Everyday Counterterrorism

By Joe Young

A brutal murder of an off-duty soldier in Britain on Wednesday brought out the good, bad and the ugly in human beings. The Ugly: two young men attacked a man wearing a t-shirt that identified him as a soldier. Allegedly, the men slaughtered him because he was complicit in the murder and subjugation of Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Bad: members of an extreme nationalist group, the English Defence League, came to the scene of the crime quickly and further stoked anger. Several mosques were attacked after this crime.

The Good: A woman, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a cub scout leader, rushed to the aid of the fallen man. Calmly, after attending to the injured man, she confronted the bloodied assailants. She asked why and engaged one of them. According to Loyau-Kennett (as reported by the Telegraph)

“I started to talk to him and I started to notice more weapons and the guy behind him with more weapons as well. By then, people had started to gather around. So I thought OK, I should keep him talking to me before he noticed everything around him.”

Her actions likely saved lives. The men told her that they wanted to start a war in London. She delayed future violence and identified the brutality and senselessness of their crimes. This is everyday counterterrorism.1 We’ve seen it in action over the skies of Detroit. The Dutch filmmaker, Jasper Schuringa, hurdled over other passengers to subdue the would-be underwear bomber on flight 253 while flight attendants used fire extinguishers to subdue the flames. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the actions of passengers on United flight 93 saved hundreds of other lives. And it’s not hyperbole to say that Loyau-Kennett stopped what would have been more bloodshed.

Obviously, this shouldn’t be the sum total of how we deal with terrorism, but these actions are instructive for several reasons. First, if people want to use violence, completely preventing it is nearly impossible. We (everyone) can, however, respond in ways that confront these acts and reduce their destructive power. Second, terrorism is about fear. If in these moments, people respond without succumbing to fear, as Loyau-Kennett and Schuringa demonstrated, the power of the act might be mitigated. Our secondary responses feed into this as well. If Max Abrahms is right, terrorism is a losing strategy. Our reaction to it is what matters. Erica Chenoweth and I find that terrorist campaigns are not an existential threat to democracies, and John Mueller suggests that most of the threat comes from our over-reactions. Violence sometimes seems as if it is occurring and dealt with at levels above and beyond our control. Subway signs and color-coding have been used to increase awareness and spark everyday counterterrorism, but this can easily devolve into hyper-vigilance and even more fear. Finding the optimal balance is tricky. This brutal murder in Britain, however, shows that although we can not live in a world free of terrorism, we can be effective at everyday counterterrorism.

1 There a good reasons to debate whether this act was terrorism or not. See here and here for discussions related to classifying events as terrorism.

A version of this piece was first published at the Huffington Post.

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