Threats, Risks, & Hysteria | On Terrorism in Europe

The first thing I did when I got home was mark myself safe. I knew moving to London carried risks, but I was not prepared for that. I got out alive, but I’ll never forget the terrified looks in peoples’ eyes. If you’re wondering what I’m on about, I am of course talking about an open mic comedy night I recently attended.

“I could make you laugh if I wanted to,” a middle aged man grumbles into the microphone, two minutes into a set that has already gone on far too long. The sparsely populated audience of about 15 squirm silently in their seats, unconvinced. “I could!” the man repeats, defiantly. “How many dwarves does it take to change a lightbulb?” he demands, swaggering across the stage like Bill Hicks in his prime. “Seven?” an audience member offers. The comic sighs and stares at his feet, dejected. “You’ve ruined it now.”

He is act number ten, and there are still five more to go. The audience came out for an evening’s entertainment but have found themselves in a hostage situation, unable to leave due to a mixture of politeness and, I presume, fear. The increasingly apologetic compere limps back on stage and reassures the crowd that there are only four more acts to go. The repeated bombing left me and others totally shaken. My thoughts and prayers go out to anyone affected. [pullquote]The audience came out for an evening’s entertainment but have found themselves in a hostage situation, unable to leave due to a mixture of politeness and, I presume, fear.[/pullquote]

The terror attack at Westminster occurred the day beforehand and it’s possible the general sense of unease it caused around the city may have bled into the atmosphere at the gig. I do know that I personally find your average Londoner far more threatening than IS could ever be. There’s a junction at Moorgate that I cross on my way to work every morning, and every time at least a couple of drivers run the red light and dart towards crossing pedestrians, even though we’ve got the green man.

The day after the Westminster attack a man in a black Mercedes came rushing towards me, but rather than dive out of his way I stood where I was and began banging on his bonnet with the palms of my hands. I stopped just short of beating my chest and roaring in a triumphal fashion, but it was wonderfully cathartic. My point is that as terrible as the Westminster attack was, in London you’re far more likely to be run over by a banker running late for his 9 o’clock than a Muslim who’s lost the plot. They’re also much more likely to repossess your house and crash the economy. They’re probably less likely to chase you with a knife mind you, but that’s arguable.

The hysteria generated by the spate of terror attacks in Europe and elsewhere in recent times is understandable, but is it totally justified? Certainly the threat posed by IS and its supporters is very real, but it’s also true that Europeans were more at risk from terrorism from 1970-1994 than they are today. Back then the risk of terror wasn’t focused on a single entity like IS, but a plethora of groups from the IRA to ETA, all with a number of varying methods, grievances and geographical locations.

Brighton IRA bombing -
Brighton hotel IRA bombing in 1984, image source

The Baader-Meinhof gang wanted to bring down West Germany’s capitalist establishment, Italy was plagued for decades by both left-wing and right-wing terrorism in a period known as The Years of Lead, while the Lockerbie bombing claimed 270 lives in Scotland in an attack Muammar Gaddafi claimed responsibility for. Lockerbie made 1988 the deadliest year in European history in terms of lives lost as a result of terrorism, with a total of 440.

In particular, the IRA’s bombing in London from 1973 onwards was successful in creating a climate of fear in Britain’s capital, with Londoners living under the constant threat of another Republican attack. Civilians were killed in parks and outside department stores, while London’s financial centres were devastated by truck bombs, the 1996 Canary Wharf bombing in particular causing an estimated £150 million worth of damage. They even came close to killing the UK’s Prime Minister in 1984, when they targeted a Conservative party conference in Brighton. Margaret Thatcher came out of it unscathed, but 5 others were killed, and more were injured.[pullquote]Lockerbie made 1988 the deadliest year in European history in terms of lives lost as a result of terrorism, with a total of 440.[/pullquote]

The terrorist cells of yesteryear were sophisticated in a way the supporters of IS are not, with groups like the IRA giving British intelligence services invaluable training in how to pre-empt and neutralise most terror plots before they ever occur. Whatever the headlines say, we are in fact safer from terrorism today than when I was born in the late 80s, and the statistics bear this fact out. It’s worth remembering this fact when “getting the terrorists” is used as an excuse for bombing locations in the Middle East, or when alarmist headlines in the media distract from other news.

That’s not to say that there is no reason to be scared. I recently bore witness to a hostage situation in Stratford when diners in a local restaurant had their evening suddenly interrupted when a man entered the building armed with a list of names and a delusional agenda. Friends catching up, couples on dates, and a family enjoying a birthday dinner were all stunned when the man took to the house PA and announced his intentions; he was about to begin an open mic night.

One by one, inexperienced comedians – overwhelmingly white, male and shit – took to the mic and were met with silence and muffled groans, as the bemused and disappointed onlookers hastily finished their meals. Indeed, while in other countries young, angry people may be attracted to terrorism, in Britain they overwhelmingly turn to some variation of stand-up comedy, slam poetry, singer-song writing, reality television, blogging or amateur dramatics. And in my view, these are the people you should truly be afraid of.

Featured image source