Since as recently as January 2015, there have been dozens of terrorist attacks in Europe: in Germany, Denmark, Belgium, France, Turkey, the U.K., Sweden, Spain and most recently Finland. Hundreds of people have been killed.
With the recent stabbing rampage in Finland, the Finnish government was not quick to characterize the attack that took place in Turku as terrorist. Witnesses claimed that they heard the attacker, Abderrahman Mechkah, crying out Allahu Akbar but media reports noted that bystanders could have been saying ‘watch out’ which in the Finnish language apparently sounds similar.
Soon after the area where the stabbing took place was cleared, police assured Turku residents that their city was safe and that evening, Turku mayor Aleksi Randell was quoted as saying that the city center appears to be safe now and urged citizens to remain calm. Urging calm is reasonable but claiming that all is now well seems a bit of wishful thinking.
Why in the face of the same facts do some people see terrorism as a threat that requires a given response, and others see an attack as a single tragic event that does not require that policy or attitude change?
In their study Social Psychology and Fear of Terrorism authors Karl Kaltenthaler and William Miller researched the correlation between an individual’s personal trust level and their view on terrorism. They discuss how bad events beyond a person’s control produce fear that is sometimes not in line with the statistical probability of its occurrence. The housewife in a small rural suburb is afraid of Al Qaeda despite the fact that it is unlikely that her community will be a target. The findings showed that there was little correlation between fear of terrorism and: media attention, right versus left wing ideology and gender. Given that the basic purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and this is accomplished by getting the word out about an attack, one might expect that news coverage and fear correlated closely. In fact the biggest factors were past incidence of terrorism and, interestingly, education level. People who are well educated were more likely to be concerned about terrorism and – quite logically – people who lived in areas where there had been a lot or large scale terrorist attack(s). Along those lines, here are the percentage of respondents who believed that an attack is likely or very likely:
The surprise here is that people living in Belgium, a country with its share of terrorist activity, are fully half as likely to fear terrorism than do Spaniards. Given decades of experience with terrorism, and hundreds of attacks, that most Israelis are worried makes complete sense.
Since last Thursday, Finnish police have arrested several more young men who are suspected to have been involved. The prime minister Juhu Sipilä conceded that “We have feared this . . . We are not an island any more.” Or maybe, we are all on the same island but just don’t fulyl know it yet.