Terrorism in the Netherlands: the response of the Dutch public

Terrorism in the Netherlands: the response of the Dutch public

The terrorist attack in Amsterdam has made clear that the response of the Dutch public is rather calm. Why is this the case?

On the 31st of August, an Afghan refugee with a German residence permit, seriously injured two American tourists in a knife attack at the Central Station of the city of Amsterdam. Very early in the police investigation, the police took into account the possible terrorist motive behind this attack. A couple of days later, it turned out that, indeed, the attacker had had a terrorist motive. This attack, the first terrorist attack since the attempted extremist-right wing attack in 2016, in which five men were caught throwing Molotov cocktails to a mosque in the Dutch city of Enschede, fits into the current threat assessment, according to Dick Schoof, the Dutch National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism. The threat level will remain at level four, where it has been since 2013. However, focusing on the reaction of Dutch citizens to the attack, the reaction might be different than one would expect. One of the main goals of a terrorist attack is to spread fear in a society. When looking at the response of the Dutch public, this knife-attack did nothing of the sorts. This calm response of the Dutch public could be related to several factors.

Firstly, an important factor that contributes to the attention to, and the impact of a terrorist attack is the number of victims. At first sight, this sounds rather cold and harsh, but previous research has shown that the number of victims contributes to the level of fear and risk perception within a society. Soon after the terrorist attack, the travelers at the Central Station went back to business as usual. According to two women interviewed for this online article, it is a bit overdone to talk about a terrorist attack, when ‘nobody had died.’ Closely connected to this is the fact that the victims are not Dutch citizens but American tourists. An important factor that contributes to risk perception and fear for a terrorist attack is the manner in which we identify ourselves with the victims of such an attack. The victims were not Dutch citizens on their way to work, or two Dutch citizens trying to spend a fun-filled day in Amsterdam. This makes it easier to separate the reality from our own lives.

This closely ties into the second factor, which is the fact that this was a knife-attack, and not a bomb attack such as the attack in Manchester in May 2017 or the attacks with Kalashnikovs in the Bataclan in Paris in November 2015. These two attacks were widely reported in the press around the world. The type of attack carried out in Amsterdam is the type of attack that has happened frequently in the past couple of months. These types of attacks, carried out by lone actors, are difficult to prevent. According to recent research, the Dutch public understands that some type of attacks are impossible to prevent.

The aftermath of the attack also contributes to the impact an attack has on a society. In general, it is important to openly communicate about incidents such as these. The police officers at the scene acted within 30 seconds of the knife-attack and after the incident occurred, the local authorities clearly communicated about the ongoing police investigation and the possible motives of the suspect. Open communication after incidents such as these is important, even if the authorities are, at first, still unsure about the motives or exact events that transpired.

All in all, it seems as if Dutch society responded fairly calm to this knife-incident. The impact of this event seems rather small, and people transferring through the central station in Amsterdam continued their day as if nothing happened.