A Tale of Two Fears: Comparing Terrorism and the Coronavirus


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is causing deaths all over the world, upsetting society, the economy, and politics, changing our lives. At this level of intensity, it is destined to reach and arguably replace terrorism in the position of great fear of our time, especially during a phase of apparent decline of jihadism, at least in the West.[1]

Similarities

It can then be useful to compare these two risks: terrorism and coronavirus. They have some similarities worthy of interest, and it is not a coincidence that contagion and virus have become recurrent metaphors in the discourse on global terrorism.[2]

Terrorism and COVID-19 are both involuntary risks, unlike the harms of, say, tobacco smoking. Both are basically low-probability, high-risk threats. They are also non-traditional security threats: while they are often compared to wars, mainly in order to emphasize their severity, both, unlike conventional wars, are not military threats used by states against states.

Clearly, they are also transnational threats that disregard the borders of states: COVID-19 originated from the Chinese province of Hubei, but now has spread around the world, thus becoming a pandemic. In many respects, once it has reached other countries, it can be considered as a sort of homegrown threat.

COVID-19 does not select its victims; it is even more than indiscriminate terrorism. In general, COVID-19 could prove even more lethal, at least in the West: in the United States, according to official data, in few weeks it has already caused more deaths than 9/11, the most catastrophic terrorist attack in history.

For both threats, fear is also fueled by their elusive qualities: terrorism is based on secrecy;[3] viruses are invisible to the naked eye and in many respects they present a mysterious nature (at least for non-specialists). Moreover, for both threats, fear and their elusive qualities encourage the proliferation of conspiracy theories about their origin and development.

Both threats risk provoking not only fear, but also mistrust among people. With regard to terrorism, we can recall, for example, that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, then-official spokesman of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), in a famous speech, “That They Live By Proof”, on 21 May 2016, incited ISIS’s sympathizers to scare the “crusaders” and terrorize them, “until every neighbor fears his neighbor”. Here the aim is to instill the fear that one’s neighbor may be a terrorist, who hides his/her real evil intent, in order not to be identified and stopped, at least until the moment he or she can take action.

In some respects, something similar applies to COVID-19: in this case the distrust towards one’s neighbor, which may be less acute but more extensive, is due to the fact that the other person, against his/her will and (at least in the absence of symptoms) even without his/her knowledge, can represent a vehicle of contagion. In fact, in involuntary infection the difference between victims and perpetrators loses meaning or at least changes radically: everyone can be, unintentionally, a “perpetrator”, so to speak, for other victims only by bringing alone the virus.

Differences

On the other hand, the differences between terrorism and coronavirus are even more interesting. First of all, it is worth noting that terrorism expresses itself, by its nature, in individual actions. Terrorist acts may last even several days, especially when they include hostage takings, may combine with one other (as in the terrorist attacks of 7-9 January 2015 in Paris, at the hands of the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly) and of course they may take place in rapid succession within intense campaigns of violence. The fact remains that terrorist violence is a discrete phenomenon, whereas an infectious disease does not occur in separate individual actions, but rather more in waves of propagation.

Needless to say, the most obvious difference between terrorism and COVID-19 is that the former is a man-made threat, while the latter is a natural threat. Terrorism is a political strategy, with its political purposes and its means. In particular, it is a strategy that pays great attention to psychological factors: terrorists are not able to defeat their enemy state/s directly on the battlefield by brute force, but rather aim to break their will and resistance.

Hence the importance of the symbolic, almost dramaturgical, dimension of violence: as many scholars have pointed out, in essence terrorism can be interpreted as “theatre”. In some respects, it is based on scripts, plots, directors, actors, props and, of course, audiences. Just think of the spectacular violence of the 11 September attacks. Even for terrorist acts that are out of the ordinary for their lethality, such as 9/11, it remains something true in the comment that “terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead”, as US expert Brian Michael Jenkins noted many years ago. For its part, the state is interested in the fact not only that a lot of people do not die and but also that a lot of people do not watch. The battle over controlling the visibility of violence is therefore crucial.

COVID-19, of course, cannot have any strategy (with plans, funding, propaganda, etc.) and is not properly speaking a strategic actor that modifies and adapts its actions on the basis of the opponents’ behavior. In particular, unlike terrorism, it cannot play a role in a symbolic battle. States and the other agencies of society are therefore in a position to manage the control over the visibility and publicity of the most impressive effects of the threat; they can hide them or at least decide for themselves how much and under what circumstances they may be visible.

It is no coincidence that so far the most shocking aspects of the impact of the epidemic on people, such as the physical suffering of the infected, have generally remained hidden from view. Terrorism is visible by definition. Still, the fear of COVID-19 is fueled precisely by invisibility: the pathogen is undetectable to the naked eye and for this reason contagion is, at this stage, practically not avoidable, except through social distancing. This aspect of the epidemic could lead to the risk of a state of fear that is even deeper compared to terrorism because it is invisible, faceless, without references, close to unfocused anguish.

