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
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.
To sell an article like the one on offer here, the prudent journalist (or blogger) would back his cliffhanging headline with a provocative and riveting statement (or something “mind-blowing”) in the first sentence; something bloody, something hair-raising (or something contagious, something viral). But what can I say? The headline was already awfully off (“Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks” – nobody hanging on that cliff) and now I squandered the first sentence on an even duller explanation. Seriously though, what can I say? It’s been a totally ordinary day of little dramatic interest. Just another day without terrorist attacks. A good and terror-free day I might say; same as yesterday; and the day before that; a day too placid and sane for this article to go viral. And so it will be left to a few to ponder what I’m about to say and herein lies the irony:
Terrorism in the West isn’t as big of a deal as we make it.
There, I said it; now maybe there will be some outrage after all. But, before you boo me off the stage and hand the mic back to the ones who tell grim tales of Islamic assailants, allow me a word or two (thousand):
The last 15 years since 9/11 have seen the death of 94 US citizens on US soil due to jihadist terror. This includes the recent 49 and 22 casualties in Orlando and San Bernardino respectively. In fact, the years 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2011 counted zero fatalities, while the other years up to 2014 ranged between 1 and 18. In Europe the death toll over these 15 years amounted to roughly 530 lives lost. To get solid numbers is actually quite difficult, as the research for this article taught me. Besides the fact that you have to gather the numbers for each single country in Europe, reasons are the often obscure and lose affiliations of lone wolfs with terrorist organizations such as ISIL (as in the Nice Attacks) or the fact that statistics don’t always distinguish between civilian fatalities and police or even the dead assailants.
Anyhow, the numbers certainly haul enough information to get an idea of the magnitude of “Islamic terror in the West”. One might say some 600 people in 15 years are some 600 too many and I concur. Innocent people dying in heinous attacks makes me as furious as anybody. BUT, and this is rightfully an all-caps BUT, let’s shove emotion aside here for a moment to put these numbers in deadly context.
During the same period, each year some 600,000 people in the US alone died of heart attacks, totaling up to a staggering 9 million since 9/11. In Europe the yearly mortality rate of heart related illnesses (cardiovascular diseases or CVDs) is 4 million, hence claiming responsibility for about half of all deceased on the continent.
Now, everybody knows that heart disease is the main course on death’s platter and you can imagine that cancer and traffic accidents make for more than a little side dish. So let’s dredge up some statistics a little more exotic (I will limit this to the US as it is a lot easier to pull data for one country than for the whole of Europe):
Falling out of bed: 600 annual casualties ≈ 9,000 since 9/11
Dog attacks: 33 annual casualties ≈ 490 since 9/11
Lightning: 31 annual casualties ≈ 450 since 9/11
Plane crashes: 26 annual casualties ≈ 391 since 9/11
You see where this is going. The 94 fatalities in the US due to Islamic terror since 9/11 are easily outshone, or rather overshadowed, by the 9,000 of us who died rolling out of bed and even by the hundreds who have been struck by lightning. For some more figures of the like have a look here. The likelihood of dying by the hand of a terrorist assailant is even more negligible than these exotic life-endings and yet no government has declared a war on lightning or dogs yet. That would be silly.
Bocas del Toro / Panama no war on dogs has been declared yet
And even though, from a statistical point of view, the war on terrorism is even sillier, this word carries a connotation far too innocuous to describe such bloodshed. You might say terrorism cannot be compared to lightening; but why, if both kill? It’s not impossible to take precautions against lightning or dog attacks. And while these seem like hardly controllable moods of nature, a dangerous ideology and individual mindset are just as unpredictable and hard to counteract. Why do you think the war on terror has been so terribly unsuccessful? Jihadist attacks in the West are rare, but in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria they have largely increased since we started the war on terrorism; so if anything we’ve worsened things. You might say the war on terrorism has prevented attacks in the West. But who’s to say that these potential attacks couldn’t have been disarmed before we boosted intelligence budgets and how many lives were really saved by occasionally arresting a perpetrator or two? Certainly not the millions that could potentially be saved with a higher research budget for heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
One could also argue that the likelihood-comparison between terrorism and lightning is foul, since we couldn’t possibly let a provocation like 9/11 or the Madrid and Paris attacks slip. But was a war that has claimed at least 1.3 million lives in the countries we waged war upon, among which innumerous innocent civilians, really justified by the death of 2,996 in New York? This number doesn’t even include Syria, but only covers Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a conservative estimate too, while the real number could be closer to two million or more. On a dire side note in terms of numbers, but maybe hitting home on a more personal level in the West, the war has also cost almost 7,000 US soldiers’ lives in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, and left 900,000 injured.
