Defend Truth


Truth vs Terror

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

In a climate preoccupied with terrorism, oversimplification is just what is not needed. Unfortunately it’s pretty much exactly what we’re going to get. Buckle up.

Easter always leaves me a little melancholy. Chocolate bunnies aside, there’s always that nagging awareness that malls are running sales in commemoration of man’s inhumanity to man.

That’s not just in the Christian tradition, mind you. Before the resurrections start springing up, the Pagan origins and secular history have plenty of brutality to go around too.

This knowledge sits heavily, post-Easter, as news of Pakistan’s grief continues to pour in. The news follows its usual trajectory: first fragments of information, then shock and outrage, then the usual arguments on social media and opinion pages about who got more coverage and when.

Terrorists are merciless executioners. Driven by a common cause, by faith, need or outrage, they are as lethal as bulldozers. Human brutality has remained disconcertingly constant through the ages. Be it crucifixion, burning at the stake, stoning, necklacing, mob justice or a terror attack, one faces a stark reminder of how little can change in thousands of years.

But right now, brutality is only the beginning. We live in a climate where moral outrage of the most unhelpful kind can flourish: body counts, one-upmanship and mudslinging over who has the guts matter less in perspective. The Donald Trumps of the world get an unholy amount of airtime. Slate published a rundown of Trump’s less palatable assessments, which it summarised as “Brussels bad; closing the borders good”. Trump does not stand alone. His deluge of anti-Muslim, anti-immigration rhetoric has been met with a disturbing level of backing. A supporter noted: “More Muslims = more radical Muslims = more terrorism.”

A key problem is that perceived global calamities tempt oversimplification, and oversimplification is just what is not needed. Kevin D. Williamson writes in the National Review, “Men such as Donald Trump, and a half a hundred million idiots just like him across the fruited plain, really believe that the reason we haven’t eliminated Islamic terrorism is that it never occurred to anybody in the federal government – including the people who run, eg, the US Special Operations Command – to get tough.

These people imagine that the trained killers in the US military and intelligence agencies, and the often ruthless men who oversee them in Washington, simply are not willing to do what it takes to win. What that means, these people have no idea, because they are unwilling to think very hard about these sorts of problems and generally have no experience themselves. Trump is famously a physical coward who lied to stay out of the military during the Vietnam War, and he knows nothing about foreign policy, national defence, or the workings of the military, which is why all we ever hear from him is ‘get tough’ and ‘win’.”

Well, there you have the conservative take. The liberal side is not necessarily faring much better. In a nutshell, much of the debate around terrorism has included two major shortcomings. On the one hand are assumptions that “terror” and “radical Islamists” are interchangeable; on the other are assumptions that the seriousness of terrorism can be reduced to a numbers game.

The latter is uniquely problematic. Do we really want to split hairs over how many people were killed in which attack? How many deaths does it take to deem an attack important? At what point does it cease to be important? Is it terror when it’s politically motivated? Is it okay when it’s not? Do we heave a sigh of relief when we find out that the EgyptAir plane was hijacked largely for romantic reasons? (I assure you, for the hostages, it made little difference; it was terror all the same.) Human beings in any case process tragedy subjectively when it comes to numbers: this is why Kevin Carter’s photograph of a vulture waiting for a child, or the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned on the beach, moved the world more than the knowledge of hundreds or thousands of daily deaths could. In the end, all deaths matter to someone.

Nonetheless, there is a tendency among some columnists to argue that there is a global overreaction to the threat of terrorism because statistically, X or Y is a bigger threat. (So many more people die of heart attacks or on our roads! TB is bigger! What about global warming?) Barack Obama gained a great deal of respect when he pointed out that a lack of gun control in the US was a far bigger problem than terror – and that security should also have an internal focus. And he was right. America does have a gun problem.

But – and I think Obama would agree – comparing risks or attempting to assess the risk of terrorism overlooks the role that security efforts may have already played in deterring existing threats; and second, the fact that X or Y is a bigger threat than terrorism does not mean terror is not a threat. For the public, it’s unpredictable, it’s sudden, it’s beyond our control. That’s what makes it so scary.

