Living in a Time of Terror

By October 2, 2001 No Comments

The purpose of terror is terror. Ultimately, the terrorist — regardless of his or her ideology, politics or culture — is an individual and uses terrorism for personal gratification. Much of that gratification is for reasons of the ego. In effect, the terrorist uses violence to say “Be afraid of me — I can do this to any of you and none of you can stop me.” This also means that the terrorist is someone who badly needs to be able to say this.

In a time of terror, most of us can do little to fight it directly. The asymmetric relationship that characterizes terrorism — where the terrorists are elusive and few in numbers while society is huge and vulnerable — means that most police and security officials are unlikely to encounter a terrorist. Few of us are even likely to become direct victims — the attacks of September 11th killed less than one in 50,000 North American residents and more people die every day for more everyday reasons.

Yet the terrorist knows that he generates fear and anxiety and takes pleasure from it. While all of us believe we are the main characters in our own “brief hour upon the stage”, the terrorist is someone who feels that he must be heroic and important — and uses violence as a shortcut to achieve this. The cause that ‘allows’ the terrorist to act is mutable; most of those who would be likely to commit terrorism will find a cause of some kind or another. Their stated motive is of little consequence, and addressing it can be very much like blaming your runny nose for giving you a head cold.

The Islamicists behind the World Trade Centre bombing believe (somewhere in their forebrains) that they are punishing the United States because of its support for Israel, or for propping up Arab governments with which they disagree. Yet even if Israel didn’t exist, or their perverted view of Islam had never been articulated, they would have bombed somebody for some other reason as those disposed towards terrorism would have found some other ideology that allowed them to express themselves. Terrorism is a constant in civilized life, and is easy to perpetrate in a democracy. There will always be some around, although attacks on the scale of September 11th cannot ever be tolerated.

Many peoples in other nations have had to learn to cope with terrorism, often under severe circumstances. Where people do learn to live with it, there are a number of simple principles that allow ordinary people to fight terrorism… and to make a significant contribution to defeating it. The rules are clear:

  1. Never, ever, show your fear — and certainly not to the news cameras. Seeing your fear is a reward to a terrorist, it feeds his sense of power and it encourages those who contemplate the same course.
  2. Try to live normally. Don’t change your daily life any more than you have to. This is not the time to cancel travel plans if you don’t need to, and be prepared to accept the small changes and delays imposed by routine security arrangements. Behaving normally is the best revenge that most of us can manage.
  3. Show grief when it is time to grieve, but remember that the terrorist may also be savoring your emotions. Harness your grief to resolve and determination — he or she will find this less sweet.
  4. Restrain your rage, most especially to those from the same cultural background as the terrorist. In fact, the terrorist will often hope that the victim’s rage will polarize his society and force people to extremes. The lowbrows who feel they are ‘avenging’ the World Trade Centre bombing by harassing Muslims (or Sikhs or Hindus — a most revealing characteristic) are doing the political work of the terrorist.
  5. Do not dwell on the ‘reasons’ for the attack — fundamentally, there aren’t any. Moreover, opening discussion of whatever excuse the terrorist used to justify his behaviour only feeds his sense of self-importance. For example, stating that the United States has to accept that its overseas conduct and policies are the reasons behind the attack is an agreement with the “fore-brain” excuses of the terrorist and feeds his sense of self-worth. Blaming the attack on the limited socialization of terrorists generally is both more accurate and less rewarding to the architects of the attack (A clinical dissection of Osama bin Laden’s personality on CNN would be quite educational).
  6. Remember, always, that terrorists lie. A century ago, Lenin argued that the revolutionary must ignore “lesser” truths to advance his “greater” one. The resulting practice of constant deception has become second nature with most insurgents — who learn to lie to the wider society and to themselves so thoroughly that many of them cannot remember what the truth is. It takes years of self-conditioning to come to the point where the terrorist believes that vaporizing women and children is a valiant act.
  7. Retain a sense of perspective. No security arrangements are perfect; everything cannot be guarded all the time and nobody is always vigilant. There is always going to be some threat, but trading fundamental freedoms away for an illusion of security is a profound error.
  8. Be alert, but please don’t be paranoid. The development of a proportional sense of security awareness is a difficult undertaking for most people, but the simplest maxim is to rely on observation and repress your imagination. For example, every abandoned suitcase or parcel is obviously not a bomb waiting to go off, but you would do well to report in a potential bomb when you see someone deliberately leave an attaché case on a subway platform.
  9. Remember that terrorists usually have sympathizers — who are often skilled political activists with agendas. Communications of the “I-deplore-the-attack-but-understand-why-they-did-it” variety frequently come from such sympathizers. Weigh their statements accordingly and don’t attach much value to them.
  10. Finally, know that most of us are far better human beings than any terrorist. We matured while they always remained angry self-centred children; we developed our senses of empathy and compassion while they nursed their rage; and we have never convinced ourselves that inflicting death and destruction on the innocent is a heroic act. We all know better than that.