December 22, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The True Costs of Terror

• On December 21, all 17 schools in the Nashua, New Hampshire public school district were closed due to an undisclosed security threat

• This follows last week’s closure of the entire Los Angles Unified School District—comprising more than 650,000 students—due to a hoax terror threat

• As the U.S. responds to increasing terror concerns—both real and inflated—the true costs of terrorism are revealed in reactionary measures, societal divisions, and the loss of perspective

• Terrorism is a serious but manageable concern for Western countries, though it remains a critical threat in regions plagued with conflict and instability.


Terrorism has many hidden costs, as incidents and responses beget more incidents and responses. The United States is currently trapped within a vicious cycle, in which tragedies and verifiable threats compel understandable fears and then unwarranted reactions. The more terrorism achieves its goal of terrorizing a society, the more difficult it becomes to react appropriately and—more importantly—prudently.

On December 21, another U.S. school district was closed due to the threat of terror. The 17 schools comprising the Nashua, New Hampshire public school district canceled classes due to an undisclosed ‘credible’ threat. There is no further information regarding the details and nature of the threat, but school officials understandably must err on the side of caution when it comes to school safety. The phrase ‘out of an abundance of caution’ is often employed in situations involving terror threats, as protocol overrides discretion to a degree that is understandable, but regrettable.

The school shutdown in Nashua follows two very different but troubling closures of school districts in Virginia and California. The 10,000 students of the Augusta County School District in Virginia stayed home on December 18 after officials received unspecified threats to staff and facilities. The threats came after a teacher assigned students to practice Arabic calligraphy by tracing and drawing the Muslim statement of faith, the Shahada. Such Islamophobic incidents, while isolated and rare, have increased in the aftermath of the November terror attacks in Paris and the December terror attack in San Bernardino, California.

It was the relative proximity both in time and location to the San Bernardino attack that led to the closure of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the United States. Involving almost 1,000 schools and over 650,000 students, the closure of the school district was no small matter; Los Angeles officials were on the defensive after New York City school officials, having received the same threat, judged it a hoax and kept schools open. For security officials, there is a fine line between looking wise and looking foolish when it comes to vague threats, especially those without any hint as to the identity of the culprit. While discretion and judgment are obviously paramount, officials are caught in a security nightmare; if they close a school and nothing happens, they appear overreactive; if they keep a school open and an attack takes place, they appear incompetent or callous. That is why, unless a threat can be proven unfounded, it is usually treated as credible and serious.

This nearly-automatic assumption of credibility, in the absence of an obvious hoax, leads to copycat threats. The publicity surrounding these closures not only inspires students looking for a day off but also people seeking to disrupt the rhythms of society and increase general levels of fear. This phenomenon is not limited to schools; airlines are particularly susceptible to bomb threats. The December 20 fake bomb threat aboard an Air France flight from Mauritius to Paris was different from the three other hoax bomb threats the airline has received in the last few weeks only in that someone had taken the time to craft a cartoonish fake bomb aboard the plane instead of just emailing or calling in the threat.

There is little that can be done to remedy official overreaction, especially given the simultaneous overreaction among the general population. There are more costs to overreacting to terror threats than acknowledged; societies in constant fear make compromised personal and policy decisions. Yet the underlying  threat of terrorism—inflated but not imagined—as well as the power of hindsight, make it difficult to know when ‘an abundance of caution’ is calibrated correctly.


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