The terrorist threat is getting serious, but we mustn't panic
by DANIEL HANNAN
April 11, 2016
Do you remember the footage of last month's subway bomb in Brussels? You know, with the frightened passengers choking their way along a smoke-filled tunnel while children cried? Well, the man who shot that video was a friend of mine, a Brussels-based American freelance reporter who happened to be on the train, and who helped carry some people to safety.
Here's the odd thing, though: I wasn't especially surprised that he had been there. Knowing someone who has been caught up in a terrorist attack no longer feels strange. We are becoming habituated to jihad, blase about bombs.
There used to be a standard article about the rarity of political violence in Western countries. I'm pretty sure I've written that article myself in the past. Terrorism, runs this article, works because the human brain is bad at computing probability. We worry more about exceptional and fearful events than about banal and common ones.
An American is 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from terrorism; 110 times more likely to die from eating the wrong food than from terrorism. But it's terrorism that scares us - that's why we call it terrorism.
Obviously, these figures don't apply to Syria or Iraq or even, these days, Turkey. In those countries, terrorism is statistically significant, and people live their lives accordingly.
I wonder whether parts of western Europe are now, in this sense, becoming less like America and more like Turkey. Last week, the EU's external borders agency, Frontex, admitted that terrorists were exploiting the migration crisis to penetrate the continent.
A report matter-of-factly confirmed that extremists were using the massive population movement as camouflage. At least one of the Paris attackers had done so. With 1.82 million illegal crossings into the EU logged in 2015, no one knows how many other bombers have made the crossing.
As I write, Brussels airport is functioning at 20 percent capacity - a nightmare in a city where officials arrive from 28 EU states every week to get their marching orders. The intelligence services say that there are 50 Islamic State sympathizers among the baggage handlers and other airport employees. Meanwhile, more details are emerging about how the Molenbeek gang were plotting to attack a nuclear power station.
Europe, in short, is adjusting to the idea that it is no longer dealing with individual losers radicalized online. Hundreds of trained jihadis may have returned to their countries of origin after being trained in Syrian camps. Europe has not known such a menace before. The threat posed by 1970s urban guerrillas, like the Red Brigades or the Baader-Meinhof gang, was trivial by comparison.
In the United Kingdom, though, the experience is not new. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, we had to deal with something similar: an organized, well-funded series of terrorist cells, which aimed to create a united Ireland through violence. At the height of the campaign, bombs became so common, especially in Belfast, that they stopped leading the news bulletins.
Ireland's republican terrorists were unlike the jihadis in two important respects. First, they had a negotiable set of political goals. Second, and consequent upon the first, they were generally not suicide bombers. In the end, they were prepared to settle for a deal that fell well short of their aim, one whereby Northern Ireland would continue to determine its own future democratically.
The reason they were prepared to abandon their guns was that they had failed to win militarily. And the reason they failed was that successive British governments were wise enough to treat them not as a political militia, but as a criminal gang.
This is the single most important lesson to apply to the current terrorist threat. We must avoid the idea that we are engaged in a civilizational struggle - which is how the jihadis want us to see it. We should steer away from high-profile security measures that politicians use as a way of looking tough, such as deploying tanks outside airports (whoever heard of a suicide bomber being deterred by a tank?).
Instead, we should treat the jihadis as gangsters - dangerous, numerous and fanatical to be sure; but, in the end, just another criminal mob. If we hold our nerve, they will fail for the reason that terrorists always fail: Our way of life is better than theirs
Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.