Throughout the 2000s, the amorphous monster called “global terrorism” had been a creature of the shadows, stepping out into the world to kill and maim but then slipping away again. In 2013, however, it stepped out and stayed out, illuminated by fire.
The number of atrocities surged by almost 50%. In almost 10 000 attacks – an apparently endless orgy of bombs and machine-guns and swords and torture apparatus – 17 700 people were killed by terrorists.
Some might argue that that number is too low, given the fluidity of the definition of terrorism. For example, governments still insist that war and terror are different things; that killing civilians with an AK-47 because they believe in the wrong sect is terror, but killing them with a drone because they’re in the wrong tent is “collateral damage”.
Even now, the hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria are not counted as victims of terror because they were killed during something defined as a war rather than as a murder spree. (I suspect one day we’ll figure out that murder is murder and that only the motive and the punishment are up for debate.)
Anyway, 17 700 is the number you’re likely to find quoted by most reputable news sources, so that’s the one we know. It’s the number that informed our imaginations as we pictured the disintegration of a region. And the pictures were vivid and persistent.
Down here in South Africa, the 24-hour news cycle fired up our national addiction to anxiety, and, as always, we were encouraged to engage: to pray for the victims or to offer them our secular solidarity; to condemn the perpetrators and those who armed them; to appeal to those we believed might offer solutions. It wasn’t too big a leap for people already fluent in the media’s terrorism dialect. “Nine-Eleven?” “No, Seven-Seven.” “Was it an RPG?” “No, an IED”.
It seemed important to have an opinion. It still does. Every car bomb or suicide blast feels like an existential jolt, a rattle of psychic shrapnel against the carefully constructed walls of our identity. Every image of crumpled bodies scratches across our eyes, violating our picture of how the world should look.
But however much we engaged and informed ourselves, and tried to be rational and humane and hopeful, those dizzying, paralysing numbers – 17 700, with 15 000 dead in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria alone – led to one resigned generalisation: that those places are utterly, irretrievably, broken.
I am guilty of this generalisation all the time. When “Breaking News” flashes up on the screen, I am sure I am going to learn that another chunk of the planet has broken away from humanity and sunk away into the dark, sulphurous fires of barbarism. I wouldn’t visit Iraq or Afghanistan for anything in the world. I’m also not making plans to tour Pakistan or Nigeria.
But here’s the odd thing.
In 2013, the year that the current killing spree began to surge, in which the murder of 15 000 people in five countries made us all believe that those countries are now uninhabitable, another country recorded 16 000 of its own people murdered.
That country was South Africa.
At the weekend some local security experts warned that South Africa is a fairly soft target for killers. I disagree. Any medium-sized state in which citizens manage to murder 16 000 of their own (it’s closer to 18 000 this year) is not a target. It’s already been hit. It’s a bullet hole. It’s a fucking crater. Ten thousand people were killed in terror attacks in Iraq last year and we consider it a hellhole without a functioning government. We killed almost twice as many, but somehow still think of ourselves as normal.
All across Europe walls are going up and padlocks are being double-checked. Many of us might have similar urges. But countries aren’t destroyed by terrorists. They are destroyed by bad or nonexistent governments. Long before wretched places like Iraq or Afghanistan became targets for outsiders they were being hollowed out from within, by corruption or despotism or sectarian brutality. There were early warning signs.
And for me, 18000 murders a year is sort of a hint.
Yet we South Africans resolutely refuse to take the hints.
There’s a fire in the kitchen but we’re opening the windows in the lounge to let the smoke out so we can keep arguing over whether the word is “flammable” or “inflammable”.
Perhaps we always choose denial because we feel helpless. But we aren’t helpless. We can still do what people in failed states can’t. We can vote. We can demand that the basics get done right. Water. Food security. Education. The protection of democratic institutions. Policing.
And if this government can’t do the basics, or won’t, then we must vote the fools out.