Terrorism makes us feel fear, anger and compassion. We should aim instead for apathy.

Human, all too human

It is usually the details that allow you to grasp the full horror of a tragedy. Earlier today the BBC reported that the first victim of the bombing at the Manchester Arena to be named publically was Georgina Callander, an 18-year-old in “the second year of a health and social care course”. The realisation that a young woman heading towards a lifetime of caring for others, had been murdered by people who cared only for their glory and their twisted political agenda, came to me as an almost physical sensation, as if rage was replacing out the blood in my veins.

I confess this in order to acknowledge that what I am about to ask of you is very difficult. Once you have finished reading this, you may think I am imploring you to respond like a robot rather than a person. In that regard, you would be right, and that is the point. Terrorists know that their adversaries are human and have designed tactics that prey on the vulnerabilities of the human psyche. They want to draw attention to their movement, so they cause pain, knowing that our empathy will make it hard for us to ignore the harm they are doing. They need our resolve to waver, so they generate as much fear in as many people as possible, knowing that being scared can make us fight, but it can also put us to flight. And they need us to make mistakes in how we respond to their atrocities, so they act with such callousness that we cannot help becoming mad with rage. You see, not only do terrorists know we are not calculating machines, they are relying on it.

In a situation where our humanity has been weaponised, the wisest cause is to be more than Vulcan than man. Our sympathy for the victims may feel helpful, and if allied to concrete actions it can be. When it motivates taxi drivers to turn off their metres while they ferry survivors home, or increases the determination of police and spies to prevent future attacks, then such feelings are a powerful force for good. Otherwise, they are dangerous. Sympathy is a positive emotion, but where terrorism is concerned it will almost invariably be intermingled with darker emotions. When I read about Ms Callander’s demise, my first thought was not that I wished I could comfort those close to her, but that I regretted that her killer’s death was likely instantaneous. I fantasised about a more lingering and hopefully agonising demise.

You may feel that a suicide bomber would have earned such a fate. I probably wouldn’t disagree. Nonetheless, fear and anger tend to be corrosive.  Unmoored from a constructive outlet, they can create a distressing sense of impotence. Taking a flight or a metro ride can become an unsettling experience, because you now feel powerless to protect yourself against the terrorist you imagine to be lurking amongst your fellow commuters. Even worse things happen when we try to shake this sense of impotence. Denied good ways to respond, we find bad ones. We shred our civil liberties, start wars, seek out scape goats, and look to strong men for protection.

Behind cruelty lies weakness

The tragic irony behind all this is that a clear-headed analysis would actually be rather reassuring. Worldwide, more people are killed by snakes than terrorists and their attacks account for just 0.0006% of all deaths. They target teenagers dancing along to Break Free partly because they are wicked, but mostly because they are desperate. If they could have instead destroyed the White House or an aircraft carrier, we can be sure that is what they would have done, but they are military and geopolitical minnows, and the vast majority of people could safely ignore them.

Killer attention-seekers

We don’t do that, however, because terrorism is an exhibitionist malady. They use cruelty to draw the spotlight to themselves. For example, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks wore bodycams and livestreamed their atrocity. They also benefit from an unfortunate paradox: Precisely because terrorist attacks are so rare, when one happens it seems remarkable and we take notice. Media across the world will cover last night’s attacks and people living continents away from Manchester will be frightened and upset. It shouldn’t be like this. Like most attention seekers, terrorists do not merit much consideration.

Just to reiterate, I do know how difficult what I’m suggesting is. While I was writing this post, a notification from the BBC news app came through on my phone, relaying the ghastly news that an eight-year old had died in the Manchester attack, and once again I felt an intense hatred for people who could do such a thing. However, we could perhaps try acting as if we already feel, how we hope one day we will really feel. If we think that terrorists do not deserve our attention, we shouldn’t do things that draw attention to them. Tweeting out “sympathy for Manchester” or posting on Facebook about how angry killing children makes you is a very human response, but as we’ve seen terrorism prays on our humanity. In this case, it is using our empathy to generate publicity for their attacks. If you want to defy these killers, offer them the one emotion they have no use for: apathy.


I recently wrote a long series of posts exploring the theme of this post in much greater depth. I hope regular readers will forgive the repetition but making those arguments in the abstract, felt rather different from doing so in the direct aftermath of an attack. It is in precisely these moments that the most acute decisions about responding to terrorism are made and I felt that if I could not make my arguments speak to times like this then they were of little value at all.


How to avoid terrorism getting to you

2017-05-16 12.24.18

An apt response from Londoners

So, dear reader, we are now at the end of our long series of posts on the dangers of overreacting to terrorism. While its existence is grotesque, it kills relatively few people and has limited scope to increase that number. It is not a civilisational threat like fascism or communism. Instead, it is merely an unusually malicious form of criminality. By treating it as a more severe issue than it really is, we not only worsen the problem itself, but also create a host of additional problems like the loss of civil liberties or a greater risk of war between states.

What I have not addressed up till now is that it is easier to recognise logically that there is an extremely low likelihood of you or anyone you know being harmed by terrorism, than it is to feel that. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has written that it feels inappropriate to compare the probability of terrorist attacks with other equally unlikely events because:

terrorism presses many of the buttons that psychologists have identified as features of “dread” risks: we feel out-of-control, it affects the vulnerable, and we have seen media coverage of the consequences resulting in a strong sense of “outrage”.

Cass Sunstein, a senior advisor to Obama, claims that people display “probability neglect” when confronted with vivid images of terrorism, so that:

when their emotions are intensely engaged, people’s attention is focused on the bad outcome itself, and they are inattentive to the fact that it is unlikely to occur”. So the “true” risks are ignored: it’s been shown that people are, rather illogically, willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than insurance against all risks, just because the use of the word conjures up dread.

