The terrorist threat, Part XXVI

Posted July 25, 2011, at 6:29 p.m.

You could almost hear the enormous sigh of relief as journalists around the world welcomed the news that there had been a big explosion in Oslo and many shooting deaths on a nearby island. There has been practically no foreign news for them to write about — it’s summer in the northern hemisphere and all the major villains of international politics are on holiday — but this is terrorism, and terrorism always sells.

“Even if one is well prepared, it is always rather dramatic when something like this happens,” said Prime Minister Jens Stolteneberg with admirably Norwegian restraint. But restraint is not the dominant mode in journalism, and plenty of people were willing to hypothesize on who caused the explosion and why. The leading theories were:

It was Islamist terrorists taking belated revenge for the cartoons published by Jyllands-Posten six years ago that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. They would have had to be very ignorant terrorists, since Jyllands-Posten is a Danish newspaper and Oslo is in Norway, but the distinction may not be clear if you live far away and you didn’t pay attention in geography class.

It was Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi carrying out his threat earlier this month to attack European targets in retaliation for European help to Libyan rebels: “Hundreds of Libyans will martyr in Europe. I told you it is eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” There are six Norwegian fighter planes operating over Libya, after all.

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It was an extreme right-wing conspiracy with its roots in Norwegian politics, taking aim at the ruling Labour Party.

It’s starting to look as if the last theory was correct, with Anders Behring Breivik, the sole suspect who has been arrested, cast as a Norwegian Timothy McVeigh. The point is that if you are not Norwegian, it doesn’t matter much. Indeed, even if you are Norwegian, it shouldn’t matter much. This is a big media event and a tragedy for those directly involved, but it is not actually a big event.

A hundred people killed in a train wreck or an airline disaster is a two-day story in the country where it happened, and a one-day story that does not lead the television news (unless there are particularly dramatic pictures) in the rest of the world. Whereas a hundred Norwegians killed in a bomb attack and a shooting spree once in a half-century makes headlines around the world.

The problem is that terrorism gets people’s attention, just as it is intended to. It then becomes the basis for making policy. And often that policy is very expensive, very intrusive and very foolish. There will now be thousands of new metal detectors, and thousands of new “security” personnel to run those machines and carry out body searches, at the entrances to public buildings across Europe and probably beyond.

There may even be armed guards at youth camps run by political parties. It will create some employment at a time when it is needed, but that will presumably not be the aim of the exercise. The goal, or so we will be told, is to reduce the likelihood of such a terrible event happening again. But you can’t do that. All you can do is to move the terrible events around.

If you make all government buildings everywhere totally impenetrable, with overlapping layers of tight and time-consuming security, then the next bomber with a grievance will just blow himself up in a bus. Or in a supermarket, or at a major sports event, or just in a crowded city street. Unless you are willing to legislate against more than a dozen people being together anywhere, terrorists will continue to enjoy a “target-rich environment.”

Fortunately, these terrible events are very rare. They are rare partly because governments keep track of individuals and groups that show some interest in terrorism, but mainly they are rare because there really are not that many such individuals and groups.

The ordinary citizen’s safety lies in statistics, not in ever more elaborate “security” measures. You are still more likely to die from falling off a ladder or drowning in the bath than you are to die in a terrorist attack. When they tell you to reshape your life or your foreign policy in response to the “terrorist threat,” tell them to go jump in the lake.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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