Along with the inevitable suffering and devastation, every terror attack also seems to produce an unlikely hero. When a suicide bomber claimed the lives of 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, the press celebrated Stephen Jones, a homeless man who rushed to help the many children injured in the blast. But increasingly, we seem to be celebrating people not for their bravery in the face of terror—but rather for their nonchalance. A few weeks later, when a trio of van drivers and knife-wielders claimed the lives of eight people near the pubs and restaurants of London Bridge, Twitter celebrated yet another unlikely hero: Paul Armstrong, a man who had just bought himself a pint of beer and was not going to abandon his hard-earned drink just because he had to run from the terrorists. Even before the full scale of the devastation was known, the celebratory tweets and memes began to (ahem) pour in:
Like Jones, Armstrong was a balm to tortured souls because he managed to quell some of our deepest fears about terrorism: In the wake of such attacks, politicians are fond of saying that terrorists are trying to “attack our way of life” and that the best response is “not to change.” The man who would not leave behind his pint seemed instant proof that Londoners would once again pay heed to these honorable exhortations.
I, too, smiled when I saw the photos of a man running from terrorists without spilling a drop. I, too, believe terrorists aim to attack our way of life. I, too, am determined not to let them win. And yet, I’m worried that something might be off about the high-minded sentiments we wheel out after each new terrorist atrocity—couched in words of hope that once felt urgent but are quickly becoming pat.
This is especially true in the growing number of instances when clever columnists immediately go on to stress that the number of victims from terrorist attacks is relatively small in comparison to the number of people who suffer from other preventable forms of death—and imply that the best reaction to terror attacks is one of high-minded indifference. “Yes, every death is a tragedy,” they concede. “But ACTUALLY, you know, the number of people killed by terrorists is much smaller than the number killed by pollution, or by car accidents, or by slips in the bathtub.”
The clever columnists have a point. Terrorists really do aim to provoke a big reaction, so it does feel like we are doing their bidding when we let their attacks set the agenda. It really is tragic that so many people suffer preventable deaths, whether it be due to the hucksters of half-truths about the environment, bad road design, or even our insufficient attention to bathtub safety. And, of course, overreactions to the threat of terrorism really can, and do, lead to tragic consequences of their own—from unjust restrictions of civil liberties, to discrimination against minorities, to destructive adventures in foreign policy.
Even so, I fear that there is something fundamentally dishonest about the comparisons that are increasingly used to “put terrorist attacks in perspective.” Violent deaths perpetrated for ideological reasons have a different significance from preventable deaths that occur in the course of ordinary life. Unlike tragic accidents, these intended deaths are meant to produce a political effect: to intimidate the members of a group. To make it impossible for them to lead their lives freely. To poison their minds with fear even in their greatest moments of joy. This is what distinguishes terrorism from more routine forms of death: Its victims are not simply those at the scene of the crime but anyone who shares their desire for a self-determined life—anyone who identifies with the people, nations, and ideals on the other side of these attacks.
In this way, terrorism has less in common with accidental deaths in the bathtub than it does with deaths whose significance we all intuitively understand: hate crimes. The number of people who die from hate crimes in the United States, after all, is also smaller than the number of people who slip in the bathtub, never to stir again. And yet, liberals rightly understand that hate crimes have a political significance beyond their numbers.
If left unchecked, hate crimes have the power to curtail the freedoms enjoyed by the groups they target. When worshippers cannot prey at their mosques, or their synagogues, without fear of being shot; when a gay couple cannot hold hands in the street without fear of being beaten up; or when black Americans cannot frequent certain establishments without fear of being harassed, they have been deprived of the fundamental promise of a liberal democracy. The especially destructive impact of attacks that are motivated by hatred of these groups is the reason for meting out especially severe punishments for those who perpetrate them.
In the case of hate crimes, it sounds incredibly hollow to exhort targeted groups to Keep Calm and Carry a Pint. I, for one, would never want to face an anxious member of a persecuted minority and smugly explain: “So what if some of you will randomly get slaughtered? The vast majority of you won’t! Better be careful in that bathtub, though …”
This is not to say that the victims of hate crime resemble the victims of terrorism in all respects. Like all analogies, this one holds up in some ways yet falls short in others. To name just one important difference, hate crimes serve to reinforce discrimination against people who are already much more likely to live in underserved neighborhoods, to be arrested, or to suffer from longer jail sentences. That’s fine: The two cases don’t have to be alike in every respect for the comparison between them to show how glib it is to reduce the significance of political deaths to a mere question of numbers.
No matter how often we repeat our favorite platitudes, the growing number of deaths at the hands of terrorists is likely to transform our social and political world in ways that a growing number of deaths in bathtubs never would. In fact, with both hate crimes and terrorism, one of the biggest dangers is already taking shape: that hatred will breed counterhatred and attack incite counterattack.
The last years have taught us that far-right parties don’t necessarily surge in the direct aftermath of terrorist attacks. And yet, it is also clear that the rise of authoritarian populists over the past decades is not unconnected to the string of terrorist incidents: In polls, voters name terrorism as one of their main concerns. And a large share of those worried about terrorism persistently claim that the best way of dealing with terrorism is the most simplistic: Stop Muslim immigration. Deport a lot of people. Restrict freedom of worship.
At the more radical—or at least most violent—fringes of society, the response is even more concerning. Over the last weeks, Europe has seen a spike in Islamophobic hate crime. And then there was a series of shootings and accidents near mosques that at first seemed like instances of retaliatory terror. Thankfully, most quickly turned out to be unrelated—and yet the initial assumption that these incidents must be revenge attacks shows just how volatile the situation has become: With the number of both Islamist and far-right radicals on the rise, the possibility of a cycle of retaliatory terror is hardly abstract.
In politics, you not only have to take into account what the world would look like if everybody followed your lead—but also consider what might transpire if, as is overwhelmingly likely, you are unable to convince a large share of the population of your point of view. It is certainly wonderful that many people are inclined to do their best to shrug off the terrorist attacks. In my own life, I try to do the same. But to be politically responsible, our proud display of indifference also has to take into account the larger social response to this precarious political moment. We need to ask not only what response would work best if everybody took terrorist attacks in stride but also which response is likely to keep the social peace in the world as it actually exists. And once we do so, a strategy of nonchalance starts to look no more convincing than a strategy of hyperventilation.
I want to conclude this piece with an—easily mocked—admission we clever columnists rarely make: I’m genuinely confused about this topic. I’m genuinely confused to what extent we should just Keep Calm and Carry a Pint. I’m genuinely confused whether defending our values requires us to be more or less obsessed with stopping terrorism.
But here’s the thing: The near-constant threat of terrorist attacks in the hearts of the major capitals of North America and Western Europe—perpetrated by groups that are identified with what, in most of these countries, is the biggest and least popular religious minority—is likely to transform our societies in ways we cannot yet predict. So the one thing I’m sure about is that anybody who is absolutely confident of understanding the nature of the challenge, or how we should feel about it, is probably failing to treat the topic with the serious introspection it deserves.
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