How are we to avoid this trap? How can we take charge of our emotions?

1. Turn off the TV

In an article for Berkley University’s Wellness Magazine, the clinical director of their anxiety centre suggests that:

one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious…If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.

Therefore, she recommends that we:

Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighbourhood…Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.

I think part of the problem is that we consider terrorist attacks to be highly important events and therefore feel the need to scrutinise what is happening. Given that attacks tend to become a big part of our national conversation, it is probably true that you need to know the basics, but once you have got those, feel free to tune out. In particular, you should not feel the need to wallow in harrowing images or alarmist punditry.

2. Do not reward people who magnify the threat of terrorism

If a TV station is producing lots of lurid and sensationalist coverage of attacks (real or potential) then you should turn it off. Programmers know that coverage of terrorism is emotionally compelling and their reasons for producing so much of it are, at least partially, commercial. We should start giving them an incentive to act more responsibly by not watching. Better still, write to explain why you turned off.

The same goes for politicians who hype up terrorist groups. That is not only bad in itself but also indicates a lack of judgement and a tendency to get carried away. Use your vote and your financial contributions to indicate that you expect better from your leaders.

3. Take only proportionate precautions

Last year, the US State Department responded to a series of terrorist attacks in Europe by advising Americans visiting the continent to, among other things, “avoid crowded places.” The advisory does not narrow that warning by place or type of gathering. Apparently entering any crowd anywhere in Europe is too great a risk. The State Department might as well have also advised American tourists in Europe to carry an umbrella to guard against meteorite strikes!

Making substantial changes to your behaviour to reduce small risks is not only unnecessary and inconvenient, but also liable to accentuate your distress. Robert L. Leahy, a Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written in Psychology Today that:

I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.

I’m not a psychologist but I gather they generally take a dim view of avoidance. It is a shame that where terrorism is concerned many public authorities actively recommend it. If they do, you should ignore it.

4. Laugh at terrorists

I have not seen Four Lions, Chris Morris’ comedy about a group of wannabe suicide bombers, who are barely competent enough to make a martyrdom video. However, the approach seems like a good one. It’s certainly preferable, and closer to the truth, than the likes of Homeland and 24, that depict Islamist terrorist groups as implausibly nefarious and sophisticated. Deflating the pretensions of terrorist groups seems not only bad for them, but good for our psychic well-being.

5. Befriend the other

It’s a lot easier not to be scared of the Muslim guy next to you on the plane or the train, if you actually know some Muslims. They will make the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists appropriately vivid to you.

6. Do not use your social media to amplify the impact of terrorist attacks

As soon as an apparently noteworthy terrorist attack happens, it will start showing up in my social media feeds. People will start posting messages like “I hope all my friends in Istanbul are safe” or “solidarity with the people of Brussels”. Facebook will turn on its ‘safety check’ feature.  After the attack in Westminster Bridge earlier this year, I saw several friends who live and work in London but miles away from the site of the attack turning it on. At some point, if the attack is horrendous enough, then the option to overlay your profile picture with a symbol of solidarity will present itself. After the killings in the Bataclan, you could turn yourself into the colours of the French tricolour. After the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, it was the rainbow flag. Then people start opining on what the attack proves, which generally happens to be exactly what they already thought before it happened.

There may be admirable impulses behind this behaviour, but it’s profoundly unhelpful, as it serves to disseminate news about attacks and spread the anxiety that comes with them. Just like conventional media coverage of attacks, discussion of them on social media makes the groups behind them seem more formidable (and therefore more appealing to potential recruits). And even if you are writing a post connecting a place to terrorism in order to show solidarity, that is still helping to forge a mental connection in some minds between that place and terrorism, and as we saw in the previous post that’s liable to damage its tourist industry.

If there is a legitimate question about your safety, then feel free to assure people that you are alright. Otherwise do not post about terrorists.

Indeed, let that be our general rule of thumb: to the extent you can reasonably ignore terrorism, you should ignore terrorism.

A few words of conclusion

Unless something comes up – perhaps a particularly incisive comment that needs responding to – this is the end of this series of posts.

You can find the previous parts here.

The idea that I might write a blog post about how the fear of terrorism has become more dangerous than terrorism itself, first occurred to me over a year ago. It went through numerous actual drafts and many more mental ones. During that process it split, initially, into two posts and by the end, into five. The completed series is now longer than at least one dissertation I’ve written!

So, if you’ve read all (or even just part) of it, then thank you for sticking with me. I hope I’ve repaid your time.

Please also spare a thought for my friend Aaren Tucker. If you have noticed fewer missing words and malapropisms on the blog of late, then she is the one you should thank. She has proof read and edited all this monster series of posts, as well as a number of other recent entries on the blog. Of course, any mistakes remain my responsibility.

9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks

We pay a serious price for our alarmist reaction to terrorism. Here is what we would would gain if we could better manage our fears.

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first, second and third parts.

In November 2015, Daesh executed a Chinese advertising consultant they were holding hostage in Syria. At first, this was widely reported both in China and abroad, and as a result the execution became a major topic of conversation on Chinese social media. Then the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus bored down on the issue. Reports on the topic by domestic outfits were pulled, those by international organisations were blocked and social media posts that included the deceased hostage’s name, and even phrases like ‘Chinese captive’, began disappearing.

That kind of behaviour is not an aberration. An anti-terrorism law passed shortly afterwards means that “[d]isseminating information about terrorist activities is now banned” in China, and apart from “pre-approved news media outlets, nobody is allowed to report on a terror attack nor the authorities’ response, online and offline”.

The latter point hints at a cynical (and this being China, very likely at least partially accurate) read of the Communist Party’s actions. That an attack has taken place could be perceived as a failure on the part of a government that didn’t manage to stop it. However, in an article for Foreign Policy, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides a more generous rationale. She speculates that “hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots” was in tension with the government’s desire “to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States”. In this context, preventing the public finding out about attacks could allow for a more measured response.

I do not for a moment condone this kind of censorship. Proper scrutiny of how government deals with all issues, including terrorism, is necessary. In addition, creating a healthy public attitude towards terrorism probably requires a degree of trust between government and people that simply won’t be there if citizens discover, as they inevitably would, that news is being kept from them.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there would be benefits if we managed to voluntarily move a bit closer to this kind of situation.

Currently, when an attack happens, it becomes the focus of intense coverage. Politicians will reassure us that they take the threat very seriously. There may be new security measures, changes to the law, or even military action.

I want to suggest an alternative approach. Media coverage of attacks would not be formally limited but outlets would make an editorial decision to afford them only as a much space as a bus crash with the same number of casualties. The topic would not be considered a topic of intense national importance. When asked about security, immigration or foreign policy, politicians would probably not mention terror in their answers. Unless you worked for the police or intelligence services, or were directly affected by an attack, terrorism would be something you only rarely discussed or thought about.

Not only would this be warranted by the actual (as opposed to perceived) scale of the threat but it would have the following benefits:

1. We’d face less terrorism

The less seriously we take terrorism, the less attention we will give it. That attention amounts to publicity for the groups that carry out the attacks. Without it, they’d find it harder to gain additional recruits.

If we were calmer, we could probably avoid unduly punitive responses that imperil our position on the moral high ground.

The air of panic around terrorism is also part of what radicalises the likes of Anders Breivik. Getting rid of it would likely serve to deflate that noxious tendency.

[Further reading: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists]

2. Our civil liberties would be more secure

At the time of writing, France has been in a state of emergency for over a year. That allows, among other things, for the police to search homes without warrants, a power which they have used thousands of times. This often involved doors and other properties being broken, and parents being handcuffed in the presence of their children. Few of these searches lead to a prosecution, and when they don’t, an explanation for why an innocent person’s home was raided is rarely forthcoming. There is no end in sight to the state of emergency.

The Snowden leaks revealed that most electronic communications across most of the world are now monitored in some form. And it’s not only the NSA that has gained greater powers to snoop. In Britain, post-9/11 anti-terror legislation gave local municipalities surveillance powers previously restricted to the police and intelligence services. Predictably, such organisations had little cause to use them on potential terrorists. Instead, they spied on ordinary people suspected of crimes like littering and lying about their address on a school application form.

More acutely, America and some of its Western allies, precisely the countries that thought of themselves as exemplars of human rights, have felt the terrorist threat compelled them to engage in assassination, kidnapping and torture. The latter went by the euphemism ‘extraordinary rendition’ and in one case involved a prisoner having pureed food pumped into his anus.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the War on Terror is especially problematic. Suspending some freedoms in times of war is not unusual but a war against another state will generally have a defined end point – a peace treaty or surrender – after which freedom can be restored. By contrast, a war on a strategy will never end. Thus, our fear of terrorism has not driven us to suspend freedoms but to abandon them altogether.

It would be better if we realise now that we are not at war. We face a nebulous but low-level threat from some criminals, and they are not an adequate reason to discard important rights.

3. It would remove a pretext for autocrats

Assad destroying moderates

In the point above, I was mostly talking about trade-offs between security and civil-liberties that, whilst excessive, are nonetheless mostly made in good faith. There are, however, people for whom compromising freedom is the point and preventing terrorism is merely an excuse.

The most egregious example of this must be Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. It has consistently represented the opposition as almost uniformly composed of jihadis, and sought to present themselves as the only thing standing between extremists and control of Syria. At the same time, by focusing most of their effort on destroying the moderate rebels and largely leaving Daesh alone, they made that fiction into a reality. And there are people willing to applaud, rather than condemn, Assad for this. Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis and, before the sarin gas attacks on Khan Shaykhun, had appeared to indicate support for Assad remaining in power.

Trump has also embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator of Egypt and by Trump’s reckoning, a man doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”, on the grounds that he is opposed to Islamists and terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Sisi killed hundreds of protesters in order to take power, and when he did so, reversed virtually all the increases in political liberty that resulted from the protests in Tahrir Square (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak). Nor does the situation seem to be improving. Amnesty International recently published a report on Egypt with the subtitle “disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism”.

The US also continues to back the Saudi government and its brutal war in Yemen. Riyadh argues that only by propping up its client regime in the country can a victory for Al Qaeda and/or Iranian-backed militias be prevented. At home, the theocracy uses anti-terror legislation to outlaw atheism.

The equivalent legislation in Turkey was used to prosecute a British academic for the crime of carrying an invitation to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Which seems strange but anyone writing in Kurdish or about Kurdish issues is now liable to prosecution as a sympathiser with the PKK, a group that wants an independent Kurdish homeland. This goes a long way towards explaining why Turkey has 1% of the world’s population but a third of its imprisoned journalists.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the Middle East. Beijing has used a small number of jihadis amongst the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority living in the remote west of the country, as a pretext to suppress the Uighur culture and religion. Civil servants can be fired and students expelled for fasting during Ramadan, long beards and face coverings are banned, and mosques are routinely closed or demolished.

If we recognised how rare terrorism is, we’d see more clearly that it is no excuse for such widespread abuse.

