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Mapping Terrorism

Mapping Terror visualizes the global incidence of terrorism, its victims and its most common forms across a twenty year span. Using three maps, it attempts to provide a data-grounded interrogation of the US War on Terror.

 

MAPPING TERROR
 

Building on on work begun in Terror and Aesthetics: Experiments in Data Visualization, Mapping Terror visualizes the global incidence of terrorism, its victims and its most common forms across a twenty year span. Specifically, we ask:

  1. How has the frequency and spread of terrorism changed from the years preceding the War on Terror to these, the years governed by it? That is, has the incidence of global terrorism actually lessoned in the aftermath of this amorphous and intractable war? 
  2. Worldwide, where are the lion's share of casualties? What populations are most directly impacted by these attacks? Who has the most reason to fear?
  3. What are the most common modes of attack and is there a discernible pattern to their distribution? That is, how are different populations being terrorized?

Each of the following three maps attempts to provide a data-grounded answer to these questions, and in doing so to interrogate the justification for US War on Terror.   


1. This first map of the series plots terrorists incidents occurring across the globe, between 1994 and 2014. It is animated, thus allowing one to see the changing frequency and distribution of these incidents across time. Each incident is identical in terms of size and brightness. What appear to be especially bright and/or especially large points are in fact clusters of activity happening simultaneously. Viewers are encouraged to zoom in and observe the individual points that form these clusters. Fullscreen mode is also available. 

Analysis: Beginning with a concert of activity in 1994, this map shows that between then and start of the War on Terror in 2001, the actual frequency of terrorist incidents was declining worldwide. This decline continues through to the middle of 2004, begging the question as to whether or not the reduction in global terrorism immediately following the start of the war was the result of the war itself or if it was due to this preexisting trend. While the answer to that question exceeds the scope of this present inquiry, it is clear from the map that starting at the end of 2004, this trend reverses course and the incidence of global terror begins to increase. This increase begins at first slowly but consistently in and near to Iraq before exploding in frequency and geographic spread.

Mapping Terror takes Brian Massumi's point that terror is a technology of power that controls its subsumed population through the production and management of anxiety at what could have been and could always still be (Massumi, 2009). Furthermore, we understand this technology to be a tool of state and non-state actors alike, though they wield it to differing ends. While the maps of this essay visualize the acts of non-state actors, of their use of this tool, the pattern of activity revealed above lends itself to the question: To what extent is America's response to these acts a response to the actual state of the world at the time of action, and to what extent is that response a means of managing a state of controlled and permanent anxiety. That is, when the War on Terror began in 2001, close to 2,000 Americans had just died on September 11th in what was an unprovoked and externally derived attack. However, the government response was not a surgical removal of the responsible parties, but was instead the commencement of an amorphous and likely permanent war with no concrete endgame. Thus we ask, if the fear induced by the September 11th attacks was enough to justify such a protracted conflict, despite an overall context of relatively low global activity, then when would a protracted conflict not be justified? Similarly, if there is no clearly defined and achievable endgame to this conflict, then when will it be safe for the American people to cease being afraid, especially since their fear is the justification for the war itself? 


2. This the second map of the series plots the worldwide distribution of casualties on non-state terrorism. This is a static map covering all incidents occurring between 1994 and 2014. Each incident is plotted with a single point whose size is scaled to the number of total casualties of that event. Increases in brightness correlate to an increasingly large aggregation of points. Viewers are encouraged to zoom in and observe the individual points correlating to each event. On hover, further detail about each event including the organization responsible, the total casualty count, the incident year and the incident country will popup. Fullscreen mode is also available. 

Analysis: Where the previous map makes clear that the highest frequency of recent terrorist activity occurs in Africa and South Asia, this map similarly illustrates that the bulk of the world's casualties lie in those regions as well. Specifically, while few of the incidents in these regions are as spectacular as attacks that precipitated the War on Terror (e.g. the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001), in aggregate they far exceed the casualty rate of that day and of all terrorist incidents in the U.S. during this period. It's clear, that during this twenty-year span, the people with the most reason to be afraid are not those that have begun a global and permanent war, but are instead those who are most often demonized by it. 

Thus we ask again, if the fear that precipitated the War on Terror was enough to justify such a protracted conflict even when relative to the rest of the world, the United States was still one of the safest nations on earth (with respect to this kind of violence), then under what circumstances would such a conflict not be justified? 


3. This the third map of the series plots the worldwide distribution of differing modes non-state terrorism between 1994 and 2014. This is a static map wherein each incident plot is identical in terms of size and brightness. Differences in color correlate to the mode of attack, detailed in the key at the bottom right. Viewers are encouraged to zoom in to observe the individual points correlating to each event. On hover, further detail about each event including the attack type, the organization responsible, the total casualty count, the incident year and the incident country will popup. Fullscreen mode is also available.

Analysis: Where the previous two maps revealed the geographic disparities in the frequency of non-state terror and distribution of casualties, this map makes clear that while roughly every region has experienced at least one of each form of terrorist violence, overall each region has one or two types that are most common there. For example, in the United States, infrastructure attacks are most common, whereas in Central and South America assassinations and bombings are. When combined with the geographic frequency of attacks, this distribution sheds light on the large disparities in casualty rates across the globe. The populations that are most afflicted in terms of the frequency of terrorist violence, are also those for whom the population itself (rather than infrastructure) is targeted most frequently via assassinations, bombings and hostage situations. 

Thus for a third and final time we ask, when the people of the United States were among the least likely to be directly targeted, what justification was there for the US government to begin a war that largely targeted those who were already suffering the most frequent affliction under the worst forms of terrorist violence? 


Works Cited
Massumi, Brian. “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Gregg, Melissa and Gregory Seigworth. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2009. Kindle. (Kindle Location 732-992).

Data Source
Global Terrorism Database, University of Maryland

Software Used
CartoDB
Mapbox