Tides of Terror
Mar 26 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – The playground in Paris had a few more people than usual the other day, the day the Brussels bombing happened. A few people there told me because of the bombing, which happened early morning, the gendarmes are going to be deployed at the train stations, checking IDs and bags of all passengers coming and going, and this will cause massive delays. So they left work early and came home, and those with younger kids decided to come to the playground. That`s where I met them.
In another reality, messages of concern poured in. Don`t step out, a few people advised me. Family messaged, asking if my plans had changed due to the bombing. No, I replied, there is no perceptible change here.
Terrorism is a phenomenon that lives in the headlines only, rarely puncturing the surface tranquillity of day-to-day life. The only time it can enter the lives of people directly is if one should be, or should know of someone, who was there when it happened. Or through the security measures that arisein response toit.
In reality, the number of people dying as a result of terror attacks in Europe has declined sharply since the 1970s and 1980s. Since the war on terror began, only two large spikes of deaths as a result of terrorism present themselves on a graph drawn up by the Global Terrorism Database. One in 2004, the Madrid train bombings, and the other in 2015, the Paris attacks.
The total number of victims in both those attacks is about 320, whereas Pan Am Flight 103 took down 270 victims in one go back in 1988. That bombing triggered some of the most intense sanctions against Libya, which had only just been loosened as a result of painstaking negotiations when the uprising hit.
So why does terrorism seem so much more frightening today than it did back then? Why does it inspire such dread, even though it does not puncture through the headlines and the television space, where it lives and breathes mostly, into the `structures of everyday life`, to borrow that rather French phrase? The fear is palpable in the heightened deployment of police and paramilitary on the streets, thedeclaration of a state of emergency, the escalation in the right-wing rhetoric against migrants and the tightening of immigration rules. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when terrorists claimed more lives in Europe than they do today, their actions did not sway the institutions of mainstream politics in the way they are able to do today.
So what has changed? I count three things. First, is the growth of a large migrant population in Europe over these decades. Second, the more nativist tendencies stirred by the rise of the European project, and further aggravated by the more recent crisis of the European Union. Third, the discourseassociated with the war on terror, which found a very contested space in Europe ever since Mitterrand`s famous `non` to the American doctrine of pre-emptive action.
The terrain of fear upon which terrorism seeks to have its day is built on the anxieties that are created by economic, cultural and demographic forces. And the ultimate objective of the terrorist is to triumph in the mind of the observer, not on the ground. None of the forces that aid the terrorist in his enterprise have been created, or even midwifed, by him.
But they have provided the amplification for his message, which is all that he really seeks in any case.
What exactly is the message that the terrorist is trying to send? After all, small random bombings that kill a few people but leave the structures of power and day-to-day life largely untouched cannot be compared to acts of war, least of all war of the sort that the European continent has known since at least the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.Such bombings do not work towards the capturing of territory, nor do they impact the flow of economic life in any significant way.
In other countries, terrorists have targeted tourists because that country`s main source of foreign exchange earnings is from tourism. Or they have targeted infrastructure, because it is through infrastructure projects that the regime has tried to tie rural communities into the national life of the rest of the country. Or they have targeted military installations, because the army is leading an operation againstterroristsafe havens.Orthey have targeted civilians in bazaars and other locations in an attempt to tell the populace that the state they hide behind cannot protect them from the terrorists` wrath.
But what is the thinking behind targeting people in cafes, or commuters on a train, or people in the departure lounge ofan airport? The ideais to stir up the anxieties that already plague the society in question. It is to tell the migrant populations in these countries `see how fast they abandon their commitment to your rights and welfare? And you dream of calling this country your home?` They seek to stir suspicion on all sides: `we are here, any one of us could be carrying the next bomb! With these messages, the terrorists seek to drive a wedge between the migrant community and the larger society, an act in which they are aided by the growing economic crisis which spreads unemployment and strains resources for the welfare state for which Europe is famous. Economy and demography create the world of meaning which the terrorist uses, while technology and the attendant language of the war on terror give him the tools with which to amplif y his message.
Thus far, fortunately for us all, his message has failed. But if in a few years, if the European electorate brings into power those far right forces that are similarly preying on the postmodern anxieties of the moment, the terrorist will have his triumph.
The writer is a member of staff. [email protected] Twitter:@khurramhusain
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan