How much fear over terrorism is warranted?

There is no question that terrorism gets a lot of attention these days.  Nary a day goes by without a story of an attack somewhere in the world.  Most – not all, but most – of these attacks are carried out by some individual, some small group or even a large bunch with some tie to Islamist extremism: Islamic State, the Taliban, Boko Haram, terrorist affiliates and wannabes, etc.

As a result, there is a lot of fear out there.  Opinion polls consistently show that people rank terrorism as the #1 threat and the thing they worry about most.  And all the stats about how small the chances are that you will die at the hands of a terrorist, rather than say in a car accident or, especially in the US, by gunfire, are meaningless in this regard. Terrorism is frightening and we are increasingly terrified by it.

Sidenote: some would blame the media for creating this scare.  I don’t.  The media have a job to do and that is to keep us informed.  Terrorism is news and those in the media are paid to report  it.  We cannot blame the messenger in this case.

But getting back to the topic at stake: fear.   Our collective fear of the next terrorist attack is paralysing us.  True, recent events show that a terrorist attack can be executed by anyone anywhere.  A promenade on Bastille Day in Nice.  A train in Germany.  The entrance to a music festival.  An LGBT bar in Orlando.  A parking lot in a strip mall outside of Montreal.  The ordinariness of the perpetrators and the venues compounds our fear: what we used to think was the terrorist/terrorism “profile” – not that there ever really was one but we thought their was – has been shattered.

This fear makes us panic and make decisions that we would normally not make.  To wit, a school board in Calgary cancelled a trip to Paris in the wake of last November’s attacks.  Tourism is down in places ranging from Tunisia to SE Asia. And now authorities in France have cancelled the very popular (more than 2 million visitors last year) Lille flea market because they cannot guarantee peoples’ safety. Other events in Avignon and Marseilles are also on the chopping block.

I have no intention of criticising these decisions.  I am not in the shoes of those making them and have no idea whether there is intelligence that points to a real, heightened risk in those cities.  Armchair quarterbacking is something I detest.

And yet there is a bigger issue here, isn’t there?  If we allow a generic, non-specific fear of terrorism to dictate our daily course then we have conceded defeat to the terrorists.  This is exactly what they want to achieve: make everyone so afraid that we are paralysed in everything we do.  That is the root of terrorism – terror.

If there is concrete information or intelligence to support the decision to do, or not do something, then by all means take action.  If there is not we must engage in risk analysis and risk management.  There is always risk and we need to put that risk in perspective.  Getting out of bed each morning exposes you to a whole host of dangers that day.  And yet we usually continue to do so and face all the things that can happen to us.

We need to treat the possibility of terrorism in the same fashion.  We need to get out of bed, go to work, visit friends, go to outdoor cafes, attend sporting events and inundate Parliament Hill on Canada Day every year.  We need to live our lives as if terrorism were a myth.  We cannot let our fear overtake us.  We cannot give the day to the terrorists.

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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