Opinion: Most North Americans don't realize in recent years more than 18,000 people annually have been killed in terrorist strikes.
This week the West has been gripped by bloody headlines about Islamist terrorists killing more than 250 tourists and Christians celebrating Easter in Sri Lanka. The attacks were in apparent retaliation for a white man killing 50 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand.
The two attacks, the most attention-getting of 2019, generate outrage and fear and shape our world views and politics. And they provoke elected officials, media commentators and millions on social media to push their interpretations of which kinds of terrorists are the most serious threats to civilization.
In the West the grisly competition over who is worse usually narrows down to comparing Islamic militants with extremist white nationalists. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Liberal politicians have gone out of their way to warn Canadians about Islamophobia, particularly a lone man’s 2017 attack on Quebec mosque worshippers. And earlier this month Trudeau was linking Conservative party Leader Andrew Scheer to white supremacism and the hard right.
But global terrorism does not offer such convenient either-or options. Most Canadians and Americans get a myopic view of global terrorism from the news media. For understandable reasons, editors recognize North Americans are mostly interested in terrorism that involves people and places that are familiar, like English-speaking New Zealand or Easter worshippers and tourists from developed countries.
Our simplistic views may shift if we look at the larger realm of global terrorism, the unlawful use of violence in the pursuit of political aims. Terrorism is employed by people with little power who are intent on polarizing people, to make it appear different ethnic, religious and identity groups cannot get along. Their message is insidious and it can seize hold of any of us, whether we’re on the right or left or in between.
Here are five things worth knowing about global terrorism:
1. More than 18,000 people are killed each year in terrorist attacks
Few North Americans realize that — before Sunday’s explosions in Sri Lanka — there had already been scores of devastating terrorist attacks in the month of April.
On April 1, Boko Haram militants videotaped their execution of five civilians in Nigeria. On the same day the Taliban killed eight policeman in Afghanistan. On April 3, Burkina Faso militants slaughtered 62 people. On April 9, a suicide bomber with Islamic State killed seven in Egypt. On the same day Maoists gunned down seven in India. On April 12, Islamic State wiped out another 20 civilians in Pakistan. There were dozens more smaller attacks, all before Easter.
In the past six years more than 18,000 people annually have been killed in terrorist strikes, according to the German data source Statistica. Casualties peaked at 32,000 in 2014. By comparison Canada, the U.S. and Europe have been largely spared. The countries hardest hit by terrorism have been Afghanistan, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Nigeria and Somalia. But we virtually never hear about the frequent mass slayings in those distant lands.
2. ‘Canadian’ terrorism is not what most think
When most Canadians think about homegrown terrorism they focus on Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six Muslims in his attack on a Quebec City mosque. Or they reflect on how the same year Abdulahi Sharif deliberately drove into an Edmonton police constable and four pedestrians. Some will point to how anti-government activist Justin Bourque, from Moncton, shot RCMP five officers. Or they will recall how Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, a convert to Islam, gunned down a Canadian soldier in 2014 before starting a shootout in Ottawa’s Parliament building.
Many top law officials, however, have an almost completely different take on Canadian terrorism: They focus on the dozens of people with Canadian passports who are wreaking violent havoc outside our borders.
Global News investigative journalist Stewart Bell revealed this month that Canadian terrorists have killed and injured more than 300 people in other countries since 2012. These Canadians have carried out fatal attacks in Algeria, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Iraq, Russia, Somalia and Syria.
Four of the attacks by Canadians each took the lives of more than a dozen victims — and were worse than any mass murder in Canada since the 1985 Air India bombings by Sikh extremists. Islamic State claimed the majority of killings perpetrated by Canadian terrorists.
3. Far-right terrorism is rising in the West, with limits
North Americans were horrified last year when a white nationalist killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. There have also been lasting reverberations after a far-right activist drove his car into a crowd of protestors in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017.
Hard-right terrorism has expanded in the West in the past decade. The Global Terrorism Database reporting it was responsible for 92 domestic terrorism incidents between 2010 and 2017 in the U.S., compared with 38 incidents in the U.S. by Muslim jihadists (even while the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting by Islamic State-inspired Omar Mateen alone took 49 lives).
Still, white nationalist terrorism accounts for far fewer attacks than the jihadist variety in Europe. And far-right extremists make up just a tiny fraction of the terrorist threat on the global scale.
4. Christians might be the most common targets of persecution
Most data analysts are unwilling to try to definitively count the religion of the thousands killed each year in terrorist attacks, but the Pew Research Centre has come up with related and perhaps surprising data: It reports Christians are “harassed,” and worse, in slightly more countries than Muslims.
Christians were persecuted in 144 countries in 2016, the latest year for which Pew has figures. Meanwhile, Muslims were persecuted in 142 countries. The results in part echo how Christianity and Islam make up the world’s two largest religions.
“Harassment of members of religious groups takes many forms, including physical assaults, arrests and detentions, desecration of holy sites, and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education and housing,” says Pew.
5. Even with the spotlight glaring on terrorism, the world is getting safer
A Canadian researcher once tried his hand at gallows humour by noting North Americans have a greater likelihood of getting killed by a moose than a terrorist. And there’s some truth to it.
A research study lead by Dr. Jared Forrester found the chance of being killed by an animal in the U.S., most likely a wasp or dog, was one in 1.6 million per year from 2008 through 2015. The chance of being murdered in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil was one in 30 million per year.
Even taking into account the greater risk of being a victim of terrorism in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or India, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of The Better Nature of Our Angels, is among those trying to prove the world is becoming increasingly less violent in regards to war and attacks on civilians. It remains, he says, far more likely we will die in a motor-vehicle accident than a terrorist attack.
When it comes to a phenomenon as revolting and politically charged as terrorism, it’s worth getting the big picture.Follow @DouglasTodd
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