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Terrorism Isn’t Madness

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Conflating terrorism and madness is a very old mistake, with a special history in France

Each time a terrorist act occurs in the world, the specter of madness looms on the horizon.

On Oct. 22, 2014, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally wounded a soldier on Parliament Hill in Ottawa before being shot by the police. A Muslim convert and a drug addict, he didn’t have any psychiatric record, but his mother confirmed he was mentally deranged. Two days later, Zane Thompson, a Muslim convert, described as a “recluse” with mental problems, attacked four policemen in New York City with a hatchet, a “terrorist act” according to the NYPD commissioner. On Dec. 15, 2014, Man Haron Monis, a self-proclaimed Iranian Sheikh, who was suspected of murdering his wife and had been charged with 40 sexual offenses dating back a decade, took hostages in a café in Sydney during 16 hours, before being shot dead by the police – two hostages died in the raid. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the gunman had “a long story of violent crime, infatuation with extremism and mental instability”.

This may sound like a modern epidemic, but, as I know from my experience studying French history, connecting terror and madness is a very old story.

In 19th-century France, psychiatrists and politicians were particularly quick to accept the analogy between revolutionary terror and madness, leading psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to say later that the French were a “people of psychical epidemics, of historical mass convulsion.” Psychiatrists coined new diseases such as “political monomania,” “revolutionary neurosis,” “paranoia reformatoria,” and even “morbus democraticus” (democratic disease). Theorists and writers concurred. Addressing readers potentially nostalgic of revolutionary spirit, the diplomat and historian Chateaubriand wrote that the Reign of Terror (1793 to 1794), a policy of political repression, “was not the invention of a few giants; it was quite simply a mental illness, a plague.”

But what does systematically combining political violence and madness mean? Not much, since it takes two complex terms and, by combining them, offers a simple explanation.

Scientists can fall into the same tempting trap. Théroigne de Méricourt, a feminist supposedly leading a group of armed Amazons during the Revolution, ended her life in a lunatic asylum, where she was diagnosed with dementia due to her political convictions. This clinical demonstration was full of factual errors and approximations, and based on plagiarism of a sort, as a sick condition was portrayed as the result of sick ideology. Of course, Théroigne may have been insane. But was her madness necessarily related to her beliefs or did the doctor’s opposing political (royalist) beliefs orient the diagnosis?

Beside politics, religion (and the acceptable “limits” of its practice) often interferes in diagnosis. On February 14, 1810, Jacob Dupont, a famous thinker who had advocated atheism, was institutionalized at Charenton, a lunatic asylum founded in the 17th century. Dupont’s medical file reads:

“Former Doctrinaire [i.e., former member of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine], former representative in the Legislative Assembly and the Convention; withdrew to a small village near Loches, where he lived for eight years with a sister who died six months ago. Metaphysical and revolutionary reveries, notorious advocacy of atheism in the Convention; publicly gave a course on that subject on Place Louis XVI seven years ago. Many writings full of the same madness. No violence, no delusions on other subjects.”

Here it is spelled out: atheism is madness. The assertion itself is not surprising in a society that shared Louis Sébastien Mercier’s opinion that atheism was “the sum total of all the monstrosities of the human mind” and “a destructive mania … that is very close to dementia.” This time, however, the judgment served as a diagnosis penned by a physician who, even though he was using the term “madness” in a colloquial sense, admitted that Dupont had “no delusions on other subjects.”

This point is crucial, because it proves, black on white, that religious beliefs constituted a sufficient basis for confinement. If the doctor, Antoine-Athanase Royer-Collard, had known that Dupont had been forced to resign his seat in the Convention 1794 due to his mental state, and was arrested the following year for raping a blind old woman, he would have felt even more justified in his diagnosis. Though Royer-Collard had only looked at Dupont’s openly declared atheism to make his decision, the background information would have underscored how it was only part of a larger pathology.

What do we learn from history? That a plausible conflation of terms, if not carefully scrutinized and documented, often turns to be a very harmful confusion.

If we go back to our contemporary examples, it appears that the three men (at least according to what newspapers tell us) share some common traits: Islam, violence and hypothetical madness. In other words: religion, political extremism, and medical condition. The three men are considered lone-wolf jihadists, who live “on the fringe of the fringe,” as the Sydney hostage-taker’s attorney characterized his client.

