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Review: The Spiral of Terror

Slightly more than 20 years ago, the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York was attacked by terrorists. This ‘anniversary’ caused people to, again, ask themselves: where was I during this event? However, despite this renewed personal relevance, the aftermath of this event has always been very apparent within reality. The most important aspects of this being the inducement of more terrorist attacks and the West declaring war on everything that has to do with terrorism. How does this aftermath form our image of terrorism and terrorists?

Willemijn Verkoren, who is a political scientist at Radboud University, was invited by Raboud Reflects to talk about this urgent topic. She claimed that the aftermath has brought more (new) problems than solutions. The main thing it has caused is a spiral of violence and fear. In a lecture she explained what she meant by that. After that, she participated in a discussion with political philosopher Evert van der Zweerde of Radboud University, moderated by political scientist and program manager at Radboud Reflects, Tjidde Tempels.

The western reaction

'Terrorism has no boundaries.' This quote sums up how big our fear is. And this fear has impactful consequences, according to Willemijn Verkoren. Consequently, the reaction to terrorism also has no boundaries. During the attacks on 9/11, the USA, as a superpower, was hit in one of its centers. As a result, terrorism has been labeled as the biggest threat to the West. Hence, terrorism is seen as a top priority within national security. However, this also influenced the image that many civilians still have of terrorism.

According to the Western narrative, numerous characteristics of terrorism can be named. First, terrorism would come from outside of our borders, namely the Islamic world of the East. Second, with the attack on WTC, a new kind of terrorism appeared. Compared to earlier forms of terrorism, terrorism is now more religiously motivated. According to the western narrative, Islamic motivations are the core indicator of terrorism attacks. Third, terrorism was not only an impactful threat but also an existential one: we have the idea our very own lives are at risk. As a result of these characteristics, these terrorists are seen as irrational. Hence, talking to them is seen as meaningless.

The spiral: image vs reality?

However, does this strike with reality? Willemijn Verkoren claims that it does not. According to her, many victims of terrorist attacks are from areas outside of the west. Next to that, far-right terrorism has caused more victims compared to Islamic terrorism. It appears that the threat is not coming from outside the west but from within our borders. Even ‘Islamic terrorists’ who attack the west are often people who come from the west. They are migrants or western people who converted to Islam. Next to that, religion plays a role but is not the core motivator for terrorists. Instead, religion is mixed with political motivations and conspiracy thinking. Saying terrorism is based on a radical version of Islam would be an oversimplification.

Thus, this narrative surrounding the big fear of terrorism does not strike with reality. However, this constructed fearful image does influence our reality. Because terrorists are labeled as irrational, we tend not to investigate their motivations because they do not have rational ones, so violence would be the only just solution. Again, this would justify the war on terror. It was seen as justified to invade and bomb Islamic countries because otherwise, they would destroy us.

Next to that, new (anti-terrorist) laws and measurements have been introduced within the West. These had some positive effects. For instance, an increase in police force did avert some terrorist attacks. However, these new laws and measurements also have a problematic side. The scope of what the West saw as a potential threat grew. Because of this, people were being targeted, monitored, and even imprisoned without concrete evidence. In short, civil rights are being breached. In The Netherlands, even your Dutch nationality can be withdrawn if this is your second nationality.

All of this has impactful consequences: a spiral of violence and a spiral of fear. The War on Terror caused much bad blood within the Muslim world, which induced more terrorist attacks. Hence, a spiral is formed: terrorist attacks cause counter-violence from the West, which again brings about new terrorist attacks and so on. The measurements also cause a spiral: fear of terrorism induces protective measurements. As a consequence, these measurements cause even more fear, and so on. Heavily armed police, for instance, induces the idea that there is something impactful to be feared.

Can we escape the spiral of terror?

Willemijn Verkoren argues we can. History can teach us. In the 20th century, before the 9/11 attacks, The Netherlands was a bit more hesitant in its counter-terrorism. Where other countries came up with stricter laws, The Netherlands chose not to. According to the logic of the Dutch politicians, stricter laws would only induce terrorism. This logic proved to be correct. Where in other countries terrorism increased, it decreased in The Netherlands. So what can we do against current terrorism? In short, engage in conversation. Statistics have proven that conversing with terrorists is more effective in solving terrorism compared to violence.

But how can we prevent terrorism in the future? The answer to this is to be found in the investigation of the motivation of terrorists. However, these motivations differ concerning terrorists from inside and outside the West. Outside the West it is often the case that people deem it necessary to join terrorist movements. In the Middle East survival can be very hard compared to life in the West. In these areas terrorist movements seem to be the only source of security for many people. Hence, the solution can be found in creating more opportunities so that these people can have a secure life.  As the Nobel prize winner, Malala Yousafzai claimed: ‘With guns, you can kill terrorists, with  education you can kill terrorism.’ In the West, the solution is to be found in diffusing the grudge against the West. This solution is paired with the realization that their violent counter-terrorism only causes more terrorism. Next to that, the social differences between Muslims and non-Muslims should be dissolved. In this way, Muslims can feel that they are treated fairly and grudges can be overcome.

In short, to escape the spiral, the policy against terrorism should be rethought. We should not implement heavy measurements, take away the motivation of terrorists, and engage in dialogue. Only then can we escape the spiral that started a little bit more than 20 years ago.

Luca Tripaldelli, Research Master student of philosophy