If we are terrified, the terrorists win
In this post, Tom issues a timely reminder that there are much worse threats to our freedom than terrorists. Like Tom, I remember as a child disappearing with my friends all day long, only coming home for lunch and tea - a freedom my own children never had. We seem much more fearful of loss (of all kinds) than our forebears. Perhaps that is because we are much less used to it. - Frances
Guest post by Tom Streithorst.
For the past four days, the city of Brussels has been on lockdown. The metro is closed, schools are shut, the authorities are telling citizens of the European and Belgian capital to stay home. They fear that “Eight to ten men”, armed and dangerous, might be planning a Paris style attack.
This is not the first time an entire city has been shut down because of a terrorist threat. After the bombing of the Marathon in 2013, Boston was under curfew as police searched for one man.
This is nuts. Charles Glass, after the 7/7 bombings in London went walking through Soho and noted that the streets were deserted. Yet during the Blitz, which killed considerably more civilians than ISIS has, Londoners went out, partied, drank and cavorted. They stood out on Hampstead Heath to watch dogfights between Spitfires and Messerschmitts. Today, a much, much smaller threat convinces us to cower in our homes.
One thing you learn in a war zone: proximity matters. A mortar round exploding 500 meters away poses a negligible threat. A small brick wall will save you. When I was living in Baghdad, a suicide bomber blew himself up less than a block from my house, killing a government minister and several of his bodyguards. Although we heard the explosion, it did us no damage. In terror, as in real estate, location is everything. Were a major terrorist attack to hit Kilburn in North West London, it would barely be noticeable in Kensal Rise, just a mile or two away.
I understand the motivation of the authorities calling for lockdown. If they have word of a possible terrorist attack and do nothing, and citizens are then murdered, they will be held responsible. The press would have a field day, lambasting their negligence. Safer, then, from their perspective, to make hundreds of thousands hole up in their homes than take the chance some of us might die.
We are far safer today than any humans in history. Homicide rates during the Renaissance were twenty times greater than they are now. The possibility of violent death was omnipresent for our ancestors, though deeply unlikely these days. And yet we seem more terrified than ever. You can see it in the way we mollycoddle our children. If you are my age, when you were a kid, you went out in the morning, played with your friends, came back for lunch and went out again, and your parents never gave a thought to where you were. Today, I always know where my ten year old is. He hardly ever even walks to a nearby park by himself, even though he knows the way, there are few busy streets and once there he is almost guaranteed to run into someone he knows. And the streets of our cities are considerably safer now than they were when I was a boy.
Life inherently has risk. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors chased gazelles, they took a chance that a tiger might eat them. When Marco Polo went to Xanadu, he accepted the possibility that brigands might kill him before he reached his destination. When immigrants left their homes to travel across the ocean to America, they understood the dangers such a voyage entailed. Last week, after the bombings in Paris, Erick Erickson, the editor of Red State, the influential Republican blog, said he wouldn’t be going to see Star Wars as “there are no metal detectors at American theatres”. You would think he would be embarrassed to be such a wimp. What would John Wayne say?
As a teenager in the 1970s, I lived in Buenos Aires with my foreign correspondent father. When I arrived, in 1973, urban guerrilla groups were kidnapping business executives, shooting up police stations, hoping to foment revolution. By the time I left, the police and military had responded in force, murdering tens of thousands suspected of sympathising with the leftist militants. The ERP, Montoneros and their ilk overestimated the power of revolutionary violence. Killing businessmen and policemen did not bring upon a socialist revolution, it merely caused their own destruction.
Blowing stuff up is relatively easy, especially if you are willing to die in the process. Perfect safety is impossible, especially if we wish to maintain a modicum of civil liberty. But blowing stuff up, ultimately, is ineffectual. It did not bring on revolution in 1970s Argentina. It will not bring on sharia law today. The only purpose of terrorism is to provoke governmental repression that the militants hope will bring more people to their side.
If we recognize the essential impotence of terrorism, that they might be able to kill a handful of us but they cannot really effect political change, then they will likely stop. If we quake in fear, we encourage them and give them reason to attack. Let’s stop shutting down great cities, just in case something bad might happen. Remember, you are statistically much more likely to be murdered by someone you love than by a Jihadi. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Image: Belgian soldiers patrolling an empty shopping arcade under lockdown. Photo credit: New Yorker.
In a tribute to the defiant spirit of the Belgians, I am also posting a second image. This is more like it.
This, dear outsiders, is how we fight terrorism here. They haven't got a chance! We haz kittens! #BrusselsLockdown pic.twitter.com/sdq1MbrKsz— Gilles Bordelais (@Gilles_PPDE) November 22, 2015