Almost 12 years ago, I was living in London when the so-called Tube bombers struck, killing 52 people in three terror attacks on the subway and one on a bus. On the day it occurred, after interviewing a bunch of people who'd been near the attacks, I wrote a story about how quickly Londoners got back to their lives. The bombings happened in the morning rush hour, and by evening the buses were running again, and the pubs filled with people.
My French neighbour, who was ambivalent about certain aspects of British life, was unabashedly admiring of this stoicism. She called it "le flegme britannique." If you asked the older neighbours, they'd say that things were much worse during the Blitz (they'd rather have died than go into shelters) and the IRA terror campaigns that only ended in the 1990s, and then they'd start talking about how you could buy a mansion for £10 in 1973.
The Blitz spirit was evident in London this week, after a man named Khalid Masood drove into a crowd on Westminster Bridge, killing three and injuring many more, before stabbing an unarmed police officer to death. Right-wing politicians and commentators tried to fan flames by tying the killings to immigration, even though Mr. Masood was a British-born convert to Islam.
A Daily Mail columnist went on Fox News to claim that the country was in a panic and quaking in its sensible shoes, which was met with the kind of mockery that is Britain's most valuable export. Popular TV historian Dan Snow filmed his walk through London the next day, showing tourists and schoolkids hanging about, and ended by saying, "Haven't seen much fear, haven't seen much despair. … Now I'm off to the pub." A fake sign purported to be from staff at a Tube station is sweeping social media and sums up the British attitude: "All terrorists are politely reminded that this is London and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on.''
This admirable restraint was hardly in evidence as the world's media provided wall-to-wall coverage of the attacks. The story led newscasts in Europe and North America and dominated front pages and Twitter. The Eiffel Tower went dark for the evening. There was a moment's silence at the United Nations.
We've come to expect this kind of blanket coverage when an attack happens in Europe – whether it's Paris or Brussels or Berlin – while much worse terror attacks are carried out around the world with greater frequency and a much higher loss of life, and go largely unrecorded. In the end, we end up with a skewed sense of where the major terrorists threats to civilians lie, and that's not Europe or North America.
As the Daily Telegraph reported after the Westminster attack, citing statistics from the Global Terrorism Database, "the figures show that Europe is one of the safest areas in the world for terrorist-related incidents." If you look at Britain alone, 90 people were killed as a result of terrorism between 2000 and 2015; between 1985 and 1999, that number was 1,094.
You wouldn't know that if you had the TV on or your Facebook page open. You might think, wrongly, that a wave of terror was convulsing Europe. You might also not know that on the same day as the Westminster tragedy, there was an equally deadly terror attack in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria, where suicide bombers killed several refugees and injured many more in a camp for internally displaced people. A devastating fire swept through the camp. There have been a series of bombings in Maiduguri, mainly aimed at people who are fleeing the terrorist campaign of Boko Haram.
Nigeria is only one of the places where civilians face serious threats from terrorism; most of the others we barely hear about. Here is the Global Terrorism Database on the international picture at the end of 2015: "Although terrorist attacks took place in nearly 100 countries in 2015, they were heavily concentrated geographically. More than 50 per cent of all attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and the Philippines), and 69 per cent of all deaths due to terrorist attacks took place in five countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen)."
I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why the atrocities in those places are largely ignored. Media outlets aren't thick on the ground in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, the way the are in Berlin or London or Paris. When we see a terror attack in a European city, we might be looking at a place we've visited. How many Canadians have stood on Westminster Bridge taking pictures while Big Ben tolls? These cities are vacation destinations, and it hurts to see the people who live in them traumatized. There are lots of reasons these sporadic attacks receive disproportionate coverage. I'm just not sure they're good ones.
Acts of terror will continue to happen in Europe, and they should be condemned and mourned when they do. But dwelling on them at length, while ignoring violence in the rest of the world, leaves a false sense of where the danger really lies, and who is actually threatened.