When the Fear of Terrorism Trumps Reason - New Canadian Media

When the Fear of Terrorism Trumps Reason

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa There is no question that fear sells. The latest Stephen King film about an evil clown – It –  grossed over…

Commentary by: Phil Gurski in Ottawa

There is no question that fear sells. The latest Stephen King film about an evil clown – It –  grossed over $120 million in its first three days after all.

We are odd in that we both fear fear and we are entertained by it – go figure.

But fear is not always helpful, unless you are running away from a grizzly or swimming away from a shark.  It is particularly counter-productive when it leads you to stop doing things you normally do. Things like going to a restaurant or to a movie (perhaps to see It) or on a vacation.  And the one thing that seems to be causing many people to alter their normal lives is the fear of terrorism.

In some ways this is, of course, understandable since there is not a day that goes by where we do not see or read about some act of violent extremism somewhere in the world.  These acts seem to resonate even more when they take place in ‘our world’ – i.e. Western Europe, North America or Australia – than when they occur in Africa, the Middle East or Asia (fact: the vast majority of attacks and casualties occur in the latter three rather than the former). 

The images of bloody corpses and mangled limbs sends shivers to those who witness them, in person or via social media.  We become afraid of terrorists and terrorism and we begin to believe that we will become the next victims unless we stay away from where the terrorists are.

This is problematic as terrorism can occur ANYWHERE.  A very short list of recent attacks underscores the ubiquity of terrorism: an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, a pedestrian mall in Barcelona, a London Tube train on a busy morning commute, in front of Notre Dame in Paris, a market stall in Kabul.  And I could go on. 

Yet, paradoxically, the chance of an act of terrorism in any one place at any given time is infinitely small (it is obviously higher in Baghdad and Mogadishu than in New York or Melbourne, but even then it is rare-ish).

What is unhelpful is to panic and cancel EVERYTHING because you are convinced you will die in a suicide bombing if you stay the course.  A few examples are illustrative of an irrational succumbing to the fear of terrorism:

  • diners in a Toronto restaurant last weekend that was the scene of a targeted killing of a real estate magnate told the media they thought they were going to die in what they believed to be a terrorist incident
  • the Israeli government issued a travel advisory for ‘Western and Northern Europe’ during the Jewish High Holy Days
  • US President Trump has been very irresponsible in raising the fear level with his characterisation of Muslims as terrorists

How is any of this a good thing?  Why in the world would a school board in Edmonton cancel a trip to Paris after the November 2015 attacks when Paris the day after was probably the safest city on the planet in large part due to the increased presence of armed soldiers?  Fear and ignorance, that’s why (and probably parents’ demands, which were born out of fear).

Giving in so easily to fear does many things.  It rewards terrorist groups that aim to make us afraid and over-inflates their pathetic importance.  It has serious implications for many parts of the economy both at home and abroad.  And it undoubtedly makes us more jittery the next time a terrorist attack occurs which makes us react with fear more quickly.

I am not advocating rushing off to Kandahar on vacation tomorrow, but if we value our societies and our freedoms we need to live.  Living means going out, seeing friends, visiting exotic lands and learning from each others’ cultures and histories.  And we cannot do that by barricading ourselves in our duct-taped basements.

I think the right reaction is that of the Brits. They are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’, a way of sneering at danger and uncertainty and forging ahead. That is exactly what a lot of people did in the wake of last Friday’s Tube attack (quote of the day: “I won’t stop taking the Tube because of some idiot”).  They also didn’t waver during the decades of IRA bombings.  I believe there is a lesson in that for all of us.


Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.  His latest book The Lesser Jihads is now available for purchase.

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Phil Gurski is a former terrorism analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism and has published several books, including the forthcoming When Religions Kill: how extremists justify  violence through faith.” He is a member of New Canadian Media’s board of directors.