While the magnitude of the attack on people enjoying a Saturday evening out in London on June 3 was not on the same scale as the carnage wrought on Manchester the previous month, terrorism and fear of terrorism is not just about the body count.
If what scared the public and motivated politicians most was simply an actuarial risk-assessment exercise, we would be far more afraid of road accidents – or domestic violence, which 432 people (mostly women) lost their lives to in the UK between April 2012 and March 2015.
Rather, what makes terrorism such a visceral and emotive phenomenon is that it is, essentially, political violence. Terrorism courts publicity. It is about the “propaganda of the deed” and using violence to communicate a political message.
The form of the Manchester attack was particularly striking given its use of explosives and the targeting of mostly young teenage girls – a particularly vulnerable section of society – at a concert. But such attacks have become rare in the UK due to a multitude of surveillance and security powers and the cooperation of local communities. Instead, it seems, “low-tech” attacks that use vehicles and knives are on the rise, exploiting the banality of the objects they employ as weapons to avoid arousing suspicion.
Yet these low-tech attacks also seek to send a message. Terrorist attacks are designed to communicate strength through the use of shock tactics.
Islamic State (IS) propaganda is replete with militaristic images, and seeks to recruit followers to join its supposedly massive, well-equipped army. Ironically, low tech attacks should fail to do this – and communicate the exact opposite. They are an express admission that the individual terrorists do not possess the technical capabilities or resources to carry out other, more sophisticated forms of attack. So why then are these low-tech attacks not conceptualised as a sign of weakness?