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Tinkling the Ivories While the World Burns

05/04/2016 12:36 | Updated 05 April 2016

We can't let terror win - the common refrain in the aftermath of the now all too frequent terror attacks. But ISIS is already winning. There's no shame in admitting because the terrorists have effectively rigged the game, in two important and connected ways.

Firstly, they don't value life, or at least not as much as everyone else does. They live and get to spread terror in this life or they, in their eyes, get 72 virgins in paradise and all that rubbish - it's a win-win. Of course it's very unlikely they get the young nubile beauties in the afterlife (or if they do it's not quite as imagined), but the important thing is suicide bombers - and other terrorists - think they do. Terrorists also win either way in terms of the response to terror. With a forceful response from governments and authorities - military intervention, increased security, anti-terror measures etc - they get their desired apocalyptic war between 'Islam v the West'; with a more acquiescent institutional response they brag about it being easy to escape the authorities and so spread their terror and their vision for the caliphate.

Much of the reaction to Brussels, as with other terror attacks, has been a figurative puffing out of the chest; the idea of not being cowed and that any fears are irrational. This is admirable, but takes an unrealistic view of human nature. As Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian, "if the raison d'etre of the terrorist is to poison a society with terror, that society must find the antidote, not pretend it wasn't toxic." Psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman have shown many ways in which humans act in very irrational ways. One of these cognitive biases, which explains why terrorism generates so much attention, shock and fear, is the availability heuristic, whereby people significantly overestimate the frequency or probability of something based on how easily and vividly it can be brought to mind. Are you more scared of death by terrorism...or furniture?. Presuming the former, then that proves the point, because a host of seemingly safe things are in fact far more likely to kill than terrorism, including, in America, being crushed by unstable TVs and furniture. But it's very easy to think that that Metro stop in Brussels could have been your tube stop, as you went about your day. After all terrorists have struck civilians in the UK, have tried to various other times and plan to in future. This is not to say we shouldn't address our cognitive biases and prejudices, but nor should we deny our very nature in pretending we're immune from fear.

Often accompanying the idea of 'irrational' fear are the claims of a 'sensationalist' reaction from the media, as if the cold blooded murder of innocents, in support of a clash of civilisations, is not that shocking an event. From journalists like Simon Jenkins, who claims "news channels acted liked Isis recruiting sergeants" in their coverage of the Brussels attacks, it betrays a really quite baffling lack of appreciation of their own industry. Media reports that which is out of the ordinary, which terror attacks are, and publications and news channel increasingly have to compete to get readers/viewers/listeners. So it's calling for a remarkable amount of restraint and self-negation to suggest people don't get angry and worried about terrorism.

But does our reaction matter? Maybe not that much. It's hardly as if a jihadist is going to read a few mocking tweets or a thinkpiece like this and suddenly denounce jihad, nor is anyone really calling for ordinary Britons to take up arms and travel to Syria, Rambo-style, to fight ISIS (as some have bravely, or comically, pledged).

But shifting the framework of acceptable debate would mean more opinions could be explored rather than just dismissed as reactionary or insensitive. I'm not calling for anything like brainfart-made-flesh Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from travelling to be on the table - but Brexit should be. On balance, I'm in the In camp, but it's not wise to basically completely shut down the debate, implying that voting out of the EU even in part on security grounds comes to down to unreasonable fear, as some such as Owen Jones have.

It's a very admirable position of Schengen countries to allow people to travel between them sometimes without so much as a glance at your passport at the border. And very nice as a traveller. Interrailing around mainland Europe a few years ago, I only had to produce my passport twice in around a dozen border crossings. But imagine I was not just enjoying a jaunt around Europe but a recent convert to jihadism, carrying explosives and or guns; freedom of movement becomes "freedom of movement for Kalashnikovs", as Nigel Farage said soon after the Brussels attacks (the statement was arguably ill-timed, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong). 'Nice' suddenly becomes 'naive' - and we don't live in a nice world. There are many things in the EU's favour in this regard - sharing of intelligence, European Arrest Warrant etc - but the idea Europe is safer from terrorism due to the EU is not beyond criticism.

An honest approach to the threat faced may also mean people are more willing to surrender a few civil liberties to give security services more means with which to prevent terrorism. Personally, I'm torn between thinking Edward Snowden is a hero and a traitor, but the polarised debate his revelations created highlight the deep tension between security and liberty. Yes, governments looking at private (or 'private') correspondence is invasive - and security at airports is annoying - but do these issues trump people's safety to walk down the street? It's a very difficult question - not that you'd know that from the rhetoric of some civil libertarians.

So let's drop this 'tough guy' image and start admitting that, in many ways, the terrorists are winning. Because we're not going to win by sticking our heads in the sand and thinking jihadism will be beaten by memes and a bloke on a piano singing Imagine; tinkling the ivories while the world burns.

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