Learning to Live With Terrorism

  • 2016-08-15
  • The Atlantic

For years now, Barack Obama has differed from most political leaders by saying, in public, that jihadist terrorism is a manageable threat rather than an existential one. The best response to terrorist attacks, he argues, isn’t to panic, which only compounds the problem. It’s to be resilient. “[F]rom Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, we’ve seen how important it is for communities and first responders to be ready if and when tragedy strikes,” the U.S. president tells Brill. There’s a reason many politicians don’t say these things. Obama has been ridiculed by critics who claim he is dismissing people’s legitimate fears, underestimating a grave danger, and effectively surrendering to terrorists.

What’s striking, however, is that other world leaders have been echoing Obama in recent months. “The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said after a Tunisian man in a truck plowed into revelers in Nice, sparking debate over whether France’s security services could have done more to prevent or neutralize the attack. “Besides organized terrorist attacks, there will be new threats from perpetrators not known to security personnel,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after a series of attacks by asylum-seekers, including an axe-wielding Afghan teenager on a train. Germany wouldn’t stop welcoming refugees just because a few ungrateful asylum-seekers had sought to sow fear, she added, though the government would implement reforms to make such attacks less likely. Germans, she declared, must “live with the danger of terrorism.”

These blunt statements could be interpreted as realistic assessments of the surge in terrorist activity around the world since the emergence of ISIS and the slippery, protean nature of today’s terrorism threat—no longer 19 trained, synchronized assassins who have commandeered Boeing jets, but one guy with access to the internet and an axe. They could also be interpreted as politicians trying to shield themselves from blame for their policies and for future attacks.