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.


  1. Feels very much like people are walking around the set of a Paul vanderoven film.

    A mix of Starship troopers and soldier of Orange.
    A sort of hi tech flux designed so that we can become ever more efficient (but not Frugal) in our purposely directed consumption.

    We must first define who "we" are.

    All industrial wars are capitalist wars.
    It's a very effective method of concentration via rationing for the "common good"

    If the guys behind the curtain just gave the free stuff away for free then wars as we currently understand them would have no meaning.
    They again would become mainly ritualistic small scale affairs rather then becoming deadly serious on a mass scale.
    Wars today are now entirely designed to fuck with your head.
    Casualties are incidental.but nevertheless massive given force concentration (using Usury) and technology.

  2. I was always struck by the absurdist quality of the soldier of Orange.
    Especially during the opening invasion.
    It struck me as being very realistic for that reason.
    People looked at events as if they were observers and not participants.
    A sort of out if body experience.

  3. Its very simple - the decline of religion (in the West at least) has removed the concept of an Afterlife from people's psyches. People are thus terrified of dying, as it is The End. So we have the fascination with healthy living, and the necessity to avoid all foods/activities that (may) have risks attached, the Health and Safety culture that all risks must be avoided at all costs, the desire to keep dying people alive at all costs regardless of their subsequent quality of life. To the religious death is not to be feared, its just another transitional stage in ones journey. To the non-religious death must be postponed indefinitely by judicious behaviour. Hence the current attitudes to risk.

  4. In the October Iea report they point to Turkeys doubling of Jet Kerosene consumption
    They give us some vague and dubious statistical reasons, increased tourist activity etc etc

    But much of European tourist activity has been centered in Iberia over the summer.
    Looking back now a doubling of consumption in one year points to a massive increase in the tempo of military aviation.
    Now we must ask if the destruction of the Turkish economy is in the interests of northern European industrial interests.

    It is quite some peach.
    It's oil consumption is equal to half of the Uks total and its Nat gas consumption is considerable.

    We must see the core tactic of the central capitalistic powers is to reduce the scale of their capitalistic dynamo so it can somehow restart rather then engage in Franciscan like distribution and lowering of costs.

  5. We cannot help but being afraid. In the information age, death and destruction, while distant, seems close. I was posting defiant pictures of Covent Garden the day after the Paris attacks saying: We are not afraid! But I was, and I am. Nonetheless, I go to work, I go out with the kids, I do things normally. I am afraid but I will not give in.

  6. I think it is the way we consume media that makes distant disasters seem near. If soldiers in the trenches in 1916 I had iPhones and Youtube , World War I would have ended much sooner. Back then, civilians perused long lists in the Times to see if their loved ones had been killed. Print is cold and unemotional. Photos and video make horror more personal. Statistics about Syria don't move us. More than 200,000 dead, half of the population displaced, we turn the page. The photo of the three year old boy dead on the beach, that we don't forget.

  7. People take cues from their leaders. Belgium has been cultivating non-leader politicians for some time.

  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivigaU_rmhI


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