Terrorism and the fear factor

It has been an awful few weeks.  Terrorist attacks in Munich, Ansbach, Nice, Kabul, Baghdad…and those are just the major ones.  Thousands killed and wounded.   In what is more frightening to many, the tools of the terrorist have evolved from guns and bombs to knives, axes and even a truck.  The banal has become lethal.

In light of these horrific incidents it is no wonder that people are afraid.  Travel plans have been altered and the tourism sectors in countries that are not well-placed to survive the loss of income, like Tunisia, are suffering.  The carnage is feeding a lot of actors on the political front who are demanding an increase in bombing, an end to immigration and – for some (i.e. wannabe President Donald Trump) – the monitoring of Western Muslims.  The world appears to be heading to a less tolerant place, largely because of terrorism.

What should our response be?  Do we build walls?  Do we carry out more military action?  Do we pit citizen against citizen?  Is there an overarching solution?

In the end the terrorism problem is complex and not open to any one answer.  Yes, we need to use our military to eliminate IS and other terrorist groups but at the same time we have to realise that bombs kill people, not ideologies.  Furthermore, we also have to acknowledge that there are violent radicals among us and that these cannot be taken out by sending armed drones to the outskirts of Paris or Orlando.

Yes we need to do a good job at screening immigrants to ensure that we have done everything possible to keep the terrorists out.  Yet, as terrorists comprise a very tiny percentage of all immigrants we must allow those with legitimate cases to enter our lands where they will quickly adapt and become good citizens.

Yes we have to figure out a way to decrease the feelings of alienation and marginalisation that dominate in some areas.  Although there is no evidence that these factors are solely responsible for the making of a terrorist they certainly aren’t helpful and progress on these fronts will bring other positive results.

We need to do much, much more on the CVE (countering violent extremism) front.  Our security and law enforcement agencies are there to take care of the terrorists but they are not there to prevent people from becoming terrorists.  Our communities – our leaders, our teachers, our religious officials, our families – must learn to recognise the signs of violent radicalisation and take steps to deal with it.  We all need to work together at multiple levels – government and civil society – to do our utmost to stop the next wave from materialising.

When it comes to people’s emotions however it is not sufficient to repeat that you have a greater chance of drowning in your bathtub than you do of dying in a terrorist attack.  Bathtub drownings do not get the coverage that terrorist attacks do and it is obvious to anyone with even a cursory glance at the news that terrorism is happening somewhere in the world on a daily basis.  This coverage is making us afraid.  Fear may be irrational at times but it serves to trump reason and must be acknowledged and not dismissed.

And yet it does not help when fear drives governments to issue travel advisories urging their citizens to avoid entire continents (like Europe).  These warnings should only be given in response to specific threats.  Likewise it does not help when fear leads people to associate terrorism with entire communities and blame them when something happens.  After all, I don’t support Christians who kill those who provide abortions and I am not responsible for them.  Yes, communities have to step up to deal with those among them who express violent ideologies but they cannot be held accountable for the actions that these terrorists take.

As French Prime Minister Valls said in the wake of Nice terrorist acts will continue.  This is not defeatist  – it is realist – but it is also not a resignation that we are hopeless and impotent.  There is much that has already been done and much more to do.  Let us get to this task so that the numbers of dead and injured are lower than they might be.

We will never defeat terrorism but we can make it less prominent.


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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