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Why is there more violence for violence’s sake today?

Editor’s Note: News about terrorism saturates the airwaves and has become a central part of the American psyche, not to mention political rhetoric. But despite the rise of ISIS, transnational terrorism is declining, and is actually 40 percent less than the two decades before Sept. 11, according to one economist.

The White House held a summit on countering violent extremism this week. And for today’s terrorists, violence is paramount, says the University of Texas at Dallas’ Todd Sandler. Sandler spoke to Paul Solman for Thursday’s Making Sen$e segment (above) on the economics of fighting terrorism and hostage-taking. But one of Paul’s most interesting exchanges with Sandler didn’t make it into his broadcast report. Below, Sandler explains why he thinks (and again, this is just his opinion) terrorism has changed.

TS: There’s actually less transnational terrorism — terrorism that affects two or more countries in some way, either through the victims or the perpetrators or the venue. There’s about 40 percent less than there was in the 1980s and early 1990s.

However, each incident is more likely to end in bloodshed now than was true back in the 70s and the 80s. So there’s fewer incidents, but with more bang per buck, in terms of the horror that they’re trying to cause.

PS: And why are there fewer, and why is there more bang per buck, as you say?

TS: Well, terrorists want to terrorize a society so they can kill people and make people feel at risk no matter where they are — that’s going to give them what they want, which is this notoriety. Why there’s more of those kinds of events now than before was because up until around 1995, the dominant terrorist groups were leftists and they did not really want to see a lot of casualties.

PS: They were trying to accomplish a social…

TS: Yes.

PS: And not violence for violence’s sake?

TS: Exactly. And in the late 1990s the share of terrorist groups shifted to the religious fundamentalists, of all the great religions, not just Islamic. And at that point, terrorism assumed, per incident, a much more deadly character.

PS: And that’s because those people care less about life or are trying to achieve some different objective?

TS: I think that they consider anybody that’s not with them legitimate targets and against their God.

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