In the fight against terrorism, we are the only ones who can defeat ourselves

Yuval Noah Harari writes: As the literal meaning of the word indicates, terror is a military strategy that hopes to change the political situation by spreading fear rather than by causing material damage. This strategy is almost always adopted by very weak parties, who are unable to inflict much material damage on their enemies. Of course, every military action spreads fear. But in conventional warfare, fear is a byproduct of material losses, and is usually proportional to the force inflicting the losses. In terrorism, fear is the whole story, and there is an astounding disproportion between the actual strength of the terrorists and the fear they manage to inspire.

It is not easy to change the political situation through violence. On the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, 19,000 members of the British army were killed and another 40,000 wounded. By the time the battle ended in November, both sides together had suffered more than a million casualties, which included 300,000 dead. Yet this unimaginable carnage hardly changed the political balance of power in Europe. It took another two years and millions of additional casualties for something finally to snap.

Compared to the Somme offensive, terrorism is a puny matter. Most terrorist attacks kill only a handful of people. In 2002, at the height of the Palestinian terror campaign against Israel, when buses and restaurants were hit every few days, the yearly toll reached 451 dead Israelis. In the same year, 542 Israelis were killed in car accidents. A few terrorist attacks, such as the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, kill hundreds. The 9/11 attacks set a new record, killing nearly 3,000 people. Yet even this is dwarfed by conventional warfare: if you add all the people killed and wounded in Europe by terrorist attacks since 1945 – including victims of nationalist, religious, leftist and rightist groups – it will still represent many fewer casualties than in any number of obscure first world war battles, such as the third battle of the Aisne (250,000 casualties) or the 10th battle of the Isonzo (225,000 casualties). [Continue reading…]

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