A better way to react to terrorism

On December 12 I went to see Come From Away on Broadway with my wife and friends.  For those not familiar with this award-winning musical it is based on what happened in the small Newfoundland city of Gander on 9/11 when almost 40 transAtlantic flights were diverted to the local airport, once a major refuelling base in WWII, after the US closed its airspace in the wake of the hijackings/crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  But more on the play later.

New York and New Yorkers have a reputation of being tough.  Whether it stems from dealing with horrendous traffic jams or the constant crush of people everywhere I am not sure, but they do seem a rather resilient lot.  This came out clearly in the wake of a terrorist attack on December 12.  I was staying in a hotel near where a 27-year old man of Bangladeshi origin detonated a pipe bomb in the subway very close to Times Square, injuring himself severely in the act.  Fortunately, only four people were slightly wounded in the blast, none of them gravely, although I can only imagine the panic in the minutes following the blast with all the noise and smoke.

What, then, was the reaction of New Yorkers to this latest attack?  A collective shrug from what I witnessed.  To be fair, a few things need to be said to help put today’s events in perspective.  The terrorist attack was very small in scope and no one has died.  It occurred during morning rush hour but was probably not detected by most residents.  When you have lived through 9/11 the setting off of a puny pipe bomb probably doesn’t really rate.

And yet the lack of general panic does deserve some comment.  When we talk of ‘resilience ‘ to terrorism and a need to get back to normality as soon as possible these are often just words and seldom translated into action.  Terrorism frightens many and has a direct impact on what people do and where they go.  I have heard many say that they are reluctant to travel out of fear of terrorism.  This kind of reaction, while understandable, supports the goals of terrorists: causing fear and dictating how we live our lives.  New Yorkers have decided they won’t give in to this attempt at forcing change into their routine and I for one congratulate them for their stance.  True, this is neither Mogadishu nor Baghdad where terrorism is a daily scourge but the ‘New York state of mind’ is nonetheless inspiring.

Now back to the play.  Come From Away is a delightful look into Newfoundland culture and ways as well as a touching retelling of how the residents of Gander dealt with a very challenging situation on that tragic day.  The writers did not ignore the sense of fear and anxiety felt by the almost 7,000 passengers stuck in a place most could not have found on a map while not being able to learn more about what was going on and unable to tell their families they were okay.  But what comes through beautifully is the way in which Gander’s population took in complete strangers, fed them, clothed them and tried to restore a sense of normalcy at a time that was anything but normal.

This is the lesson from Come From Away, that even when faced with a terrorist attack on an unimaginable scale we can respond humanly and allow the ‘better angels of our nature’ to shine through.  We do not have to succumb to despair and hopelessness but can react with strength and compassion.  We can show through our actions that our way is superior to that of the terrorists.

In the end, do we really have a choice?  Do we really want to hand a win to those who hate us and seek to divide us? I hope not and I sincerely hope that we elect to be more like Newfoundlanders and New Yorkers in saying confidently to the terrorists “you will not crush our spirit “.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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