Isolated, frustrated, unable to join any terrorist organization, these so-called jihadists are first and foremost social misfits, galvanized by causes that get daily media attention. No anti-terrorist laws could ever apply to them, unless you could put the entire population of the world under continuous surveillance. Recent studies from Indiana State University and University College London have demonstrated that 32 to 40 percent of lone-wolf attackers suffered from mental problems, while, actually, “group-based terrorists are psychologically quite normal.”

What can we take away from this? We must be more careful about differentiating solo attackers from organized political forces – just as we must be more careful about using the word “madness.” In other words, let’s restore the full meaning of complicated concepts. And let’s remind ourselves that terrorism is a real threat of political thought, that religion is not fanaticism, and that madness is a very serious social issue that deserves more attention in countries that have failed to create effective mental health policies.

Laure Murat, a historian, is a professor in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at UCLA. Her last book is entitled: The Man Who Thought He Was Napoleon. Towards a Political History of Madness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a project of UCLA and Zocalo Public Square. Zocalo Public Square is a not-for-profit Ideas Exchange that blends live events and humanities journalism.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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TIME Nigeria

Boko Haram Suspected in Mass Kidnap in Northeast Nigeria

The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014.
The leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group Boko Haram on Oct. 31, 2014. AP

The latest in a string of abductions

Islamist militants of the group Boko Haram are suspected of abducting at least 100 women and children, and killing nearly three dozen others, from a remote village in northeastern Nigeria.

Gunmen in trucks raided Gumsuri last Friday and staged an attack that ended on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing members of a local vigilante group. Gumsuri is located near Chibok, where 276 schoolgirls were abducted in April. The number of abductions in the new attack varies between news outlets, hovering between more than 100 and above 200.

Mike Omeri, a government spokesman, told TIME that the government is “outraged and deeply saddened by this deplorable act” and said the real number of those abducted isn’t known yet.

“It is impossible to verify the number of those missing at this early stage because it is presumed that many civilians fled during the attack,” he said in a statement. “As soon as government agencies and our local partners have together determined the credible number of missing civilians, we will provide that information to the public.”

The recent raid, the latest in a string of similar abductions in the restive region, comes about two months after the Nigerian government claimed it had reached a cease-fire with Boko Haram and that the group planned to release the schoolgirls. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau later denied that a deal had been reached and said the girls had already been married off.

Read next: Girls Who Escaped Boko Haram Tell of Horrors in Captivity

TIME Business

Capitulating to Terrorists Will Only Make Things Worse

Sony Hack Theaters
A poster for the movie "The Interview" lays on the ground after being pulled from a display case by a worker at a Carmike Cinemas movie theater on Dec. 17, 2014, in Atlanta. David Goldman—AP

Professor Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.

There are steps that can be taken both by our government and by the private sector to confront these attacks on our liberty

If the North Korean government is in fact behind the hacking of Sony and the threats of violence directed against theaters that planned to show The Interview, then the United States has been a victim of warfare directed against our most basic right—free expression. Those who hacked and threatened violence succeeded in doing something the U.S. government could not do: namely censor a movie based on its content.

North Korea’s apparent victory over this film is but a coming attraction of things to come. If hacking and threats can shut down a poorly reviewed comedy, they can also shut down newspapers, magazines, television stations, and other media. This then was the Pearl Harbor of a war that is just beginning.

Like all wars, there were preludes. The prelude for this one came in an unlikely location: Yale University. Several years ago, the Yale University Press published a book on the controversy surrounding the cartoons of Mohammad that had appeared in several Scandinavian newspapers and provoked violent responses. Naturally, the book, as submitted, included the cartoons that were at the center of the dispute. But Yale University Press decided to censor these cartoons out of fear that their inclusion might endanger the lives of Yale students and faculty. Yale’s understandable decision set an unfortunate precedent that has now been followed by Sony and by the theaters that pressured Sony into canceling The Interview.

There is no simple solution to this dilemma. On the one hand, terrorists cannot be allowed to succeed in their censorial goals by hacking and threatening. On the other hand, responsible institutions must do everything in their power to protect their employees, their students, and the general public. It is precisely the object of the terrorists to create this dilemma, knowing that democracies will generally err on the sides of caution and protection.

In one sense, this dilemma is not unlike those faced by democracies that must decide whether to pay ransom to ISIS and other terrorists groups in order to prevent their citizens from being beheaded. There is no perfect solution to either dilemma. But there are steps that can be taken both by our government and by the private sector to confront these attacks on our liberty.