Often, statistics are misused in the terror discussion in the most horrible ways – the worst of which is to “prove”, by quoting very basic data, that it really isn’t a big deal. This is profoundly insensitive. Imagine if you lost a friend or family member in the handful of Pagad bombings in South Africa in the ‘90s, if someone said the same to you, based on the fact that there were “only” a few incidents.

But that said, looking at the numbers involved can be useful if one gets meaningful data and interprets it to some purpose – not simply in a reductionist manner. For example, according to Global Risk Insights, Europe has actually suffered fewer terrorism incidents from 2000 to 2016 than between 1970 and 1986, with 642 people losing their lives in the last 16 years, versus 1,088 in the previous period.

According to data from the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), between 2004 and 2013, the UK suffered 400 terror attacks – the majority in Northern Ireland; nearly all nonlethal. (Probably not a Muslim issue there.)

In the same time period, the US suffered a considerably lower 131 terror attacks, of which fewer than 20 were lethal. France suffered 47.

Iraq suffered 12,000 attacks, of which about 8,000 were lethal.

Now, this is not to minimise the attacks that did occur in the UK, France and the US, but rather to illustrate, first, the impact of media representation, in particular the phenomenon that is social media, on public perception; and second – by virtue of the sheer scale of the attacks in Iraq – that this really, truly cannot be reduced simply to a war by Muslims on nonMuslims. Iraq is in dire need of both better media representation and wider global support by readers. Last, not all terror attacks in Europe over the past decade are by radical Islamists. The remedy here does not lie in minimising the violence in Europe and the US but in pointing out the lopsided level of public outcry, analysing the manner of reporting where it occurs and examining the characterisation of the “enemy”. This applies to those of a liberal, moderate and conservative persuasion.

Speaking to the BBC in 2015, the GDT’s Erin Miller explained that a core issue with attaching terrorism to religious affiliations was that the motivation for attacks was often, although linked to religious rhetoric, rooted in geopolitics; which was usually not explored in depth in mainstream media. The largest number of terror victims are located in Iraq, where the population is overwhelmingly Muslim. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia have also suffered greatly.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights notes that between June 2014 and September 2015, the Islamic State executed over 10,000 adults and children in Syria and Iraq alone. Records of brutality include videos of beheadings, stoning adulterers, throwing gay men off buildings and using child executioners, as well as planting explosive among groups of men. (Schisms have since reportedly formed within the group, as some believe placing videos of executions on social media could be offensive to fellow Muslims.)

The data above hints at the complexity of the issue more than anything else. And although there have been fairly widely reported claims regarding the exact number of Muslims versus nonMuslims killed, the GDT says it is actually not possible to ascertain exact numbers (this writer thinks it is unnecessary). Facing this level of brutality, it is clearly unhelpful to introduce arguments such as, “Is climate change a greater threat?” or, “Are you more likely to be killed by falling furniture?” which masquerade as intelligent questions but do not constitute meaningful analysis. Perhaps, yes, but for the child executioner in Iraq, such wise-guy opinion writing betrays a wilful callousness. If it came to it, I’d take my chances with the falling chair.

Columnists intending to take a “liberal” or enlightened standpoint, but who post such dismissive arguments, are not only reducing matters. They are doing exactly what their conservative counterparts are doing – equating all Muslims with terrorism. The assumption is that if they do not excuse terrorism, they are right-wing or anti-Muslim. Oversimplification: tick. Misconception spread: tick.

Reductionist arguments have got us nowhere. It’s been nearly 15 years since 9/11, and the same old debates are getting tired. We have more options open to us than bigotry or dismissing the threat of terrorism; we can ask the searching questions. Majid Nawaz, former radical Islamist and founder of the Quilliam Foundation, has long called for pluralism and a more complex approach to challenging radicalism. He wrote on 24 March: “The inevitable backlash in the West against terrorist attacks perpetrated by Muslims — the mutual religious mistrust that this would breed, the war-weary isolationism from the Middle East that it would create among policymakers and the retreat into populist identity politics across society — could only ever serve those who wished to divide the world into Muslim and nonMuslim zone.”

Terrorists – whether they are radical Islamist terrorists or any other flavour – present a danger to Muslims and nonMuslims alike, and it will serve them well to divide and conquer. Simplistic, polarised thinking among those they wish to fight will be their first line of defence. DM


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