Outrage at the Brussels bombings is understandable, but emotion is a poor tactical weapon
There aren’t many ways to fight terrorism, and most alternative suggestions offered are easier said than done. You kill one terrorist and you’ll breed a lot more, is the common advice that rings so true it’s become a movie cliché. The world has not become a safer place since Osama bin Laden was killed. After American troops invaded Iraq, many wrongly assumed that the removal of Saddam Hussein, cast as a major sponsor or facilitator of terrorism, would save the world from more brutal mass violence. The heads of many leading terrorist warlords rolled before Paris and Brussels, and yet they still happened. The violence continues.
This past week the fury boiled anew. It’s hard to be reasonable in such times when the targets aren’t symbolic or governmental or military and when more and more innocent people are becoming victims. But that is the exact reason why politics must not dictate our emotions.
We can only deal effectively with what is out in the open, but the terrorists are hiding in the dark. We can deal with politics, out in the open as it is. Dealing with terrorism requires a very subtle strategy, one that doesn’t ignore the brutality and yet doesn’t merely criticise politicians either. They’re just saying what they have to say. The strategy entails realising that hatred provokes and breeds terror, and the world must tread carefully. Hatred leads to prejudice, which separates people and groups together those who feel alienated. Politics, it has to be said, amplifies the hatred, stereotypes specific communities or countries and generates more fear – or strangers, of those who are somehow different.
Terrorism and politics feed on each other. Politicians routinely vow to “hunt them down” and “do whatever it takes” to end the attacks. It’s normal for anger to emerge and then be politicised, amplifying whatever it is the terrorists want to intensify. Attacks like those in Paris and Brussels aren’t simply meant to create panic and chaos. They are also intended to trigger chain reactions that ensure terrorism’s seeds spread further.
“Don’t accept what your leaders tell you,” an online anti-terrorism manual advises. The author warns against becoming irrationally angry against an entire country if it’s identified as the terrorists’ homeland, and that anger shouldn’t be directed at an persons who “look like” they might come from that country.
Terrorism thrives by attacking the innocent and serving the base hunger for retaliation. To strike back in the heat of the moment guarantees that the vicious cycle will continue.
We cannot, of course, let extremists do as they please. But, while some attacks are unprovoked and aimed only at imposing a given ideology, the response generated by politically inflamed hatred can only make matters worse. To the former there is perhaps no adequate, effective reply. The latter, however, can and should be curbed. The wise man is not given to knee-jerk reactions.
In the aftermath of a major attack like the one in Brussels, it’s difficult to resettle the mind and calm the heart. Those behind the bombings have been condemned, everyone well aware, nonetheless, that condemnation will have no effect on the terrorists spread around the world. News coverage of the event and then the reaction help keep the awful cycle in motion.
All we really know in such times is that innocent people are being killed by terrorists everywhere, including the most unlikely places. This means that either the unprovoked extremists are growing in numbers dramatically, hell-bent on imposing their will on the world, or that the provocations are making matters worse. Politics, of course, will insist that the attacks were unprovoked. Ordinary people, the usual targets of terrorists, can choose whether to believe that.