Around this time last year, I had brunch at Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka's Gulshan locality. Last weekend, it was the site of a terrible terrorist attack in which at least 22 people – four Bangladeshis and 18 foreigners – lost their lives.

I developed a soft spot for Dhaka and its people after visiting it four times in less than a year, working with the NGO BRAC, academics and the government on a research project to identify effective development policies for the country. On each occasion, I uncovered more and more of the intense and strange beauty of this city of 15 million people. It is no secret that Dhaka is a hard place to live in, and one could easily dismiss it as a charmless, chaotic megacity. My experience is that the greatness of Dhaka lies hidden in the small and everyday interactions with its people.

Beauty in the ordinary

I remember, on my first afternoon, standing on a street corner at dusk as the call to prayer went out. Even though I couldn’t understand a word, I was touched so profoundly by the depth of feeling in the sound that I couldn’t tell if the imam was praying or singing to my soul.

On another occasion, I hopped on a boat that ferries passengers between the edge of Banani lake, near the upmarket area of Gulshan, and a large watery slum only a 100 metres away. I ended up being the target of a collective and harmless joke as the boat full of commuters, realising I couldn’t speak Bengali, decided to negotiate the fare for me. They bid the price of my ride to 250 times the normal amount while I looked on, confused and concerned. The boatman, in his good nature did not accept, but everyone, including me, had a great laugh.

I happened to be in Dhaka once during the festival of Holi, and found myself in the city’s Hindu quarter. That day I was shown around by two university students who volunteer as walking tour guides – and as we laughed, danced and played the Hindu festival of colours – they made sure I was not lost in the throng and having a good time. It is these interactions – generous, wholehearted and open – that build the fabric of all communities. Dhaka is crazy, flawed and beautiful because of them.

Dark places

The Gulshan terrorist attack has shaken the country to its core, and has forced a deep and honest reflection. How should we respond in the face of such darkness? Indeed, the whole world has been asking and responding to this very question for years.

Terrorism is the short-term, aggressive and overt act that shocks us deeply. Our response – fear – is the long-term, insidious, and debilitating degradation that we fail to recognise. Terrorism is such a potent force, not because it kills, but because it is a fear multiplier.

Fear ends up eating away at the heart of society. It blinds us to our innate commonality. Fear thrives on separation, and it rejects union. It leads us into dark places, makes us build walls and tricks us into thinking the world is a dangerous place when, really, it is magical and magnificent.

This is not some feel-good ideal – it is a clear conclusion of the statistics. Terrorism accounts for about 0.06% of deaths globally every year. You are at least 600 times more likely to die from things you do to yourself than to die from terrorism.

As individuals, I don’t think we can really do anything to prevent terrorism. By its nature it is random, it is politically motivated and you’re very unlikely to encounter a terrorist anyway – it is somewhat beyond the realm of individual action. But the one thing we can do is not indulge in fear. That is completely within our control. When we cease succumbing to fear and reject those who fan its flames, that is the greatest act of defiance we can take against terrorism.

Brad Wong is a Australian development economist.