Reduced to Numbers
There is no unanimously agreed legal definition of the term “victim of terrorism”. The perception of the victim is generally linked to the legal definition of a terrorist offence. There is no unanimous agreement of the latter definition either, but there is a broad consensus, at least within the main international organizations, such as the EU or the UN.
For example, the EU approach (Council Common Position 2001/931/CFSP on the application of specific measures to combat terrorism and the Council Framework Decision 2002/475/JHA on combating terrorism) defines terrorist offences as acts committed with the aim of “seriously intimidating a population”, “unduly compelling a government or international organization to perform or abstain from performing any act'” or ‘seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organization”.
Victims do figure in EU Directive 2012/29, generally known as the Victims´ Rights Directive, which says a victim is a natural person who has suffered physical, mental or emotional harm or economic loss which was directly caused by a criminal offence.
It is still necessary to affirm, without a doubt, that for terrorists victims are a mere instrument, a tool used to cause terror in a population or to pressure a government. Consequently, victims are no more than “collateral damage”.
In fact, victims go through a painful process of dehumanization. It begins at the very moment of an attack, of course, but it does not end there. They leave behind their names, their faces, their identities, and become a number, used to describe the seriousness of an attack: Madrid 2004, 192 casualties, 1,800 injured; London 2005, 52 casualties and 700 injured; Brussels 2016, 32 casualties and 300 injured; Nice 2016, 84 casualties, 120 injured…
Being reduced to a number is bad enough, but in some cases victims are even perceived as disturbing witnesses, or a worrying reminder of the threat to all of us.
And what is worse, this dehumanization is a reinforcement of the polarizing extremist message delivered by violent people, where society is divided between “them and us”.
Meanwhile terrorists continue to see victims as members of the “enemy” side, attacked in a war that is absolutely justified. The pain and loss of victims does not generate any kind of remorse or further reflection among their followers.
It seems clear that society and government have a debt to the victims: their rehumanization, ensuring their recovery, helping them to regain their dignity, and offering them justice. By themselves, these tasks send a powerful message of unity against terror and violent extremism.
In turn, the victims themselves can help by playing a crucial role in the fight against violent radicalization. They should be considered “credible voices” in terms of preventing violent extremism (PVE), working together with former extremists, religious and community leaders and even influencers in social networks.
This work has to be based on three clear premises – moral legitimacy, empathy, and credibility. It must also be accompanied by specific requirements to ensure the adequate involvement of the victims in terms of PVE and their safeguarding during the process,
Undoubtedly, victims have all the moral legitimacy to address the terrorist acts that made them victims and the circumstances that surrounded them, in both the private and public spheres. They are first-hand witnesses of the phenomenon that they had to face. Depriving them of the right to express themselves about their suffering and loss and the process of recovery and resilience can by itself generate a secondary victimization.
This indisputable right of all victims must, however, be subject to certain requirements if these testimonies are to be useful and valid in terms of the prevention of radicalization. This makes it necessary to analyze the appropriate content to make these voices a prevention tool, in line with the specifics of this field.
Testimonies sharing pain, and even despair, must be respected because of the legitimacy of the messengers and victims of a terror attack must always be sheltered and supported by society. Nonetheless, testimonies sharing a positive message, resilience and a lack of willingness to seek revenge are those which must be chosen to be part of programs and actions focused on preventing violent extremism.
Victims are main actors who can make the real effects of a terrorist attack visible to society and even to the population at risk of being radicalized. They can convince the ordinary citizen and the extremist supporter alike to put themselves in the victim´s shoes, wondering what their reaction, feelings, or despair would have been just for being in the wrong place at the wrong moment.
In terms of prevention of radicalization, this empathy is entirely necessary for the message to be received with acceptance by the target.
Therefore, the possibility of including testimonies of victims with a similar geographic, social, religious or demographic background to the target´s profile will increase the chances of success.
Even more importantly, this breaks the extremist message by showing individuals belonging to the target’s own social environment who have suffered and become victimized by the extremist and violent groups that allegedly “protect” and “defend” the target´s social fellows and interests.
With the message´s legitimacy and empathy with the messengers in place, the victims of terrorism can be important credible voices in the prevention of violent extremism.
Yet attention must be paid to the different approaches to using the testimonies of victims of terrorism in PVE campaigns, especially when targeting young people, who are at the core of the population at risk of being radicalized.
The first approach is to strengthen moral barriers among the young.
Human beings count on certain moral barriers which prevent us from using violence in an instrumental way against our enemies. As a primary reaction, it´s not the fear of being punished that prevents us from committing a violent act, but the presence of moral barriers acquired during our childhood.
In the case of terrorist or extremist violence, these moral barriers tend to weaken because of the dehumanization of the supposed enemy. Attacks are justified – the victims deserved it – and the attackers and violence are publicly glorified.
Sharing the testimony of victims and other affected individuals with young people strengthens the moral barriers by rehumanizing them and showing the real effects of a violent action.
This work can be done even during the first 12 years of life, when we stimulate the development of compassion, empathy, tolerance, and other values that can be incorporated in a personality. This way, we reduce the risks of these youngsters using violence as a way to achieve their goals.
The second approach is linked to providing society with a political, social and historical framework of each violent expression, identifying its causes, goals, and particularities.
Youngsters need to be provided with this information, so they can build and strengthen their own critical thinking. Firstly, because avoiding any sort of trivialization of the phenomena is crucial.
Not all forms of social or collective violence are comparable, so we need to highlight not only the damage and suffering caused, but the origin, causes, and aetiology of the violent acts. In this way, they will be able to assess the alleged “logical” premises underlying the extremist message, by confronting them with real data and facts.
And secondly, and not least, because if attention is only paid to the exclusive private sphere of the victim, they are being dehumanized again (Rivera, 2018) and deprived of their unique human condition as members of a society involved in conflict.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.