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MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT

how me, you, and Western media empowered

ISIS & Co. and the Trumps of this world

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PART III of III

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Of Muslim Victims, White Terrorists, and Our Indifference towards Faceless Strangers

how we overlook the real victims and perpetrators of terrorism

Disclaimer: This article is the third part of a three-piece mini-series titled “Terrorism Is What We Make It.” The idea is to level out our skewed Western view on terrorism, what psychological and public phenomena are responsible, and how our emotional reaction deals right-wing populists into play. The way most of us use the term “terrorist attack” is terribly flawed in itself, as elaborated in this article. For the sake of argument, I will use it for now as it is commonly used: Jihadist terror killing Western civilians on Western soil. I will touch on the three misconceptions that seem most relevant to me in this context and dedicate one article to each issue.

 

   The day I got started on this mini-series, I wrote an article titled “Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks.” But only within my little, cute Western horizon it was that. A first break that day revealed a darker beyond. I scoured the news and indeed it took a while until I came across the ISIL attack that did take place on the 21st of November 2016.

That’s because it happened in Kabul and the death of thirty people in a country as war-stricken as Afghanistan has long ceased to be of interest to Western media. A lot of publications didn’t cover it at all; some others pushed it to a second or third page below the fold. Local politics and sports were more important. The most prominent placing of the story was on BBC, where it was granted enough limelight to co-star next to Kanye West’s interrupted tour, after a relatively small scrolling-effort. Here’s the sad kicker: if you were to check for the attack now, even news agencies like Reuters or Al Jazeera, who did report on the attack, couldn’t tell you the exact number of fatalities. No one seems to count anymore in Afghanistan. Can you imagine a terrorist attack in the US or Europe going by silently without anybody even knowing the death toll?

 

The media’s menu that day showed that if we don’t question and choose our news-poison wisely, we’re prone to perceive a wholly skewed picture, only ever depicting Westerners as the victims of terrorist assailants, when this could hardly be farther from the truth.

With that in mind, let’s go on a search for the true victims of (Islamic) terrorism.

But first, let’s backtrack to the definition of terrorism real quick – according to the Oxford Dictionary it is this: “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”

This definition seems better suited for groups like the IRA or ETA, whose violence actually pursues political aims, even though the religious agenda of Islamic terrorist organizations might translate into something resembling politics at the end of the day. It is also noteworthy that European terrorists are responsible for many more attacks in Europe than ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamic terrorist groups combined. Similarly, did white terrorists of US origin (e.g. lone wolf gunmen, right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists) kill more US citizens since 9/11 than did attacks inspired by radical Islam. Moreover, it is important to understand that terrorism isn’t a new phenomenon, neither in the West nor elsewhere. As a matter of fact, it dates back thousands of years and overarches religions and ethnicities.

Throughout the 20th century, Europe certainly had its share of homegrown and international terrorism. But how quickly did we forget shot-down planes and hostage crises in the wake of jihadist attacks on this side of the millennium’s threshold. Like a historian’s nightmare, only the most recent events stick, while emotion overwhelms the rationale of statistics and archives. Riddled with bias, it’s easy to end up believing that Islamic terror is one of the biggest challenges of our time when in fact it is a peripheral issue (as discussed in part I and II of this series). A look at the following statistic might help correct our impaired vision:

Between 1970 and 1986, the statistic counts almost twice as many terrorist victims as during the years 2000 to 2016. The 70s and 80s constituted the apex of Western terrorism executed by local groups like the IRA, but also Islamic terror organizations such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The widely circulating, unspoken but undisputed definition of terrorism in the West today – terrorism = Islamic terrorism – is the result of statistical misconceptions and our obliviousness to past events. We’re forgetting the history of terrorism within our own sphere, and the global scale is an even more alien concept to us. The historical hotspots of terrorism around the world are very neatly demonstrated in this map (retrieved from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, START):

 

Terrorism in the 20th century was a particularly persistent issue in nations like Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Sri Lanka and the Philippines – places no one really thinks of when talking about terrorism today. As local conflicts that kept to themselves, they didn’t concern us back then and even less so now. Still, it is crucial to know the many different faces of terrorism throughout history to not let our understanding of it gravitate too much towards the most contemporary developments. 

The world saw a drastic shift in terrorist activity after 9/11, as you can see in this table:

* Only in the top 25 prior to 9/11
**Not in the top 25 prior to 9/11.