4. There would be fewer wars

Terrorist attacks are often the trigger for wars that kill vast numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 precipitated American invasions. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was the trigger for the First World War and the millions of deaths that resulted. There is even a real possibility of terrorism triggering a nuclear war, as the most likely scenario for a war between India and Pakistan would involve a militant attack within India being blamed on Pakistan. In all these instances, the resulting wars have (or would) produce massively greater casualties than the terrorists themselves could ever hope to. A more measured, non-military response would save numerous lives.

5. We could do away with security theatre

Security measures that don’t make us all that much safer but do consume our time and money (known as security theatre) are a bane of modern life. It encompasses measures like having to take your shoes off before boarding a plane or being patted down on the way into sports events. Terrorism is rare, so unless measures like these achieve a significant reduction in its probability, or are very low cost, then it’s probably not worth implementing.

I suppose you can argue that security theatre makes people feel safer. However, I suspect that in the long run, constant needless reminders of the threat only makes us more anxious. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d very much like to stop having my bags searched before going into the Natural History museum!

6. We’d avoid unnecessary behaviour changes

The threat of terrorism pushes many of us to engage in a kind of internal security theatre, where we change our behaviour in the hopes of making us less vulnerable to terrorism. In reality, this is just a silly inconvenience to ourselves.

For me, the paradigm example is that after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a 5% drop in tourists visiting the city. The drop was much more pronounced amongst some nationalities, in particular Chinese and Japanese tourists, with the number of the latter falling by 40%. This not only denies tourists an experience they were presumably looking forward to – and Paris is objectively a great city – but also puts jobs connected to tourism in danger. Indeed, it seems that the attacks cost the city billions of euros. What happened to Paris was not an isolated incident . It seems to happen after most widely publicised attacks. Often, it happens to places less able to cope with it than the French capital. ISIS’s attacks on resorts in Tunisia resulted in a massive drop in visits to the country. That was especially unfortunate, as its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. An economic downturn at that point would have been especially problematic considering Tunisia was trying to consolidate its new democracy after the Arab Spring.**

While I understand being frightened of terrorism and wanting to avoid it, I can’t really condone this kind of response. For starters, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack whilst on holiday is like the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack almost everywhere – small. The news brings us coverage of the single or double digit casualties amongst tourists visiting a certain place, but not the five, six or even seven figure for people who visit the same place and are not caught by an attack. What’s more, there’s something thoughtlessly callous about it. The effect is to financially penalise somewhere for being the victim of a terrorist attack. That seems to me to be compounding a wrong.

7. We could focus on more pressing security challenges

Military strengths graph.jpg

My suspicion is that when our current time is taught as history, our priorities will baffle many students. Teachers will have to patiently explain that, as strange as it seems, whilst North Korea became a nuclear power, Russia modernised its military, and China displaced the US as the most influential power in the Pacific, Americans and Europeans were focused on a few thousand religious zealots with rifles and trucks!

As rival states grew stronger, we worried that weak states might incubate terrorism.  We went into many of the least stable and developed parts of the world, and expended our strength fighting messy, anti-guerrilla wars against groups that had no prospect of defeating us.

We have allowed the threat of terrorism to warp our thinking about security in other ways. Donald Trump has branded NATO ‘obsolete’ because it offers ‘no terrorism protection’ as if terrorism was the only thing its members might need defending against.* While a lot of what Trump says is idiosyncratic, the line of reasoning that says ‘it doesn’t defend against terrorism therefore we don’t need it’ is a pretty common one. For example, we often saw the strange argument against missile defence, here articulated by John Kerry, that it would “do nothing to address…a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” With North Korea moving closer to developing an ICBM, and missile defence playing a key role in the American response, this view already seems spectacularly short sighted.

We have already made ourselves less safe and the broader world less stable with our fixation on terrorism and the resulting overemphasis on issues in the Islamic world. It is time to take our eyes off the fringe and refocus on more consequential matters.

8. Less of a backlash against innocents

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and only a few thousand jihadis. Not only do the bulk of Muslims not associate with groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda but polling evidence shows that they view them unfavourably.  They are widely condemned and reviled, which is unsurprising given that most of their victims are Muslims.

Despite this, ever since 9/11, Muslims have faced discrimination and demonisation. The same research that shows that most Muslims reject terrorism also shows that most Westerners perceive them as ‘fanatical’ and ‘violent’. They have been subjected to hate crimes and even terrorist attacks. They have borne the brunt of punitive counter-terrorist measures and have had to suffer the indignity of an attempt to ban them from the United States.

This issue is not confined to Muslims. During the Northern Irish Troubles, numerous Irish men on the British mainland were wrongly convicted of involvement with IRA attacks on the basis of their ethnicity, thin circumstantial evidence, and confessions the police beat out of them.

Prejudice is closely connected to fear, and if we can calm down about terrorism, then we can probably avoid acts of cruelty against people whose only crime is coming from the same community as some terrorists.

9. We’d all be less upset

Heart watches the news

This is the least tangible point but in many ways the most important. Each of the proceeding eight points come about because of how learning about terrorist attacks makes us feel: deeply demoralised. It makes us feel scared, upset, angry, vulnerable, powerless and defensive. We think it tells us something bleak about our world. But as we’ve established in earlier posts, acts of terrorism are freak occurrences. They take place against a backdrop of decreasing global violence. They are weapons of the weak, not the strong. We cannot stop them happening altogether but our societies are well able to overcome them.




*It is worth noting that the only time the mutual defence clause of NATO’s charter has ever been invoked was in response to 9/11, and that the alliance has played an active role in Afghanistan.

**Though in fairness as the attacks in Tunisia were targeted at tourists, I find the risk calculation that says to avoid the country more reasonable than for Paris.

9/11 is NOT history’s most deadly terrorist attack

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.

Grim reading

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.

