Missing the terrorist forest for the Western trees

A pattern is emerging when it comes to the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the West.  People of all faiths and backgrounds denounce the attack, politicians swear that their nations will not be cowed by fear, candles and late-night vigils abound, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris is lit with the colours of the flag of the country that suffered the barbarity of a terrorist attack.  “We are now all _______” (fill in the blank with a nationality) and our leaders vow that the perpetrators will never escape justice.  Fundraisers are established, twitter hashtags are created and we all feel a little closer to each other (well, most of us, the Twitterer in chief is an obvious exception).  Indeed, these are all good things.

When was the Eiffel Tower ever lit up in the colours of the Afghan flag?

Last week a suicide bomber driving a sewage truck detonated a massive explosion in an area of Kabul close to several embassies. At the time of writing the death toll has risen to 150 and more than 400 were wounded.  I think you’d have to go back to the Madrid terrorist attack in 2004 to get an analogous event in the West.  The incident was indeed covered in the media but I haven’t seen any “We’re all Afghans” campaign, have you?  Did anyone leave teddy bears at the sight of that massacre?

I am not trying to compare atrocities or say that one deserves more attention and coverage than another but it does seem that an attack that does not occur in our Western neck of the woods isn’t seen as nearly as important, the victims nearly as deserving, or the crime nearly as heinous (Islamic State killed kids lined up to buy ice cream in Baghdad last week for God’s sake).

There may be reasons for this, valid or otherwise. As humans we tend to identify with those that look like us, talk like us and dress like us.  That is probably a natural response that is hard-wired through millions of years of evolution.  We may see the Other (I really hate that term in academe) as strange and different and we may have a hard time accepting that they are not so distinct from us.  If true, and I do think it is, we can still overcome it.  Our intellects and multiple intelligences can trump evolutionary bias.  We have done that in other areas and we can do it here as well.

Another reason for our lack of concern may stem from a numbing effect.  Terrorist attacks occur every day somewhere in the world: I know this for a fact because I track it. Most stories do not make the Western news and if you don’t visit Nigerian, Somali or Afghan Web sites you will never know about a particular incident.  Even babies a few months old will ignore an object if nothing changes.  We may tell ourselves “Not again?  Another suicide bombing in Iraq? What is WRONG with those people?” and then go back to playing Candy Crush.  Maybe as a species we are capable of only so much grief and compassion.

None of this takes away from the fact that the vast,vast majority of victims of bloodthirsty crimes by Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram and others are ‘people over there’, not ‘people over here’.  Furthermore, the majority are Muslim and yet some still think that all Muslims are terrorists (what is this, a collective suicide pact??).  Again, I am not minimising the loss of life in Manchester, London, Brussels, Berlin, Orlando, Ottawa and San Bernardino to name but a few Western cities where terrorists have struck.  All deaths are to be mourned.  But the numbers do not lie.  We collectively in the West are suffering at levels of magnitude lower than those in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

We need to continually condemn terrorism everywhere (has Donald Trump sent condolences to the Iranian President over today’s IS carnage in their Majlis and Ayatollah Khomeini shrine?) and offer support to all those who are victims.  Not just those who share our skin colour.

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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