MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
How me, you and Western media empowered ISIS
& Co. and fueled the Trumps of this world
PART II of III
Accepting the Unacceptable: a Little Bit of Terrorism Is Inevitable
life can't be drained of all its risks
Disclaimer: This article is the second part of a mini-series titled “Terrorism Is What We Make It”, consisting of three pieces to be seen as a whole. The idea is to show how skewed our Western view on terrorism oftentimes is, what psychological and public phenomena are responsible, and how our emotional reaction deals right-wing populists into play. The way many of us use the term “terrorist attack” nowadays is in itself terribly flawed, which is further elaborated in the third part of this series. For the sake of argument I will use it for now, as it is commonly used: Jihadist terror killing Western civilians on Western soil. I want to touch on three misconceptions (dedicated one article each), and while I’m sure there are many more, these seem most crucial to me.
If one of these 90s sales agents in ocher suits would arrive at your doorstep with a briefcase full of bubble wrap, targeting a significant chunk of your household’s money by frightening you with the possibility of getting killed by a piece of your own furniture, all the while telling you that even with his bubble wrap there wouldn’t be an absolute guarantee for your safety – would you bite? Possible answers that I entertain you mumbling in your head are:
“Yeeeah right” with an undertone soaked in sarcasm;
“Mhmhmh, I see where this is going, haha, very well, very well indeed”;
Or “Shut your pie hole and get to the point.”
This one is no toughie. It’s a rhetorical question, so obvious in its intent, so undeserving of an answer. What are the odds after all and who would spend a lot of money on the prevention of something so unlikely, especially if utter security was never part of the twisted deal in the first place?
And yet, this rhetorical query lost its sharp and smug edge, when we all started buying into something just as far-fetched and ominous, and when our government depraved its household of a huge chunk to minimize a risk that is negligible.
Since 9/11 Western governments have pumped trillions of dollars (yes, that’s your tax money) into the war on terrorism; a war that, if it were ever to successfully rid the world of terrorism, would have accomplished as much as eliminating the risk of us getting killed by our own fridge or TV. Indeed, that’s the likelihood-neighborhood we’re talking about here. But there’s another hook:
There is no such thing as absolute security in this world (which is actually a good thing as I will argue later on).
The first article of this series revolved around likelihoods and statistical evidence that renders the threat of dying in a terrorist attack on Western soil as minuscule (less probable than winning the lottery). Moreover, I elaborated how the response to terrorism we’re experiencing is unjustified and fully out of proportion: from a ubiquitous fear of (Muslim) immigrants and the swift ascent of the Trumps of this world to millions of casualties during the war on terrorism. And, while emotion deports the rationale we’d so desperately need at the verge of rising right-wing populism, so very few people have shed light on the actual facts.
The fact that there is no total security in this world, however, has basically gone by completely unacknowledged. Only one small sentence in John Cassidy’s New Yorker article hints to this:
“They want absolute assurances, which no government can provide.”
But it’s not only the government that can’t provide it; such certainties are simply not granted by the universe we live in. No matter how much we want this world to be predictable and safe, we have to accept that this kind of security is a mere illusion. It’s just a matter of fact, chiseled in the very fundament of our universe, that there is no such thing as absolute certainty. Even physicists, who live off predictability and stringent formulas, have to admit at the end of a day in the lab that coincidence and probabilities guide and guard the most fundamental realms. But let’s not get too theoretical here. We are all familiar with the human dimension of narratives and know that a bus could hit us tomorrow, that a cancer diagnosis might await us next year, and that a lightning bolt could end our story some day.
We know these things. We know and we accept. Why do we have such a hard time accepting that we could get killed by terrorism, even though it is far less likely than all of the above (even lightning)? Why do we cling so desperately to the eradication of any last tiny terrorist threat, instead of just accepting the reality that there will always be some bad guys out there and that a handful of us will die in extraordinary and cruel ways? To think terrorism is easier to contain than other random acts or that a war on terrorism is more justified, is an illusion as argued in part I of this series.
We’re more likely to prolong our lives, if we try staying out of heart attacks rather than terrorist attacks.
It all comes down to a matter of likelihoods and that’s all we can build our security-efforts on. But, instead of doing the obvious and focus on the avoidance of perils with higher probabilities, we get carried away by our shuddering hearts and spend trillions of dollars and many soldiers’ lives on further minimizing a tiny risk that could never be eradicated in its entirety to begin with. After 9/11 commercial air-travel changed radically. We invested huge sums and inaugurated myriad new regulations to make it safer so that no one could ever hijack a plane and fly it into a skyscraper again. But to assume that terrorists won’t find another way to hurt us is just naive.
It’s like cops and robbers (excuse the benign example): we can be nifty and make the vault safer, but robbers will find a new method to get in. Then we’ll respond to that and so on. You see, it’s ever just a reaction when it’s too late already. And the terrorists did find other ways after 9/11. They used bombs and machine guns, blew up trains and airports. No matter how much you raise the security bar there will be no complete warranty for your safety in this life. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t react at all, but we shouldn’t be delusional about the outcome. The sooner we accept that this world doesn’t offer guarantees, the sooner we can focus on threats with higher risks, may that be on a personal scale or on a public policy level.