So why is our war still raging after 15 years that have gone by quietly in the West, almost without any civilian casualties?
Let’s put the spotlight, no matter how fluky it is, back on us frail Westerners with our unwarranted anxieties. I don’t want to sound cold, but the number of terrorist victims in the West is today in fact (and facts are so important in these times of blind outrage) negligibly small; small enough for a statistical analyst to use the word “insignificant”.
And yet these numbers shake us to the core, because deep below the conscious surface of our mind, we’re psychologically biased: writing this article reminded me of a paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman that I read during a psychology class at university. It was an empirical milestone in establishing a discipline of cognitive psychology that points out common human biases and earned Princeton professor emeritus Kahneman the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002.
“Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” provides evidence on how we fall victim to our own mind, whenever we try to estimate probabilities under uncertainty. Of particular interest in the context of terrorism is the availability heuristic, which usually helps us to estimate the likelihood of an event by recalling examples we’ve heard of. For instance, we might directly or indirectly know a relatively high number of people who died from heart disease and then correctly guess the likelihood of this cause of death to be high. Yet, in times of omnipresent media exposure, our valuable heuristic might lead us astray: I assume you’ve never heard of anybody dying due to a heart attack on TV, except if that person was a celebrity. You have, however, heard a good earful about Westerners perishing in cruel terrorist attacks and so inevitably your mind will make this event appear far more likely than it is. The dull heart attack won’t get a mention, even though it occurs daily or rather because it does, while the exciting terrorist attack is showered in unparalleled limelight, hence tricking our mind into thinking we’re at risk.
“Kahneman believes that the news media’s disproportionate focus on cases of Western terrorism reinforces such mistaken perceptions. As he explains in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “extremely vivid image[s] of death and damage” resulting from terrorist attacks are “reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation,” leaving us with highly accessible memories of such events. When people who have been exposed to such coverage later assess how likely more terrorism is, such events come readily to mind — and so they are likely to assign probabilities biased upward.”
Simply put: the bloodier the number, the more we hear about it, and the less we care about the actual number value.
Don’t get me wrong with all this spiel about likelihoods and skewed perceptions – I do feel for the victims (as much as one feels for someone he doesn’t know, but more on that in part III); I am infuriated and the image of suddenly facing a merciless gunman sends a chill down my back; I have caught myself checking for exits in crowded places that could potentially be attractive targets. But that’s the crux: this emotional response clouds the factual reality that me getting killed in a terrorist attack is as likely as me winning the lottery, the shittiest of lotteries so to say. To be precise, winning the lottery is more probable (1:14,000,000) than becoming a victim of terror (1:20,000,000).
Yet, the repercussion of a few terrorist attacks in the West in terms of preventive counter-measures is of unprecedented gravity: in the aftermath of 9/11 trillions of dollars have been spent on this belligerent endeavor; torture has become a legit method of gaining intel; and innocent children have been imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay (this may be exceptional, but it shows how far we were willing to go in our frenzy); not to mention that we have gradually imposed a cage of surveillance on ourselves that bears more and more resemblance to Orwell’s 1984.
"...everyone who lets emotion kidnap rationale, will get the false impression that there is a realistic assailant threat in the West, when it is factually less than lottery-realistic. From there, it’s only one slippery step to a landslide fear of immigrants, and, next thing you know, Donald Trump is president of the United States."
The impact of terrorist attacks in the West is so tremendous and out of proportion that I can hardly believe only a handful of people have touched on this topic, like John Cassidy in the New Yorker and Andrew Shaver in the Washington Post. I say “hardly” because I’m well aware of the motives behind main-stream media rather blowing up terrorism than soothing citizens with the notion that the threat isn’t so big after all. The latter simply doesn’t sell; just another day without terrorist attacks doesn’t sell. Madness, chaos and randomness sell; fear sells, blood sells. And so the media and its following (you and me) become some of the biggest contributors to the success of groups like the IS or Al-Qaeda. Only thanks to ourselves they can instill the fear they want us to feel and so we keep running right into their blade when the attack itself is long over.
Some sources estimate the number of IS members as little as 9,000. While these are rather conservative guesses and the actual number might be closer to 100,000, it’s still a group of people, no larger than a small city, which is responsible for less than 300 deaths in the West. And yet it has pulled our strings so hard that we up and jumped like there was no tomorrow. These people are forging the course of history in the making not because they are actually powerful in the West, but because we make them so with our dread. We make them so with every spoken word we dedicate to them and with every like we give to yet another bloodbath-article on Facebook. We make them a much bigger deal than they are with every minute of airtime we grant them. In the same breath we overlook the actual dominion of their power in the Levant, where they cause death every day (this is further elaborated in part III).
