Why this spate of attacks? Because terrorists and mass killers deal in fear

Isis will be keen to exploit our current traumatised state. Politicians and public figures who whip up panic are actually incentivising further violence

The horrors of recent days are almost too much to comprehend. Children and their parents slaughtered at a firework display, a suicide bomber at a music festival, the brutal murder of a priest celebrating mass. Is there something wrong with 2016? The temptation is to think that France and its neighbours are entering an almost apocalyptic new era of violence.

Thankfully, we know that the number of people killed by acts of terrorism in western Europe is lower than in much of the last 30 years, although jihadi violence has risen dramatically. That particular threat may be growing, bolstered by the breakdown of order in Iraq and Libya and the civil war in Syria. But perspective is very important, for reasons that not everyone seems to have grasped.

The French president has spoken of waging war. Others have invoked a global jihadist insurgency. Europe is a front in an Islamic State-led invasion. These are extraordinary words, perhaps justified by extraordinary times. But what if the violence was not entirely driven as the rhetoric would have us believe by Isis warlords, moving figures around on a map-table somewhere in the Middle East? What if our own reactions and responses played a part in it?

As my colleague Jon Henley notes, the atrocities that have rocked Europe fall into very different categories: the clearly organised assaults on Paris and Brussels, and the less easy to categorise acts of individuals, as in Nice and Munich.

Terrorism is a brutally effective tactic for political actors who lack the military infrastructure of a state and have aims that are too radical to be pursued by civil means. A bomb or suicide attack is a low-cost, high-impact way to draw attention to a cause and damage your enemy.

For disturbed individuals, some of the same logic applies. A killing spree is also a low-cost, high-impact strategy, if global notoriety and revenge against a world you hate is the aim.

The effects of both on the public can be very similar: shock, fear, and the sense, deliberately stoked up by some, of being on a war footing.

This is what Europe is currently experiencing. And it is a situation ripe for further exploitation by Isis.

When one of your ultimate aims is to weaken a society that thrives because of toleration and freedom, fear is an extremely powerful weapon. You can use it to undermine that toleration and those freedoms. You can inject fear into the fault lines that divide people in that society, widening them, threatening the foundations.

Whats the best way to generate maximum fear? To strike at a moment when people are already rattled, panicking, thinking in terms of war and invasion and murder on the streets. That is why terrorist attacks spawn copycats. There is a multiplier effect: the fear you inflict will be greater if it comes soon after a successful assault; more if its the third in a series. And so on. This also applies to those whose commitment to jihadism is flimsy, but who want the world to take notice of them.

It is horrible to contemplate, but that may be why we are having a run of attacks, and why it is likely to continue. The more a society is traumatised, the greater the impact of any new onslaught good news for those who deal in fear.

There is an important corollary of this: anyone who successfully stirs up fear, who adds to the tension and to the sense that these are uniquely dangerous times, is actually incentivising additional terrorist attacks. Thats an uncomfortable thing to have to face. It leaves some feeling impotent: are you saying we should just keep quiet? Well, no. There is mourning to be done in each and every case, and anger is a justified and inevitable consequence.

If you truly want to minimise the possibility of further harm, however, your duty is to make sure that in your words and actions you are not adding to the problem. This is a point clearly lost on Donald Trump: his promises to make America safe again by making it less open, more paranoid, more belligerent, are likely to have precisely the opposite effect.

Terrorism will be with us so long as the means to kill and maim people are. We can make it less likely, though: by remaining open and unbowed, by wielding soft rather than hard power, and by investing time and effort in solving some of the running political, environmental and economic sores of our age. Placing ourselves on a war footing, on the contrary, may feel like an answer but its one that puts us all at greater risk.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jul/27/spate-of-attacks-terrorism-isis-europe

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