 

 

 

 

After 9/11, Iraq became the number one victim of terrorism with a staggering 25 % of all the attacks worldwide. Yes, Iraq, which we think of as a terrorist stronghold, is actually the main target. Countries like India, Afghanistan and Pakistan follow not too far off, while none of them made the list before 9/11. Western countries are not even among the runner-ups anymore.

   

The facts speak a clear language: groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda strike predominantly in the countries they emerged from, and their main target are Muslims. Iraqis, Afghanis, and Syrians are the true sufferers, or, in the case of Boko Haram, Nigerians. Speaking of which – while all eyes were on ISIS, Boko Haram became the world’s deadliest terror organization in 2015, overtaking ISIS in numbers of casualties (6,664 vs 6,073) and with a far higher ratio of civilian fatalities (77 % vs 44 %). But Boko Haram only wreaks havoc in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, so it goes mostly unnoticed in the West; unless a particularly perverted attack or hostage situation advances to newsworthiness.

While we often perceive this as a war between Islam and Christianity, it is truly a war of extremists against everybody who’s opposed to their agenda, most of all the peaceful Muslim community. That Western countries have often had a hand in the very rise of fundamentalist groups, by arming rebel forces and interfering with local conflicts (for better or worse), is a topic in itself. For the focus of this article, it suffices to say that we have a responsibility to the Muslim refugees from the countries we’ve meddled with.

"How do we arrive at such clouded conclusions, mistaking us for victims and actual victims for perpetrators, in an age where all the facts are readily available?"

How do we arrive at such clouded conclusions, mistaking us for victims and actual victims for perpetrators, in an age where all the facts are readily available?

One main factor is the Western media landscape (as elaborated in part I of this mini-series). However, the problematic nature of that landscape has deeper roots. Wherever you are from, newsworthy, above all else, is what happens within your own sphere. A bloodshed making the front page at the other end of the world might be a footnote at home.

The issue is still deeper though. Human psyche deep. For better or worse, it is in our nature to care little for what’s happening far down the road, geographically or timely speaking. In all fairness, keeping our distance is derived from psychological mechanisms we have little awareness of and exercise little control over.

Take psychic/statistical numbing or the identifiable victim effect for instance. Simply put: we care more about individuals than faceless statistics, a behavioral pattern that prompts us to make unbelievable decisions – like rather donating money to save one life instead of ten lives. The psychological mechanisms at work lead to irrational indifference: the more people are in trouble, the less we care; likewise, we care less and less the longer a conflict has been going on, when in fact the situation is getting worse and would need more of our attention.

No individual can take in all the world’s pain, and so we choose to spend our emotional response on ourselves and the ones closest to us. The further we move from our family and friends into the distant ranks of strangers, the more our pain diminishes, even though our compassion might stay intact. I hate to admit it to myself, but an attack in Europe gets to me more than one in the Levant. And I confess this too: I was shocked when I heard about the massacre at the Bataclan, but more so when I found out that someone I know was there that night. That person fortunately made it out alive, but the personal connection (which isn’t even very personal) made the events a lot realer.

All that said, in a globalizing and democratizing world with instant media access, we can pivot the focus to our advantage. Take Facebook for instance: people in Lebanon weren’t happy when the social media behemoth didn’t implement the same safety feature for the Beirut attacks which it had offered after the Paris attacks. Prompted by a global outcry in solidarity, Facebook reacted. After all, the media is at our service, and that includes social media. If we want the media to report more comprehensively and diversely, we need to tell them that. Tell them that they should tell us who the real victims and perpetrators of terror are and show us the faces of those who are otherwise lost to our indifference.

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from the same series

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MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT

how me, you, and Western media empowered
ISIS & Co. and the Trumps of this world

________________________________________________________

reads | life

Part I of III

Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks

our poor, emotional judgement of likelihoods has dire consequences in the real world

And everyone who lets emotion kidnap rationale will get the false impression that there is a realistic assailant threat in the West, when it is factually less than lottery-realistic. From there, it’s only one slippery step to a landslide fear of immigrants, and, next thing you know, Donald Trump is president of the United States. read more

reads | life

Part II of III

Accepting the Unacceptable: A Little Bit of Terrorism Is Inevitable

life can't be drained of all its risks 

No matter how much we want this world to be predictable and safe, we have to accept that complete certainty, and with it, complete security, are complete illusions. read more