Keep calm and carry on
As the news about the Westminster attacks began to pour in on Wednesday afternoon I was taken back to Jerusalem 2002. In those days I was working as Middle East correspondent and the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings was at its peak.
There were attacks in front of our home and at one time our neighbour found a victim′s hand in his garden. Another time I saw a terrorist and his victim blow up in front of my eyes. My job was then to rush over to the Gaza strip to witness and experience at first hand the retaliatory Israeli missile and helicopter gunship strikes.
Those were traumatic days but they taught me invaluable lessons about terrorism and fear. The first is this: a terrorist attack is not aimed at the people who get murdered. A terrorist attack is aimed at the audience; you and me. For a terrorist the killing of innocents is a means. The end is to frighten as many people as possible.
Their only weapon is fear
As the saying goes: ′fear is a poor advisor′. Terrorists hope to terrorise as many of us as they can into making fear the overriding emotion when thinking about the world. Because terrorists know that frightened people do stupid things and often end up making the situation worse. Targeting our emotions is the terrorists′ only hope, because they do not have an army.
The second lesson I learnt is that each terrorist attack is an invitation to become as hate-filled as the terrorists themselves. It is so tempting to transform our fear into anger and take that anger out on others. On ordinary Muslims for example, as if they can help it when somebody commits an atrocity in their religion′s name. Or on ′politically correct politicians′.
Continental European populists such as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands play this game with relish, tweeting pictures of Angela Merkel with blood on her hands in the wake of the Berlin Christmas market attack. His implication: if only I were in charge, there would no longer be any terrorist attacks.
Wilders and other populists playing this game never explain how they would become the first politicians in the history of mankind to eradicate terrorist attacks once and for all. The fact is that even under the most cruel and repressive regimes, such as that of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, there were still terrorist attacks. Were Wilders and those like him ever to gain power the attacks would keep coming and a new, even more right-wing Wilders would come forward saying: if only I were in charge then…
It is a simple but very effective psychological coping mechanism that Wilders and others play on: they invite us to avoid dealing with our fears by imagining that those fears are really unnecessary. If only those ′politically correct′ politicians would do what is needed.
The implication is as disgusting as it is ridiculous: Merkel, Rutte or Theresa May could very well stop the murder of innocent people, but they choose not to out of ′political correctness′. The intelligence services working across the clock to prevent the next attack, including infiltrators who risk their lives every day, must also be part of this conspiracy of politically correct silence.
″We will never allow evil to drive us apart″
In this respect there was a striking difference between some continental European responses to Wednesday′s attacks and those in Britain. Having ample experience with IRA terrorism in the past, Great Britain knows how to avoid playing into the terrorists′ hands.
The right wing Daily Telegraph′s opening headline today spoke volumes: ″We will never allow evil to drive us apart″, while the prominent and equally right-wing Times columnist David Aaronovitch put it this way: ″the IRA′s evil campaign taught us that we must act intelligently and avoid blaming entire communities.″
This is the age of the smart phone and terrorists can find a bigger audience for their atrocities than ever before. The Westminster attacks happened almost one year to the day after the Brussels attacks – and those attacks were originally planned for Amsterdam′s Schiphol airport.
Every country in Europe will have its turn because terrorism is now part of our globalised and highly interconnected world. As individual citizens and as society as a whole our best defence is learning to live with the hardest and most terrifying emotions of all, one that many people will do almost anything to avoid: vulnerability and helplessness. As the English saying goes: a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.
© Qantara.de 2017
Joris Luyendijk is an investigative journalist, columnist and non-fiction author. His most recent book, 'Swimming with Sharks' , plumbed the depths of the financial world.