When compared to other forms of unnatural death for people living in North American and European democracies, terrorism barely registers. You may have heard these stats before, but allow me to repeat some. Domestic violence kills 500 times more people each year than terrorism. Americans are more than 1,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Ditto non-terroristic forms of gun violence. There are about 5,000 drug and alcohol-related deaths for every one American killed by terrorism. Americans are even slightly more likely to be killed by falling furniture (yes furniture!) than terrorism. However, I don’t remember the last congressional hearing on unstable dressers.
Instead, the United States has spent about $4,000,000,000,000 on the War on Terror, or $16,000 for every American. And this is all for a threat, that since 2002, has never killed more than 35 Americans in a year. Even in France, which has faced more terror fatalities than any other Western democracy in the last 12 months, only 1 in 300,000 people died due to terrorism. Something so insignificant is not only believed to be the biggest threat to the United States (in December 2015, 40% believed it was the most pressing issue for the US government to address, and another 21% said it was the second most pressing), but it is driving the foreign policy of the most powerful country on earth and many of its allies.
How to stop the lunacy? We need a broader cultural shift in how we think and talk about terrorism. Terrorism needs to be understood as something that does not fundamentally threaten our society, our democracy, or way of life, or even our lives. We need to get to the point where when a terrorist attack happens, we say, “that’s terrible,” just as we might with any other tragedy, and move on with our day.
(An aside: My argument only applies to North American and European democracies. In many other parts of the world, “terrorist” groups also have the ability to hold territory and the potential to topple governments. The threat presented by these groups, both in terms of political turmoil and loss of human life, is very different, and it is important to not confuse the two. Additionally, in the North American and European contexts, I’m writing about jihadist terrorism, rather than terrorism committed by far-right groups. The latter is more prevalent, but is rarely considered a major threat.)
We can still mourn. But even in mourning, we must be careful, for there are risks, both internal and external. Internally, mourning the victims of terrorism, especially when attempting to mourn equally for those killed in Paris and Baghdad, can prove to be overwhelming. Sadly, people are killed by political violence all around the world all the time, and mourning each death individually can leave us overly fearful that the same fate might befall us. Externally, there is the danger that our emotions can overwhelm prudent responses to terror. Too often, it is felt that the only way to mourn victims properly is to stress that only monsters could have taken their lives. Perhaps this provides some immediate comfort, but in the long-term, it is deeply dangerous. It leads to the stereotyping of entire ethnic, religious, and national groups as violent, and prompts policy responses that overlook the political context in which violence occurs and prescribes overwhelming force as the only possible solution. Donald Trump and his fellow fear-mongers are major beneficiaries of this impulse.
Despite these dangers, mourning can play a positive role. Beyond the potential emotional benefits, it can also serve as an opportunity to learn about why violence occurs in different parts of the world, and hopefully what can be done to prevent more.
Taking a step back, it is important to consider how terrorism came to dominate political discourse. At the most basic level, terrorism is scary because terrorism is the killing of random people for political reasons. It seems there are three psychological biases at play here. First is the fear of randomness. Because it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when terrorism will happen and who it will target, it’s hard not to think, when reading about Western victims of terror attacks, “it could be me.” Even if statistically, the chances are infinitesimal, terrorism is hard to rationalize. Second is the fear of violent ideologies. In popular discourse, terrorists are seen as ruthless, driven entirely by the will to kill others not like themselves. Additionally, terrorists are frequently imagined as working together as part of a wider, coherent conspiracy, and that their supposed ideologies are simply the product of their upbringing. This in turn spawns the assumption that entire identity groups hold pro-terrorist ideologies. Third is the fear of people unlike themselves, which amplifies the fear of violent ideologies. Most Americans have a poor understanding of Islam and know few Muslims, and so claims that America is at war with an entire religion can appear credible.
In reality, support for groups like ISIS is pretty small, and even out of those that support the group, few are willing to carry out violence. Additionally, many of the motives for individuals to carry out terrorism are non-political, such as wanting to become someone in life or wanting to fit into a group of friends. Many pundits will lump yesterday’s Munich shooting in with other jihadist attacks simply because the attacker had Iranian citizenship, but initial information suggests jihadist ideology played no role in the attack.
The current responses to terrorism are failing, and will always fail. The fear has led us to imagine terrorism as primarily a problem of terrorists: there is a finite number of terrorists, and if they are killed, terrorism will cease. But terrorism exists in a broader social and political context, and violence used to kill terrorists will almost always prompt others to feel that their culture is under attack. It is important to acknowledge that many terrorists are responding to grievances such as unemployment, social isolation, and unequal international relations, and to remember that addressing these can help reduce tensions. But we must also remember that terrorism will always exist in some limited form. Even if all the injustices of the world were all ironed away, some people would still feel that their freedoms and privileges were being impinged on, and that violence is the only solution.
This conclusion may be unsettling, but acknowledging both that terrorism will exist and that it is fundamentally not very threatening is crucial. Because terrorism itself is not profoundly dangerous; government responses to terrorism are. States can wield far more violence than terrorist groups, and state violence can lead to wars that kill thousands of Westerners and hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners. Counter-terrorist policies can take away our freedoms and cause us to turn on entire identity groups. No terrorist group in North America or Western Europe could alone dream of such a success.