrial targets, etc. are not off-limits where strategic bombing is in play. To Herman Kahn, the great disappointment was that it was hard to do. [10] “We know now that the capacity for strategic bombing as it existed then [in WW II] had been exaggerated, but it took three or four years of war to show this convincingly.”[11]

[So air power didn’t live up to its promise. The bombing campaign was less effective than anticipated. Why was that?]

For one thing, it wasn’t as lethal as expected. Kahn doesn’t say why, but I think the main reason was that the bombs used were not very accurate. Today we have so-called smart weapons. Back then the bombs were dumb, to say the least. Also, there were no nuclear weapons available, except at the end of the war. They might have made a big difference if used earlier.

[What a thought! But it didn’t happen, and let’s not speculate on what might have been. Save it for the blogs we do on science fiction.]

Fine, I’m moving on. Terrorists today don’t seem to have much in the way of modern weapons technology. What they use, at least, seems to be the kind of thing that could have been made before WW II – improvised explosive devices, suicide vests, rifles, grenades, etc. – plus somewhat better weapons scavenged from Iraq, Afghanistan or the old Soviet Bloc. I say “seems,” of course, because I don’t have any inside sources; I just read the papers, like everybody else.

[Perhaps we ought to do a blog on that sometime; I’d like rather see data than just speculate.]

Perhaps. Anyway, it doesn’t look as though terrorists have aircraft readily available to attack U.S. targets. The significant exception to that, of course, was the attack of September 11, 2001 on New York’s World Trade Center. But in that case the terrorists actually scavenged the planes from us. They boarded civilian aircraft that morning as passengers, commandeered the aircraft, and flew them into the Center buildings. Presumably that won’t happen again since passengers are now better screened than before, and the doors to the pilot’s compartments are now locked. Note that I say “presumably”. But who checks the pilots?[12]

Anyway, there’s always the other nightmare: What if some of our advanced weapons fall into the wrong hands in the Middle East, and are smuggled back here to the homeland?

[If air attacks are mostly unavailable to terrorists – I think that are correct for now – what can such people do to buildings, factories, etc. here at home to put a real dent in our economy?

If WW II provides any relevant lessons, these kinds of structures are hard to destroy by conventional means, and no doubt many would have to be attacked, and damaged, to make a difference. Otherwise an economy as big as ours would just rebuild and move on, the same way we do after hurricanes.

[So what alternatives do they have?]

Not many, I would say, except what they do now: mount lethal attacks on the civilian population, wherever and whenever it’s possible. That seems to be their version of strategic warfare. They maximize their lethality by attacking night clubs, sports events and other such crowded venues. The idea, of course, is to stress out the populace, until a country is so terrorized that it’s willing to give up.

[Does that really work?]


Not so far. People aren’t so easily terrorized, and this is probably another reason why strategic bombing in World War II wasn’t as effective as predicted. People didn’t run away when the bombs fell. Herman Kahn explains the phenomenon with an analogy.

  • Suppose, he says, someone turns a lion loose on the streets of New York City. Mothers would not allow children out of the house. Others might be curious.
  • Suppose then the lion-master raises the ante to five or ten lions and keeps them there permanently. Are people 10 times more scared? No, they soon realize that “lions do not eat very much and … the average pedestrian’s life expectancy would not be greatly decreased if they ignored the danger. After all, five or ten lions might kill about as many people each year as would be killed by automobiles [in the City] and injure far fewer people.”[13]
  • So, at the ten lion level, people would take precautions, but most likely wouldn’t abandon the City. “If for some reason they could not hunt the lions down, they would just learn to live with them, bizarre as the situation might seem to us.”[14]
  • What if the villainous lion-master raises the population again, to fifty or one hundred lions, all of whom can’t be hunted? Well, then the lions would be more dangerous than automobiles, and no doubt some folks would leave. The risk of staying would be too great for them.

The point, in Kahn’s view, is that while one should make a distinction between one, ten and fifty lions, it’s simply not true that ten lions are ten times more frightening than one.

[So if you substitute terrorists for lions, you can conclude that one terrorist might kill a bunch of people, and make headlines, but he [or she] wouldn’t change this country’s attitude about much of anything. Ten successful terrorists might be worse, but not ten times worse. It would take a large number of terrorists, persistent and successful, to frighten us into surrender.]

Yes, people aren’t as easy to scare as terrorists might think.[15] If terrorist groups want to make an impression on the U.S., Europe, Russia and the other objects of their hatred, they will have to do a lot more. That in turn will excite the police, security apparatus, and military of the affected countries, and invite even more retaliation. In a tit-for-tat war, I think I know who wins, and who loses.

[You’re too careful about what you say. I’m optimistic. London didn’t evacuate when the Germans bombed it during World War II. New York didn’t disappear when the World Trade Center went down. Baghdad still functions, more or less, even though it’s bombed a lot by insurgents.[16] Paris is open for business after the last attack. As long as a Government looks like it’s fighting back, its people generally won’t give up.

It seems to me that terror only works for an outfit, say, like ISIS, when it physically controls the land it terrorizes; then, and only then, can it bring overwhelming force to bear on the people and break their collective will. That’s when ISIS and their kin are sufficiently lethal to get their way. Anyway, that’s what I think.

And, by the way, if somebody pushes me at a voting booth next year, and breathes heavily, I promise not to call her a terrorist, but I may try to have her arrested.]

[1] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at terror, p. 1070.

[2] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (3rd Edition, 2005) at terrorism, p. 1070. It sounds a little bit like “doesn’t play well with others,” doesn’t it?

[3] See Kahn, On Thermonuclear War (Princeton, 1960, Transaction reprint, 2010). Henceforth the Kahn book will be cited as Thermonuclear War at ___.

[4] See Thermonuclear War at Chapter VIII, The Real Past, p. 350 – 416.

[5] See Thermonuclear War at World War II, The War Itself,  p. 375: “Both the French and the British air power experts talked often and convincingly of the “[knock-out] blow” in which the side with the superior air force would win the war in a few days or weeks.”

[6] See Thermonuclear War at p. 376.

[7] Id.

[8] See Thermonuclear War at p. 375.

[9] See the Wikipedia entry on Strategic Bombing During World War II. It’s available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_bombing_during_World_War_II

[10] See Thermonuclear War at p. 379: “…one of the big disappointments World War II was the impact of strategic bombing, While such bombing proved to be very important, possibly even decisive, the effort required to make it effective was an order of magnitude more than most air power enthusiasts had estimated. The underestimation continued through the war. It was only after four years of war and the report of thee strategic bombing survey that we were able to evaluate the effectiveness of strategic bombing soberly.” Note to the reader: I’m not going to speculate about which evaluators were drunk during the war.

[11] See Thermonuclear War at p. 375.

[12] See, e.g., NBC News, Fox, Could Better Screening Catch Suicidal Pilots? (Mar. 27, 2015)  available at http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/german-plane-crash/could-better-screening-catch-suicidal-pilots-n331406

[13] See Thermonuclear War at p. 375-376.

[14] Id.

[15] Our media should pay attention here as well.

[16] For a list of insurgent bombings from 2003 – 2011, go to Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bombings_during_the_Iraq_War . For the more recent stuff, just use your search engine and search, say, “Baghdad bombings.”