The pebble

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.

The avalanche

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.


Further reading

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.

How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists

Terrorism is that rarest of things: a social problem that goes away if we simply ignore it.


It seems like the stronger our response to terrorism is, the weaker it will become, but the opposite is actually true.

Yesterday, I wrote at some length about how badly we have overstated the risk of terrorism.

80% of American voters told pollsters that they considered it a “very important” issue. Many politicians and public intellectuals have declared ‘radical Islamism’ to be a threat on par with that posed by Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

Despite this, you are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist, and at its peak ISIS had a military force the same size as – but less well equipped and trained than – the Bulgarian military.

Our inability to see terrorism for the modest threat that it is, is not harmless. Ironically, if we worried less about terrorism, there would probably be less terrorism.

Here are some reasons why our over-the-top reaction to terrorism is counterproductive:

1. It gives terrorists publicity

When Greenpeace activists chain themselves to the machinery at a coal-fired power station or barricade themselves in the office of an oil company, the apparent purpose of doing so is to disrupt the activities of polluting companies. But that’s only a small part of what is happening. You’d have to cause a whole lot more disruption to actually reduce pollution by a meaningful amount. It’s about getting publicity. Therefore, one presumes that if all Greenpeace’s direct actions – however small – became big news around the globe, they’d carry out as many as they could.

That’s essentially the incentive structure we have created for terrorists. The more they attack us – and the deadlier those attacks are – the more attention we reward them with. And let us be clear about this, they understand this dynamic and are keen to promote it. Back in the day, Osama Bin Laden gave interviews to CNN. The attackers in Paris in 2015 wore body cameras and livestreamed what they were doing. Terrorists know that attacking night clubs, metro cars and shops will not in and of itself achieve their ends. Indeed, publicity is probably the principal reason they conduct attacks.

My strong hunch is that the way most recruits first hear about the terrorist group they eventually wind up joining is through the mainstream media.

2. It helps terrorists impress potential recruits

Joining such a group is made more appealing if they appear to be a big deal. Bear in mind that the key demographic for most terrorist organisations is young men in search of a purpose and a sense of belonging. The more formidable we present terrorists as being, the ‘cooler’ they will appear to these young men. Joining a group of isolated misfits who are badly out of their depth and bound to fail sounds like a terrible idea. Becoming part of a movement that’s on the march, feared around the world, that can humble even superpowers? For a certain subset of people that will be an appealing prospect.

3. It is liable to generate a backlash that furthers radicalisation

The greater we perceive the danger from terrorists to be, the more punitive our reaction is likely to be. And that cruelty allows terrorists to portray us as the villains.

In 1972, British soldiers policing a demonstration in Northern Ireland imagined IRA snipers in the crowd and opened fire with real bullets killing 14 people. The result was (understandable) anger. South of the border, there was a general strike and the British embassy in Dublin was burned down. In Northern Ireland, good will towards the British army amongst the Catholic community largely disappeared. The IRA argued that if Catholics couldn’t trust the British to defend them, then Catholics had to take up arms themselves. The organisation saw the biggest surge in recruitment in its history and the conflict rapidly entered its most violent phase.

Likewise, images of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers in the Abu Ghraib prison feature heavily in jihadi recruitment videos.

Infringements of civil liberties that target a particular ethnic or religious group are particularly dangerous in this regard, as these are easy to fit into the us versus them narrative that terrorist groups tend to promote. One national security expert commented on Trump’s travel ban, saying:

The message this projects is that America sees Muslims as a threat—not specific actors who are intent on committing terrorist acts. The message that America really is at war with Islam will be ISIS’s best friend.

Keeping the threat of terrorism in proportion would help us to avoid panicking and doing things that will make that threat worse.

3. It encourages us to take military actions that put our soldiers in harm’s way

American soldiers are much more vulnerable to groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq than in Idaho. They are operating in an environment they are less familiar with. The local population is less sympathetic to them. And it is much easier to get your supporters and their weapons there. Indeed, American casualties in Iraq exceed those from 9/11. If we think of terrorist attacks as acts of war that necessitate a military response, we will continue providing terrorists with abundant targets.

4. It creates radicalisation in the opposite direction

In this series of posts, I’ve mostly been discussing Islamist terrorism. There are, of course, plenty of other ideologies that can fuel terrorism. Sometimes those ideologies can be opposed. When that happens, it is possible that a group will justify its own attacks by arguing they will help to prevent attacks by others.

In 2012, a white nationalist named Anders Brevik killed 77 people to promote the cause of ‘counter-Jihadism’. Just a few months ago, six people were killed in a shooting at a mosque in Montreal, carried out by a student who had expressed support for Marine Le Pen.

There are other examples too. Columbia faced a long insurgency by Marxist guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN. But it also had to contend with the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries that used the existence of left-wing terrorist groups to justify their own terror (and links to drug cartels). The first killings during the Northern Irish Troubles were carried out not by the IRA but by Loyalist paramilitaries that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. They cited fears of the IRA – which at that point had been dormant for decades – as a justification for their actions. Of course, once Catholics began being murdered, the IRA rapidly became un-dormant.

If, as a society, we decide terrorism is an extreme problem, then sadly we should expect that some people will conclude that extreme response is necessary. Ironically, those responses may include terrorism. In that way, an exaggerated fear of terrorism can actually serve to legitimise more terrorism.

The impotence of terrorism

The horror of 9/11 taught us to view terrorism as a threat to our civilisation. That has blinded us to the weakness of its perpetrators.


The White House situation room during the raid that killed Bin Laden. There is something strange about the leaders of a superpower giving so much attention to small groups of zealots. (Source: Pete SouzaWhite House Flickr Feed)

This post is the first part of a multi-part series on the perils of overreacting to terrorism. Please check back in over the next fortnight for subsequent installments.

