Living in fear is a terrible thing; it produces thoughts and feelings we would otherwise reject, but in fear, accept. Fear clouds judgment; it breeds suspicion and provides fertile ground for bigotry, intolerance, scapegoating and violence. Fear makes people more easily manipulated, more accepting of despots and tyrants promising safety and security through simplistic solutions.
Fear stimulated by terrorist violence breeds fear of ordinary life; in this respect terrorism is first cousin to random street crimes like assault and murder committed by strangers. Thus simply gathering at a market or going to a movie theater feel more risky. Risk, of course, is also the true nature of ordinary life. A quick trip down Highway 101 carries more risk than going to a movie, but we compartmentalize driving into a category of risk we find more acceptable, namely an act of fate in which all are hapless participants. The thought of premeditated, terrorist violence generates a type of fear we cannot easily compartmentalize.
The animal world is filled with predators and prey; it is an essential reality of nature. From the tiniest insect to the largest whale, living animals are alternatively eater or eaten. Human culture, however, likes to envision itself as above the “dog eat dog” world. We like to call ourselves civilized, which is to say less prone to capricious violence. A sound argument can be made that in many ways this is true, that we have substituted the rule of law for the rule of jungle. This new set of civilized rules, however, does not universally apply, and the violence prone individual or group proves the exception to the rule.
The recent violence in France instills fear. It’s only normal that people feel scared when they witness mass murder. The problem now is that it’s nearly impossible to know how to direct the fear. Thus, we have two basic options: (1) the institution of a “police state” in which all are suspect until proven innocent, or (2) the acceptance that at a fundamental level we cannot exercise complete control over the actions of others. The latter requires living with uncertainty, and the former living with an illusion of certainty. Even in a police state not every person or his actions can be correctly or completely anticipated.
The reactionary approach follows logic that says: The terrorism was committed by Syrian immigrants, thus we cannot trust any Syrian immigrant. This is, of course, as absurd as saying American terrorist Timothy McVeigh was white-skinned ex-military, thus we cannot trust any white-skinned ex-military American. Broad generalizations like these always veer towards absurdity, yet that is exactly what we are now hearing from the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It has always been the way of demagogues to identify and attack scapegoats in order to focus the fear and anger of a frightened population into accepting the loss of basic freedoms.
There have been circumstances, such as WW2, when tyrants and demagogues have gone so far that the only viable response has been the violence of war. It may be that ISIS intends to produce that effect, figuring that a western “war” against Muslims will draw more adherents to its cause. Or, it may be that ISIS too fanatical to have any consistent or coherent tactical approach whatsoever and is simply oscillating between murder and suicide.
Managing our fear of terrorist violence is the great test we face, not the violence itself.