Overcoming terrorism by facing our fear

Published 18 th April 2017 by Daniel Kirkpatrick

Image of resisting terrorism written on a wall Recent acts of terror across Europe ensure that terrorism remains firmly fixed in the public consciousness whether in England, Sweden, Germany, or France. And yet, while everyone knows what terrorism is when they see it (or at least think they do); few can agree on a definition.

The clichéd phrase - 'one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter' - illustrates the moral ambiguity which can cloud the term, but the definitional issue is much more problematic than this. For instance, a study [1] from the 1980s considered 109 definitions (this would now be exponentially higher), with the majority only agreeing that terrorism means a violent act, committed for political reasons, which seeks to inspire terror (see figure 1). All other factors were disputed. Do the victims have to be civilians? Are the actors only non-state actors? Must the actions be random or tactical? Table showing the number of definitional elements in terrorism
Figure 1. Adapted from Schmid and Jongman (1988)
Addressing each of these points would take a book at the very least to explain, and many people more knowledgeable in this area than I have tried, albeit often failing. So instead, here I am only going to address one specific point because, if it is addressed, I believe it could lead to a profound shift in combating terrorism.

Terrorism's effectiveness is based on its ability to inspire terror; to intimidate others. While the objectives behind this terror are often disputed, even denied, most of us would agree that it would be absurd to talk about terrorism without reference to terror. 'But why does this matter?' - you may then ask. Well - most approaches to defeating terrorism focus on the ability of actors to inflict violence, reducing their support, and increasing security.

But I believe there is a further approach which has largely been ignored, and it relates to our own response. You see, terrorism seeks to inspire terror in us. Terror is a response to an action, a response which is one of many we could have. Because of terrorism's reliance on terror, if we overcome our fear of it we will render a large part of its power impotent. To understand how to achieve this, first we must turn to the cause of the fear itself.

CNN news article on terrorism Why does terrorism appear more terrifying than other acts of violence? I would suggest because of two reasons: (1) we believe it is increasing and could target anyone; and (2) because of its dramatic and violent nature. Increasingly we are being told the threat of terrorism is growing, and every time we see another attack this is reinforced. When we see armed police in the streets, go through security at the airport, or when we simply turn on the news, terrorism appears to be all around us.

The UK's counter-terrorism strategic 'Prevent' actually reinforces this, training teachers, doctors, and other professionals to spot those displaying signs of sympathy for terrorism - whatever that may mean. I have previously written on why this is particularly worrying here as it embeds the very culture of fear and paranoia which serves terrorism's ends. Instead of making us feel safer, prevent contributes towards our fear.

However you could always point to the statistics on terrorism, with a massive spike in the number of acts of terror across the globe in the past 5 years [2] (see figure 2). But when we break this down by region, the number of acts of terror is actually relatively low. When we look at western Europe, while in the last 5 years there has been an increase in the number of attacks, this is still significantly lower than during the majority of the 70s, 80s and 90s (figure 3). This is not to ignore or disregard the pain and hurt each attack may cause, but to understand that the 'trends' reported in the media and reflected in policy are not necessarily based on reality.

So although the number of acts of terror are increasing, these are predominantly contained to particular geographical areas in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The threat we - in Western Europe - face from acts of terror in our daily lives is almost negligible in comparison, particularly when considering in contrast to other everyday incidents which are of a greater threat, such as: car accidents, to vending machines, to cows. These comparisons are not meant to trivialise the human cost of terrorism, but simply to highlight just how low the risk it is to our everyday lives.

However, even if the 'threat' of terrorism is generally not something to be feared in our daily lives, the specific events themselves could be argued as being so dramatic and violent that they should be feared. The scenes of knife wielding killers, trucks driving through shops and crowds, cars blowing up, and of mass beheadings, all serve to create within us a deep sense of fear - of terror. But terror is a state of mind. Why is it that much higher risks of car accidents, rape, mugging, and various random/accidental causes of death, are all much less terrifying in our daily lives?

One answer can be found in the way we learn and digest acts of terror. A psychology article published shortly after 9/11 suggested a number of ways to address this terror; the top of the list being: "Turn off the television and radio, or tune them to music or to other soothing and distracting programming." [3] The implicit issue being that the news itself creates a cognitive bias where we experience terror even though it is not necessarily rational. This is because: "Repeatedly seeing and/or hearing about an event creates the sense that more events have occurred." [4] Because we read and hear of attacks happening all the time this creates a distorted reality. Instead of recognising the marginal danger they pose to our lives, by repeatedly digesting these reports we begin to project the threat of terrorism throughout our lives. If a bus is bombed in Germany, suddenly our school buses become dangerous. If a bomb goes off in a music concert, suddenly all concerts become dangerous. If a knife attack takes place on a train, suddenly our daily commute becomes dangerous. These are of course exaggerations, but the point still stands; what we digest through the news, will be what we experience in our everyday lives. The problem is not the news itself, but an uncritical consumption of it.

When we recognise that terrorism's power lies in its ability to terrorise, each of us then has a crucial role in resisting it. If we are to stop terrorism, security measures alone won't succeed. Our resistance begins when we no longer fear what doesn't need to be feared. Recognising that terrorism is not the threat it pretends to be (or how it is presented to us), renders its terrorising power ineffective, and begins the process where terrorising no longer works.

[1]Schmid and Jongman (1988) Political Terrorism: A New Guide To Actors, Authors, Concepts, Data Bases, Theories, And Literature. London: Transaction Publishers.

[2]This is from the Global Database on Terrorism. See https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/

[3]Stotland, N. (2002) The Psychology of Terror: Primary Care Presentations. Elsevier Science Inc..