So, what are you arguing today?

That politicians, the media and the public all dramatically overstate the threat of terrorism. It is a tactic utilised by weak movements, not strong ones and we would be wise to pay it less heed.

Why do you think that?

Because we seem to have made a transnational assessment that terrorism and jihadism are matters of overriding importance.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 80% of Americans registered to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election considered terrorism as “very important” to their vote. That’s more than said the same of healthcare, education, immigration, the environment, or abortion. Only the economy registered as a greater concern.

Even terrorist attacks with modest casualties become a focus of attention to people living thousands of miles away. The day after the incident on Westminster Bridge that killed four people, my colleagues here in Korea felt compelled to ask me about it and to check I was OK. Had those four fatalities been caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol rather than a political ideology, I doubt they’d even have known that it happened. It would have been a local news story rather than an international one.

BBC new bulletins gave the recent attacks in Stockholm precedence over the US airstrikes on the Assad regime. President Xi Jingping sent condolences to the King of Sweden. In turn, the Swedish Prime Minister vowed that his country would not be ‘defeated’ and that Swedes would not be prevented from living ‘normal lives’. In many ways this is an admirable sentiment but the Prime Minister’s comments had the unfortunate impact of implying that a single guy driving a truck had put the survival of a nation of ten million people with a thirty thousand strong military into question.

Politicians seem unable to resist putting terrorism in these grave terms. The Swedish PM was trying to be reassuring and to indicate that his nation is stronger than the terrorists attacking it. Yet in the process, he framed their efforts as an existential threat to Sweden.

Many politicians are even less restrained.  George W. Bush responded to 9/11 by declaring that America was now at “war” with terrorism. Others have gone further still. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that this was not simply a war but ‘World War III’. Gingrich was an early endorser of Donald Trump, who carried forward his backer’s theme. At one point the future president said that:

In the 20th Century, the United States defeated Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Now, a different threat challenges our world: Radical Islamic Terrorism.

Isn’t such a strong reaction warranted? The terrorists are trying to kill us!

They are but they are highly unlikely to succeed. The US State Department estimates that about 35,000 people a year are killed in terrorist attacks. Which sounds like – and is – a lot of death. Remember though, that this number is spread out across the entire globe. To put it in perspective, 56.4 million people die each year. That means terrorism represents 0.0006% of all mortality. It is dwarfed by the truly big killers like heart disease, diabetes and traffic accidents, each of which kill millions each year. It is  even less common than fairly niche causes of death like dog and snake bites (55,000 and 94,000 fatalities respectively). Being killed by a terrorist is, essentially, ‘winning’ the world’s worst lottery.

It doesn’t feel like that. Every time I turn on the television there seems to be a report of fresh attacks. In the past few weeks alone there have been attacks in Alexandria, London and Stockholm.

The media distorts our perception of risk. It is drawn to terrorism because it makes a compelling story. It involves danger, provides a clear villain and we can easily imagine ourselves being caught up in it. As a result, they will bring you terrorism stories whenever and wherever they happen. The three incidents just mentioned, happened thousands of miles apart in three different countries on two separate continents. The media focuses on the needle, not the haystack. As a result, it feels like there are needles everywhere.

Indeed, a large part of why terrorism is news is precisely because it’s rare. A death from cancer or a car crash seems mundane. But terrorism is far enough outside our ordinary experience to make for compelling television.

 But don’t Islamist terrorist groups have aspirations that go beyond bombing and shootings?

There are places in the world – Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria, Yemen – where this is a very real concern. In these places, terrorist groups have ceased to simply be terrorist groups. They have raised armies with which they can take and then rule territory. But that’s not true of anywhere in the West (or most other places really).

Well established states can generally suppress guerrilla movements. For example, the Provisional IRA fought the British state for almost three decades in pursuit of a United Ireland. It was a sophisticated, disciplined and well-organised group. It carried out bombings, shootings, assassinations and kidnappings, not only in Northern Ireland but also on the British mainland. It had fundraising, training, propaganda and counter-intelligence departments as well as an affiliated political party. At its peak, it may have had as many as 30,000 active members, a number that does not count auxiliaries and is all the more striking because it was focused on combatting a single state, not most of the world like ISIS. Members of British intelligence whose careers have spanned both the fight against Irish and Islamist terrorism, have reportedly commented that stopping attacks by the former was harder because the IRA enjoyed more support in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland than the Jihadis do amongst British Muslims. As a result, the security services received far fewer tips regarding the IRA than they now do about ISIS and Al Qaeda. However, despite all this the IRA was still defeated.

That’s not an isolated incident either. Spain broke ETA. Sri Lanka eliminated the Tamil Tigers. Columbia forced the FARC to the negotiating table. All of these movements were in a stronger position within their societies than ISIS and Al Qaeda are within theirs. They also had far more modest aims. Nonetheless, they still failed to achieve them.

And Jihadis are never going to get as far as the IRA and the like did. At least not in the parts of the world you probably live in. Those groups had broad bases of support. Violent jihadis do not. Their ideology has essentially zero appeal to non-Muslims and that creates a hard (and low) ceiling on its support base in most societies. Muslims make up less than 6% of Europe’s population and 1% of the United States’s. That would make those countries largely immune to any attempt at launching a large-scale insurrection within their borders. And that’s before one accounts for the clear polling evidence that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violent jihadist movements. A minority of a minority is hardly a credible basis for a successful insurgency.

So how come we seem to be suffering so many military defeats at the hands of jihadis?

Well, we did make ourselves far more vulnerable to that by sending our own forces into parts of the world with Sunni majorities.