Our government must respond strongly, but it is constrained by North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. This should be an object lesson for how important it is to America, and to the rest of the world, to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran too is a cyber-superpower, as well as the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. A nuclear Iran would stop at nothing to censor anything it found offensive to its radical brand of Islam. It may be too late to stop North Korea from flexing its nuclear muscles, but it is not too late to stop Iran from becoming the world’s most powerful censor.

The response of the private sector can be much stronger as well. When Islamic extremists directed threats were made against Salman Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses, several leading publishing companies agreed to publish the book jointly in a show of solidarity against censorial threats. Although Rushdie had to live in hiding for several years, as the result fatwa issued against him by Iran’s supreme leader, freedom of speech prevailed and his book was published and widely read. In the Sony case, there was no such collective support. Nor did Sony itself do everything it could to strike a proper balance between caution and artistic freedom. It should have offered the film free on the Internet so that millions of people around the world could choose to see what North Korea didn’t want them to see. They can still do this, thus showing the North Korean’s leaders that private companies have ways to fight back. Such an action would not eliminate all risks, but it would remove movie theaters in malls as soft and highly visible targets.

None of these proposals offer perfect solutions to an intractable dilemma that will only get worse if we simply capitulate to the censorial terrorists.

Professor Alan Dershowitz’s latest book is Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

Pakistan’s ‘War on Terror’ Only Encourages Jihadists

Funeral ceremony for the victims of the school attack in Pakistan
Pakistani people carry the coffins of the victims of a Taliban attack at an army-run school, prior to their burial, in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 17, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Maajid Nawaz is Co-Founder and Chairman of Quilliam, a think tank focusing on matters of integration, citizenship & identity, religious freedom, extremism, and immigration.

The attack on a school in Peshawar was an act of revenge for the state's militarism

International media coverage of the school attack that shook Peshawar this week, carried out at the hands of the Pakistani terrorist group Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been, for all intents and purposes, commendable. The news has resisted the urge to breeze over this abhorrent event as “just another terrorist attack in South Asia,” nor has it spared the world from the horrors of what took place that day. The barbarism, the sheer brutality, of those seven TTP terrorists has been well reflected.

However, as a British Muslim of Pakistani origin who has a deep connection to my ancestral roots, there’s a missed opportunity. Without shedding light on the ideology and context of these atrocious events, it is impossible for the rest of the world to begin to truly understand the unique cocktail of instability that is Pakistan today.

Let us address ideology first. It is a bitter pill to swallow, but the fact of the matter is that the seven terrorists responsible for killing more than 100 children on Tuesday were not madmen. They were not sociopaths, or psychotic. What they were is a victim of the most rejectionist, poisonous, and virulent of extremist ideologies – jihadism – something that they were likely exposed to from a young age.

Each child they shot and killed, these terrorists believed, was a righteous death. And, as they prepared to push to the button that would blow them up, they will have done so thinking that paradise was where they were headed.

At this heart of their unwavering belief that they were “doing the right thing” is the ideology that consumed them. That will not come as a surprise. However, what probably will is the fact that this same ideology is not as alien as we in the West might like to think it is. Similarly, nor is the ideology of a very different jihadist group, Islamic State, so distant.

What these two groups share is a desire to implement their form of Islam over society through the establishment of what they deem to be a “caliphate” that implements their interpretation of sharia as law. This desire is something that all Islamists share – whether they are “non-violent” or “terrorist,” a motivation that permeates across all Islamist movements. It is something that will always present a problem as once someone is convinced that they have a divine right to assert their belief system over that of others, they must exclude basic rights like the fundamental human freedoms of religion and speech. This is why undemocratic ideological beliefs need to be challenged head on, no matter which religion they claim to speak on behalf of.

But what could make such an appalling ideology alluring? There is no question that the TTP are one of the worst manifestations of violent fundamentalism. No one doubts the fact that they are ruthless and merciless, the perpetrators of countless unforgivable killings. However, this most recent attack did not just spring from their irrational hatred and rejectionism, nor was it driven simply by ideology.

Rather, what caused it, as much as anything else, was a desire for vengeance. Ideology just rendered the crimes permissible.

The TTP has made no effort to hide the fact that the massacre was, in a sense, blowback from the Pakistani Armed Forces’ military operations in the tribal lands. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which translates roughly as “Sharp and Cutting Strike,” began over the summer around the same time as the Israeli operation in Gaza. While there was massive international outcry over Gaza, though, there was a near media blackout on Pakistan.

Therefore, the military was able to act with relative impunity, a level of ruthlessness even greater than Israel and more in line with the Sri Lankan state’s operation to wipe out the Tamil Tigers.

