When fear of terrorism takes over the mind of a child

As scarcely a day goes by that we are not accosted with yet another story on a terrorist attack somewhere it is of little surprise that this form of violence has become a topic of conversation everywhere. What was once of interest to a niche market of specialists and confined to articles in little read journals is for all intents and purposes the subject of water cooler talk (does anyone meet at the water cooler to exchange views on current events these days or is this metaphor an anachronism?).

With topicality comes fear and dread.  Poll after poll has shown that ordinary individuals rank terrorism high on the list of things they worry about.  Truth be told, the way we see terrorism is orders of magnitude greater than the actual threat it poses, but arguing against this misplaced angst has been shown to be ineffective.

Nevertheless, news arises once in a while that should make us think twice about how we perceive, treat and react to terrorism.  The Scottish branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported back in November that children as young as nine have called the Childline petrified about the possibility of a terrorist attack – in Scotland!  In the year following the 2015 terrorist acts in Paris counsellors have handled over 100 cases in Glasgow and Aberdeen (there were another 500 calls elsewhere in the UK) with children reporting panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, and nightmares about terrorism.

It is important to remember that Scotland has not been immune to terrorism of late.  In June 2007 a man tried to drive a gas-canister laden vehicle into the terminal at Glasgow Airport before he was beaten senseless by a baggage handler (although some have doubted the latter’s role in the affair), and in August of this year an Ahmadi shopkeeper was murdered by an alleged Islamist extremist.  Aside from that, not a lot has happened in Caledonia.  No, we cannot rule out future incidents since Islamist terrorists have shown that they can strike anywhere, but it is highly unlikely that Scotland features at the top of attack priorities.

What is more troubling is the fact that children who really should be focusing on other things – like cheering for Glasgow Rangers or Celtic or having fun growing up – are now fretting about witnessing, or dying in, a terrorist attack.  This is just plain wrong.  Is anyone OK with seeing children’s lives affected by the possibility of terrorism to the point where they have panic attacks?

(Of course children in many countries have a real and justified fear of terrorism.  If you are young in Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan (just a few examples of a horribly long list), you do have to think about terrorism.  I wish it were not so.)

For the West though I am not sure there is an easy way to resolve this.  We cannot ask the media to stop reporting terrorism, because that is what media do: not only does it make them money, but it helps to keep us informed.  What we can do is pressure our leadership – politicians, heads of state, religious leaders, pundits – to keep things in perspective.  Rather that say idiocies just to get attention, these figures should know better that their words have disproportionate impact and act responsibly.  Constantly talking about terrorism makes it seem much larger than it is.  We really have to stop doing that.

In the end, terrorism is alas not going away and 2017 may see even higher death totals (I hope not).  But we must keep a rational mind about what to do about it.  If not, we will agree to or accept policies and measures that are immensely counter productive.  Making things worse should not be our goal.

And as for the children of Scotland I hope that the adults surrounding them assure them that they are not going to die as a result of acts of terrorism and help them get back to the normal lives they deserve.  They are kids after all.

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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