Terrorists Want You to Be Very Afraid. So Don't Be.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Shoppers approach an NYPD anti-terror patrol unit in Herald Square, New York City, on November 27, 2015. 

The original meaning of words is washed away by overuse. So a reminder: Terrorism is intended to make you feel terror, to make fear flood your mind and keep you from thinking straight. That's true whether it takes place in Paris, San Bernardino, or Jerusalem.

The first step in defeating terrorism, therefore, is to chill out.

Take a long slow breath. Then we can talk calmly about things to do next.

Here's a small example to start with. In October, when the current wave of terror attacks began in Israel and the occupied territories, a major Israeli supermarket chain removed knives from its kitchenware shelves. It was done without fanfare. The owner of the chain explained that it didn't make much sense to have a guard at the entrance checking handbags for weapons—a standard precaution in Israel—if someone could walk in, grab a knife off at Aisle 3, and start stabbing people.

There a couple of lessons from this. Removing the knives wasn't going to end attacks elsewhere. But reducing the access of potential terrorists to weapons in a particular place did lessen the chance of an attack there. Consider this a small example of a wider principle: Fewer weapons, less terror. This seems awfully simple, until one reads about American conservatives denying that gun control has anything to do with combatting terrorism.

That brings us to the second lesson. The attacks of the last two months have been carried out by individual Palestinians, without the direct support of organizations. The political context for this is a separate story. But the weapons, in most cases, have been kitchen knives or vehicles. I can already hear Ted Cruz or Donald Trump butting in here to say, "See, when someone wants to kill, they find a way." Please quiet down, Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump. A major reason that terrorists haven't used guns often is that they are hard to get. Israel has strict gun control laws, and even stricter restrictions on ammunition. No one can walk into a store and buy a "civilian" model of an M-16 or AK-47, which makes sense because there is no possible need that a civilian could have for a weapon designed for battlefields. If you have a license to own a gun in Israel and it's stolen or used by someone else, you could face criminal charges for negligence while in possession of a weapon.

Availability of guns may not affect the number of terror incidents, but certainly changes the casualty count. It is reasonable to assume that more Israelis would have died in the last two months if more of the attackers had been able to get guns—and that if the couple in San Bernardino had been armed only with what they could get in the kitchenware department, fewer people would have died.

But attacks do happen, and they're scary. For terrorists, fear is a means to an end. Terror is most commonly the strategy of small groups that have failed otherwise to build mass support—or that have lost it. As French scholar Gilles Kepel has written, September 11 was a bid by Al-Qaeda to reverse the defeats that radical Islam had suffered in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere. Hamas turned to suicide bombings in Israel after the Oslo Accords, a stunning rejection of its program in the Palestinian arena. Daesh (the Islamic State) has turned to global terror when its purported caliphate in Iraq and Syria is losing territory and the ability to govern.

The strategy of terror posits that fear will lead the enemy to lash out at a much wider group of people, thereby pushing large numbers toward radicalism. When the strategy works, it’s because panic precludes clear thought and because of an optical illusion: We tend to see people who are different from ourselves as a single homogenous group because we know little about them.

Daesh wants the entire umma, the whole Muslim world, to side with it. So far it has done poorly. But each statement and act of hatred toward Muslims as such affirms its picture of a world sliced by a battle line between Islam and everyone else, and is a tactical gain for the Islamic State. This won't drive tens of millions of Muslims into Daesh's camp. But it will affect some young people trying to decide who they are and where they stand.

When Londoners of all faiths respond to a terror knifing in an Underground station by affirming, "You ain't no Muslim, bruv," as happened this week, it's not just a statement of civil solidarity and humanity. It's a direct defeat for the Islamic State. When Jerry Falwell Jr. urges students at Liberty University to get guns in order to "end those Muslims," it's cause for celebration in Raqqa. After making that comment, Falwell tried to walk it back by saying that by "those Muslims" he really meant Islamic terrorists. His ease in confusing the many with the very few is exactly the problem. Then Trump called for the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." Trump might as well be working as a recruiter for radical Islam: the new Manchurian candidate.

Wild hyperbole in describing Daesh also serves the group's interests, making it appear much more powerful than it is. The best example is Governor Chris Christie declaring that "we are in the midst of the next world war." That puts the Islamic State on the level of the Axis, or at the least of Nazi Germany circa 1939, a military juggernaut.

Take a deep breath, again. Daesh is, indeed, guilty of war crimes and genocide. But scale matters. The "caliphate" managed to seize land in the failed states of Syria and Iraq, fighting mainly against the fragmented factions of the Syrian civil war and Iraq's facade of an army. It makes sense to put an end to its control of territory as a humanitarian intervention, and would make more sense as part of a political process toward ending the Syrian conflict. It makes no sense to help it attract recruits by vastly overrating it.

Do you notice? The over-the-top rhetoric comes from Republican candidates trying to show they'd be strong leaders. They're actually demonstrating that they lose it at the first indication of conflict.

Here let me offer a personal story: In October 2001, my silver-haired British cousin and his wife came to Jerusalem to spend the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, as they'd done every year for decades. My wife and I met them at the King David Hotel. The four of us were alone in the lobby. Tourists not already frightened away by the Second Intifada didn't want to fly after September 11. My wife told the relatives that we appreciated them coming.

"Dearie," said my cousin's wife, "my first job was during the Blitz. When the German planes came over, we got under our desks. When they left, we got out from under our desks.

"Dearie," she concluded, "this is nothing."

The only thing that today's terrorism has in common with a world war is that the first step toward defeating it is to keep calm and carry on.

You may also like