That operation was not the first of its kind. Indeed, it is symptomatic of a more deeply rooted problem for the Pakistani state, its militarism. Coupled with a dreadful human rights culture, the Pakistani establishment’s almost exclusively military approach to countering the violent extremist forces that run riot in the country renders the jihadist ideology embodied in groups like the TTP all the more persuasive and increasingly pervasive.

As the “War on Terror” has so clearly shown, what with the abject anarchy that is rocking the countries in which the U.S. sought to wage this “war,” a military approach will not work on its own. On the contrary, it will only make things worse. Bombs and bullets are not enough; Pakistan, just like most other countries too, is in need of complimentary, civil society-led, anti-extremism measures that champion the protection of human rights of all citizens. This means crossing a bridge that there is very little appetite for right now, and entertaining some uncomfortable conversations about the role of religion in public life.

It is not sufficient for us to merely condemn the TTP’s school attack and consider ourselves somehow absolved. No one deserves thanks for condemning the brutal murder of children. How low could our expectations have possibly sunk? Moderation is entirely relative to where others around us are on a scale. If the entire scale is so skewered towards the Islamist ideology that the Afghan Taliban appear “moderate” in their condemnation of this attack, or al-Qaeda appear “moderate” in comparison to ISIL in Syria, then we are a long way off from peace.

How could such a situation emerge where the “moderate” alternatives to such brutality seem only to be other jihadist terrorists? The entire framework of debate for those populations surrounded by jihadist groups is currently occurring within the Islamist context. Without a long-term approach to uprooting the Islamist ideology itself, through civil society activism, there’s not much hope of stemming such atrocities. At the same time, the Pakistani government must recognize that it cannot, and must not, simply bomb its way out of this quagmire.

Maajid Nawaz is Co-Founder and Chairman of Quilliam, a think tank focusing on matters of integration, citizenship & identity, religious freedom, extremism, and immigration. His work is informed by years spent in his youth as a leadership member of a global Islamist group, and his gradual transformation towards liberal democratic values. His autobiographical account of his life story, Radical, has been released in the UK and U.S.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Pakistan

Peshawar Survivors and Bereaved Tell of the Massacre’s Horror

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN - DECEMBER 17: A view of the debris of the army-run school that was attacked by Taliban on Tuesday, in northwestern city of Peshawar, Pakistan, on December 17, 2014. Taliban attack on an army-run school in Pakistan on Tuesday has left at least 141 people dead, most of whom are students. (Photo by Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A view of the debris of the army-run school that was attacked by Taliban on Tuesday, in northwestern city of Peshawar, Pakistan, on December 17, 2014. Anadolu Agency—2014 Anadolu Agency

"There were seven- and eight-year-olds who had been shot in the chest, face and head"

With the death toll from Peshawar school massacre rising to 148 — at least 132 of them children — residents of this strife-torn Pakistani city, and survivors, are struggling to come to terms with Tuesday’s horror.

Ibad, a Year 10 student at Peshawar’s Army Public School, said that he and his friend were attending first aid training in the school auditorium when five Taliban militants entered the hall and began firing indiscriminately. Ibad escaped severe injury, but his was struck in the leg by a bullet and saw the first aid trainer instantly killed in front of him. He also cradled his friend while his friend lay dying.

About 100 of the 150 children in the hall at the time were killed.

Sharukh Khan, a Year 10 student who was hit in the legs and back, was also in the hall when the gunmen entered.

“When they opened fire, our principal, Miss Tahira Qazi, asked them to shoot her instead of the kids,” he told TIME. “So they shot her. Then they threw flammable explosives on her body and torched her” he said, adding they were forced to watch.

On Wednesday, the school buildings were opened to local and international media, who were greeted by a horrific scene of dried blood and bullet casings. School bags and notebooks were poignantly strewn on the ground.

“Seven militants were killed during the operation; three blew themselves up inside the school building” said military spokesman Asim Bajwa.

Dr Zahir Shah was among the team providing emergency response at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital.

“The students who were rushed here mostly had bullet wounds,” he told TIME. “There were seven- and eight-year-olds who had been shot in the chest, face and head. Each one had around four or five bullet wounds.”

He mentioned that some families still were visiting local hospitals as they couldn’t find their children.

Syed Tahir Shah, a resident of the area surrounding Peshawar’s historic Cunningham Cock Tower, lost his son, who was a Year 6 student. Shah found him at Lady Reading, enclosed in a coffin.

“My son took a bullet to the brain,” he sobbed. “The hospital administration has asked me to take his body for burial but what am I supposed to say to his mother and other relatives about why he has been killed?”

