A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself

The London attack should not terrify us.

If one man with a car and a knife can cause the same feeling as the Brussels and Paris attacks, why should terrorists even bother securing bombs and guns?

© REUTERS/Hannah McKay

The Oxford English Dictionary defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” Terror, on the other hand, is simply defined as “extreme fear.” Terrorism is something done to us, terror is something we do to ourselves.

It’s clear that if the former hasn’t caused the latter, it hasn’t worked. The big question today, one day after an attack outside the British parliament with comparatively limited loss of life, casualties, and damage is whether such a small-scale incident can cause the same kind of terror as the large-scale attacks of the past.

Authorities are still piecing together the details of the London attack, but what is known so far is that three people have been murdered and seven critically injured by a man who drove into a crowd on Westminster Bridge and then stabbed a police officer while trying to enter the Palace of Westminster. The man is UK-born and has been investigated in the past over support for Islamist extremism. But it appears that, like other recent attackers using vehicles, he was only inspired by the so-called Islamic State terrorist group (IS) and has had no actual contact with them.

Same Day, Different Place

The timing of the attack was significant, coming on the one-year anniversary of the Brussels bombings which killed 32 civilians and injured 300 last year. In the morning, EU and Belgian politicians had gathered at Brussels airport and the EU Quarter, the two sites of the bombings, for remembrance ceremonies. The Belgian media reflected on what has changed since that dark day one year ago that terrified a city.

The mood was somber, but resolute. The ceremonies ended around noon, and for the rest of the day the city carried on as normal. “Faced with the threat we will continue to respond together with firmness, calmness and dignity,” said Belgian King Philippe.

Like the Paris attacks four months earlier, in November 2015, the Brussels attacks rattled people not only because of the bombings themselves, but because of the obvious lapses by the authorities in failing to catch these intricate plots while they were being planned.

The Brussels and Paris attackers, who later emerged to be part of associated IS cells, had traveled to Syria as foreign fighters. They had been able to secure automatic weapons and build bombs from their base in the Brussels neighborhood of Molenbeek. There was a feeling that the attacks would have been preventable if Belgium had a better-functioning security apparatus.

Weaponizing Vehicles

The London attack bore little resemblance to that atrocity one year earlier. It appears to have required little in the way of planning. Driving a car into a sidewalk full of pedestrians is something anyone has the ability to do. The attacker carried knifes which are easy to come by. It appears he has never been to Syria and has had no contact with IS. He had only appeared once on MI5’s radar some years back because he had expressed support for Islamist extremism.

His attack was instead more like the attack on a Berlin Christmas market three months ago, in which a “lone wolf” Tunisian migrant drove a truck into a crowd and killed twelve people. He also had no significant contact with IS and had never been to Syria. He had only sworn allegiance to IS in an online video.

The modus operandi in these two attacks suggests two things. First, the capability of IS to carry out large-scale attacks in Europe, using fighters trained in Syria, may have been exhausted. Second, and perhaps more important, IS has learned it can achieve the same effect as a large-scale planned attack merely by inspiring some European residents to drive vehicles into other Europeans.

This lesson would have been learned clearly from the Nice attack in July 2016, in which another “lone wolf” drove a 19-ton-cargo truck into a Bastille Day celebration, killing 86 people. It was the first vehicle attack to result in mass casualties – more than twice as many as in the Brussels bombings four months earlier.

The fact that a single truck could cause so many casualties was shocking ­– and unusual. Like in the Berlin and London attacks, the perpetrator, a French resident of Tunisian origin, had had no direct communication with IS. He had merely been inspired by their call to arms.

What IS would have observed since then, however, is that even vehicle attacks which are comparatively less successful can attract the same amount of media attention and terror as ones that result in mass casualties. The attack on the Berlin Christmas resulted in wall-to-wall coverage across the Western world. The pattern is now repeating after the London attack.

Helping Out

The high-profile nature of yesterday’s target has heightened media coverage. The incident took place at a famous tourist landmark and the heart of British government. Although she was never in any danger, the Prime Minister Theresa May was rushed away from Parliament in a car immediately after the attack. One MP tried to rescue a fatally injured police officer. Other MPs were locked inside the parliament chamber for safety. It made for dramatic images and dramatic stories.

The perpetrator would have known that carrying out his act in front of the parliament rather than somewhere else in the city, would get him more attention. The British capital came to a standstill. Facebook activated it’s now-famous “check-in” feature so that the eight million residents of London could assure their friends and family that they were not among the victims of the attack. Now familiar “pray for London” memes popped up immediately.

The media clearly wanted to heighten the drama. CNN kept breathlessly repeating that the attack was “the deadliest terror attack in central London in twelve years” – a rather absurd comparison considering the coordinated 2005 London bombings destroyed infrastructure and killed 52 people. It also willfully ignored the several other small-scale terrorist incidents that have taken place outside “central London” since then.

If the aim of terrorism is to terrify, the media was doing its best to help out.

Remember Melbourne?

Contrast this reaction to the Melbourne attack of January 20, 2017, in which yet another “lone wolf” attacker drove his car into a crowded city center sidewalk blocks away from the Victoria parliament, killing six and injuring 30. You Haven’t heard of it? That’s because within hours of the attack, it was established that the perpetrator was not an Islamist terrorist.

I was in Melbourne at the time, and the attack took place just outside my hotel. For about two hours the city waited in apprehension to find out about the motives of the perpetrator. My friends and family in Europe and America were still sleeping. I knew that the perpetrator’s religion would make all the difference in whether or not I would be inundated with messages of concern as dawn broke on the other side of the world.

As it happened, by the time Europeans woke up the Australian police had established that the perpetrator was an Australian who had been driven into a psychotic rage after a domestic dispute (his brother had come out as gay). Not a single person messaged me to see if I was OK, because they didn’t hear about it. Facebook did not ask me to “check in” to tell people I was safe.

Why should the London incident be treated any differently than the Melbourne one? In the minutes and hours after the Westminster attack we all desperately wanted to know whether the perpetrator was Muslim – because that would make all the difference in the perceived import of what had happened. Had it been just a crazy Christian British person, the media would have moved on by today, just like they did in Melbourne. The US president certainly would not have gotten involved.

Why do we attach this seemingly mystical importance to Islamist terrorists, as if their deeds were more capable of inflicting terror than your run-of-the-mill psychopath? We choose whether or not we inflict terror on ourselves. We choose to give them this power over us.

While the implications of the security lapses in the Paris and Brussels attacks were genuinely worrying, we have to accept that there is little we can do to prevent a crazy person from driving a car into a crowd. This has always been true before and continues to be true today.

We are more likely to be killed by a drunk driver than a terrorist. By the end of this week Britain’s roads will have killed and injured more people than this man did yesterday. Any loss of life is tragic, but by allowing ourselves to be worked into hysteria simply because of a perpetrator’s religion defies logic.