The recent terrorist attacks that killed dozens of innocent people are a stark reminder of just how senseless this sort of violence is. There is both a randomness that makes such an attack entirely unexpected—and therefore nearly impossible to prepare for—and a familiar, repugnant rationale on the part of the perpetrator(s) that should make the death of dozens less than surprising.
There is a sick sort of logic to terrorism that helps to define it. The objective of terrorism is often purported as being ideological or political (or even punitive), but the only connective tissue between most acts of terrorism is our collective emotional reaction—the terror, the state of intense anger and fear—that people who are exposed share. This might be empowering to terrorist groups, but there is almost never an ostensibly political or ideological “win” for groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda. Each new attack against the West seems to rip open an old wound that all of us have, exposing a weakness and inducing an expected emotional response, which leaves that scar unable to ever fully heal. And that seems to be the point.
It strikes me that today most readers will immediately think of the concertgoers who were murdered and wounded at the Ariana Grande concert in the UK just a few days ago. It is the most recent terrorist attack as I write. But in a few weeks, months, or years, this attack will likely fade into a swirling morass of memories related to dozens of other similar attacks. For most of us, none of these events will actually directly affect us in any way. Yet some other much more recent attack will be the freshest old wound, the most recent stark reminder of senselessness that channels our generalized anxiety of a violent end—and latest in a long line of macabre attacks to which we are drawn.
Media coverage in a 24-hour news cycle makes it impossible to avoid the trauma inherent in each ratings-boosting terrorist event, where the coverage of these tragic events feels more like a self-help melodrama than a reporting of important facts. This is not to imply that we really want to avoid it. I feel a “terrorism coverage fatigue” every time there’s a new attack, but strangely, that doesn’t lessen my interest. While individual reactions to these events can vary greatly, the sensationalism and constant bombardment of images and stories that feed into our fears of a foreshortened future keep our fear alive but also help us find meaning in the collective autopsy of events, even if our emotions and logical thought processes don’t always clearly connect. Logically, it doesn’t make sense for us to willingly put ourselves through the same emotional wringer each time there’s an attack somewhere on the other side of the world. The size and scope of the tragedy does not seem to be proportional to our emotional response or interest. Concepts of proportionality in areas of law, philosophy, math, and even war dictate that objectivity is found between two extremes—essentially that the most appropriate response to something extreme is proportional thinking or action, so that the manner and extent of our response is relative to the circumstances. So why are we so invested in the death of sometimes just a handful of strangers on some other continent?
If terrorists and the media seem to understand why we seem compelled to assign so much emotional value to terrorism, it begs the question: why don’t we take steps to avoid it all? Is there an answer to how many images of bloody sidewalks or body bags or dead children are enough? Maybe we might answer that by asking ourselves how many times we’ve driven by a major car accident without slowing down and trying to fulfill our morbid curiosity. Our interest in terrorism seems not to be driven by these the events as much by something very human from within us all.
How can we explain being drawn to the macabre and to our worst fears? There must be some reasons that we allow ourselves to go through the same process over and over again. Could it actually be good for us?
Check out this entertaining, in-depth look at the concept of S.C.R.E.A.M. by Michael Stevens of Vsauce: