When news came of the London Bridge terror attack, I was planning to be in London later this week — after a stay in Berlin just a few blocks from the site of last year’s horrific Christmas market bombing. The London trip ended up being canceled for reasons unrelated to the attack (my traveling companion’s health problems), but the prospect of visiting a city so soon after a shocking act of terror made it hit all too close to home. How do we cope with terrorism as the new normal?
In the days since three radical Islamists rammed a van into unsuspecting strollers and then used knives to attack others, killing seven innocent people and injuring dozens, the usual polemics have raged. Some say it is craven political correctness to refuse to name Islam as the problem; others say tolerance and respect, not hate, must be the answer to terror.
The “call out Islam” response slides all too easily into vile, bigoted rhetoric — from British media personality Katie Hopkins, who tweeted about the need for a “final solution” to the Muslim problem after last month’s attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, to now-former Breitbart News writer Katie McHugh, whose Muslim-bashing on Twitter proved too much even for her stridently anti-P.C. employer.
But the “stop the hate” side has its own blind spots. Well-intentioned attempts to counter Muslim-bashing often downplay the very real problem of radicalization in Muslim communities, candidly discussed by Muslim reformers such as British writer and activist Maajid Nawaz. Efforts to cool down the terrorism panic can lapse into fallacies and spurious comparisons.
Is it a sign of irrational phobia or even prejudice that we fear terrorism more than “ordinary” crime or car accidents, which kill far more people? Maybe not. Terror attacks are far more random than most crime, making the personal safety measures that give the average American or European a sense of control virtually useless. And even the trauma of random violence is vastly intensified when the motive is ideological and the attack is part of a larger war on society.
When a driver with a history of erratic and aggressive behavior struck pedestrians in Times Square last month, killing one and injuring dozens, it was a frightening reminder of how vulnerable we all are to sudden deadly mayhem. But we were not left wondering whether the perpetrator had accomplices who were planning more attacks, or when and where his brothers in arms would strike next.
Do we, as many commentators argue, focus too much on radical Islamism and not enough on white supremacists and other far-right extremists? There is no question that the recent surge in racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric merits real concern. In recent weeks, suspects with racist social media postings have been linked to killings in Baltimore and Portland, Oregon (though neither alleged killer seems to have been part of a terror network). But taking white supremacists more seriously should not be an excuse to downplay Islamist extremism and its dangers.
So far, answers remain elusive. Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which he took to championing on Twitter after the London attack, would penalize innocent visa applicants while doing nothing about the problem of radicalized second-generation immigrants, responsible for many of the attacks. Blanket measures against Muslims would subvert our freedoms and make Islamism more attractive to would-be rebels, including ones with no Muslim background.
We need tough and smart strategies, at a time when we are woefully short on tough and smart leadership.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.