Tides of ter­ror

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Khur­ram Husain

THE play­ground in Paris had a few more peo­ple than usual the other day, the day the Brus­sels bomb­ing hap­pened. A few peo­ple there told me be­cause of the bomb­ing, which hap­pened early morn­ing, the gen­darmes are go­ing to be de­ployed at the train sta­tions, check­ing IDs and bags of all pas­sen­gers com­ing and go­ing, and this will cause mas­sive de­lays. So they left work early and came home, and those with younger kids de­cided to come to the play­ground. That's where I met them.

In an­other re­al­ity, mes­sages of con­cern poured in. Don't step out, a few peo­ple ad­vised me. Fam­ily mes­saged, ask­ing if my plans had changed due to the bomb­ing. No, I replied, there is no per­cep­ti­ble change here. Ter­ror­ism is a phe­nom­e­non that lives in the head­lines only, rarely punc­tur­ing the sur­face tran­quil­lity of day-to-day life. The only time it can en­ter the lives of peo­ple di­rectly is if one should be, or should know of some­one, who was there when it hap­pened. Or through the se­cu­rity mea­sures that arise in re­sponse to it.

In re­al­ity, the num­ber of peo­ple dy­ing as a re­sult of ter­ror at­tacks in Europe has de­clined sharply since the 1970s and 1980s. Since the war on ter­ror be­gan, only two large spikes of deaths as a re­sult of ter­ror­ism present them­selves on a graph drawn up by the Global Ter­ror­ism Data­base. One in 2004, the Madrid train bomb­ings, and the other in 2015, the Paris at­tacks. The to­tal num­ber of vic­tims in both those at­tacks is about 320, whereas Pan Am Flight 103 took down 270 vic­tims in one go back in 1988. That bomb­ing trig­gered some of the most in­tense sanc­tions against Libya, which had only just been loos­ened as a re­sult of painstak- ing ne­go­ti­a­tions when the up­ris­ing hit.

So why does ter­ror­ism seem so much more fright­en­ing today than it did back then? Why does it in­spire such dread, even though it does not punc­ture through the head­lines and the tele­vi­sion space, where it lives and breathes mostly, into the "struc­tures of ev­ery­day life", to bor­row that rather French phrase?

The fear is pal­pa­ble in the height­ened de­ploy­ment of police and para­mil­i­tary on the streets, the dec­la­ra­tion of a state of emer­gency, the es­ca­la­tion in the rightwing rhetoric against mi­grants and the tight­en­ing of im­mi­gra­tion rules. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when ter­ror­ists claimed more lives in Europe than they do today, their ac­tions did not sway the in­sti­tu­tions of main­stream pol­i­tics in the way they are able to do today.

So what has changed? I count three things. First, is the growth of a large mi­grant pop­u­la­tion in Europe over these decades. Sec­ond, the more na­tivist ten­den­cies stirred by the rise of the Euro­pean project, and fur­ther ag­gra­vated by the more re­cent cri­sis of the Euro­pean Union. Third, the dis­course as­so­ci­ated with the war on ter­ror, which found a very con­tested space in Europe ever since Mit­ter­rand's fa­mous "non" to the Amer­i­can doc­trine of pre-emp­tive ac­tion.

The ter­rain of fear upon which ter­ror­ism seeks to have its day is built on the anx­i­eties that are cre­ated by eco­nomic, cul­tural and de­mo­graphic forces. And the ul­ti­mate ob­jec­tive of the ter­ror­ist is to tri­umph in the mind of the ob­server, not on the ground. None of the forces that aid the ter­ror­ist in his en­ter­prise have been cre­ated, or even mid-wifed, by him.

But they have pro­vided the am­pli­fi­ca­tion for his mes­sage, which is all that he re­ally seeks in any case.

What ex­actly is the mes­sage that the ter­ror­ist is try­ing to send? Af­ter all, small ran­dom bomb­ings that kill a few peo­ple but leave the struc­tures of power and dayto-day life largely un­touched can­not be com­pared to acts of war, least of all war of the sort that the Euro­pean con­ti­nent has known since at least the fall of the Ro­man Em­pire in the West. Such bomb­ings do not work to­wards the cap­tur­ing of ter­ri­tory, nor do they im­pact the flow of eco­nomic life in any sig­nif­i­cant way.

In other coun­tries, ter­ror­ists have tar­geted tourists be­cause that coun­try's main source of for­eign ex­change earn­ings is from tourism. Or they have tar­geted in­fra­struc­ture, be­cause it is through in­fra­struc­ture projects that the regime has tried to tie ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties into the na­tional life of the rest of the coun­try. Or they have tar­geted mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions, be­cause the army is lead­ing an op­er­a­tion against ter­ror­ist safe havens. Or they have tar­geted civil­ians in bazaars and other lo­ca­tions in an at­tempt to tell the pop­u­lace that the state they hide be­hind can­not them from the ter­ror­ists' wrath.

But what is the think­ing be­hind tar­get­ing peo­ple in cafes, or com­muters on a train, or peo­ple in the de­par­ture lounge of an air­port? The idea is to stir up the anx­i­eties that al­ready plague the so­ci­ety in ques­tion. It is to tell the mi­grant pop­u­la­tions in these coun­tries 'see how fast they aban­don their com­mit­ment to your rights and wel­fare? And you dream of call­ing this coun­try your home?' They seek to stir sus­pi­cion on all sides: 'we are here, any one of us could be car­ry­ing the next bomb!' With these mes­sages, the ter­ror­ists seek to drive a wedge be­tween the mi­grant com­mu­nity and the larger so­ci­ety, an act in which they are aided by the grow­ing eco­nomic cri­sis which spreads un­em­ploy­ment and strains re­sources for the wel­fare state for which Europe is fa­mous.


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