After a terrorist attack, it is common that politicians and society immediately call for additional or enhanced security measures. For instance, in the week following the Westminster attack in March 2017 in which 5 people (+perpetrator) were killed, the Guardian reported that “MPs and peers are to raise concerns about evacuation procedures and security at the main entrance to parliament, as the authorities responsible for running the Palace of Westminster gather to discuss last week’s terror attack.”.
How appropriate and effective is this standardised response to terrorist attacks?
Brian Michael Jenkins, one of the most well-known terrorism experts and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, wrote a thought-provoking piece that should be read by anyone wishing to understand the essence of terrorism.
Jenkins explains how terrorism is “primarily aimed at the people watching”, and, consequently, the effects of terrorism are predominantly aimed to be psychological. This means that the fight against terrorism should also contain a psychological element complementing the physical battle of preventing terrorist attacks. Countering perceptions and disproportional feelings of terror should be key, as reflected in Jenkins’ title: “Taking the “Terror” out of Terrorism Requires Outsmarting Fear”.
A number of reasons are identified in the article explaining why today’s terrorists - “with limited capabilities and minimal resources” - have managed to be very successful in this psychological battle. First of all, the effects of terrorism are spread more globally and quickly than ever before, amplified by (social) media coverage. If it bleeds, it leads, as is often cynically stated, clearly holds for terrorism.
Secondly, there are politicians who recognise terrorist attacks as opportunities to portray themselves favourably, start blame games, or call for increased security measures. Interestingly, Jenkins states that these security measures then drive up subsequent threat portrayals, as “there is no point in diminishing the dragons one promises to slay”.
However, it is not just the media, politicians and policy-makers that should recognise their (at times) unhelpful role in enabling the workings of terrorism. The public demands and expects “absolute security (…) which encourages the government to overpromise, setting it up for failure, which will, in turn, exacerbate public alarm”, the author warns.
Today’s jihadi terrorists have perhaps better understood these mechanisms than most of the above-mentioned actors. Jenkins rightly notes that the development of a countering terror-strategy has hardly been explored. He recognizes that such a strategy should not be about increased security measures or trying to eradicate the public’s fear of terrorism altogether. Terrorism is a real threat and one that seems to be on the rise in Western countries in the last five years. However, there is much to gain if we help “society understand how terrorism works [and then] working together to foster a psychologically more resilient and less vulnerable mindset”.
So yes, the standardized response of evaluating security measures after an attack is a sensible and indispensable course of action. But it is not enough. The same level and intensity of inquiry should be devoted to understanding our response to attacks and to work on fear and impact management. To what extent has our response contributed to preventing terror, or are we perhaps unwittingly amplifying its effects?
Fear and impact management is one of the main research strands of the Terrorism and Political Violence Research Group of ISGA. It is also the topic of the PhD-research of the author of this blog.