The Irish Times

Don’t believe the hype about terrorism

- Patrick Smyth psmyth@irishtimes.com

Living as a reporter in Washington DC in the early 2000s in the aftermath of 9/11, I have particular­ly vivid memories of the extraordin­ary grip on the popular imaginatio­n of two home-grown scares.

The deadly attempts by persons still unknown to circulate anthrax-contaminat­ed envelopes – five deaths resulted – and by two snipers picking off random members of the public over three weeks – 10 died – created a level of public panic that nearly paralysed the country and the capital. Yet at the time the annual homicide rate in the city was more than 200.

In the face of such “terror” attacks and with fear levels whipped up by a media storm, people lose sense of how likely it is that they will actually be targeted, let alone killed.

There are now reports in the US that in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino some people are again avoiding public places and gun sales are soaring. A recent poll also shows that Americans are split on their biggest worry: it is no longer the economy, with 36 per cent saying what they fear most is being attacked by terrorists and 31 per cent saying it’s ordinary gun violence.

Yet Americans on their own soil are more than 400 times more likely to die of the latter. They are particular­ly bad as a people – forgive the stereotypi­ng – at assessing risk, acceptable or otherwise.

Acceptable risk

What is an “acceptable” risk? All human activities involve risk, and we all make individual calculatio­ns every day based on personal internalis­ed risk assessment meters, whether crossing the road, taking a drive in a car or jumping out of a plane.

As societies we evolve agreed standards to evaluate hazards to human life such as pesticide use, drug toxicity, pollution and industrial plants.

In that context there is a broad working consensus in the establishe­d regulatory practices of several developed countries that risks are deemed “acceptable” if there is fewer than one death in one or two million of the population every year (Mueller and Stewart/Foreign Affairs).

Above that we have “tolerable” risk and “unacceptab­le risk”, each implying morally, and often legally, the differing degrees of corrective interventi­on required.

If we apply such assessment to terrorism, to border on becoming “unacceptab­le” by establishe­d risk convention­s, the US would need to experience attacks on the scale of 9/11 at least once a year or the equivalent of more than 200 San Bernardino­s.

Between 1970 and 2007 the annual risk to Americans of dying in a terrorist attack was estimated at one in 3.5 million.

In the US (in the decade from 2000), you were 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism, 1,904 times more likely to die in a car accident, 4,706 times more likely to drink yourself to death, 2,059 times more likely to kill yourself, 353 times more likely to meet your maker while texting in the car, 127 times more likely to fall down the stairs fatally, 59 times more likely to kill yourself through autoerotic asphyxiati­on, 59 times more in a cycling crash, 55 times more likely to be killed by a law enforcemen­t officer in a “justifiabl­e homicide”, 26 times more by falling out of bed and 12 times more likely by colliding with a deer. And in the last five years you were four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist.

One reputable scientist has estimated the odds at about the same as being hit by an asteroid.

According to the Washington Post, millions of Americans deserted planes for their cars following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And so one scholar of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, calculated that more people died from the resulting extra car accidents than the total number of individual­s killed aboard the four hijacked planes on 9/11.

The 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their television­s or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.

‘‘ You were 5,882 times more likely to die from medical error than terrorism

Hysterical assessment­s

Yet such bizarre statistics should have an effect on policy responses. For one thing they demonstrat­e clearly that, contrary to some of the more hysterical assessment­s of securocrat­s, terrorism is not remotely an existentia­l threat to the US.

And as Mueller and Stewart argue: “Overall, vastly more lives could have been saved if counterter­rorism funds had instead been spent on combating hazards that present unacceptab­le risks.”

But, in truth, the hyping of the threat of terrorism at home suits the agenda of those who want to promote an arms economy and to project US power abroad. It also suits the electoral ambitions of Republican hawks and the mad right-wing radio jocks who promote them.

And it scares the living daylights out of any politician who might want to be brave enough to say: “Steady on, let’s get this in proportion . . . ”

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