It’s not terrorist attacks that produce mass casualties. It’s our overreactions to them.
This is the third post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first and second part.
Wikipedia has a list of the terrorist attacks with the highest death tolls. This is not a fact that should come as a surprise. It has thousands upon thousands of lists including “people who have lived at airports” and “works with the subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.”
The rather more sombre accounting of victims of terror is an instructive read. Not least because so many of the deadliest attacks loom so small in our collective memory. Many are massacres in villages in developing countries, which is not even what most people think of when they think of terrorism. Others had a larger place but then faded: the slaughter at a school in the Russian town of Beslan horrified the world when it happened, but I cannot recall the last time I heard it mentioned. Others seem to justify greater mention but don’t receive it: For example, a 1978 arson attack on an Iranian cinema by an anti-Shah revolutionary that killed 400 people. Others represent causes that now seem arcane, such as the Columbian far-right or Sikh nationalism. In general, it serves to support the broad position of this series of posts: that whilst terrorism is both grisly and morally repugnant, it is also mostly ineffective at changing the course of history.
There is, however, one atrocity that stands out amongst the others: 9/11. Not only is it an order of magnitude deadlier than others, it lives on with a vividness none of the others can match. Most of us can recall it not only as a fact or a name, but can playback images of the event in our head.
Despite this, 9/11 only constitutes history’s deadliest terrorist attack if we confine our attention to direct casualties. Once we consider not only those who die as a result of the attack but also the reaction to it, then 9/11’s dubious honour passes to a shooting in which two people died.
One of them was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The other was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.
On the 28th June 1914, they were visiting one of the empire’s southern most cities: Sarajevo in the then province of Bosnia. Its population was overwhelmingly neither Austrian nor Hungarian. They were mostly Serbo-Croatian speaking Serbs and Bosniaks. They lived just over the border from the independent kingdom of Serbia, and many among them dreamed of creating a new nation that would unite all the Southern Slavic peoples – Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and others – into a single nation.
One group that were especially radical in pursuit of this objective were ‘the Black Hand’. They had already killed the royal family of Serbia so that they could be replaced by one more sympathetic to their goal. Now they would target Austro-Hungarian royalty.
A team of six Black Hand agents threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. They missed. They had not accounted for the convertible hood on the vehicle and the bomb simply bounced off it. One member of the team attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide and then throwing himself into the river. Both efforts failed and he was captured. One member, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, skulked off to see if he could make a second attempt. The other members scattered.
The Archduke arrived at the City Hall where he was due to give a speech and, after berating Sarajevo’s mayor for allowing the attack to happen, did so. There was discussion of bringing in troops to protect the Archduke until he left the city, but this idea was vetoed because the soldiers were taking part in an exercise and would not have dress uniforms appropriate for being seen by the Archduke. The decision was then made to rush the royal couple out of the city as quickly as possible. Their other visits in Sarajevo were cancelled and the plan was for them to be driven straight to the train station.
In some alternative version of history, that’s exactly what happened. They arrived back in Vienna with scars, a harrowing story and perhaps further evidence that something was awry in the Empire’s southern provinces. But they would have been alive and their deaths would not have served as the starting gun for the sequence of violent conflagrations that would define the twentieth century.
Having intervened once to save the royal couple’s life, fate would intervene again and reverse the outcome. In the confusion, no one communicated to the royal couple’s driver that the route had changed. So, he drove them back into central Sarajevo. It took a while for anyone to notice the mistake and tell the driver. By awful happenstance, they did this just as the car was passing Gavrilo Princip, the member of Blank Hand who had slipped away to look for a second chance to kill the Archduke. The driver slowing down to turn the car round presented the perfect opportunity. He shot and killed the Archduke and the Duchess.
As news of the assassination spread throughout Europe, it does not appear that most people realised that something world changing had happened. For example, British politicians initially appear to have been more concerned about the situation in Ireland than Bosnia.
However, the possibility of a catastrophic confrontation had long been foretold. Ten years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle had imagined a fictional Prime Minister trying to engage Sherlock Holmes’ services on a case of geopolitical intrigue with the warning that:
It is not too much to say that peace or war may hang upon the issue…The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power…[war might] well mean the expenditure of a thousand millions and the lives of a hundred thousand men.
That was to prove overly optimistic. In the conflict that followed the assassination, British casualties were closer to a million and worldwide the figure may have been as high as twenty million.
How did the world get from two fatalities to twenty million? Well, the Austro-Hungarians blamed Serbia for the assassination and sent the Serbs an ultimatum demanding that Serbia allow Austro-Hungarian police to operate on Serb territory. They refused and the Austro-Hungarians declared war.
This was unacceptable to the Serb’s principal ally: the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians also had an important ally: Germany. Berlin was not prepared to see Vienna defeated by Moscow, so they declared war on Russia. This also expanded the war westwards. Russia was allied to France and the Germans did not want to fight two powers on two flanks at once, so they decided they had to knock France out with a pre-emptive strike. The Franco-German border was heavily fortified, so the German forces went through Belgium. London objected to this breach of Belgium sovereignty and declared war on Germany. That prompted the German navy to begin sinking ships headed to the UK, in the hopes of throttling the island nation’s economy. As much of that shipping originated in the US, that, in time, brought the Americans into the war. Naturally, both sides sought to expand their circle of allies. Germany offered the Ottoman Empire – which ruled most of the Middle East – warships. Britain offered Germany’s holdings in the Far East to Japan. All sides deployed men and materials from their respective colonies. For example, the outbreak of war prompted Gandhi to suspend his pacifism and actively encouraged Indians to enlist to fight in Europe. It is, therefore, far from hyperbole that this conflict is now known as the First World War.
The war’s casualties would not only be people. Nations would also perish. The Ottoman Empire broke apart to create a map of the Middle East that looks a lot like the one that exists now. The Russian Empire was overthrown by Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, who transformed it into the USSR. The end of the war also meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was on the losing side and defeat discredited its ruling family. Revolutionaries seized power in the capitals of the Empire’s many provinces and declared them to be independent republics. Austria-Hungary became Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Yugoslavia. The latter being precisely the Southern Slavic state the Black Hand had wanted to create. In the process of trying to avenge the slaying of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary not only destroyed itself, but also achieved the Black Hand’s objective.
Those who do not learn from history
Deadly overreactions to terrorist attacks are sadly not a thing of the past. More Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed on 9/11. Those two conflicts also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. They also contributed to the instability that allowed the Syrian Civil War to turn so deadly.
As we have seen in a previous post, terrorist attacks claim relatively few lives. You are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist. Wars, on the other hand, really do claim enormous casualties. On a single night in 1945, American bombing of Japan killed the equivalent of thirty 9/11s. Battles in Berlin, Leningrad and Stalingrad produced over a million casualties. And while the armed conflicts of the twenty-first century are nothing like as deadly as those of the twentieth, there were still fourteen conflicts that claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past year.
It stands to reason that small cells can kill fewer people than armies of thousands. That means it will almost always be a bad idea to treat terrorist attacks as if they are an assault by a rival military. Going after the groups behind them with tanks, battalions and fighter jets is more likely to put lives in danger than protect them. The capacity of terrorism to produce direct casualties is modest but, as the sorry case of the Archduke and World War I demonstrates, the potential indirect casualties are almost limitless.
If you are interested in the assasination in learning more about the Sarajevo assasination then I would recommend The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher.