We’ve all heard that tired metaphor that fighting terrorism is a bit like that old carnival standby “Whac-A-Mole.” But what if smiting al Qaeda & ISIS…is actually like playing that game? In Foreign Policy, I asked the Whac-A-Mole’s inventor what he thought about his 40-year old invention and about what we can learn from it in order to combat global terrorism.
How does one authentically describe the metastasizing threats of the Islamic State, al Qaeda, healing foreign fighters, bleedout, Iranian proxies, homegrown jihadis, black widows, brainwashed suicide bombers, crazed lone wolves, and killers self-radicalized on the Internet? Some still use the vague term “Global War on Terrorism,” while others prefer to describe fighting these groups even more fuzzily as “countering violent extremism.”
Another favored way to describe the fight against terrorist groups is by deploying the “whack-a-mole” metaphor. For those who haven’t spent any time at Midwestern county fairs or on New Jersey boardwalks, Whac-A-Mole is an amusement park classic where one takes a mallet to a seemingly unending set of furry rodents that pop up at random from holes in a big board. When one mole gets hit, another one quickly jumps out elsewhere on the board to take its place.
Many people seem to think this describes what occurs when one terrorist group pops up in, say, Pakistan and gets whacked, and another takes its place in Syria. Or Yemen. Or Mali. Or maybe one day in your neighborhood. The president used this metaphor recently: “What we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up.” Sen. John McCain used it. Top generals fall prey to the whack-a-mole trope. Even in 1993, a State Department official wielded the metaphor in a congressional hearing.
But could “whack-a-mole” be more than just a speechwriter’s throwaway turn of phrase? If fighting the terrorist threat is indeed like a game of Whac-A-Mole, then let’s follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion: Like all games, there are ways to improve your score. And that might apply to both find-fix-finishing terrorists and smiting rubbery rodents.
Photo credit: The Yunlin Hand Puppet Museum, Huwei, Yunlin, Taiwan. by Malcolm Koo.