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START director addresses common myths of terrorism

LaFree offers Distinguished Scholar-Teacher lecture

In exploring the dichotomous nature of terrorism, START Director Gary LaFree recently lectured on "Black Swans and Burstiness: Countering Myths on Terrorism" as part of the University of Maryland's Distinguished Scholar Teacher Lecture Series. LaFree's lecture primarily focused on the "black swan" and "bursty" nature of terrorism incidents.

LaFree defined black swan incidents as those that are unprecedented and defy expectations, 9/11 being the perfect example. Bursty incidents, however, are highly concentrated events in time and space. These two diverging characteristics create appreciable problems for policymakers, who might focus more on black swan incidents than more frequently occurring incidents, or disregard leading indicators of a coming trend by underappreciating the burstiness of terrorist attacks, according to LaFree.

"There are dangers in not reacting and dangers in overreacting," LaFree said.

Common misconceptions

LaFree also noted that the "black swan" nature of the 9/11 attack misleads many citizens and policymakers to assume certain characteristics about terrorism writ large. He focused on nine different myths of terrorism that stem from the idea of "black swan" incidents:

  • Terrorism was increasing in the years leading up to 9/11
  • Terrorist attacks reach every corner of the world
  • The United States is more frequently targeted than other countries
  • Most terrorist attacks involve disenfranchised groups
  • Most terrorist attacks are increasingly lethal
  • Most terrorist attacks are religiously motivated
  • Most terrorist attacks rely on sophisticated technology
  • Terrorist organizations are long-lasting and difficult to eradicate
  • Counterterrorism and government actions are not enough to stop terrorist groups

LaFree addressed these nine myths using supporting data from the Global Terrorism Database and other START research, while emphasizing both the ever-changing nature of terrorism and its increased potential for lethality in the 21st century. Increases in population density and the availability of dangerous technology create"an unparalleled opportunity for destruction of human life," LaFree said.

"Burstiness makes the threat of terrorism a significant reality in the 21st century."

LaFree is one of three faculty members from the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department to be recognized as a Distinguished Scholar Teacher. Juan Uriagereka, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, introduced LaFree highlighting his establishment of terrorism studies as a separate field within criminology. Uriagereka emphasized his personal connection to terrorism studies since his family is from Guernica, Spain, the famous site of a bombing during the Spanish Civil War. LaFree thanked his START colleagues, past and present, as well as his family for always being supportive of his efforts throughout his career.

He also acknowledged the work of START's interns and how the collaboration with interdisciplinary faculty, staff and students has been beneficial, "I am really lucky to have such a rewarding job."

You can watch the whole lecture event here. LaFree's talk begins at the seven minute mark.