What makes terror so devastating is not the reach of a certain blast or the number of people killed; it is the way it manages to embed itself deep into our perception. It makes us scared and keeps us preoccupied with an idea of constant danger.
This feeling of terror has to be understood at a personal level. Each one of us is a possible target that might be overwhelmed by this feeling. Only at a later point would the reaction of our society as a whole be of interest.
We personally feel threatened. Terror is this invisible threat that seems to be directed at people like us and therefore might harm us any moment from now. So being afraid almost seems to be a valid idea. The way we feel these threats apparently needs no explanation to be real.
What is much harder to grasp, is to understand threats that are directed at people, we do not associate with – others. Empathy might enable us to get a hint of what the other person might experience, but even with an empathetic approach, there is little present of this deep-seated feeling of terror.
This feeling of terror is linked to phobias in that the threat might be real, but my reaction has little connection to the level of the threat. I for instance am afraid of heights. To some extend that is a valid fear, since falling off a ladder might carry some dire consequences. But most people don’t just fall off ladders. Accidents happen, just not all the time. Normally being careful should be enough. My phobia does not care though. Standing next to a ladder and looking up, very often the fear of the height feels illogical – even to me. Once I try to ascend it though this question of whether it is logical or not completely disappears. Friends of mine “know” that I am afraid of heights. Can they understand it? I have my serious doubts. They are be able to see the same threat I do – falling off a ladder – just it does not seem to be similarly directed at them. For them, “being careful” is all that is needed.
With the way Islamist terror currently has a firm grasp on media attention, it is somewhat hard to see that there are other, quite similar, threats aimed at other groups. And this, I believe, is a very serious issue. If we look at racist violence against immigrants, the drone warfare by the US in different parts of the world or the police violence in the US against people of color and so on; these are all things that cause a similar form of anxiety in those who feel under threat. I am not saying that police violence in the US is a terrorist operation, but it does certainly create the feeling of being terrorized in those who feel targeted. The threat become something that is unavoidably directed at you.
I recently had a discussion with an openly racist person here in Germany. He did not deny that there were “some” acts of violence against refugees in Germany, what he denied though was my claim that this is terror quite similar to the terror by Islamists. For him one thing is merely a series of criminal events and the other stuff is pure terror. This is what I tried to explain earlier. Terror is very hard to see if it affects others. Or, to phrase it differently, terror is what affects you.
Most of us will never become victims of terror attacks. Most refugees in Germany will never be harmed by Nazis. Most Afghans are never personally harmed in drone strikes. And most people of color in the US will never be harmed by police. Yet, the feeling of terror that unites these groups, isn’t entirely baseless. There are people that are harmed or killed. And the feeling of terror is real. So how should we address this?
Even though this is hard, we must try to separate the personal level from the level of society. The events that cause terror, like attacks by ISIS and Co, attacks by Nazi on refugees, the police brutality, these are real life events that have to be addressed. This should be the job of lawmakers or law enforcement. But the terror itself, in that it exists on a personal level of perception, is trickier to address. We see the main problem already. If we look at a country like Poland that hasn’t seen a single Islamist terror attack and that has a minuscule number of Muslims, we might still be able to find a similar level of terror in ordinary people, then within a society that suffers heavily from this kind of attacks.
So, if even the absence of terrorism is no guaranty for the disappearance of the feeling of terror, not too much hope should be spent on extremely tough laws and wide-reaching surveillance. Even outrageous demands like the deportation of all Muslims would just not help. The terror is a feeling that rests in us and it is quite hard for the government to rescue us from ourselves. On the contrary. Us, being afraid, is quite handy. Laws and restrictions are easily argued for and populism feasts on it.
The lack of empathy – or the limited reach of empathy – makes things quite difficult to cope with. When different people with different fears communicate, quickly it feels like both sides just won’t take the other side seriously. When Germans show their fear, when a terror attack takes place, and refugees do not show a level of outrage that is considered adequate, this is understood either as their them being complicit or them lacking compassion. But the same could be said the other way around. When refugees are under attack, so many Germans just do not seem to care? Are they complicit? Do they lack compassion? Some certainly do, as do some of the refugees in the first example. But I believe that most just do not really understand that the whole thing is that big of a problem.
Take the troubles in Israel and Palestine. Just imagine that both sides might be right and both sides might do wrong. It could be, that some of the actions both sides undertake, might be understood as acts of terror on the other side.