The West has a problem with terror.
It’s not that we keep falling victim to terrorist attacks. Not really. From the perspective of attrition, the most successful terror attack in history barely killed enough people to bother commenting on. Three thousand people. A large number only in certain contexts. Every second of every hour of every day, two humans die. A hundred fifty thousand people each day, every day, forever. Three thousand isn’t such a big number. Terrorism really isn’t that deadly.
But it’s spectacular. It’s out of the ordinary. The power of terrorism is to shake things up, to jolt people out of the rhythms of their lives. Fear might be the most powerful weapon there is, not only for its own sake but for the reactions it can provoke. A people acting out of fear are not acting with the future in mind. They’re locked into the now with chains forged out of their own feelings, capable of nothing but cowering, lashing out, or locking down.
We saw all of this in the days and weeks following 9/11. America changed almost overnight, and we’re still changed. Nineteen men managed to do what the Soviet Union could not — they defeated us. They broke our spirit.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The stoics say that the only thing we truly have control over are our responses to the things that happen to us. You can’t affect whether or not you’ll get cancer, or lose your job, or your car will break down. All the preventative measures in the world can’t guarantee that nothing bad will ever happen to you. All you can do is control your response to the misfortunes of life and the vicissitudes of fate.
So it is with terror.
The terrorists win when we lash out in our fear and panic. The terrorists win when we lock ourselves behind high walls and iron gates. The terrorists win when we clamp down on free speech, free movement, free association. The terrorists win when we “never forget.” These are their objectives — to make us afraid, to scar us so deeply that we are forever changed for the experience. By reacting in this way, we play right into their hands.
Worse, a “war on terror” is a war that simply cannot be won. As Martin Luther King said, darkness cannot drive out darkness, and hate cannot defeat hate. Our reactions, human though they may be, only make things worse. Our anger, our rage, our violent response, only provide fodder for the recruiting mills. By blindly striking at those not directly responsible, we only prove the terrorists “right.” We show ourselves to be just as awful, in context, as the terrorists say we are. Our military forces are not a scalpel, but a shotgun; and our most accurate weapons are still not precise enough to spare civilians when we strike.
We must find another way to respond. All of us. We must learn to answer hate with love, and darkness with light. We must refrain from turning the dead into slogans and marching orders. We must mourn our dead as if they were killed by a force of nature, and move on with our lives. Let’s not “remember 9/11,” because that’s what the terrorists want us to do. Let’s not bomb ISIS to hell and back, because that’s what they want us to do. I don’t want to hear about building walls to keep out refugees, or hate crimes directed against Muslims. I don’t want our President to do “whatever it takes” to “bring the perpetrators to justice.” There is no justice to be had, and “whatever it takes” is a very slippery slope.
Terrorist attacks are temper tantrums, not military action. They give us a bloody nose, but like all bloody noses, they look so much worse than they are. The only way that terrorism is ever going to stop is if we, as a culture, learn to stop answering violence with violence. Let us call an end to our dark celebrations of these hours of violence. Let our response be measured, considered, and rational. Let the terrorists be found by the police, brought to a fair trial, and punished according to the rule of law. Let us not go blindly stomping into another quagmire, which would cost us untold billions and would accomplish nothing but to feed the flames of hatred.
We can’t stop terror. All we can do is control our reaction to it, and that reaction determines whether or not there will be more terror. If we keep answering violence with violence, nothing will ever change. We must find another way.