Terror attacks in the West have over the years taken on a predictable response. Immediately, the internet runs wild with speculation – much of it wrong, much of it racist. If the perpetrator turns out to be a white Christian male, the incident is not classified as terrorism but called a “lone wolf” attack. The media speculates on his mental state for a day and the news moves on. If the perpetrator is Muslim, the Western world launches into Muslim Terror Attack Response Mode.
The terror attack becomes the top story on every news site and paper and stays there for three or four days. CNN, MSNBC, and FOX all bring on various assortments of white men to pontificate on its meaning while the anchor interrupts with breaking news updates. Social media becomes a cesspool of Islamophobia and armchair detective sleuthing. Hate crimes against Muslims spike. Politicians across the political spectrum deliver their condolences to the victims while reiterating their strong support for national security. In short, the Western world is successfully terrorized. Our response to these attacks is ensuring that they happen again and again.
The aim of terror attacks is to terrorize. ISIS radicals want Christians to be terrified of Muslims, because their ultimate goal is to end the “gray zone” where Muslims and Christians live together peacefully. They want Muslims living in the West to feel alienated from their home countries, to “prove” that the West is at war with Islam. George W. Bush even understood this, which is why the Bush and Obama administrations both avoided terminology like “radical Islamic terrorism” or “radical Islamism” in favor of terms like “violent extremism.”
Bush and Obama were careful to avoid language that would imply that America was at war with Islam, since that is a losing proposition (war with 1.6 billion people doesn’t turn out well), morally wrong, and exactly what ISIS wants. The way the Trump Administration has chosen to frame the conflict with ISIS plays right into their hands.
The way our media covers terror attacks is exactly what ISIS wants. They want the most news coverage possible. They want their suicide bombers’ faces plastered over every Western channel. ISIS recruits angry young men who feel like their life has no meaning and convince them that if they commit attacks in ISIS’ name they will leave a legacy, they will be remembered. The Western world does ourselves a disservice to let these men’s names do anything but rot.
Unlike the current administration’s embrace of “war against Islam”-style language and military tactics, not all reactions that play into ISIS’ hands are intentional. Our national ritual of grieving, as well-intentioned as it is, aids terrorist aims. Every politician and celebrity feels a responsibility to weigh in with their condolences. If you don’t, you seem heartless. And the victims of terror attacks deserve to be grieved, they deserve to be remembered.
Just as the victims of any other crime. A man shot and killed in a break-in and a woman murdered in a domestic violence situation both deserve to be grieved and remembered. But the whole country doesn’t need to do it. It’s untenable. We cannot pay attention to every instance of crime, we can’t grieve for every single victim, or we will never stop grieving and life will lose its joy. Terror attacks are sad, unfair crimes that ruin lives, but they are as incapable of destroying our country and civilization as random criminal acts are, unless we let them.
The difference is in our reaction. Our outsize reaction to terror attacks makes it seem like they are far more prevalent than they are. As an America, you are more likely to be crushed to death by furniture than to be killed in a terrorist attack. About 100 people die of car accidents every day in America. After September 11th, many people canceled flights out of fear. One scholar who studies the psychology of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, estimates that more people died in car accidents from driving instead of flying in the period immediately after September 11th than died in the attacks themselves. The fear instilled by the terror attacks ended up taking more lives than the attacks did.
The reactions of people like Theresa May, Donald Trump, and the anchors, editors, and producers of every major news outlet in the West are making terror attacks more effective and more likely to recur. Perhaps the best response to a terror attack seen in modern times was actually by the singer Ariana Grande. After her concert was attacked in Manchester and 22 people were killed, she went back and performed another concert. She brought out thousands of her fans and, in honor of the victims, she did what they would have wanted — she played the hits.
That’s how you respond to a terrorist attack. The best way we can honor the victims is not to publicly grieve them for days, it’s to minimize the chance of more attacks happening in the future. And the best way to minimize the chance of those attacks is to refuse to be terrorized. The news media should pay as much attention to terror attacks as they do to the epidemic of people being crushed by furniture. They should refuse to talk about the attackers, to share their names and photographs. We must continue to live our lives and expand the Gray Zone that ISIS hates and fears so much. We should get back out there and play the hits.
Photo: PDJohnson/Creative Commons