I saw the alert on my phone as my business meeting was wrapping up. A man had used his car to ram several people in New York’s Times Square. We’d later learn he injured 22 and killed one. A few victims remain hospitalized a week later.
The alert caught my eye more than most because my wife and I had just minutes earlier walked the sidewalk where the 26-year-old driver of the car allegedly told police he wanted to “kill them all.” We aren’t New Yorkers but initially felt the same disquiet the New Yorkers around us had and wondered if it was an act of terrorism in the form we’ve seen take place in other countries in recent years.
Then an odd thing happened. We learned the driver had a history of DUIs, was possibly high on drugs and was therefore no terrorist. Though we still had to navigate a Times Square area more crowded than usual and debated the merits of getting into a cab on those congested streets or a train to get back to the airport, the news reports declaring the incident was drug-related made the disquiet go away. Though nearly two dozen people were still severely injured, and my wife and I still could have been among the random victims had we slept in 30 minutes longer, the story suddenly mattered less. Our family and friends back in South Carolina stopped paying attention to it as well as soon as terrorism was ruled out as a possible cause. They were happy we weren’t hurt but unshaken by what had happened.
Such is the power of terrorism that we breathe a sigh of relief when it can’t be named the cause of a horrific event, even if the dead are just as dead, the injured just as injured. It’s particularly odd given that in 2014 alone, more than three times as many Americans were killed in DUI crashes than by terrorists from 2001 through 2014 – and that includes the 9/11 attacks. While there’s no rational reason to fear being randomly killed on a sidewalk by a drug-addled driver, there’s even less reason to fear terrorism as much as we do.
And yet, here we are again, this time in response to a suicide bomber blowing himself up at an Ariana Grande concert an ocean away. The terror group ISIS has claimed responsibility. It’s always tragic when people are murdered, randomly or targeted. Empathizing with the victimized and those who love them show us at our best. We want to reach out and soothe their pain, even if all we can do is send up a few quiet prayers. That’s as it should be.
But when we fear a thing out of proportion, we unintentionally provide those committed to that thing a larger platform and more power over us. It convinces us to expend resources and hold in contempt and suspicion those not like us when we shouldn’t. And it makes it harder for us to focus on controlling the things we can. We can do more about DUIs, and gun violence, but don’t, because they don’t animate us the way terrorism does. Had that driver in Times Square belatedly pledged allegiance to ISIS, that event would have been elevated in the minds of most Americans and quickly linked to what happened in Manchester.
Terrorism isn’t an effective tool because of its frequency or ability to enact a massive body count, because it remains rare despite the headlines screaming otherwise. It’s effective because we allow a single event to terrorize us all. And we don’t have to.
Bailey is an interim associate editor for the Observer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org