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On the anniversary of 9/11, it's time to expand our definition of 'victim'

Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

This article was originally published in The Ottawa Citizen on September 11, 2017.

In the 16 years since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of terrorism has continued to evolve globally. The perpetrators of this attack, al-Qaida, have gone through a number of major changes, including having to compete for international headlines and recruits with Daesh, also known as ISIL. The weapons used by terrorist groups have also evolved significantly, from guns, bombs and aircraft to cars, trucks and knives, with the internet and social media revolutionizing how they communicate, influence and recruit. And concerns are now growing around the potential for acts of terror inspired by right-wing extremists and others.

While we work hard to prevent terrorist attacks, the truth is that we cannot prevent every single one of them. Though they are rare, we need to be prepared to deal with potential terrorist attacks in case they occur, and make ourselves more resilient to these types of events. Being resilient to these events helps us to limit their impact and return to normal more quickly, which is an essential ingredient in blunting the impact from terrorist attacks. One area we could improve upon to help build this resilience is by broadening our definition of victims of terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, victims are usually defined as those who are immediately and directly affected by the attack. Additionally, the friends and families of those directly affected are usually encompassed in some way within this victim definition. There are usually systems in place to assist all of these individuals in the aftermath of an attack. But are there others whom we should be thinking of as victims too?

One area of growing concern is the impact terrorist attacks have on first responders. Those who respond to these incidents can be traumatized by what they see and have to do. This can result in mental health issues, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that may not be apparent in the short term, with symptoms that can appear weeks, months or longer after an attack. While first responders are usually seen as heroes for the work they do in the aftermath of an attack, we may also need to start thinking of them as potential victims as well, because of the mental and emotional trauma to which they are exposed.

Unfortunately, members of minority ethnic or religious groups are often at a higher risk in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, based on misperceptions of an association with attackers. Harassment, vandalism and violence toward Muslims in particular — and those mistaken for Muslims — have increased following several terrorist attacks in the United States, Canada, and Europe. These retaliatory attacks can further fracture communities and potentially lead to increased violence, which may be one of the goals of terrorist organizations. We need to recognize these groups as potential victims as well, who may need assistance in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Doing what we can to prevent retaliatory actions and further violence by supporting these groups as victims can also be a means of blunting the wider impact of terrorist attacks.

Should we also consider friends and family of the attackers in a terrorist incident as potential victims? While this may be controversial, the friends and family of the attackers may not support the extremist viewpoints and actions of the attackers. This group in many ways may also suffer from the impact of the attacks even if it had no direct involvement and does not support the views of the attackers. My team’s discussions with a range of security, law enforcement and counter-terrorism practitioners have indicated that some of them do extend victims’ services to the friends and family of attackers. Recognizing that some of these individuals could also be victims can send a strong message that the attackers do not represent their broader communities or even their own families.

In an ideal world, we would be able to prevent any and every terrorist attack. The reality is that we have to be prepared for these rare but highly impactful events, by ensuring that we are as resilient as possible to the effects of an attack. Building that resilience will require us to widen our definition of who the potential victims of a terrorist attack could be.

It is not just the direct and immediate consequences of a terrorist attack that we should be concerned about; we need to include the wide-ranging impact such events can have on a much larger group of potential victims.

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