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We're becoming numb to terrorism. That might be a good thing.

Terrorists are getting worse at the one thing they seek to do: terrify people.

Multiple People Injured After Truck Plows Through New York City Bike Path
Emergency personal respond after a man driving a rental truck struck and killed eight people on a jogging and bike path in Lower Manhattan on October 31, 2017, in New York City.
Kena Betancur/Getty Images

The point of terrorism is to terrify.

Whether it’s 9/11 or the 2015 attack in Paris or the 2017 subway attack in London or the most recent attack in New York City, the goal is always to create an omnipresent sense of danger.

A recent article in Slate suggests that terror groups like ISIS are losing their ability to inspire fear. Amarnath Amarasingam and Colin P. Clarke, the authors of the piece, argue that “terrorism fatigue may be setting in around the world.”

Their argument is that terror attacks, particularly since 9/11, have become both more frequent and less organized. Instead of big, spectacular events, we’ve seen a string of attacks across the West that were carried out by lone individuals with few resources, little training, and hardly any planning. The attack in New York City this week is a prime example: A 29-year-old man drives a rented truck into a crowded bike path, killing eight people, and then flees with pellet and paintball guns in hand.

According to Amarasingam and Clarke, these sorts of low-level attacks have become so common that people are growing numb to them. As a result, the “once-shocking violence becomes normalized” and citizens stop responding with the panic and outrage that were once their reactions.

I reached out to Amarasingam, who is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the co-director of a study of Western foreign fighters at the University of Waterloo, to discuss why he believes terrorists are, increasingly, failing to accomplish their central goal — to terrify

Our full conversation, lightly edited for clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Your Slate article makes an interesting argument, which is that terrorists are losing their capacity to terrorize. Why?

Amarnath Amarasingam

The way al-Qaeda planned attacks, they were always going for the spectacular. Events like 9/11 pierced our sense of calm and normalcy. It was a shock to the system. What ISIS has done — and our article is mostly a diagnosis of how ISIS is approaching this issue — is to make terrorism part of the everyday.

In the beginning, I used to think that ISIS’s tactics would actually increase fear, would force people to stay away from public events and venues, and so on. But I think it’s had the opposite effect. People in the West have largely responded with a collective yawn. The weekly arrests and small-scale attacks, the dozens of kill lists, video after video filled with threats — it might just be terrorism overload.

I will say, though, that law enforcement and policy circles are having largely the opposite conversation. I’ve never been to more conferences and workshops on counterterrorism before ISIS. But, for the most part, I think many in the public have found ways to be resilient in the face of all this.

Sean Illing

So people have become desensitized to terror? It’s just another thing we learn to live with, like hurricanes or car accidents?

Amarnath Amarasingam

Exactly. And I’ll add that this is actually a good thing in some ways. If terrorism is normalized for people, both jihadist and far-right violence, they are less likely, maybe, to support crazy laws that impact their civil liberties and the rights of others. It’s only when you introduce a sudden sense of fear, one that people don’t understand, that they become kind of irrationally protectionist. So in a way normalizing terrorism is good.

Sean Illing

How do you measure this effect? What evidence do we have that shows the diminished impact of terrorism?

Amarnath Amarasingam

There aren’t any studies that directly deal with this issue that I’ve seen, but there are related findings. Peter Neumann and M.L.R. Smith have a book from several years ago where they talk about this. After the London bombings, for example, Londoners were surveyed about their response to the event. Very few reported feelings or symptoms that would amount to something like PTSD. Very few had trouble falling asleep. Very few asked for professional help. And only about half thought their own life was in any kind of danger because of the attack. Very soon, life was back to normal.

There are also some related studies on compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, and this is actually the downside to what we are talking about. People, when they are repeatedly exposed to suffering, can become numb, and instead of being resilient in a positive way, can actually tune out entirely, and basically shrink their circle of care to just themselves and their families. Everything “out there” becomes someone else’s responsibility.

Sean Illing

When did terror fatigue start to set in? Is this relatively new?

Amarnath Amarasingam

It’s not new, but I think ISIS and their kitchen-sink approach to terrorism has really brought about a lot of it. And because of social media, we are immediately aware and flooded with information about every car attack, knife attack, every audio and video release, and so on. It really causes what David Rushkoff called “present shock,” and most people I think have decided that someone else will deal with it, that they don’t really have the bandwidth to continually be concerned about all of things that may go wrong.

Sean Illing

Terrorism is primarily an act of psychological warfare. It inflicts real damage, obviously, but it’s always asymmetrical and limited. If the psychological sting is lost, what’s left?

Amarnath Amarasingam

I think the victims of terrorism never really forget. The families of those killed and those who are injured will have to deal with the aftermath of any attack for a long time. And I think for some terrorist groups, the mere act of revenge is maybe enough. They know they will never fully defeat a country like the United States, but as long as they show that there is a push back, that they aren’t just taking American foreign policy decisions lying down, then that is enough. They also communicate that internally to members.

Sean Illing

Have groups like ISIS made a strategic blunder or have they’ve been forced into this scattershot approach by virtue of their battlefield losses?

Amarnath Amarasingam

Both. I think their original decision to emphasize quantity of attacks over quality — so to speak — is backfiring to some degree. People are getting sick and tired of them and sick and tired of worrying about them. The original logic was to basically turn citizen against citizen, make everyone think that every individual Muslim in their country was a potential sleeper agent, that they could turn around and stab them or shoot them on any given day. So they pushed for quantity.

But, as we saw with the Paris and Brussels attacks, there was also a parallel plan to train and dispatch fighters into European countries to launch attacks. This has definitely taken a hit as ISIS has lost territory, lost key fighters and leaders, and so on.

Sean Illing

Would we better off by ignoring terror attacks? Precautions have to be made and counterterrorism efforts are obviously necessary, but do we gain anything at all by covering attacks exhaustively?

Amarnath Amarasingam

It’s not really realistic to simply ignore attacks. These events have an impact on communities, on individuals, on social cohesion, on foreign policy, and so on. It’s news and it’s worthy of being news. But the nature of the coverage can be done more carefully.

I hear a lot from members of the Muslim community, and I think correctly, that far-right plots and attacks don’t get the same treatment. After the San Bernardino attack, for example, some television journalists went inside the couple’s home and started filming the crib where their baby slept and all that. We comb through their lives and biographies in a way that I’ve only seen very rarely with far-right attackers. Everything is reported on, but often not in the same way.

Sean Illing

Do you think terrorists will adjust to what’s happening and resort to earlier, perhaps more effective models?

Amarnath Amarasingam

I think ISIS has made their bed with a commitment to frequent attacks. That’s their model in many ways, and they are going to try to maintain that approach. They think the quick and frequent attacks sow fear and keep them on the minds of everyday people. ISIS wants us to think about them before we go to concerts or Christmas markets. They want to maintain that sense of ever-present danger, and this approach has been very much a part of their propaganda initiative and how they inspired people to get behind them. It won’t be easily changed, I think.

Sean Illing

Do you have suggestions for citizens in terms of what they should do or how they should react to incidents like what happened in NYC on Tuesday?

Amarnath Amarasingam

For the time being, this is going to be the new normal. We are going to have to live with terrorism, both jihadist and far-right inspired. It would be great to stick them both on an island and have them fight it out, but we haven’t really workshopped that idea yet. In the meantime, I think it will serve us best to keep a level head, recognize that the problem isn’t existential, and try very hard not to turn on each other.

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