It is the reaction we should fear
Think like the enemy. Let’s suppose I am an Islamic State terrorist. I don’t do bombs or bullets. I leave the dirty work to the crazies in the basement. My job is what happens next. It is to turn carnage into consequences, body parts into politics. I am a consultant terrorist. I wear a suit, not explosives. A blood-stained concourse is a means to an end. The end is power. This week I had another success. I converted a squalid psychopathological act into a warrior-evoking, population-terrifying, policy-changing event. I sent a continent into shock. Famous politicians dropped everything to shower me with cliches. Crowned heads deluged me with glorious odium. I measure my success in column inches and television hours, in ballooning security budgets, butchered liberties, amended laws and – my ultimate goal – Muslims persecuted and recruited to our cause. I deal not in actions but in reactions. I am a manipulator of politics. I work through the idiocies of my supposed enemies.
Textbooks on terrorism define its effects in four stages: first the horror, then the publicity, then the political grandstanding, and finally the climactic shift in policy. The initial act is banal. The atrocities in Brussels happen almost daily on the streets of Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus. Western missiles and Isis bombs kill more innocents in a week than die in Europe in a year. The difference is the media response. A dead Muslim is an unlucky mutt in the wrong place at the wrong time. A dead European is front-page news. So on Tuesday the TV news channels behaved like Isis recruiting sergeants. Their blanket hyperbole showed not the slightest restraint (nor for that matter did that of most newspapers). Reacting to terrorist incidents otherwise, in ways that do not play into terrorism’s hands, may seem hard. A free media feels a duty to report events, as politicians feel a duty to show they can protect the public. That it’s hard to show restraint is no excuse for actively promoting terror. Everyone involved in this week’s reaction, from journalists to politicians to security lobbyists, has an interest in terrorism. There is money, big money, to be made – the more terrifying it is presented, the more money.
During the more dangerous and consistent IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s, Labour and Conservative governments insisted on treating terrorism as criminal, not political. They relied on the police and security services to guard against a threat that could never be eliminated, only diminished. On the whole it worked, and without undue harm to civil liberties. Those who live under freedom know it demands a price, which is a degree of risk. We pay the state to protect us – but calmly, without constant boasting or fearmongering. In his admirable manual, Terrorism: How to Respond, the Belfast academic Richard English defines the threat to democracy as not the “limited danger” of death and destruction. It is the danger “of provoking ill-judged, extravagant and counterproductive state responses”. The menace of Brussels lies not in the terror, but in the reaction to the terror. It is the reaction we should fear.
Simon Jenkins (The Guardian)