A Dutch version of this article was published in NRC Handelsblad on 27 September 2017
Every now and then, a comparison emerges between the number of deaths caused by terrorist attacks and some other random phenomenon or household appliance, such as a step ladder. Other favourites include lightning, lawnmowers and killer bean sprouts. These are then carefully fact-checked, usually concluding that terrorism is less lethal than those other things, as if this somehow advances our understanding of terrorism.
These comparisons, which often serve to shut down the discussion about terrorism, evoke strong responses. One side is outraged and says that this is to downplay the danger of terrorism. The other sighs and asks why a phenomenon that is statistically ‘not that dangerous at all’ is given so much attention when we should just ignore it.
There is something to be said for both arguments, but neither in itself helps us understand terrorism and how we as a society should deal with it. This is because terrorism is not about the death toll, it is about the spectators. Terrorism is theatre, as terrorism experts explain, and we are the audience. It is a violent communication strategy in which terrorists hope that the reaction of the spectators will help them achieve their political goals.
In Europe, terrorism is therefore not predominantly a physical security threat. What should concern us is the impact of the phenomenon. To what degree do terrorists manage to disrupt society, cause anger and polarisation and elicit certain responses from the authorities?
One example is the recent attack in Barcelona. This did not just target innocent passers-by, but was a jihadist attack on something more abstract. It was an attack on something that, in the eyes of the jihadists, the victims stand for: the West and democracy.
Although from a statistical point of view, the number of victims is low, such attacks target society as a whole. The figures do not reflect this, thus giving the impression that terrorism does not affect anyone except for the unfortunate victims. This would be an incorrect interpretation of the violent message that terrorists want to fire at us. The step ladder, in contrast, has no political goal and is not counting on an audience to watch and react.
However, the risk is that this understanding of the provocative nature of terrorism turns into an overreaction, such as immediately declaring a state of emergency. This is ineffective and can even be harmful, for instance if the reaction leads to encroachments on the values and ‘way of life’ that it is supposed to be protecting. Also, it could further exacerbate feelings of fear. Unfortunately, terrorists sometimes understand these dynamics better than politicians or policymakers do.
Discussing the number of deaths from terrorism in relation to a step ladder, for instance, distracts us from the essential discussions that we should be holding. Terrorists cause relatively few deaths, but it is about much more than just that. Terrorism must not only be interpreted as a security threat but as a threat to the democratic state. Let’s hope that we can put that step ladder away safely once and for all.