We’re more likely to prolong our lives, if we try staying out of heart attacks rather than terrorist attacks. Heart disease is the number one cause of death worldwide and claims the lives of many millions. There’s more: heart disease and its runner-ups like diabetes or car accidents are actually well within the domain of our control and something we can actively change anytime by altering our diet or driving slower.
As for the public breadth, we’d do good to redirect the money the war on terrorism gulps towards heart-disease related research or marketing campaigns advertising healthier diets. Now, that could save a significant amount of lives. Even if we can’t completely weed out the risk of disease either, there’s just more leeway in the numbers of salvageable lives. Don’t worry, I understand. I’m not on that healthy diet either and avoiding a heart attack isn’t as newsworthy as fighting “evil” itself. But if we don’t change our focus, we’ll just keep being emotional wusses who will die a million unnecessary ways, while we chase to eliminate a death that is only meant for a handful of us anyway.
Whenever we voluntarily allow perils in our lives, when we climb a ladder, or cross a street, or smoke and drink, we accept the risk. Sometimes we even seek the risk for adrenaline’s sake, we embrace the thrill when we jump out of a plane or go deep-sea diving. It’s the other side of the same risk-adrenaline medal that has terrorism on it. And while I wouldn’t go as far as to say that we should embrace terrorism, I’m a firm believer of cherishing our world’s uncertainty. I think if everything in life was foreseeable and set in stone, this planet would be a pretty dull place. German philosopher Leibniz minted the idea that we live in the best possible universe, even though there is evil. He believed that a universe with free will and evil is still better than one of pure good but determinism. I agree. But, even if wouldn’t agree, that’s the universe we live in. Like it or not, beggars can’t be choosers. It is a universe of free will and as such it gives odds instead of guarantees. We have to accept it. Let’s fight the fights we can fight.
This is not to say that we should ignore terrorism. But we shouldn’t react to it based on emotions instead of rationale, we shouldn’t do it by means that make the problem worse, we shouldn’t by completely overreacting, as discussed in part I. You might find the word “overreacting” inappropriate, but our answer to terrorism is the very definition of the word: “respond more emotionally or forcibly than is justified”.
At the end of the day we have to accept that throughout history there have always been people who were as harmless as to think differently, that political activists have sometimes gone too far, and that at the far end of the spectrum terrorists have wreaked havoc upon innocent civilians. More importantly though, the situation demands our coming to terms with the fact that this will probably never change. It might, but in a universe with free will, there’s ultimately no warranty. What’s the alternative anyway? Big Brother? Again, let me make this perfectly clear: this is not to say that we shouldn’t minimize risks or try to save lives. But we should focus on doing it by the right means, putting up fights that are worthwhile (rather preventing genocide in Syria than saving a handful of lives in Europe), and all the while in acceptance that uncertainty will remain.
Most of us spend our whole lives on a quest to universal answers, may that be in the happiness department or in the creed realm. It’s a hunt defying the simple notion that our condition is human and as such mostly hidden in grey-zones of subjective intangibility. But that’s not the irony here. The irony is that whenever we do encounter a universal truth, an absolute certainty, we try escaping it like crying toddlers in denial of the inevitable diaper change. We actually hate the inevitability of a certainty, like the one of our pending ending. We make up whole religions and fairy tales in our denial of death’s somber certitude.
In the end, the terrorist threat comes down to exactly these jitters that death causes us. Unfortunately, due to the architecture of our psyche, the logic of numbers doesn’t befriend our dread, and so it gets magnified by the cruelty of an event and not by its likelihood (as discussed in part I).
Still, we know this much: death will get a hold of us eventually. And some of us will meet it in extraordinary ways, highly unlikely and surprising; may that be due to asphyxiation during an atomic wedgie, being beaten to death with a bible, or even laughing. I didn’t make these up. Yes, sitting under a swaying palm tree in some worldly Eden, a handful of us will inevitably get killed by a falling coconut. Actually quite a lot of us will die by the hand of another human being, but hardly ever will the motive be Jihadist terror.
Puerto Viejo / Costa Rica dangerous Eden
So what can we do me and you?
We can make peace with the fact that there are no guarantees (of safety) in life. We can even embrace this notion as the beauty of life or as the best possible universe, like Leibniz did. Then we can focus on problems with higher likelihoods. We can’t fully empty the world of these perils either, but to work on minimizing them is more worthwhile than minimizing the almost non-existent terrorist threat. There’s much more personal wiggle-room to reduce the risk of a heart attack than the risk of a terrorist attack. You can change your diet but you cannot hide in your house for the rest of your life (and anyway a piece of furniture could crush you).
from the same series
MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
How me, you and Western media empowered ISIS & Co. and fueled the Trumps of this world
Part I of III
Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks
our poor judgement of likelihoods has dire consequences
... our response to terrorism has been but an emotional one, blinded by the media’s crooked spotlight... read more
Part III of III
Of Muslim Victims, White Terrorists and Faceless Strangers Perishing Unconsidered
how we overlook the real victims and perpetrators of terrorism
...after all we’re talking about human beings that are quite literally in a predicament between the devil and the deep blue sea... read more