Paul Thomas

Terror Fails as Long as We Stay Grounded

Mar 26, 2016 | The Age of Terror

Are the terrorists winning? Donald Trump thinks they are – “totally.”

But, as goodtime girl Mandy Rice-Davies said when told a married aristocrat denied having slept with her: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?” Trump’s candidacy is based on the proposition that America is going to hell in a handcart and only he can stop it.

Given that terrorism is, first and foremost, propaganda writ large, it could be argued that, if the likely Republican presidential candidate says the terrorists are winning, then they are winning.

Not on the battlefield: according to the Pentagon, in recent months ISIS has lost 40% of the territory it controlled in Iraq and 20% of its territory in Syria. The US led bombing campaign is said to have killed 10,000 frontline fighters. Even so, the bombs in Brussels supposedly show that terrorism poses an existential threat to the west.

The key words here are “the west.” There have been scores of terrorist attacks in the last few months, nearly all of them in Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries. Leaving aside those countries where terrorism is an adjunct to armed civil strife, there have been major terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mali, Tunisia and Turkey which reinforces the point that the vast majority of victims of Islamist terror are adherents of Islam.

In light of the frequency and scale of the attacks, should we agree with Newstalk ZB host and Herald columnist Larry Williams who wrote after the Brussels bombing, “Fact: the terrorists are succeeding.”

Well, yes and no. Call me a pedant but that’s not a fact; it’s an assertion. It’s certainly the case, though, that the terrorists are succeeding in perpetrating acts of terror. But then they always have and they always will. Security chiefs have repeatedly warned that it’s simply not possible to thwart every single terrorist plot.

Take Britain for example: there are at least 3,000 people on MI5’s database of violent extremists and terrorism expert Jean-Charles Brisard estimates it takes 20 to 25 counter-terrorism officials to maintain surveillance on a single suspect. Resources are finite and somewhere along the line someone’s going to slip through the net. British authorities are now planning for a worst-case scenario of ten simultaneous attacks in London.

The demagogues huff and puff and insist they can stop terrorism by being tough and throwing humanity and the law book out the window. I refer them to the website israelhasbeenterrorattackfreefor.com which, as its name suggests, tracks terrorist incidents in the world’s hardest target. At the time of writing, Israel hadn’t suffered an attack for all of six and a half days.

As to whether they’re succeeding in the wider sense, that’s up to the targets of their bullets, bombs and propaganda.

So when Trump declares that the terrorists are winning, even though they aren’t winning in any meaningful sense of the term, he plays into their hands by stoking public anxiety and inflating the threat.

(One of terrorism’s propaganda tricks is to make a small organisation with limited capacity look all-powerful and its large and powerful adversary look helpless. Suicide bombing your fellow citizens is entry-level stuff: a fortnight ago a single US drone strike on an Al-Shabaab training camp in Somalia took out 150 jihadists.)

And when Trump and Ted Cruz and their European counterparts like Marine Le Pen advocate immigration bans, closed borders, intensive policing of Muslim neighbourhoods, torture and carpet bombing, they compound the mistake by inflating a terror campaign into a quasi-religious war of survival in which the ends justify the means.

Defeating terrorism takes time – not months or years, decades. That in turn requires stoicism, resilience, the ability to absorb these terrible shocks without giving in to defeatism or forgetting who we are and what we stand for.

As Margaret Thatcher said of the 1984 Brighton bombing that very nearly wiped out the entire British government: “We suffered a tragedy not one of us thought could happen in our country. And we picked ourselves up and sorted ourselves out, as all good British people do.”

Notwithstanding the hysteria and fear-mongering, this Easter weekend most Brussels residents will do exactly what they would have done if the bombings hadn’t taken place: go to church or a football match or a movie; spend time with family and friends; go out for a drink or a meal.

The alternative would be to hide in their homes, petrified into paralysis by a risk that’s substantially lower than the one they readily accept every time they get in a car.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.

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