For the families of Peshawar, there is, of course, nothing that can be said to alleviate the pain caused by the incomprehensible slaughter of so many young lives.

Read next: School Massacre Unites Pakistan Against the Taliban

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Military Strikes Back at Taliban Following Peshawar Massacre

An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen, in Peshawar
An army soldier stands guard inside the Army Public School, which was attacked by Taliban gunmen earlier this week, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Dec. 17, 2014 Zohra Bensemra—Reuters

Spokesperson says more than a dozen operations have been carried out since Tuesday

The Pakistani military claims to have struck back hard against Taliban militants days after the group launched one the deadliest single-day attacks in their seven-year insurgency against the state.

In the two days since Taliban forces indiscriminately murdered more than 140 people, including 132 children, at a school in Peshawar, Pakistani security forces have launched 20 air strikes, killing an estimated 57 terrorists in the process, according to a tweet from military spokesperson Major General Asim Bajwa.

The armed forces’ representative added that operations are ongoing. Pakistan is currently in its second day of official mourning for the massacre, which sent shock waves through the country and brought renewed scrutiny to the military’s past dealings with militants within the country’s borders.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Begins 3 Days of Mourning After Peshawar Massacre

But persistent questions remain over the military’s relationship with extremist groups

Pakistanis were in mourning Wednesday after a brutal attack on an army-run school in Peshawar by Taliban militants claimed more than 140 lives, 132 of them children.

Islamabad announced the commencement of a three-day mourning period. Vigils were held across the country as the nation struggled to come to terms with the brutality exhibited in one of the deadliest single-day attacks in the country since the Pakistani Taliban launched its insurgency seven years ago.

In Peshawar, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on officials from all parties to attend a multiparty conference this week, where they hope to present a unified front against terrorism.

Opposition stalwart Imran Khan, who has previously sought reconciliation with the Taliban, joined the litany of voices on Tuesday condemning the indiscriminate slaughter.

“Fight with men, not innocent children,” said the former cricket star, according to the New York Times.

The deliberate targeting of children appears to have affected even some of the Pakistani Taliban’s most steadfast supporters.

“The intentional killing of innocent people, children and women are against the basics of Islam and this criteria has to be considered by every Islamic party and government,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban, said in a statement, according to Reuters.

But as the nation grieves, tough questions have begun to resurface regarding the Pakistani military’s track record of incubating militancy within the country’s borders.

During an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Asif rejected the notion that the country’s security establishment maintained relations with extremist groups.

“[These] terrorists are the biggest threat to the peace in this region, to peace in Pakistan, to the existence of Pakistan,” said Asif. “We do not classify between different groups of Taliban — that there are good Taliban or bad Taliban. They are all bad.”

However, analysts contend that factions within the security services continue to see militant groups inside Pakistan as valuable proxies in the battle for influence in neighboring Afghanistan and Kashmir.

“It seems to me that there are elements within the military establishment who are willing to sustain or willing to endure civilian causalities and even military casualties as long as some broader strategic objective is met,” Hassan Javid, associate professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, tells TIME.

But as Javid argues, the country’s brutal experience with insurgency has long demonstrated that these groups can never be controlled.

“Given the ideologies that motivate these groups, and given the links they have to other such groups, I think its inevitable that they will turn their guns on Pakistan,” says Javid. “Even if they’re working with them today, there’s always the possibility they will turn around and bite the hand that’s been feeding them a few years down the line.”

Following the attacks, a spokesperson with the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, said the assault on the school was retaliation against the ongoing offensive in the country’s tribal belt.

“We selected the army’s school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females,” said Taliban spokesman Muhammad Umar Khorasani. “We want them to feel the pain.”

In June, the Pakistani military launched a full-scale assault on Taliban sanctuaries in North Waziristan, days after militants allied with the group overran a terminal at Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport in the heart of the country’s commercial capital

The ongoing military operation in North Warziristan is believed to have been largely successful in uprooting a majority of the militant forces based there, but experts say these extremists are now dispersed throughout the country.

“Over time this militancy has spread into the cities and these kinds of people are hiding and have melted into society,” says Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Pakistani defense analyst. “The military operations can only take place in places like the tribal areas, but not necessarily in urban centers.”

TIME National Security

Passengers Arriving in the U.S. Are Profiled by Nationality, TSA Head Says

John Pistole
Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Nov. 14, 2014 Molly Riley—AP

People from Yemen, Syria and certain other countries are subject to greater checks

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) profiles airline travelers based on national origin, screening passengers from Syria, Yemen and other nations with extra attention, the agency’s outgoing head said Tuesday.