Fear and Blame

At least in countries that are heavily affected by the infectious disease, such as Italy, difficulties in managing anguish can explain the attempts to put the blame on certain groups or social categories, even without any basis in fact.

For example, first on the Chinese people, then, once the disease has taken root in the country, on those suspected of not complying with the restrictions imposed by the government. Since, of course, it is not possible to ascribe responsibility and condemn the virus, people may have the temptation to look for culprits, perhaps even scapegoats.

In fact, writers, as well as historians, have often described this mechanism during epidemics: one can think, for example, of the untori (plague spreaders) in the Great Plague of Milan (1630), immortalized in The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, a great classic of Italian literature.

On closer inspection, the management of fear also highlights an interesting opposition between terrorism and coronavirus. In the first case, states generally strive to contain fear, to reassure their population. With respect to COVID-19, it can be argued that, at least in some circumstances, states may be interested, if not in feeding fear, in keeping it active to a certain extent, taking advantage of the opportunity to control the visibility of the threat, especially in order to lead citizens to comply with the restrictions upon them that are necessary to save lives.

In countries such as Italy, there are frequent and even dramatic calls to the critical conditions of hospitals, in order to convince all citizens to take the risk seriously and, practically, to stay at home, as requested by the authorities.

In general, after a terrorist attack, governments usually ask citizens to return to normal life, sometimes even suggesting, rightly or wrongly, that a return to normal conditions is the best response to the terrorist challenge.

On the contrary, it can be said that during an emergency such as the current pandemic, many states are trying to alter the ordinary life of citizens, for their own good, or at least they are giving clear instructions not to return to normality: citizens are asked to limit movement, to practice social distancing and to reduce interactions as much as possible, in order at least to buy time in the response to the threat. Furthermore, it is important to note such a demand to alter normal life is usually based on restrictive measures which actually have to promote a certain level of face-to-face isolation and may have the unintentional effect of leaving little or no room to collective practices such rituals of solidarity or commemoration.[4] This can make the response of citizens even harder and more demanding, at least psychologically.

It can also be argued that the extent of the government’s reaction is very different, if not the opposite for the two threats. On the one hand, it is often said that states tend to overreact to surprise attacks launched by terrorists. Apart from possible errors of judgment in relation to the adversary, at the domestic level, governments are forced to show the population that they are somehow reacting energetically to the terrorist challenge, even running the risk of falling into the trap of a deliberate provocation by terrorists.[5]

With the gradual spread of the virus internationally, states have been accused of underreacting, all the more so because in many cases they could already refer to the past experience of other countries (first China, then Italy and so on). While it is true that in China the epidemic broke out suddenly and in unprecedented forms, initially taking many by surprise, it is also true that it then has taken weeks to present itself in other countries; especially in recent days, its progress has been clearly visible to all and relatively predictable. (Moreover, the risk of falling into a provocation of course is not given, since naturally the virus is not an intentional and strategic actor).

Faced with COVID-19, states are called to quickly make decisions of enormous importance in unforeseen conditions. The responses that have already been put in place, however often judged belated and not up to the threat, have been unprecedented in peacetime, being by far stronger than the reactions generally adopted against terrorism, at least in the short to medium term. In counter-terrorism, lockdowns are rare and in any case limited in time and space, especially in democratic states: among the few examples, one can recall the security lockdown of Brussels (21-25 November 2015), due to indications about potential jihadist attacks.

A final aspect worthy of interest is the role of the population in combating the menace. The contribution of citizens against terrorism may be significant (for example, in terms of the possible transmission of relevant information to the authorities), but, overall, it tends to be relatively limited and sporadic. Against an infectious epidemic such as COVID-19, citizens are entrusted with essential tasks, even though they are simple, if not seemingly trivial (at least for many people in developed countries): washing their hands properly and practicing social distancing. The heroic dimension of the challenge is mainly concentrated in the frontline of hospitals, with the invaluable contribution of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals.

In conclusion, as the COVID-19 risk is establishing itself as a crucial threat to our societies, it is useful to reflect on similarities and differences with terrorism, another great fear of our age.

European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.

By Francesco Marone

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REFERENCES

[1] See, among others, Francesco Marone, “The Islamic State in the West”, Commentary, ISPI – Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 28 June 2019.

[2] Bruce Magnusson and Zahi Zalloua, eds, Contagion: Health, Fear, Sovereignty (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2012).

[3] See Francesco Marone, “L’organizzazione del segreto nei gruppi terroristici” [The Social Organization of Secrecy in Terrorist Groups], Rassegna Italiana di Sociologia, Vol. 55, No. 2, 2014: 303-334; Idem, “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Dilemma of Visibility”, European Eye on Radicalization, 27 October 2019.

[4] Cf. Randall Collins. “Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack.” Sociological theory 22.1 (2004): 53-87.

[5] Actually, the assessments on the alleged exaggeration of the reaction compared to the threat do not always give due consideration to the fact that the threat may appear to be limited in retrospect precisely as a result of that reaction, on the basis of a mechanism similar to that of self-defeating prophecies.


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