Terrorism: how a minor cause of death can be seen as a major threat

In the introduction of his last book « Homo Deus : a brief history of tomorrow », Yuval Noah Harari discuss the different issues humans eventually achieved to neutralize or at least contain such as famines, plagues or wars. Among others, in the subsection « Breaking the Law of the Jungle »he shows that the amount of deaths caused by violence have significantly decreased in the past hundred years. Despite this evidence, he points out that terrorism has become the most talked about topic in the media. In a both dramatic and funny comparison, Harari says that Coca Cola (an allegory for sugar) kills more people than al-Qaeda. In 2010, terrorism killed a total of 7,697 people, probably mostly in the Middle East, and yet it is seen as a major threat and source of fear in the Western world. What makes terrorism seem so dangerous and threatening when it actually is a « minor »source of deaths compared to suicide or obesity?

The amount of fear produced by terrorists is contained in its own nature; fear is the goal of terrorism. Harari compares it to a fly trying to destroy a China shop. As the fly is powerless, the only solution for her is to make a much more powerful entity go « wild with fear and anger ». In order to do that the flies gets inside a bull’s ear and starts buzzing. In a more practical way, the fly would be Ben Laden, the bull the United States and the China shop the Middle East.

What this metaphor tells us is that terrorists are weak and that their action is not what will change the world, the reaction of their targets will.

What is also interesting when studying terrorism in the context of International Relations is the importance of the origin of the terrorists. For example in post second world war France a lot of terrorist attacks occurred in the context of the decolonization of Algeria. In modern days France, where much fewer terror attacks occur, the feeling of fear is paradoxically higher. The reason for that is the fact that the Algerian terrorists were known from the public whereas nowadays we have little information about the terrorists of ISIS. This new form of terrorism also explains the disproportionate fear felt by westerners.

As Harari said, the reaction of the targets of terrorism is what really matters. If the targets choose to respond in a violent way, and somehow outbid violence, we risk to end up with the law of the jungle as the rule of international relations. The best example of violent answers to terrorism coming from the Western hemisphere can be found in American policies. In the wake of 9/11, the response of President G. Bush to al-Qaeda was radical and violent; war in Irak and reinforcement of the travel and security policy with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Trump action can also be seen as violent and radical. The travel ban on many muslims countries, the withdrawal of the Iran Nuclear Deal or the installation of the American embassy in Jerusalem are the most striking examples. These political and diplomatic choices are driven by nothing else than fear and anger. The terrorists have fulfilled their goal.


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