A lot of our present public discourse involves attacking people who hold opinions different from our own. We call them names. We say they are weak or uncaring or stupid or lazy.
This is not helpful. We all come to our beliefs in different ways. Assuming others’ beliefs are driven only by ill intent is not fair to the passion and reason and pragmatism and idealism that form the bedrock of real beliefs. And it ruins the chance for real conversation.
So rather than argue here for a particular political point of view, I’m going to ask a simple favor: Please don’t fear terrorism.
I recognize that this might seem ridiculous in the aftermath of another horrific terrorist attack, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility. Given the connection to the recent capture of Salah Abdeslam, who is a suspect in the Paris attacks on Nov. 13, this claim seems likely to be true. Surely we should be talking about something else more obviously practical, like U.S. military strategy in Syria or E.U. policy in the face of apparent vulnerability.
The fact is, though, the single most effective counter-terrorism strategy that can be devised is simply not to fear it.
The reason is simple: Terrorism is a tactic that relies upon fear. It’s a tactic of the weak against the strong. Knowing that they cannot get what they want from the strong via main force, the weak seek to instill fear in the strong. Not a specific fear, mind you, just a generalized fear that their strength may be insufficient to protect them.
They do this because they know something that we have forgotten in our strength. Fear of a specific threat can be helpful; it spurs us to avoid the threat. But generalized fear gnaws at us, driving us to take ever greater measures to combat all possible threats. It leads us to close ranks, associating only with members of our own groups and subgroups. It turns shared human experience into paranoia and anxiety.
Along the way, we are led inexorably to behave in the manner the terrorists want us to behave. We limit civil liberties. We spy on each other. We lose the expectation that our mail will not be read, that our conversations will be private. Simple kindnesses such as kissing your loved ones goodbye at the airport gate vanish. But the fear remains.
We turn to extremes to justify this fear to ourselves, where there can be no middle ground: Either we deal in appeasement or we destroy them utterly. Neither works. Appeasement signals that terrorism is a winning tactic and might spur more. Demonizing the group from which terrorists are drawn in order to justify the harshest measures and the most indiscriminate attacks only does terrorists’ recruitment for them.
The simple, uncomfortable fact is that terrorism is not a passing fad. All it takes is someone with a grievance and access to weapons. You can reduce the likelihood of terrorism by reducing both grievances and access to weapons, and this should continue to be done. But terrorism is still going to happen sometimes, as long as it has an effect.
So let’s stop it from having an effect. Let’s stop fearing it.
Yes, terrorism presents a risk, but we deal successfully with risk every single day. Often, we do not even take actions to reduce it. For example, we accept higher speed limits even though they lead to more accidents. We often eat what we want, even though some foods negatively affect our health.
So why do we fail when it comes to terrorism? It’s not as if terrorism is more likely to kill us than car accidents or heart disease. At least we get something out of driving and eating and going outside. All we get out of overreacting to terrorism are reduced civil liberties, massive societal debt, and lots more people who hate us. And fear.
Let’s end the cycle. If we are not afraid, if we do not fear, terrorism becomes an unfortunate accident. One to be mourned, surely. But fundamentally no different than any of the other rare dangers that we experience as we go about our lives. And if we can do this, not only will our country be closer to that shining city on a hill, but the tactic of terrorism will lose its major appeal.
It’s the hardest road, but also the one that holds the most promise to reduce terrorism while keeping our fundamental humanity.
David A. Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.