A world where we jump to terrorism conclusions too fast

There is no question that the world has terrorism on the brain.  So much has changed since 9/11 that we are both more attuned to, and frightened of, the spectre of terrorism that it has affected our ability to accurately measure what is happening and, perhaps more importantly, what we are doing about it.  This of course is superficially understandable given the death toll on that fateful day 16  years ago last month.  The sheer horror and calamity of seeing the towers fall in New York City is seared in our minds and dictates the lenses through which we see and understand terrorism.

As a result, however, we now tend to see every serious act of violence that we come across in our reading or browsing as yet another act of terrorism, at least potentially.  It is as if we go to ‘oh no, not again!’ right away, before the facts are in and before it is otherwise reasonable to conclude that a given incident is or should be viewed as terrorism.  Truth be told I am guilty in part of this same error in analysis.  When I read of an attack – bomb, knife, car, whatever the MO – my mind immediately goes into terrorism alert mode, at least initially, although I try to gather more facts and more information from whatever source I deem to be credible.  Perhaps I am a little different than most in waiting to declare an act as terrorist in nature before I determine that enough information is available to make that call.  But I definitely do default to terrorism as a working hypothesis.

My ‘terrorist radar’ went off again this morning when I read about a knifing in Munich where four people were injured by a man assaulted passersby in the eastern part of the city centre at around 6:30 AM.  I had a similar reaction to an incident in Poland where a man stabbed nine people, one of whom has died from the wounds inflicted.  Both are certainly consistent with similar attacks in recent years and months that were in fact terrorist in nature: London, Edmonton, Woolich… We know as well that terrorist groups like Islamic State have advocated the use of simple tools like knives to spread terror and mayhem. It  is thus perfectly reasonable to go down the “it must be terrorism” pathway, at least as an initial assessment.  Whether or not the two most recent stabbings are indeed terrorism is yet to be established.

The fact remains that it is next to impossible to make that immediate determination whether something is terrorism or not.  Information available in the minutes and hours subsequent to an attack is seldom sufficient nor subject to reliability testing upon which to draw careful and accurate conclusions.  And yet we do just that. I am not so naive to think that in an era of instant analysis and 24/7 breaking news that this is going to change but I will continue to ask for sober second thought and ‘keeping your powder dry’ before making definitive statements.

It is also possible, if not probable, that authorities sometimes rule out terrorism too quickly to mollify or calm down nervous publics.  The last thing anyone needs is for a set of the population to assume the worst, a conclusion that could lead a small number to lash out against those perceived to belong to the same ‘group’ of the assumed perpetrators: people of a certain faith, skin colour or dress for example.  While I clearly get why the state would want to nip these reactions in the bud it nevertheless falls victim to the same shortcomings of ‘instant analysis’.

The other problem is that in a world of immediacy where one story is dropped when a new, shinier object comes into view (squirrel!!) the needs of a longer period of analysis and more careful study are ignored and the eventual  ‘truth’ seldom gains any traction.  We are thus left with the effects of the first thoughts and assumptions made: these get repeated ad nauseum and become, in a sense, ‘collected wisdom’.  I wish it were not so but I am at a loss to know what to do about it.  If anyone has a good idea on how we can reverse this trend I’d love to hear it.

So we are in the difficult position of a right to know and a need to understand.  The two should be synonymous but are not alas.  In the end we will still suffer from the affliction known as ‘terrorism on the brain’.


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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