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Challenging world views by our team of spectators

From terrorism to pandemics: fear needs an enemy

14 May 2020 - 16:45

Paris saw a new and disturbing terrorist incident by the end of April. A 29-year-old man, called Youssef T., wounded two policemen. He told the police that he carried out the attack because of the situation in Palestine. He also stated to be sympathetic towards the goals of ISIS. Oh and by the way, more than 23.000 people died from the coronavirus in France over the last two months.

These two facts are totally unrelated. However. The world has invested an enormous sum of money in the prevention of terrorism over the last twenty years. The investment in preparedness measures for the potential outbreak of a pandemic has, on the other hand, been limited – if not close to zero – compared to what was spent on prevention of terrorism. The question is whether those two facts are also unrelated. Let us explore this a bit.

The enormous spending on counter terrorism was obviously triggered by the events of 9/11. The estimates are mind-blowing. We talk about figures in the range of 20 to 30 million dollar per hour over a period of almost twenty years. Every single hour of every single day since 9/11, we have spent that sum of money.

The response to 9/11 was expensive, unlimited in its geographic reach, and most unfortunately ineffective. We are still faced with a serious threat in many countries and ISIS is far from defeated. On top of all that, new terrorist threats are developing, despite the fact that few anxieties have ever triggered as much policy input as terrorism.

Whereas zero tolerance is certainly a term applicable in the domain of terrorism, this is certainly not the case for pandemics

Prevention of it is everywhere: we monitor the internet, we keep an eye on religious gatherings, healthcare personal is watching out for lone wolves and peculiar behaviour, immigration is under scrutiny, passenger name records are kept to see who is going where – the list of measures goes on and on. Zero tolerance is certainly a term applicable in the domain of terrorism.

This is certainly not the case for pandemics. The world has seen outbreaks of scary epidemics like SARS and Ebola. Not in New York or London, but in Asia and Africa. The response has been reasonably low in costs and effective in limiting the impact of the epidemics mentioned. As a result, the response mechanism could be, and was, limited in its geographic reach, and further prevention was globally mostly ignored.  

These simple facts raise a number of questions. Like the obvious question whether our obsession with terrorism has diverted our attention from other threats. Do fears compete for attention? And why did prevention of terrorism win the competition and did the prevention of infectious killer diseases get so little?

We like to blame others, but we hate to look in the mirror

After all, the attention for prevention of terrorism is by no means matched by the prevention of other threats. Be it the potential threat of scary nuclear weapons, climate change, or pandemics.

We like to blame the president of the US for dismissing the pandemic preparedness team in the US administration. But there was equally no such team in the EU or its member states. We like to blame others, but we hate to look in the mirror.

The unpleasant answer to the question why we are obsessed with terrorism may very well be exactly that. Fear needs an enemy, someone to blame. To live with anxiety is one, but the ambiguity of the absence of a known perpetrator, the guilty one, is unbearable.

And terrorism is easy. It is brought to us by a stranger. It frightens us, and we have identified the culprit. All conditions are fulfilled to stage a war. We call it the GWOT, the Global War On Terrorism. It keeps us busy and together. It unites and gives focus.

We are back at the war narrative, with a clear enemy and a unifying message

Climate change and nuclear weapons are much more complicated. They are our own creations. We try to look the other way. Looking in the mirror is unpleasant; it polarises and is a social and political tensioner. 

The coronavirus is confusing. Sure, initially the virus came from China. Blaming the Chinese was a popular narrative for a while. But that changed when we started to see that we got the infection from our own neighbours, fellow churchgoers, party-animals, bartenders, football fans or other fellow citizens, that had contracted the illness. And that is inconvenient and unpleasant.

So the US president resumed his China bashing. Recently, he claimed that the corona pandemic is the worst attack against the US ever. We are back at the war narrative, with a clear enemy and a unifying message. The anxiety is addressed; the anger and responses can get focused. Exactly the way we responded to international terrorism.

Blaming an “other” is needed to prevent the divisive and polarising effect that the corona pandemic may have on our societies

Blaming an “other” is comforting. So cynicism has it that there is a glimpse of hope. China as the culprit may be the way out. A way out, needed to prevent the divisive and polarising effect that this pandemic may have on our own societies.

But we are not yet saved. The UN Secretary General warned for ‘a tsunami of hate speech and xenophobia’. Since anxiety needs an enemy, maybe “China” is not enough or not concrete for everybody. In the absence of a cogent, well defined enemy anybody may serve the purpose.

In some places the youth understands that it is the elders; after all they are the ones most at risk, they are the ones that are protected by the measures, they are the ones that harm the economy for future generations. They are the ones that are responsible for the lockdown. If it was not for them, the youth could go free. I have heard the first reports of elderly people confronted by youth, telling them to disappear from public spaces.  

We must be prepared to look in the mirror and stop pointing fingers

Dealing with a personal private anxiety is hard, dealing with collective anxiety is almost impossible. It requires collective introspection and inclusiveness. We must be prepared to look in the mirror and stop pointing fingers.

In the case of terrorism many have avoided both. We invested heavily in that war. It unified and offered focus. But it also creates animosity and ignorance of the potential self-inflicted threats. We should be able to learn from our mistakes in the area of terrorism to invest in the prevention of the next crisis. One that is our own doing.


Peter Knoope
Senior Associate Fellow at the Clingendael Institute