Response to terrorism

Emotions are running high, and rightly so. Reports of innocent people, including young children, slaughtered and maimed as they came out of a pop concert in Manchester are top of the headlines across the world.  Many world leaders have stopped what they were doing to make comment, and express their outrage and solidarity with the people of Manchester and the UK.  General Election campaigning was put on hold. The TV news relegated almost everything else to coverage of the outrage, and responses to it, for a good few days.

As always when such atrocities occur, we agonize over the possible causes, the motivations of the people who commit them,  and the means we might have to “ensure it never happens again”. Some of us rush to apportion blame. The level of hatred of “other”, on social media, ramps up a few notches. We hear the cry “Something must be done!” all around.

Well, of course something must be done, and by and large, as a society we’re doing it. Fighting terrorism involves rigorous intelligence to intercept and prevent terrorist acts before they can be implemented,  security measures to make it harder to commit atrocities, and working hard to understand and combat radicalization. It’s a long haul, and difficult.  So long as there are people with the will and the means to do harm, whatever measures we take, we can never be 100% successful. But the more we enlist the help of all who might be able to help us, the better our chances.

I guess all of this is no more than restating the obvious. But here, I want to ask a slightly different question: what gives terrorism its terrific ability to affect the lives of all of us, not just the arbitrarily unfortunate few: the direct victims, their families, friends and loved ones? If we can address that, and work to neuter the impact of terrorism on the lives of the vast majority of us, those who are not directly affected, could we eat away at its power?

If you were espousing a terrorist cause, what might you count as “success”? Maximum carnage, probably, would be high on the list.  But you know, as a terrorist, that however many you manage to kill and maim, the numbers will be tiny compared to the size of the populations you seek to influence. Even 9/11, the most egregious of terrorist atrocities inflicted on the west, the death toll was less than 0.001% of the US population. The 2005 London bus and tube bombings of 7th July 2005 killed 52 innocent people. Appalling, but about 0.00008% of the UK population. Since most of us still recall those events vividly and with horror, many years later, it’s clearly about something much deeper than head count. What tugs hard at our emotions are things like the randomness of who lives or dies, our human empathy with the innocent victims, utterly  disconnected from the terrorist cause being “furthered” by the attack, our bewilderment at the pointlessness, an affront at intrusion into the places where we live and work, an assault on our values, and, I’d suggest, some fear: could it be me next, or someone close to me? I’ve picked my daughter up after a concert at the Manchester Arena, and exactly the same thought must have struck many thousands of parents.

Most of us are not very good at assessing risk. For example, would you think deaths from terrorism in Western Europe are on the up, perhaps approaching the scale of an epidemic? Have a look at this chart. Surprised?

And how would you rate your own risk of ending up as a statistic of terrorism?

The common thread to the disconnect between actual and perceived risk is publicity. Information which bombards you from the TV, and which anyway strikes a chord as “something important”, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on perception. I contend that an organization engaged in terrorism would place huge value on the amount of publicity any atrocity attracts. It is real “success” if world leaders comment, and TV coverage is widespread.

So, what I’d suggest is that reporting is done at a far lower level of intensity and hand-wringing. Report, certainly, with accuracy and dignity, but keep it concise and low-key. World leaders should take note: we all fully understand  the urge to express outrage at atrocities and solidarity with the victims, and even the negative implications which might attach to failure to speak out.

It might be an over-used and hackneyed phrase, but the oxygen of publicity  sustains terrorism.

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