Terrorism is theatre. The point is not to overwhelm by sheer force of arms. It is to frighten and unnerve.
If the terrorists are lucky, they will provoke their enemy into overreacting. Al Qaeda’s great victory in 2001 came not from the deaths and damage of its 9/11 attacks. Rather it came from the fact that these attacks sucked the Americans into two debilitating wars, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq.
In the same way, the real danger posed by the latest terror outrages in Britain goes far beyond the immediate casualties.
The real danger is that the fear caused by these outrages will push Western governments into doing something rash.
Logically, such governments should regard terrorism as a real but relatively minor problem.
In the U.S., many more people are killed by run-of-the-mill gun violence.
The online publication Business Insider calculates that, based on history, the odds of being killed in a terror attack on the U.S. homeland are one in 45,000.
The average American is far more likely to die by choking on a chicken bone.
Statistically, those at serious risk of terrorist attacks live in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan.
By comparison, Manchester and London are safe havens.
But politically, none of this matters. A marketplace bombing in Iraq is back-page news in the West. An attack in London that kills far fewer tops the newscasts.
This is understandable. It is also what the terrorists want.
In its bid to construct a so-called caliphate in the Middle East, Daesh (also known as ISIS) is following a two-track strategy. The first is to capture land in Iraq and Syria. The second is to take the fight to the West through terror.
Thanks in large part to the West’s U.S.-led bombing campaign, the first track is not working for Daesh. It is losing ground. Hence its push to encourage supporters in the West to mount savage and unpredictable terror attacks.
The aim is, in part, to demonstrate to the West that there is a price to be paid for its bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria. The more important motive is to drive a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe and North America.
Daesh’s hope is that if Muslims can be made to feel alienated from mainstream Western society, they will be more likely to support the insurgency.
As the London Bridge outrage demonstrates, the death toll need not be massive to gain Daesh the attention it wants. Only seven people were killed in this attack. But it has made headlines around the world.
How will the authorities react? So far, the signs aren’t good. American President Donald Trump is using the London attack to justify his proposal to ban citizens of six Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised that if her Conservatives win Thursday’s general election, she will move to give the police and security services greater but unspecified powers.
Canada’s Liberal government is more circumspect. But the attacks in Britain are sure to strengthen the hand of those in the security services who want to keep the entire set of enhanced powers granted them by Stephen Harper’s government—powers that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to scale back.
The British are familiar with terrorism. They have lived through the long battle with the Irish Republican Army (a battle that, ultimately, was resolved politically). Thanks to its network of police-monitored closed-circuit television cameras, Britain is a country under constant surveillance. Compared to Canada, its anti-terror laws are already draconian.
Still, there will be pressure to do more.
With luck, whoever wins government in Britain Thursday will move cautiously. Terrorism is a difficult strategy to counter. Do nothing and you leave yourself open. Fight it the wrong way and you end up playing into the terrorists’ hands.
Thomas Walkom is a national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star. This column was released on June 7.
The Hill Times