Even then, Western militaries and their allies have a pretty reasonable record. ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was crushed during the 2007 surge. In the present day, it is losing territory and support. ISIS’s own propaganda acknowledges that it is making more use of ‘lone wolf’ attacks because its position is weakening. Their ‘Caliphate’ is disintegrating, and soon it will probably move from being a real place consisting of actual territory to an ideological abstraction. SIS may still carry out terror attacks on Western targets, but this is something it tends to do in the aftermath of military reversals in Iraq and Syria. It is its way of looking strong at moments of weakness. However, even that capacity seems to be being eroded. Of late, intense surveillance has largely prevented them from orchestrating attacks using their own networks. As a result, they have instead begun relying on using their propaganda to incite sympathisers in the West to carry out ‘lone wolf’ attacks. While this is often presented as an alarming new development, this is actually further evidence of the group’s increasing weakness. Imploring the dregs of western Muslim communities – the Westminster bridge attacker was a petty criminal and the Orlando shooter an unemployed habitual steroid user – to carry out attacks in ISIS’s name but without any material support from them, and then still give the group credit, shows a degree of resourcefulness on their part, but also the extent of their desperation. It faces the real possibility of not only becoming a state without territory, but also a movement without an organisation. Elsewhere, a joint French, African Union and Malian force defeated an Islamist insurgency in Northern Mali that once threatened to capture the nation’s capital. Boko Haram is in retreat.

The picture is, of course, not universally positive. The Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra front has successfully co-opted much of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Though, given that Russian assistance seems to have given Assad’s government the edge over the opposition, it is debatable how much that is actually worth to them. he Taliban is also gaining ground in Afghanistan, but all that amounts to is them regaining territory they lost during the 2001 invasion.

Given the disparity in military force available to Jihadis and their opponents, none of these situations should alarm us unduly. They are in a weak position, that is likely to weaken further.

Shouldn’t we still be concerned? Violence is just one way that radical Islamism can spread.

Clearly there are people telling us we should. For example, Ayann Hirsi Ali, a Somali born author who has branded Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death and the new fascism” has a new book out that purports to describe:

the ceaseless, world-wide ideological campaign waged by Islamists as a complement to jihad. It is, she says, the greatest threat facing the West and “could well bring about the end of the European Union as we know it”.

But the non-violent subversion of the West would founder for the same reason as violent insurrection. It would be entirely reliant on support from a (minority) of Muslims and there just aren’t that many of them in Europe and America.

Hirsi Ali’s rejoinder would likely be that the point of these campaigns is precisely to win new converts (and might also involve encouraging the emigration of supporters to Europe or America). It is true that Muslim populations in the West are likely to grow in the near future. However, they will do so from such a small base that it will simply go from being a small minority to a slightly larger but still small minority. Anything beyond that seems unlikely. This isn’t like the IRA trying to convince Irish Catholics to back them. The new identity radical Islamists would require potential converts to adopt, would not be complimentary to their existing one, but quite distinct and in many cases opposed to it.

Whatever we might read from Hirsi Ali (or in Breitbart or the Daily Mail), theocracy and sharia law are not coming to any unexpected places.

So, what would you like to see change in the west’s response to terrorism?

First and foremost, abandon the idea that we are engaged in a grand struggle with Islamism on a par with the fight against communism or fascism. During the Cold War, there were plausible routes by which the Soviet Union and its allies could defeat us militarily or incite the overthrow of our political systems. Those routes are simply not available to radical Islamists.

At its peak, ISIS had a fighting force the same size as Bulgaria’s. Now I don’t mean to disparage Bulgaria or its military. It is by all accounts a lovely place. And I’m sure that, if required, its people would fight ably to defend it. But it’s in no danger of being mistaken for a geopolitical superpower. If we do not put Bulgaria in that category, we should not put ISIS in it either. If Bulgaria cannot do something, neither can ISIS. If Bulgaria suddenly became a rogue state, we would regard it as an annoyance rather than an existential threat. We should think of ISIS and its ilk in a similar fashion.

Looking at the ideology of radical Islamism more broadly, we can see that it competes with liberal democracy in a few parts of the world. When we consider those regions, we should factor its power into our foreign policy calculations. We should not allow it to shape our broader strategy for engaging with the rest of the world. When the US or EU engage with China or Russia, Islamism should be considered a side issue.

We must also accept that, as threatening as it seems, terrorism is just a crime. It is not even a very common one. If four people were murdered in London or Stockholm over money or jealousy, it is clear to me that people in China or Korea would not need to worry about it. The same should be true of murders with political motivations.

If you work with the police or security services, then clearly you should aim to prevent terrorist attacks and prosecute those who commit them. While terrorism may be a modest source of mortality, we should nonetheless hope to see it reduced. However, we should also accept that there may not be proportionate means by which to prevent all deaths from terrorism. From time to time, attacks will probably happen.

When they do happen, we should view them as tragedies not catastrophes. They can no more destroy our way of life than a tiger can be felled by throwing a pebble.

Even though we must live with terrorism, we should not let that threat interfere with our ordinary lives. That’s not a new suggestion, but it is normally said in a way that implies that doing so is an act of courageous defiance. In reality, it is simple pragmatism. Most of us have more important – and more pleasant – things to be thinking about than terrorism.

But isn’t it safer to overreact than to underreact?

Hold that thought. It will be the subject of a series of further posts that I will publish over the next few days.


NOTE 1: When this post was first published there were issues with moving the text from the word document where I drafted it into WordPress. I think I’ve now fixed them but if you see, for example, the start of a sentence but not the end, please let me know.

NOTE 2: This post from Vox on the anti-Islamic worldview of Steve Bannon and other Trump advisors reinforces many of the points I made above.