But when we blame the media coverage we should foremost blame ourselves. The media is at our service. As long as you and I have an insatiable thirst for horror stories that happen close to us, no matter how insignificant they are within the larger frame, the media will serve them to us, readily and bloody. Thus, everyone who lets emotion kidnap rationale, will get the false impression that there is a realistic assailant threat in the West, when it is factually less than lottery-realistic. From there, it’s only one slippery step to a landslide fear of immigrants, and, next thing you know, Donald Trump is president of the United States and in Europe the picture isn’t much better with right-wing populism and its entourage on the rise.
You could argue that terrorism isn’t all that factors in here and you’d be right. But you cannot deny that fear-mongering is a strong undercurrent in alt-right campaigns, maybe the strongest. In the end terrorism directly correlates with an opposing attitude towards immigration as a whole. We live in a rapidly changing globalizing environment; and while many people (at least in my socio-economic environment) fathom that discrimination is a foreign concept in the natural and privilege-free order of things, many others feel like they need to maintain an order that outs everything foreign and minorities of all shades as harmful. Unfortunately, in the 2016 presidential election in the US, the fearful had the upper hand, at least thanks to the Electoral College. For an interesting survey-based perspective stating that Trump’s following has indeed racist tendencies rather than merely being the so called “economically left behind”, have a look here.
But why do so many live on the lips of radical demagogues in times of crises?
Because they promise easy tough guy solutions, total security and the eradication of all evil. However, absolute security doesn’t exist and the actual visage of evil and its victims might be unexpected, as I will show in the second and third part of this mini-series respectively.
So what’s going wrong here?
First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not saying we shouldn’t take any political or even military measures against terrorism. What we’ve done so far, however, has mostly worsened the situation and if that’s the case, our money would have been much better spent on reducing deadly risks with higher likelihoods; like heart disease or even falling out of bed, as ridiculous as it sounds. Our response to terrorism has been but an emotional one, blinded by the media’s crooked spotlight. All eyes on the atrocious enactment, the spectacle has us shivering in our front row seats and yet begging for encores. All rationale has been banned to the last ranks of media-attention, where it subsides next to critical thinking and statistical facts. And so we let the government lavish our household’s money on the prevention of something less probable than being struck by lightning instead of investing into cancer- research, which could save the lives of millions.
So what can we do me and you?
We can take terrorism and its victims seriously but without dramatizing attacks in our mind. We can try to calm our dismay with a statistical bottom line that reads “you are so very safe” (at least in terms of terrorism – beware of falling out of bed though). We can stop paying too much attention to media pieces on terrorist attacks in the West (and more to the ones that put things in perspective). If we care less about bloodthirsty news of poor white folks being killed by the mean Muslim suicide bomber, the media will dish up less of it, which in return will make our focus less biased. If we give less clicks, less likes and share less of the latest terrorism developments in the West on Facebook, the media will have to entertain us in other ways. For example with some more news on what’s going on in countries that actually suffer from terrorism. I know, they are far away, but it’s still humans living there. Once our focus is sharpened and we see clearer, the ones drifting towards the political right can find more anchorage in the center and throw some of their angst-ballast overboard.
Then the stage might be set for a political mood-swing that urges governments to come up with some new solutions. Lashing out with military fists is getting old quite frankly. How about trying to excavate the roots of dangerous ideologies by means of education for a change, or by reducing disparities in politically unstable countries? Or how about listening to Jonathan Powell? The experienced terrorism-negotiator is an institution in this field and notes that terrorism can never be overcome by military means only. Instead, talking has proven to do the trick throughout history, even if the dialogue with terrorists seems flagrant at first. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Colombia’s parting president Juan Santos is recent evidence of the strategy’s success. After 50 years of FARC-terrorism, Santos has negotiated a peace treaty with the rebels to end the killings.
Moreover, considering that many terrorist organizations emanated from rebel forces we armed, I would say our war-maneuvering is also quite absurd and ironic. Yet, this irony is too dark to shine any smiles, when millions have lost their lives to it.
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 II of III
Accepting the Unacceptable: A Little Bit of Terrorism Is Inevitable
life can't be drained of all its risks
...it is a universe of free will and as such it gives odds instead of guarantees. We have to accept it... 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