When we fear everything is terrorism

There is a famous line in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz where the protagonist Dorothy, who has just  landed in a strange country courtesy of a tornado, looks around and tells her dog Toto “we’re not in Kansas anymore”.  That sentence has been used countless times over the decades and has come to mean that one is not in quiet, comfortable surroundings (at least according to Wiktionary).  I would extend that definition to include a situation where nothing seems usual, familiar or ‘at home’.

When it comes to reading the news, especially news about violent acts, we are no longer in Kansas.  This is one of the most striking changes in how we see events on the international stage.  Allow me to explain.

In the not so distant past, terrorism and reports on terrorism were the exception and not the rule.  If you ever read of a terrorist attack it would have been found in the back section of your local newspaper, if it were to be covered at all.  Articles on terrorism were few and far between and usually took the form of a hijacking or a homemade bomb planted to protest some cause or other.  We’d read and nod slowly to ourselves (‘what is WRONG with those people?’) and move on.  Life seemed much simpler back then (the so-called rose-coloured glasses syndrome).

Today of course we live in a different world.  Terrorism is everywhere, or so it seems.  Not a day goes by without an attack somewhere by some group.  And, in a world of 24/7 news and social media, we hear about it instantly.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as more knowledge is better than less knowledge although the whole fake news scourge does complicate things.  But all in all we are better informed.

I wonder, though, if the focus on all things terrorism is starting to affect the way we see events.  When we receive initial notification of an event that involves death and violence are we leaping to conclusions that it must be terrorism?  Perhaps.

This morning I awoke to two stories coming out of Europe, one about a truck that crashed into a cafe in Switzerland  and another where a car plowed into pedestrians in Marbella, Spain.  These events were eerily similar to what happened in Nice last summer, and Berlin last Christmas, and London on Westminster Bridge last March and a Stockholm pedestrian street in April.  Neither appear at all to have anything to do with terrorism however: the Spanish driver was drunk and trying to evade police while it is still uncertain why the Swiss truck lost control and hit the restaurant.

I suppose that drawing an immediate link, what I call ‘instant analysis’, is natural in light of everything that has happened over the last few years and I know that that is where my mind goes right away.  I try to excuse my reaction as instinctual: after all I did spend 30 years plus in intelligence, including 15 in counter terrorism, have written three books on the subject, and continue to blog about terrorism (like this piece here).  I am well aware of the dangers of jumping to conclusions but I can’t help my initial views.

Does this say something about me and about us?  Are we so seized with spectre of terrorism that we go to that place right away all the time?  Has terrorism  made us so fearful that it now dictates how we view the world?  I hope not but I am not so sure.

Isn’t there a better way?  There has to be.  While we cannot, nor should not, ignore the reality of terrorism we must always keep it in perspective.  Terrorism exists yet it is neither pervasive nor an existential threat.  Some acts of violence are terrorist in nature but the vast, vast majority are not.  Not every killing is by a jihadi.  Not every explosion is a bomb is planted by a conspiracy theorist.  Not every car accident is a deliberate attempt to sow fear.

President Franklin Roosevelt famously stated in his inaugural address that ‘the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’  He was referring to the Great Depression but the same applies today.

We must continue to fight those that mean us harm, prevent others from going down that path and above all keep a calm demeanour.  We cannot give in to fear and let it determine what we do.

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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