A Very British Assassination

The violence of Jo Cox’s murder seems at odds with Britain’s political culture. It isn’t. Political violence is sadly common in British history.


Let me start an article on the murder of a mother of two in a way that might seem inappropriate: with trivia questions. But please humour me for a moment. It is leading to a serious point. Can you tell me who was the last American president to be assassinated? Of course, you can. If you are interested enough in politics to be reading this blog you know it was JFK. Even if you weren’t you’d probably have been able to hazard a guess. If you are the right age then you can probably tell me how you heard about his death. That’s reflective of the fact that the slaying of presidents is baked into how we think about American politics. It’s happened four times including to the most celebrated occupant that office has ever had. Heck, there’s even a children’s book about the subject.

So what would have happened if instead I asked you about the last British Prime minister to be killed? I suspect many of you would have struggled. Perhaps you would have wondered if it was a trick question and doubted that such an event has ever happened. It has but my guess is that unless you have at some point specifically looked it up (or take a particular interested in the history of the early nineteenth century) then you wouldn’t have known. The answer is that it’s Spencer Percival who in 1812 was killed by a merchant aggrieved at the government’s failure to provide him with compensation.

That sort of sums up how I’d felt about violence in British politics. It was rare, remote and not really that important. America had its assassinations, the French have their tradition of street protest and direct action, we have a rather staid and ritualised parliamentary democracy. We’ve not had a civil war in modern times. And extremists have never had much electoral success in Britain. While in much of Europe Communists and Socialists vied to be the voice of the left, Britain’s Labour Party has been able to brush aside challenges from Marxist parties without much difficulty. Until UKIP came along the Tories faced little serious competition on the Right and UKIP, unlike the Front National, Golden Dawn or Jobbik, doesn’t have neo-Nazi roots. It is a product of the right rather than the extreme right. And the SNP’s brand of nationalism is clearly of the civic rather than ethnic variety and is pursued more or less wholly by constitutional means. For these reasons it’s easy to construct a view of British politics as placid and confined to the mainstream.

That’s probably why when I first saw that Cox had been shot one way my horror manifested itself was in a sense that this just wasn’t very British. I wrote to a friend back in the UK: “we’re not America. This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening”.  By contrast, when Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords was seriously injured in a shooting in Arizona that seemed horrifying but not actually surprising, not when mass shootings are as depressingly common as they are in the US.

But on reflection my instinct on this point was wrong. Murder may be more common in the US but the political variety seems at least as common in the UK.

For example, since 1945 three members of the US congress have been killed. One was not deliberately targeted but was instead onboard a commercial airliner when it was shot down by Soviet air defence under the misapprehension that it was a military plane. Another was killed by a cult. While the organisations message had strong political undertones, the principal motivation for the killing appears to have been religious. That leaves only one case with an unambiguously political motivation, the 1968 killing of Robert Kennedy.

By contrast, in the same period six MPs have been assassinated. Apart from Jo Cox, they were all victims of Irish paramilitary groups. And that hints at a larger point. The peaceful image of British politics that I and others had depends on putting a mental cordon around events in Northern Ireland. But there’s no good reason to do that. Despite Republican efforts, Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, and the conflict both drew in the British army and spilled over onto the mainland. And we should not forget how violent the Troubles were. Indeed they are one of the worst (and longest lasting) civil conflicts to have afflicted a developing country. They resulted in more than three and a half thousand fatalities and turned Northern Ireland into a virtual warzone for decades. And they very nearly broke Britain’s run of not having any Prime Ministers killed: had Margaret Thatcher been using a different part of her suite at the Grand Hotel in Brighton when the IRA detonated a bomb in a nearby room she would almost certainly have been killed.

Now the temptation might be to conclude that now there is (relative) peace in Northern Ireland, that a placid stereotype of British politics is now justified. But I don’t really see that.

You can find examples of all the kinds of violence you would expect to see in a developed country in recent British history.

We’ve had terrorism of many different varieties:

  • the men behind the 7/7 attacks were Al Qaeda supporters who’d been trained in Pakistan;
  • Lee Rigby was murdered by two men who straddled the line between Al Qaeda membership and acting as ‘lone wolfs’;
  • The Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed multiple times by an Al Qaeda sympathiser who appears to have self-radicalised based on sermons she read online;
  • the man who conducted the Soho pub bombing was a neo-Nazi;
  • an animal rights extremist has been convicted of planting ‘an incendiary device’ at Oxford colleges;
  • a potential witness in the trial of Sikh militants accused of blowing up a 747 a murdered on a busy street in Southall;
  • a number of Irish groups remain active though far less so than in the past;
  • And of course a number of British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIL.

We’ve also had plenty of politically motivated street violence with ideologically heterozygous origins. We have multiple examples of so-called ‘race riots’ like those in Notting Hill, Brixton, Toxteth, Broadwater Farm and Tottenham. Conversely, there are the actions of the EDL.

There are also cases of demonstrations on behalf of left-wing causes turning violent as happened during Vietnam War protests, the miners strike, the poll tax riots, anti-capitalist protests in the 2000s and most recently the anti-fees demonstrations in 2010.

I think it’s important that we grasp that Britons have no special immunity to violence. The UK is not a theatre in which it is safe to shout fire. If you dehumanise an other – be they immigrants or the Tories – you are putting them at risk. If you suggest that our democracy is so broken that change is impossible, you may find someone drawing the implication that it is acceptable to try and force change. And if you present ordinary political disputes as matters of extreme – perhaps existential – importance then maybe someone will take you at your word and react disproportionately. As Alex Massie wrote in the hours following Cox’s murder:

When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’