Published June 26, 2017
Amaryllis Fox spent a little under a decade working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) focused on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, i.e., keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of non-state actors. Before then, she did extensive work in human rights and journalism. She has been sharing the lessons she learned while working in the intelligence community with the world at large in numerous talks and interviews, emphasising that open communication and information reduces misunderstandings that lead to military conflicts.
“For me, the drive right the way through was to open back-channels of communication between groups and countries that wouldn’t otherwise have the chance to communicate except through public sabre-rattling in the media, which escalates conflicts very quickly and often unnecessarily,” she tells us. “I really believe that in the end, perfect information minimizes conflict. I think the majority of conflict is borne out of miscommunication and misunderstanding. That’s not to say that there aren’t positions that, even when expressed clearly, can’t be resolved. There’s certainly resource scarcity and other issues that are not borne out of miscommunication. But the steps that both parties want to take in order to resolve them, the threat posed by them gets amplified because of miscommunication. We see this in personal relationships, too. This is in some sense exactly what couples counselors do: allow people to communicate more clearly why something is triggering a change in their mood. So if you understand what is driving a change in mood in your geopolitical partner, it helps you to respond in a way that either supports them or at least doesn’t antagonize them further. Whereas if you don’t understand why they are behaving the way that they are, you can often escalate the conflict without knowing that’s what you’re doing. I think understanding the intentions and needs of your partner, whether that’s in the personal relationship sphere or in the international geopolitical sphere, is really the kind of critical foundation for building peace.”
Iceland is also well-known for having a police force that do not carry guns. (Although we do have a SWAT team, they are typically only called out in extreme circumstances.) Recently, the capital area chief of police decided that SWAT be deployed at large public gatherings, citing “defense against terrorism” as the reason.
Does the presence of visibly armed police officers deter or reduce the chance of a terrorist attack, in your experience?
I’m a very vocal challenger of “security theatre” and the presence of weapons and militarization in domestic life. In the United States, the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] at airports imposes harsher and harsher regulations every time there’s a new threat. The lines get longer, and yet, so far it hasn’t thwarted any major attempts to bring an explosive device on an airplane. It missed Richard Reid the shoe bomber, it missed the underpants bomber. We see this kind of charade that goes on ostensibly to both make people feel more secure, and to deter those who would attack, and yet we don’t see any evidence that there is a huge deterrent effect. In large part, this is because of the ongoing joke that these kinds of perimeters and checks just haven’t successfully stopped these attacks in the past.
On the subject of making the public feel more secure, they may in fact do so, but I think to society’s peril. The idea of making the community feel safer by taking an action that not only doesn’t make it safer but may in fact put it at greater peril is really dangerous. Because it requires a kind of high-level, systems-level analysis, it can often go years without being called out as a contributing factor to terrorism rather than a securing measure.
Can you elaborate on that? How does it becoming a contributing factor to terrorism rather than a deterrent?
We know from psychological experiments in academic literature, and also from practical experience on the ground, that exposure to weapons or militarized security infrastructure that suggests others in your presence might have weapons, triggers the reptilian brain in humans to feel that they are in a dangerous environment, and they therefore should and can behave in a way that would be appropriate for a war zone. Which, of course, leads to more violent tendencies than the psychological cues that we see in a society that’s not militarized and doesn’t have a lot of these security perimeters in place. When we don’t see weapons on a regular basis, and the social cues that we do see suggest that we’re living in a peaceful environment, our reptilian brain follows suit, and tends to be less drawn to violent methods to resolve disputes.
We see this from exposure to weapons in street markets leading to more aggressive and violent bartering over prices, all the way through to the number of times someone is exposed to weapons on a daily basis in a country overseas contributing to that area’s likelihood to becoming a terrorist safe haven against the will of the sovereign government.
It’s the age-old chicken-and-the-egg problem. As soon as there’s a terrorist attack, even if that attack has caused minimal harm to a community numerically when compared to say car accidents or heart disease, as humans even if it’s a much smaller contributing factor to danger in society, a violent attack elicits in us the immediate desire to guard against future attacks. And the way that we do that tends to be by arming ourselves as a society. The problem there is that it takes what would otherwise be a rare event in that society and begins to create a cycle of violence, where the armed barricades to the first attack elicits feelings of war zone militarization in the populace, which triggers future attacks, which of course triggers more militarization and on the cycle continues until you are living in a war zone in your own backyard.
