A car-ramming attack outside the Parliament building in London yesterday highlights the ways in which terrorism and our reactions to it have radically shifted in the almost 20 years since 9/11. If London police end up confirming that the incident was in fact an act of terror, it will be the latest in a series of banal, low-tech attacks that have barely elicited a collective shrug.
Of course, part of that has to do with the fact that no lives were lost and no serious injuries reported. And the fact that many aspiring terrorists are reduced to weaponizing cars, trucks and kitchen knives does not preclude more deadly and attention-grabbing methods in the future. In other words, this could be just a lull in terror’s ability to terrorize, rather than a permanent decline. But for the most part, terrorism has faded as a major focus of public concern, in part due to successful counterterrorism, but also thanks to a measure of resilience that Western publics have developed to these lower-profile methods.
It is not just public opinion that has moved on from the post-9/11 fixation on terrorism. The U.S. Defense Department has officially downgraded counterterrorism as a priority, while seeking to distance itself from a central role in post-conflict stabilization operations, which were only added as a core mission in the middle of the last decade. Instead, the U.S. military will focus its efforts on countering great-power competition, primarily from China and Russia, but also from Iran and North Korea.