What is terror, and who is a terrorist? The question comes up a lot these days. In Germany, the Berlin Christmas market attack was labeled a terrorist act pretty much immediately. The collective “we” of the media is less sure when it comes to the shootings at a Zurich mosque, or the assassination – all still on the same day – of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. It hardly mentions terrorism committed in parts of the world that we associate with terror anyway, despite the fact that these have come with far greater loss of life.
Who is labeled a terrorist and who is not, and why, matters. Presently, we are quick to call terrorists those who commit crimes while looking foreign, and those who ally themselves with organizations, loose as they may be, that seek to destroy existing orders. The former has sadly become synonymous with terrorism, while the latter is really what it should be defined as.
This used to be more obvious in the late twentieth century, at least in Europe, when terror was everywhere and the terrorists were to be found among the white citizens of the very nations they were attacking. It is still true now. To connect terror and foreignness automatically is to short-circuit a complicated system of causes and effects to arrive at a naïve and simplistic explanation. In this naïveté, terrorism and the populists who now try to benefit from it to push their own right wing agendas are locked in a mutually beneficial spiral that is the opposite of beneficial to democracies anywhere.
What are we to do in the face of terror? Our approach must always be two-pronged: there can be no stopping terror without trying to understand and then trying to change the conditions that further the radicalization of individuals and groups. There can be no stopping terror without diligent, well-funded, well-organized, and presumably boring policework.
What does not stop terror is the screaming and screeching that passes for political discourse in some corners. They who fan the flames of emotion with the tinder of populism, nationalism, and racism mean only to destabilize the open society that is always and forever the only bulwark against oppression and tyranny.
As individuals we can refuse very visibly to be intimidated. Few things unbalance terror more than a collective nonchalance in the face of its actions. This alone is not enough surely, but it is a big part already. So stand tall. Stand up straight and don’t let fear guide your actions and turn uncertainty into despondency, despondency into hatred.
Democracy is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that contains within itself the constant potential for its own improvement. Is there anything as much worth defending? Life is dangerous, and you’re signed up for that danger automatically by being born. So be watchful, yes. Speak out and act. Against the conditions that mould terrorists, the plots of the terrorists themselves, and against those who would use fear to push an agenda.
That you may not have felt fear every day is a testament to the relative peace many, not all, sadly, but many of us living in democratic states have been able to rely on. This peace has been normal for so long that many, too, have forgotten its very implausibility in the face of nearly all world history. Have forgotten how highly we should value the humdrum tedium of an uneventful everyday.
Be sad sometimes and angry others, and show resolve. To stand, to speak, not shrink away. And most of all, to never sell away so much of your freedom in search of a safety that cannot be had and will choke the very society it supposedly protects that you lose both safety and freedom. For that is the natural end point of a scared world.
Be not afraid. On this night, and any night, be not afraid.