Reflections on Fear of Terrorism

Last weekend I was invited to give an hour-long talk about terrorism and radicalization to about 600 people at an event in New York City. The audience seemed honestly interested in what I had to say about the research in this field. I showed them some Powerpoint slides with research-based insights on radicalization, told some corny jokes, and concluded with some comments about community resilience and the fact that while many of the ideologies that fuel terrorism have a deep history, terrorist groups do eventually meet their demise.

But then afterwards, during the open question & answer period, it was my turn to learn from them. The questions they asked provided me with a lot of insight about how the general public views the threat of terrorism and what should be done about it.

They asked many intriguing questions like: “What do you think about the impact of the 24 hour news cycle?” I had spent some time in my presentation discussing how terrorists generally want to generate fear, through violence and the threat of violence, in order to coerce our behavior. An environment in which news media are competing against each other encourages the dramatization of events, which could actually benefit terrorists by encouraging perceptions of fear and vulnerability.

I had also mentioned in my talk that there was no common demographic or psychological profile regarding who had become terrorists in the past. One audience member cited some studies that she had read and asked what I thought about whether there were some “risk factors” that seem to suggest a higher possibility of radicalization. That’s a fair point, one I should have covered in my talk. I responded with some comments about bell curve data distribution, the point being that yes, there were studies showing that more terrorists have been young men, between ages 18-35, but I also tried to make the point that because there were lots of terrorists that did not fit that demographic profile, we need to look beyond demographics when trying to understand who can be influenced by a terrorist ideology. Not a very sophisticated or comprehensive answer, but these Q&A sessions have really never been my strong suit.

Then one audience member took the microphone and said “If you were asked by Trump what to do about terrorism, what would you say?” I have to admit, I was wholly unprepared for that question, and was only able to stumble through what I feel was a very unsatisfactory answer. Thinking about it now, what I should have said is “I’d ask him whether he had read my book, then I’d ask him to help fund the research of all my terrorism studies colleagues, and finally, I’d say please just don’t make matters worse by alienating the very communities whose help we need to combat Islamist extremism; If Muslims are treated as ‘the other’ we can anticipate having a more difficult time getting Muslim communities to provide intelligence on radicalized Muslims within their communities.” This is what I wish I had said, but didn’t. I’m sure we’ve all been in that kind of situation, thinking of something to say long after it would have been helpful.

Finally, I was asked by an audience member, “How can we not be afraid, and how can we help others not be afraid?” Another followed up with a similar question, “Aren’t you afraid your children will someday be killed in a terrorist attack?” I responded to those questions repeating something I had said in my talk about the importance of resolve and community resilience, about refusing to allow the terrorists to coerce our behavior through fear. But on the train ride back to Boston that evening, I found myself reflecting on the nature of the questions asked at this event. I’ve been studying and teaching in this field for almost two decades, and it strikes me that people today seem more afraid of terrorism than they were in the months following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Terrorists want us to fear. They use violence and the threat of violence in an attempt to coerce our behavior. They want to use our fear to their advantage. But it seems that in the current U.S. political environment, politicians are able to benefit from exploiting that fear, in some cases even with the most authoritarian instincts and awful prejudices. A variety of media also benefit from exploiting that fear, attracting viewers, building and sustaining a base of followers who buy into the narrative that terrorism is the most important security threat we all face. Within this environment, rational voices who – based on a study of the history of terrorism, and a research-based understanding of terrorist radicalization – call for us to keep terrorism in perspective are shouted down by both the fearful and those exploiting the fear to their advantage.

My thinking on community resilience and perspective is informed by the response by the British to their latest terrorist attack in London. Here we have a country, and particularly a major city, that has endured a campaign of nationalist terrorism (IRA/PIRA) and more recently a campaign of Islamist-Jihadist attacks. And yet their resolve, their refusal to be coerced by terrorists, is worth taking to heart. After the worst of these Jihadist attacks (on July 7, 2005), the Queen of England visited hospitals to meet victims and express sympathy. During a visit to the Royal London Hospital, she stated “Those who perpetrate these brutal acts against innocent people should know that they will not change our way of life.” And indeed, the trains around London were operating at normal capacity the very next day, people were back to work, the economy did not grind to a halt. More noteworthy, very few political leaders in the UK made any effort to try and exacerbate or exploit the fear from terrorism in ways that we have seen here in the U.S. Now, after the most recent Jihadist attack in London, we see a similarly high level of resilience, an adamant refusal to be afraid, or to profit from the fear of terrorism. Perhaps there is something there that our American society can learn from.

Personally, I think each of us has a choice to make, though I recognize it’s a very difficult choice for most of us. On the one hand, we can choose to be fearful, which is what terrorists want. Apparently, being fearful is what many politicians and media want as well. Fear is a very powerful emotion. We should pause and ask ourselves: When we fear for our own personal safety, or for the security of those we love and care about, how does that impact our decision-making? And how can those decisions be manipulated by media and political elites? Furthermore, how can we ever get to a place of comfort and relaxation where that fear is not longer warranted – particular if some members of society don’t seem to want that to happen? Imposing new security procedures, physical barriers, policies targeting members of a population deemed a threat based on demographic attributes, displays of armed force – these all give the impression of “making us safer” but in 250 years of terrorist history, there’s virtually no evidence that such things actually diminish the ability of terrorists to make us fearful.

On the other hand, we can choose to reject any and all attempts to make us fearful. We can refuse to be terrorized, by the terrorists or by those who might try to benefit from exploiting fear. We can examine the evidence (nonpartisan, factual data on terrorism is plentiful if you look for it), and study the true nature of terrorism in all its forms. When we recognize what this evidence shows – that terrorism is a rare event compared to the many other tragic and criminal things that could happen to us – we have strong reason to question the intentions of those who seem to want us to fear. When each of us actively refuses to allow fear to coerce our behavior, this can strengthen our community resilience. The historical record shows that communities that are resilient, that refuse to be terrorized, will never be defeated by terrorists.

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