Fear Not: A Critical Perspective on the Terrorist Threat in Europe

Written by | Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

Thomas Renard (Egmont – The Royal Institute for International Relations)

Europe is currently beginning to undergo some form of a collective psychosis of the fear of terrorism. The November 2015 attacks in Paris, the March 2016 attacks in Brussels, the subsequent media coverage and the constant flow of information about terrorism only increase the anxiety in the society. The feeling of a constant danger is becoming a standard. Is this mode of thinking becoming the new “normal”? And how to avoid a collective psychosis?

According to the latest Europol data, terrorism in Europe is truly on the rise. Compared to 2013, the number of terrorist attacks has increased by 39 percent. One can therefore talk about a wave of terror that has intensified with the advent of the Islamic State (IS). Yet, it is necessary to point out that, according to experts, this is not a completely new wave but rather a continuation of the earlier wave that started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Europe has already been hit by four waves of global terrorism and experts argue that the current one is not historically uncommon. Despite the recent tragic events, the Europe of today is a much safer place than the Europe of the past. For example, in 1979, Europe saw 1000 terrorist attacks compared to last year’s 300 attacks. Moreover, the probability of dying in a terrorist attack in the case of a European citizen is statistically smaller than, for example, death caused by falling off a bed.

Terrorism is a serious problem that needs to be addressed but it is not an existential threat to our society. The number of terrorist attacks in Europe related to the Islamic State is, however, still very low. The Islamic State’s major ‘victory’ stems mainly from its success in creating an atmosphere, in which fear is a normal part of everyday life. In other words, the Islamic State is much more successful in spreading terror and fear than in terrorism itself. Our biggest enemy is not the Islamic State but ourselves. What affects our economy is not terrorism per se but rather our fear to get out in the streets. What threatens democracy is not terrorism but the adoption of the measures dictated by our fear.

The way to reduce the fear of terrorism is in the first place by searching for quality and unbiased information that will help one better understand the nature of the threat and realize the low risk of a terrorist attack. People should be able to realize that it is important not to be paralyzed by fear, continue living a normal life, while heeding official warnings. Rejection of fear is, in this context, an ‘act of defiance’ against terrorism.

(The study can be downloaded here)

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