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How a Terror Expert Tells His Children the Truth

In the wake of terrorist attacks, like last week’s bombing in Manchester, everyone has questions. Some can’t be answered. Some can. But what answers there are tend to be unsettling or unnerving. Providing those to a child can be hard, which is why the internet is full of very good advice available from psychiatrists on how to have–or not–that conversations. But how does someone who is forced by circumstance to have that conversation in full? To find out, we spoke with Bruce Hoffman, who has studied terrorism and irregular warfare for the last forty years, and has been there. Currently the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, Hoffman previously served as a scholar-in-residence for Counterterrorism at the Central Intelligence Agency, as the founding director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, and as a father of three. Here’s what he had to say.

As a father, I’ve spent the last thirty years addressing how to speak to my children about terrorism. It’s important to state at the outset that what you say–what sort of information and how you frame the issue–depends on the age of the children. In some ways, children are the most susceptible to the terrorist’s overall aim: fear. Terrorism summons the fears and demons we read from reading fairy tales. This is the adult version of those stories and so it has special power of children. The threats are both concrete and abstract, as terrifying as the dark.

police force at manifestation

I’m not one to downplay the terrorist threat. But one has to put into terrorism into context. The risk is there but on the pantheon of risks, it’s relatively low. Modern society has a lot of danger in it, from driving to train derailment to death, accidental and otherwise, by handguns.  It is enormously important for them to understand that even if a terror attack garners statements from world leaders and generates intense concern and attention, in point of fact, they are very rare. That is the exact purpose of terrorism.

Terrorists know that small number as they are and as infrequent as their attacks are, they capture a disproportionate amount fear and alarm. In point of fact, there were far more terrorist attacks in the 60’s and 70’s than there are now. On the other hand, I would say the threat is greater now as terrorists have shifted their focus to softer targets.

It is also wrong to tell your children that this is a completely safe world. As a teenager, I was galvanized by the images of the terrorist attacks during the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was my own fears and my own understanding that led me to my career. So it isn’t something I want to entirely hide from my own family. I raised my children in Scotland during a time when the IRA was frequently bombing London. Back stateside, we dealt with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and obviously 9/11. These were moments of tragedy on a grand scale. What I tried to do was to give my children the context and perspective of why these things occur.

I explained to them the dynamics of terrorism. They know it works because it generates attention and fear. But I’ve also tried to expose them to very different socioeconomic dynamics and different cultures. That’s the best antidote to fear.

With my own children, what was most important was to give them a sense of security. It could never be absolute but I felt it was important for them to know their parents were paying attention. There were people watching over them. Terrorists are trying to make the public–adult and child alike–feel powerless and defenseless. It’s our job as parents not to let them.

The third edition of Bruce Hoffman’s seminal work, Inside Terrorism, is out in August.