Is terrorism no longer big news unless it takes a spectacularly different form or a devastating toll? One might conclude as much after the recent crude bomb attack on London’s public transport system.
The bomb-in-a-bucket, which injured 30 and caused a minor stampede, made international headlines for just a few hours. Then the world – and Britain – briskly moved on. The United Kingdom lowered its terrorism threat level from critical to severe within 48 hours of the attack. The British media went back to reporting on the political shenanigans over Brexit and London Fashion Week nonchalantly sashayed off to a bright and buzzy start.
Contrast that with July 7, 2005, when London suffered one of the worst terrorist attacks in its history. Four bombs were detonated in the morning rush hour, killing 52 and injuring more than 700. The attack came to be called 7/7 in the style of 9/11, which was seen as a seminal event. It left Britain feeling besieged, traumatised and grimly determined to fight the so-called "war on terror". It took a while and a lot of doing for normal life to resume and it wasn't just because 7/7 was on a horrific scale.
Are we getting inured to terrorist attacks? Britain has suffered five this year. France has had seven, most of them relatively inconsequential. Spain, Sweden, Germany and Belgium have each had one of varying sophistication and impact. Last year was far worse for Belgium, Germany and France. And the year before that was pretty horrific for France.
For most people, all the attacks are fusing into one amorphous mass labeled “horrible, but that’s life”. The frequency and serial nature of the attacks mean that most people, except for survivors or the bereaved, no longer remember them clearly. They lack specificity and consequently, no longer have the capacity to inspire fear.
Instead, there is a new sense of resignation about the uncertainty and fragility of urban life. Politicians no longer even pretend that future attacks can be prevented. And ordinary people no longer expect cast-iron assurances of safety for themselves and their loved ones.
This points to a dangerous level of desensitisation to inchoate violence. It is dangerous because terrorism is increasingly being accepted as a norm, possibly even the price of living in an open society, and with foreigners all around. This is profoundly troubling, for one can only imagine the ferocity of the backlash if and when it comes.
Already, there are some ominous signs. In Germany, which votes on Sunday, a poll conducted by the US-headquartered, non-profit International Republican Institute found that more than half the respondents cited terrorism, refugee policy, extremism or immigration as Europe's very "worst problem". Unsurprisingly, the anti-migrant, Islamophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is expected to have a better election showing than any ideologically similar party in post-war Germany.
In Italy, which goes to the polls early next year, a recent newspaper survey showed that just under half of the respondents believed migrants were a threat to personal safety and to public order. This has helped the anti-migrant Northern League nearly treble its support from six per cent in 2014.
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In Britain, where the move to Brexit was already bound up with frenzied arguments against open borders, the latest bomb attack may further skew the debate. At the time of writing, two young refugees had reportedly been arrested in connection with the attack. In the US, meanwhile, aides to Donald Trump are said to be urging a sharp reduction in the annual admittance of refugees to 15,000. That's roughly half the number of new refugees fleeing persecution and violence each day, but the insouciance with which the argument is made underlines its potency. For, the stated rationale is that refugee flows allow terrorists to sneak in to the host country.
This line of reasoning has some takers further afield. On Monday, the Indian government argued it was right to deport Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled Myanmar. They "figure in the suspected sinister designs of ISIL and other extremists groups," the government said, adding that there were indications of "links between some of the Rohingyas with Pakistan-based terror organisations".
Clearly, the world's stiff upper lip in response to frequent terrorist attacks is not a sign of zen-like calm. Instead, it is a hardening of resolve to act upon self-serving, reflexive instincts and against vulnerable groups of people.
In the beginning of the ongoing phase of terrorism, of which the starting point was 9/11, there was shock. Then there was fear. Now, there is acceptance. But it is not strictly "keep calm and carry on", in the words of the motivational poster produced by the British government before the Second World War. It is "keep calm and keep them out", "them" being anyone foreign. It is a tragic measure of how terrorism is brutalising societies.
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