On Friday, an Egyptian man armed with two machetes attacked a group of security guards patrolling the Louvre Museum in Paris. The man, who yelled “allahu akbar” during the attack, was shot and taken to the hospital. Thankfully, no one was killed. The attack still terrified Parisians and many across the West. Why? Because of the attacker’s intent and our own vulnerability in our day to day lives.
Since President Trump signed his executive order on immigration two weeks ago, social media has been flooded with memes and graphs showing how few people have died at the hands of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries who’ve committed acts of terrorism. The Left uses this narrative to argue that we don’t need to worry about Middle Eastern terrorism or refugees coming into the country.
But this misunderstands, on a deep level, the psychology of terrorism and the importance of intention.
Terrorism Aims to Destabilize Society
Statistics about terrorism are often accompanied by the number of gun deaths that occur every year. This is a typical tactic of the Left. Whenever Islamist terrorism comes up, they change the conversation to guns and gun control.
There’s no doubt that gun violence in America is out of control. But comparing terrorism to gun violence misses the importance of intention, and how strongly it affects peoples’ sense of security. This is at the root of why terrorism frightens people so much.
It matters whether your potential attacker is trying to steal money from you, or is trying to kill you in the name of religion. The result might be the same tragic end, but the American public senses that there’s something infinitely more sinister about being the victim of a plot versus being the victim of a crime. And that’s what these ISIS-inspired attacks are: a plot.
The New York Times recently reported that many of the so-called lone wolf attacks that we’ve seen over the past few years were really coordinated by operatives in Syria. They aren’t just random, unrelated acts of violence by isolated, mentally ill individuals, as the mainstream media would have us believe. They are part of a broader strategy that is rooted in the religio-political ideology of Islamism.
That’s why we treat terrorism differently from a law enforcement point of view. Because it’s directed not just at murdering our citizens, but also at destabilizing our country. Gun violence is a terrible problem. But its perpetrators aren’t trying to destroy our way of life. And they aren’t working in a coordinated effort. That is what scares people.
Terrorism Makes People Feel Helpless
And people are afraid. In 2016, a survey on what Americans fear most found that terrorism filled the number two and number four slots, even though the chances of being the victim of terrorism is miniscule. But that’s not why people are afraid. They’re scared because there’s a sense that it could happen anywhere, anytime.
For the most part, a person can avoid going into a bad neighborhood, or dealings with criminals. This might help decrease their chance of being the victim of gun violence or a knife attack or a mugging.
But there’s nothing they can do to mitigate their likelihood of being the victim of a terror attack. Terrorist attacks feel random. For most people, that is scarier than almost anything else.
A study in the 1980s examined what influences peoples’ sense of how much danger they’re in. It found that a lack of control over a situation will inflate a person’s perception of risk. The study similarly found that uncertainty had the same effect. Being unsure about what’s going to happen and knowing we’re helpless to prevent it increases how afraid we are.
What the D.C. Sniper Showed Us About Random Violence
I was in Washington, D.C. visiting my brother and sister when the D.C. sniper was on the loose. People were terrified. The sniper could strike anywhere. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to whom or where he struck. There was nothing you could do to improve your odds. (Although my sister and I may have run in zig-zags leaving a metro station in Arlington to improve our chances.)
This is the same mentality behind the fear of terrorism—even though, statistically, it’s virtually impossible that you will be the next victim. Their fear is compounded because they know that we live in a society that’s too politically correct to do much about it. They’re reminded of this every time the media rushes to blame anything but religious ideology whenever a terrorist attack occurs.
So, even though the Louvre attacker didn’t have a gun or a bomb, and could only have done so much damage before being stopped by police, it still shakes our sense of security. It reminds us how vulnerable we are as we go about our daily lives, and how easy it is for someone to take advantage of that.
It’s also a reminder that there is a cadre of people around the world who would kill us as soon as look at us. That’s a pretty scary prospect.