It’s human nature to want to guard against attacks, particularly once a serious attack has been planned and executed in your backyard. Iceland is fortunate to not yet be in that position, but preparing in advance for how to handle that when it does happen is really a fork in the road for many societies. [Norway’s response to Anders] Breivik is a great example of a society not overreacting and changing all of its laws as a result of a terrorist attack. In the United States, freedom is a really important narrative, and a concept that we founded our country on, and from my perspective, the clearest way to demonstrate freedom as a society and a people is to be able to continue to practice the form of constitution and form of government you set out to practice, free of the influence of those who try to tear that down by force. And I think that when we respond to violence by militarizing our own cities and our own daily life, we voluntarily give up some of that freedom and live on the terms of our enemy. I think that’s a grave mistake. My preference is to treat these acts as crimes, to be rigorously investigated, and for any participant to be arrested and tried within the criminal justice system to the full extent of the law. I think treating criminals as criminals ends the cycle far more effectively than responding to a crime by creating an entire war zone around the scene of the crime and in some sense, allowing the attack to continue long beyond its execution.
How can Icelanders most effectively deter or prevent terrorism in their own country?
I think there’s no silver bullet. It’s a multi-pronged approach that has worked in the areas where we’ve seen the risk of terror diminish. Countries that have very low risks of terror in today’s environment tend to be those that are not involved in foreign intervention in sovereign states outside of their own. So we see Iceland, Switzerland, and Japan do very well in diminishing their exposure to terrorist targets. One other contributing factor is the openness to dissenting points of view in the media. The common refrain that we hear from fighters and terror suspects following arrest and detention is the sense of overflowing frustration and eventually violent rage at foreign intervention in their state, and the lack of ability to voice what originally are more mainstream concerns that, when bottled up and not given a voice in the media and the national conversation, become more and more marginalized, more and more radicalized, and eventually more and more violent. So the greater the sense of listening to one another, opening the national conversation to as many perspectives and contributions as possible, and respect for international norms and laws around foreign military intervention—those have really been the strategies that we’ve seen have the most success in diminishing exposure to the terror threat overseas.
I think that Iceland is in a really strong position to really lead as a small country that is trying a different strategy and a different path to tackle the challenges of the globalised world. And as I said earlier, I think being able to demonstrate over the course of the coming years that this counter-narrative, this counter-strategy of engagement and compliance with international norms and human rights law, and pluralistic conversation in the media, these strategies actually result in a safer national security record, and a more flourishing political and economic record. I think that is really the greatest service and leadership that Iceland could provide to the international community right now.
Iceland has no military, as you know, although we are in NATO. Even so, we often feel as though we have little impact on the world stage when it comes to trying to make this world a more peaceful place. What is it that smaller nations can do in this regard?
I actually think smaller nations play a critical role in moving us past the impasse that we find ourselves at in the international arena right now. Larger countries have big economies, more complex political systems and considerations, they also have more complicated treaty entanglements in their foreign policy. All of those things make them harder to turn in terms of policy. It’s like trying to turn a tanker rather than a sailboat. That means that experimentation with changes to the system, to see whether they result in less conflict, domestically and internationally, are really difficult for bigger countries to undertake. I think for smaller countries who are less encumbered by all of those different entanglements to be able to act in some sense as a counter-narrative, or a lab, that can show what happens in a society where, for example, weapons are not so prevalent on the street, where security theatre is not employed to such an extent at public events and airports, where there’s not so much of a political pressure to go overseas and interfere in the foreign policies of other sovereign states; to bear out that example and see where it leads is really the only way that larger countries are going to be able to conclusively point to evidence that it’s worth their taking the risk to follow suit. I think that being a leader in that sense and saying, “We’re less encumbered by all these entanglements, and so we will be a city on the hill for this particular form of limited intervention and nonviolent social interaction and see where that leads us in terms of vulnerability to terror attacks and vulnerability to economic insecurity.” If a decade down the line, a smaller country that has been experimenting with those measures has found itself less subject to attack, with greater political stability and greater economic prosperity, then that’s a really valuable indicator to larger countries that it’s worth their taking the risk and political effort to implement some of those same important changes at a greater scale in their own country.