Response to terrorism makes victims we don’t see

While the average number of deaths in terrorist attacks in Europe is going down since the 1990s, it seems that a few isolated, high-impact cases remain, and – quite tragically – they are unlikely to go away. Terrorism in the 1980s was more of an internal issue – politics and crime in Italy, separatism in Spain / Ireland, etc. People got used to the idea that over 100 people would die across the continent year after year due to some ETA or Brigate Rosse extremist.

Nowadays, the lower average number of victims may have caused us to assume that terrorism is nearly extinguished. Of course one rationally knows that 09/11-like attacks may come at any time, but deep inside the fact that a relatively long time passes between attacks (see graph) can effectively switch on our wishful-thinking cognitive bias. Given the (unrealistic) expectation that the number of victims will remain close to zero, cases such as Paris can have a much stronger public opinion impact now than they would have had 20 years ago.

Governments need votes. Public opinion matters. Where the feeling is stronger, the official response is correspondingly brutal. The crucial difference is that when terrorism was internal we could not hide away from the effects of the response: it would necessarily take place in domestic terrain. Today, at the same time as Parisians can rightfully feel that their civility and peacefulness is rewarded with barbarity by stupid extremists, and be proud of the fact that as a community they are not reverting to violence but instead to flowers and chants, European and American jets are dropping heavy bombs on Syrian soil.

The response takes place abroad, so it’s easy to hide away from its toll of innocents. What once was a somewhat closed boundaries political struggle between those who inflicted pain through terrorism and those who backfired with official violence in the hope that only terrorists would be hit, has now become a much more complex situation where terrorists are coming both from Europe and elsewhere; they are organizing in Europe and elsewhere; they are hitting in Europe and elsewhere; but they are only being hit by brutal official violence elsewhere.

Unfortunately, innocents too are the victims of orchestrated Western attacks to Syria. While it’s hard to envisage a solution much different from the existing one, it’s also clear that the current response is a perfect way of ensuring that the average in the graph never actually reaches zero.