In the last week, the so-called Islamic State has carried out two horrific attacks: one on a central shopping street in Istanbul, the other in the Brussels airport.
The former, which killed five people and wounded dozens more, took place just a few minutes from where I was staying at the time, and just a few meters from the church where I had been going to Mass. The whole area was immediately shaken, physically and metaphorically, and I felt fear all around – both in myself and in others. A café owner, Behzat, told me, “I’m very scared – Turkey used to be a safe place to live, but I don’t think that’s true anymore.” Terrorism also causes anger. A stall holder in the Grand Bazaar who asked not to be named told me, “[President] Erdogan has no idea, he doesn’t know where the bombs are – he says everything is safe and then the bombs go [off].”
Even worse than anger, this awful act has led to mistrust and division. An English teacher on the Asian side of Istanbul, who also asked not to be named, said he was thinking about moving home to South Carolina, but wasn’t sure he was safe there either. “I’m very worried,” he said, “especially because I take the metro a lot. You just can’t trust anyone anymore…anyone could be working with them.”
Fear, anger, and division are understandable reactions to terrorism. They’re natural. I feel them myself. But they’re also how the terrorists win. When Mehmet Ozturk walked down Istikal Avenue on March 19, mentally preparing to blow himself up, surely fear, anger, and most of all division were the reactions he was hoping for most. The best response to this type of terrorism is neither easy nor exciting: it is to simply ignore it.
This may sound absurd in the wake of ISIS’ repeated attacks across the globe, from Australia to California, Istanbul to Ottawa, and even more so in light of all the other terrorism that has claimed so many lives over the years. But when you look more closely at the figures, our collective fear of terrorism seems less reasonable. According to the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington D.C., an average of three Americans have been killed by jihadist terrorism per year since 9/11.
Compare this to the fact that about thirty Americans die every day from regular gun violence, eighty-three from falls, and over a hundred from car accidents. An American is more than ten thousand times more likely to die from a fatal fall than from terrorism, and yet as Paul Waldman of the Washington Post points out, “we haven’t declared a ‘War on Falling’ and nobody tells pollsters their biggest fear is that they or someone in their family will suffer a fatal fall.” The figures are similar for the UK: according to a 2012 report compiled for Parliament by David Anderson, terrorism killed about the same number of people in the UK from 2000-2011 as bees. Over that same period, drowning in the bath was the cause of death for six times as many UK residents as terrorism, and cycling accidents were about twenty-four times more deadly than jihad. More troubling, when one considers the results of our dramatic emotional response to terrorism, about twenty times as many UK citizens were killed through combat in Afghanistan as died from terrorism against civilians.
When I left Istanbul for Riga, my family was understandably relieved. It is highly unlikely that there are any extremists plotting the overthrow of the evil Latvian empire. But in fact, being outside ISIS’ sphere of influence makes me hardly any safer at all. The real threats are in the five-way intersection down the street, the hamburger I had for lunch, and the bathtub waiting to welcome me with open, deadly arms when I finish writing this piece.
Terrorism is not an existential threat to our lives, culture, or civilization, unless we make it so. The real damage done by these attacks is not in the loss of life and limb, tragic as these deaths and injuries are, but in the reaction felt by hundreds of millions of people around the world; our collective intake of breath and double-locking of the door. In the face of terrorism we ought not declare war, restrict civil liberties, or cower in fear of the next attack – this is what the terrorists hope for, and the only way they can inflict true damage. Instead, we should treat terrorists like their equally deadly insect counterparts: a nuisance.
Of course, we should take commonsense precautions – if you have an allergy then beekeeping probably isn’t the career for you, and I’m not planning a summer holiday in Syria any time soon, but living in fear is not only unnecessary, but foolish. We will never defeat every last Islamic extremist who wishes to destroy the Western way of life; ideas are not killed with bullets. Instead, we should take away the only true power they have by refusing to overreact to terrorist violence.