(This post was written by Jayson Derow, and originally published by the NATO Association of Canada on August, 1, 2016. It has been republished with their permission.)
The concept of terrorism has certainly become a major point of discussion and concern following the events of September 11, 2001. Any event or occurrence that leads to devastation among a large group of people, resulting in death or physical insecurity and undermines the state as the unit of the international system, is a predominant threat to international security. However, terrorism has no single definition. The word has become politically charged, and with that, its meaning has yet to be agreed upon.
Along with this notion of terrorism, the perception that states are the primary units of interest and concern within international security, has been significantly challenged. Such fundamental concerns with failed states are associated with the fear that the security issues existing in countries such as Afghanistan, and now Iraq and Syria, could proliferate and pose harm to Western societies. The greatest apprehension about failed states has been the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a truly transnational terrorist organization.
While we live in the most peaceful time in history, Islamist extremists driven by calls from ISIS to wage Jihad in the West have left Europe and North America reeling after a string of deadly attacks. So far this year, a total of 170 people in Europe and 49 in the United States have been senselessly murdered, a substantial increase since 2014.
When compared to other global and even domestic issues, the threat of terrorism posed against Western civilization is nominal. That is not to say, however, that terrorism poses no threat to the security of the international order, and that states should not focus on degrading and defeating ISIS. They absolutely should. Therefore, with 2016 being a year that has proven to be one of the bloodiest in recent Western history, is the fear of terrorism a justified response to these attacks and those to come, or does the West overstate the threat of terrorism?
To view terrorism through a lens of the probability of personal risk is individualistic and negates the overarching threat it poses against the state itself…
Emile Simpson – writer for Foreign Policy – suggests, “Commentators will delight in finding comparisons that capture the apparent absurdity of being frightened by terrorism – perhaps telling us that more people are killed by bee strings than terrorism.” Statistically speaking, this is correct. However, the statistical approach misses the point regarding the underlying threat of terrorism. Emile Simpsons argues that the very essence of terrorism is that it is not just any sort of crime; rather, it is a direct crime against the very fabric of the state.
Although there is a greater probability of being killed in a car crash than being targeted by a terrorist attack, the need to be concerned about the threat of terrorism does not come from the number of people killed or the number of attacks initiated. Rather, the threat is “in the very nature of terrorism, the random nature of the victims, the symbol of destroying a part of a state’s culture.” At any given moment, without warning, individuals – whether sympathizers of ISIS or a lone wolf – can carry out an attack against any state; something that statistics cannot predict.
The statistical approach in identifying the threat of terrorism is utilized as a means of preventing or easing over-reaction as a result of fear. Again, this is a viable approach, but it often encourages society to overlook the underlying political problem that is confronting us; why does this threat continue to exist? The notion that terrorism is not an existential threat to the West is flawed. To view terrorism through the lens of probability in regards to personal risk, is inherently individualistic and negates the overarching threat it poses against the state itself, which in turn affects all citizens.
It is important that all states threatened by acts of terror balance their reaction to such attacks with the preservation of civil liberties in mind. Although the statistics may ease the minds of many when citing the unlikely chance of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack, what is clear is that the recent attacks in Europe and North America, implemented by a complex aggregate of internal and external elements, suggests that the threat of terrorism must be acknowledged by Western civilization, and with that, the reorganization of domestic and international security policies must occur.
Such policies must secure the values, interests, and citizens of Western states against the threat of terrorism without destroying those very liberties that they seek to protect. Emile Simpson further argues that while the state must do all it can to address Islamic radicalization, and threats of terrorism, the state should never apologize for the protection of its own values to those who refuse to accept them and yet enjoy the benefits afforded by Western civilization.
There is little doubt that terrorism will continue to be a threat in many parts of the world, and certainly to the West. With the meticulously coordinated attacks that have recently unfolded in Europe and the United States, ISIS has taken the notion of terrorism to a whole new level; and has thus proven the extent and reach of its reign of evil by means of transnational terrorism. Political scientists James and Brenda Lutz argue, “there are a number of reasons why attacks will continue, perhaps at a decreasing rate or perhaps at an increasing rate. They will continue, however… because of the fact that terrorism has worked in the past to achieve major objectives.”
It is therefore important that Western societies recognize that the threat is real, and that “the fight against radical Islamic terrorism [is] to be that of a fight about values, about the kind of political life we want to lead.” Thus, although statistics are able to present data in a way that shows an event as less probable of occurring, it would be a mistake for Western societies to dismiss the threats from ISIS as empty, when the group continues to actively engage in the pursuit of a global Caliphate.
At the end of the day, we must not submit ourselves to the fear of terrorism, but that does not mean we should turn a blind eye to the transnational capabilities that ISIS exudes. The threat is real, and we must adapt our foreign and domestic policies in a manner that protects the liberties of the state and its people, while ensuring the degradation of ISIS.