John Pistole told the Associated Press that a passenger’s Yemeni or Syrian citizenship might be relevant to the TSA, just as a person’s citizenship of a South or Central American country might be relevant to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Though the Justice Department last week barred federal law-enforcement agencies from profiling based on religion and national origin, it gave an exception to the TSA, as well as to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other security-related agencies.

Pistole, who is leaving the agency at the end of the month, oversaw a reversal in the TSA’s screening practices to shift resources toward chiefly monitoring travelers designated as high or unknown risk. Most passengers are classified as “no known risk” and are now swiftly moved through the security process.

[AP]

TIME foreign affairs

Sydney Hostage Attack Is Not a Wake-Up Call

APTOPIX Australia Police Operation
A hostage runs to tactical response police officers for safety after she escaped from a cafe under siege at Martin Place in Sydney, Australia, on Dec. 15, 2014. Rob Griffith—AP

Peter Romaniuk is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Jay College and Senior Fellow at the Global Center on Cooperative Security.

Australia has been deeply invested in counterterrorism for years, and lone-actor terrorism is exactly the type of attack analysts had predicted

For Australians, the images of the police raid on a café in downtown Sydney, where hostages were being held by a lone gunman, were other-worldly. Like Americans, Australians are proud of our cosmopolitanism; but unlike the U.S., we take for granted low levels of gun violence. Shock, confusion, and anger are inevitable reactions. How should we make sense of such an event and what does this mean for the future?

In October this year, after a gunman attacked the parliament complex in Ottawa, many described the incident as a “wake-up call” for Canada. The same cannot be said here, for two reasons. First, this is the kind of attack that analysts had predicted. For several years now, lone-actor terrorism, wherein individuals embrace violence after consuming extremist content on the Internet, has been identified as a principal threat in Western democracies. Most recently, the voluntary passage of Western citizens to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria – the “foreign terrorist fighter” (FTF) phenomenon – has heightened the sense of danger from self-radicalization, not least because ISIS has implored would-be volunteers to also take action at home.

Second, Australia is deeply invested in counterterrorism and has been for years, especially since 88 Australians were killed by a terrorist bomb in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002. Domestically, recent high-profile arrests and further rounds of legislating attest to the prominence of counterterrorism in Australian public life. The fact that perhaps 70 Australian citizens have volunteered as FTFs is widely known and debated. State police forces have generally done well to enhance counterterrorism capacity while nurturing community relations. Governments at the state and federal level have advanced preventive measures to reduce the appeal of extremism. Australia has acted bilaterally and regionally to support counterterrorism initiatives among our neighbors. Internationally, Australia has used its term on the United Nations Security Council to advance multilateral counterterrorism, including recent action on FTFs.

At first glance, then, the siege may be interpreted to be the realization of Australians’ worst fears. But it would be wrong to conclude that everything has changed for Australia’s national security. For one thing, the gunman in question, Man Haron Monis, a self-styled cleric from Iran granted asylum in Australia, seems to be an atypical lone-terrorist actor, insofar as such a profile exists. Rather than blending into the background and self-radicalizing outside of public or familial view, Monis was well-known to the criminal justice system, was on bail for numerous violent offenses, and had been charged with others. Although Monis hung a flag with the Islamic Shahada in the café window – giving rise to mistaken concerns about a foreign connection – his attack seems to have been in the service of perceived grievances that are political but idiosyncratic and not in the service of global extremism such as that of ISIS. The bail system, more than levels of domestic radicalization, are rightly the immediate concern for journalists and others asking questions about the offender.

Moreover, the response to the siege gives some cause for reassurance. Details of events in the café are only now emerging but the tactical proficiency of law enforcement has already been widely noted. Perhaps more importantly, the tone of the response from government and civil society – and also on social media – has been measured, displaying a concern to maintain social cohesion. Self-conscious counterterrorism – that is, responses that reflect awareness that extremists profit from overreaction– is vital to preventing radicalization today and tomorrow.

Australians woke up on Tuesday morning to the sadness of lost innocents. But the threat environment facing the country remains unchanged. The parameters of Australian counterterrorism are generally sound. In the days and weeks ahead, it will serve us well to acknowledge that the response to violent incidents is a critical part of the effort to counter violent extremism.

Peter Romaniuk is Associate Professor of Political Science at John Jay College and Senior Fellow at the Global Center on Cooperative Security.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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