In what now seem like oddly prescient and tragic comments, London Mayor Sadiq Khan was quoted by The Independent before the terrorist attack in his city as saying the public must be vigilant against terrorism. Terrorist attacks, he said, were “part and parcel of living in a big city.”
It has become de rigueur to repeat a refrain that terrorism is impossible to fully prevent. When I posted on Twitter arguing that pretending terrorism was a “fact of life” is akin to excusing the KKK lynchings as something that we “can’t prevent,” others disagreed. “It is all but impossible to prevent someone acting alone who decides to use a car as a weapon,” one person replied. Throwing up our hands as a society in the face of daily violence is not a solution to terrorism, nor should it be a logical response.
Terrorism was not a fact of life in most cities a generation ago. It became a fact of life only recently in Europe, with the London and Madrid bombings, and then with the Islamic State-inspired and -controlled attacks in Paris and Brussels. Only recently has it graduated to the use of trucks and knives as weapons. Most terrorist attacks can be easily traced to their origin and inspiration. In the old days terrorism originating from Northern Ireland would often involve calling in bomb threats. In 2001 after the 9/11 attacks a Provisional IRA member told a radio station that IRA terrorism could not be compared with al-Qaida because the IRA gave warnings. But even al-Qaida cannot be compared with Islamic State because its method of attack in the early years tended to seek mass-murder spectacles, attacking embassies and the World Trade Center and Pentagon. It planned for years for these attacks and used a cell-like organizational structure.
We have now entered a period of lone-wolf style Islamist terrorism, almost all of it carried out by Sunni jihadists, many of them educated and born in the West. They are told they can be “lions” and “martyrs” for just driving over some people. To pretend that because some terrorists have decided in the past year to use vehicles to run people over means that is it now “part of life” is preposterous. It wasn’t part of life a few years ago. It needn’t be tomorrow. In the 15th century members of parliament used to carry swords. The Duke of Gloucester famously banned the carrying of swords by members at a parliament held in 1426 in Leicester. The members turned up with bats and clubs instead.
“We must get used to the carrying of bats and clubs,” someone surely must have said at the time.
But we don’t have to get used to people dueling in parliament.
New York was once called the “ungovernable” city. Crime was out of control. But crime was reduced. Car-jackings, once more common in California, have virtually disappeared as a leitmotif of American culture. Remember Steve Martin in L.A. Story having a shootout on an Los Angeles Freeway? Remember the 1960s race riots? Would anyone at the time have made the statement that race riots are just “part an parcel” of living in a city? That lynchings and cross-burnings are just part and parcel of living in the Old South? Don’t like it, leave? Um, no. We don’t have to accept lynchings. We don’t have to accept witches being burned at the stake or the Inquisition, or everyday antisemitism, or sexual harassment in the workplace. We have a society and it is our duty to change those things that harm it. School shootings can stop. Terrorism can stop. Large cities are not all equally the victims of car-ramming attacks. In fact 99% of cities have not experienced Islamist car-ramming and knife attacks. Some of the largest cities in the world, such as Tokyo, Seoul and Osaka, do not experience such terrorist attacks.
It is true that some cities have been wracked by terrorist violence, just as in the 19th century there used to be anarchist terrorist violence in certain cities. But we can reduce the inspirations for Islamist extremism. We can change education systems and we can encourage communities to take responsibility for radicalization. Terrorism can be defeated. It may be true that our societies have to steel themselves for the changes that terrorism brings. Increased security has become a new and common feature in Europe. But let’s be honest about the death toll caused by terrorism in the West. There were almost 800 murders in Chicago last year. Thousands have died in drug violence in Mexico and other states in Latin America. People in South Africa face rampant home invasions. Many societies experience different forms of terrorism. Some societies have virtually no civil violence. There are very few murders per capita in Japan, Iceland, Singapore, Norway and Kuwait. There are countries with zero terrorist attacks. Not a few – zero. There are cities with zero terrorist attacks.
Claiming terror attacks are a normal aspect of everyday life not only normalizes and excuses them, but refuses to hold the perpetrators responsible. It turns murder into something akin to pollution. But pollution has a cause, a man-made cause, as does terror. Anything made by humanity can be confronted by society and reduced and eliminated. We must never accept the view that murder is normal and part and parcel of life. Our ideal in society should be zero murders. Zero terror attacks. Zero car jackings. No pick-pockets. No lynchings. No KKK. No neo-Nazis. No ISIS. Anything more than zero is not acceptable.
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