Global Affairs

Terrorist threat: Tempering grief with quiet determination

More people in the US die falling in bathtubs than from terrorist attacks, President Barack Obama often tells his staff. Is the public overreacting to the terrorist threat?

LONDON • "Keep calm and carry on." When the British government wanted to create a motivational poster to boost national morale on the eve of World War II, it chose this phrase as its preferred slogan.

More than half a century after that war ended, the posters were recently rediscovered and proved an instant commercial hit, adorning every kind of merchandise from T-shirts to crockery and handbags. And for good reasons, since the posters' stark message is a perfect example of Britain's famed "stiff upper lip", the country's understated but invariably unshaken determination to face down any threat without changing its way of life.

Shouldn't the world now copy the British model by keeping calm and carrying on in the face of the wave of terrorist attacks?

Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, certainly thinks so. In an article written immediately after the Brussels bombings, Professor Walt queried whether the universal expressions of "horror and sympathy" which the attacks generated were justified, given that the number of those who perished in the Belgian capital was much smaller than "the casualties suffered in wars, highway accidents, natural disasters, pandemics, or even preventable diseases".

We indirectly help terrorists by responding in such a public and dramatic fashion to each attack, argues Prof Walt. Instead, we should just muster the courage to ignore violence: "Terrorists cannot defeat us; we can only defeat ourselves," he writes.

US President Barack Obama also appears to share this view. For, as he recently admitted, he frequently tells his staff that terrorism is not a critical threat to the world's only superpower, and takes far fewer American lives than handguns, car accidents, or even the mundane falls in bathtubs do.


Rightly or wrongly, people also feel they have some control over their exposure to known risks: if they don't want to suffer injury on the roads, they can choose not to drive at all or avoid driving in treacherous weather. But what can be done to avoid dying in a terrorist attack, apart from locking oneself at home in perpetuity?

There is some force to these arguments. But not much, for defeating terrorism is not only about logic or statistics; it's also about politicians understanding the mood and psychology of their publics. And on that score, both the Harvard professor and the Harvard alumnus who is now US President are simply wrong, for the public fear of terrorism is not only understandable, but also justifiable.


Statistically, there is no doubt that the fear of being hit by a terrorist attack is overhyped. In 2014 - the latest year for which fully-audited figures are available - 32,675 people in the US died in road accidents and a further 33,599 were killed by firearms. By comparison, only 17 Americans perished in what can be classified as terrorist attacks perpetrated on United States soil.

Similar and huge disparities exist in Europe. For instance, an estimated 3,400 people were killed on France's roads last year, yet none merited even a fraction of the outpour of public grief and government attention as did the November terrorist attacks in Paris, in which 130 people perished.

And in Belgium, about 20 times more people are killed on the roads yearly than those who were murdered by terrorists recently. But while road killings elicit no response or notice, the terrorist attacks paralysed Belgium for the better part of a week.

There is also little doubt that round-the-clock TV news channels contribute to an exaggerated outpouring of emotions which accompanies every terrorist attack. For each terrorist strike results in what Prof Walt rightly calls an "orgy of overheated coverage" in the media, as commentators vie with each other in repeating the same tired old cliches about "radicalised Muslim communities", or about intelligence services which "missed early warnings" and "failed to connect the dots". Much of this is nonsense which did little more than fill the TV networks' airtime and boost speaking revenues for armchair strategists.

Yet none of this suggests that the current public response to terrorist attacks is inappropriate. To start with, it's human nature to pay more attention to a single incident in which a larger number of people are killed, rather than to many incidents in which single people perish: that's one reason why, say, a plane crash attracts more coverage than the grim but sadly routine carnage of road accidents.

Rightly or wrongly, people also feel they have some control over their exposure to known risks: if they don't want to suffer injury on the roads, they can choose not to drive at all or avoid driving in treacherous weather. But what can be done to avoid dying in a terrorist attack, apart from locking oneself at home in perpetuity? Therefore, successful terrorist attacks not only represent unquantifiable risks; they also raise fundamental questions about a government's primary responsibility to protect its nation, thereby unsettling all the law-and-order assumptions of ordinary people.


Furthermore, some of the terrorist attacks are not that small. The murders in Paris last November generated the highest rate of casualties in the French capital since World War II. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US were the most significant such blow to mainland USA since Pearl Harbor. It's difficult to argue that one should underplay the significance of such events.

People who now advise nations to take a "chill pill" over the terrorist threat often fall strangely silent when it comes to suggesting alternatives. Are the President of France or the Prime Minister of Belgium supposed to just wave off the terrorist strikes on their countries by pointing out that more people die from different causes? And are governments to refrain from issuing travel advisories to countries where there is a high risk of terrorism?

More importantly, the argument of critics such as Prof Walt that by overreacting to terrorist attacks nations do the terrorists' bidding is misconceived. For most of the reactions to terrorist attacks have not been about panic, but more of those of anguish, born out of a desire to commemorate the dead, rather than hand over a victory to the terrorists.

Of course, some of the commemorations which followed terrorist attacks were media-driven. For instance, there was no reason for people to congregate and light candles in Brussels' Place de la Bourse, the site of the old stock exchange, in order to mourn those killed many kilometres away in the Belgian capital, apart from the fact that the place is iconic, and that the TV cameras loved the setting.

Still, once people congregated there, the messages that emerged from the square negated everything the terrorists sought to achieve: the crowds called for harmony and equality between races and booed those blaming the Islamic faith for the murders.

Nor is there much evidence that the panic of crowds drives countries' responses to terrorism. European governments are still more concerned with protecting the unhindered movement of their people across frontiers than on establishing checkpoints. And although large resources are being devoted to boosting the capability of intelligence services to penetrate terrorist cells, these sums are tiny compared to the money which is still allocated to traditional national security activities such as the purchase of weapons.

However, there is plenty of evidence that downplaying the significance of terrorist attacks carries its own risks to a government's own reputation. Two years ago, President Obama dismissed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organisation as a "JV team", an American slang reserved for junior sporting teams which should not be taken seriously. Presumably, that's one assessment Mr Obama wouldn't like to be reminded of today, as ISIS has morphed into the most serious security threat in the Middle East.

Mr Obama's evident reluctance to treat terrorism seriously, at least in his public utterances, has also promoted disquiet among Americans: According to the latest national surveys by the Pew Research Centre, about 28 per cent of ordinary Americans now cite terrorism as their biggest concern, more than double the figure a year ago.

In short, the more politicians play down the threat of terrorism, the more their people tend to disbelieve them.

None of this suggests that politicians should simply follow the mood of crowds. Rather, it is simply to point out that the public reaction to terrorism is neither exaggerated, nor irrational.

It's worth recalling that the "Keep calm and carry on" posters were printed, but ultimately never distributed. The British public did not always keep calm during World War II. But it carried on with its determination, and it achieved victory.

So would the crowds in Europe and elsewhere who now face repeated terrorist attacks; they may be unsettled by these tragic events, but they don't appear in a mood to give in.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Tempering grief with quiet determination'. Print Edition | Subscribe