Terrorists Want You to Be Very Afraid. So Don’t Be.

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect

The original meaning of words is washed away by overuse. So a reminder: Terrorism is intended to make you feel terror, to make fear flood your mind and keep you from thinking straight. That’s true whether it takes place in Paris, San Bernardino, or Jerusalem.

The first step in defeating terrorism, therefore, is to chill out.

Take a long slow breath. Then we can talk calmly about things to do next.Keep Calm and Carry On

Here’s a small example to start with. In October, when the current wave of terror attacks began in Israel and the occupied territories, a major Israeli supermarket chain removed knives from its kitchenware shelves. It was done without fanfare. The owner of the chain explained that it didn’t make much sense to have a guard at the entrance checking handbags for weapons—a standard precaution in Israel—if someone could walk in, grab a knife off at Aisle 3, and start stabbing people.

There a couple of lessons from this. Removing the knives wasn’t going to end attacks elsewhere. But reducing the access of potential terrorists to weapons in a particular place did lessen the chance of an attack there. Consider this a small example of a wider principle: Fewer weapons, less terror. This seems awfully simple, until one reads about American conservatives denying that gun control has anything to do with combatting terrorism.

That brings us to the second lesson. The attacks of the last two months have been carried out by individual Palestinians, without the direct support of organizations. The political context for this is a separate story. But the weapons, in most cases, have been kitchen knives or vehicles. I can already hear Ted Cruz or Donald Trump butting in here to say, “See, when someone wants to kill, they find a way.” Please quiet down, Senator Cruz and Mr. Trump. A major reason that terrorists haven’t used guns often is that they are hard to get. Israel has strict gun control laws, and even stricter restrictions on ammunition. No one can walk into a store and buy a “civilian” model of an M-16 or AK-47, which makes sense because there is no possible need that a civilian could have for a weapon designed for battlefields. If you have a license to own a gun in Israel and it’s stolen or used by someone else, you could face criminal charges for negligence while in possession of a weapon.

Availability of guns may not affect the number of terror incidents, but certainly changes the casualty count. It is reasonable to assume that more Israelis would have died in the last two months if more of the attackers had been able to get guns—and that if the couple in San Bernardino had been armed only with what they could get in the kitchenware department, fewer people would have died.

But attacks do happen, and they’re scary. For terrorists, fear is a means to an end. Terror is most commonly the strategy of small groups that have failed otherwise to build mass support—or that have lost it. As French scholar Gilles Kepel has written, September 11 was a bid by Al-Qaeda to reverse the defeats that radical Islam had suffered in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere. Hamas turned to suicide bombings in Israel after the Oslo Accords, a stunning rejection of its program in the Palestinian arena. Daesh (the Islamic State) has turned to global terror when its purported caliphate in Iraq and Syria is losing territory and the ability to govern.

Read the rest here.