Why terrorism is not winning and what we need to do to ensure it doesn’t

Having just spent three days in New York I have been thinking a lot about the terrorist threat to the West.  The reasons for this are not solely tied to the fact that I was three blocks away from Monday’s mostly unsuccessful attack on the subway near Times Square.  It is much more than that.

Last night I went to see Come From Away on Broadway with my wife and friends.  For those not familiar with this award-winning musical it is based on what happened in the small Newfoundland city of Gander on 9/11 when almost 40 transAtlantic flights were diverted to the local airport, once a major refuelling base in WWII, after the US closed its airspace in the wake of the hijackings/crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  But more on the play later.

To get to the theatre we had to walk across Times Square, apparently the world’s most visited tourist site according to local sources.  If you have been one of those visitors you know that it is a zoo.  There are gazillions of people in the area at all hours and it is hard to get through.  The crowds are immense, which makes it a perfect place for a terrorist attack.  It would be the easiest thing to go to the corner of 42nd and Broadway with a gun or a knife (the vehicle attacks we have seen lately in Barcelona, Nice, Berlin, Stockholm and Edmonton would be harder since the traffic is so heavy and concrete bollards have been installed) and start shooting/stabbing.  Even though there is an NYPD detachment on site it is next to impossible to prevent an incident of this nature.  An assailant would be soon stopped but not before s/he could wound/kill dozens. The same could be said for the New York subway system, the target of Monday’s attack.

And yet these kinds of events are very rare, even in New York.   This should tell us something about the  terrorist threat we face.  Terrorism is, and will most likely remain, a very serious but at the same time a very small evil in our societies (the same cannot be claimed for places like Iraq or Afghanistan). If we frame terrorism as an existential threat and react by limiting immigration or creating divisions within our countries by casting suspicion on ordinary citizens (i.e. Muslims) we will make matters worse and, more importantly, give terrorists the victory they desperately seek.

Now back to the play.  Come From Away is a delightful look into Newfoundland culture and ways as well as a touching retelling of how the residents of Gander dealt with a very challenging situation on that tragic day.  The writers did not ignore the sense of fear and anxiety felt by the almost 7,000 passengers stuck in a place most could not have found on a map while not being able to learn more about what was going on and unable to tell their families they were okay.  But what comes through beautifully is the way in which Gander’s population took in complete strangers, fed them, clothed them and tried to restore a sense of normalcy at a time that was anything but normal.

This is the lesson from Come From Away, that even when faced with a terrorist attack on an unimaginable scale we can respond humanly and allow the ‘better angels of our nature’ to shine through.  We do not have to succumb to despair and hopelessness but can react with strength and compassion.  We can show through our actions that our way is superior to that of the terrorists.

In the end, do we really have a choice?  Do we really want to hand a win to those who hate us and seek to divide us? I hope not and I sincerely hope that we elect to be more like Newfoundlanders and New Yorkers in saying confidently to the terrorists “you will not crush our spirit “.

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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