MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
how me, you, and Western media empowered
ISIS & Co. and the Trumps of this world
PART I of III
Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks
our poor, emotional judgement of likelihoods has dire consequences in the real world
Disclaimer: This article is the first part of a three-piece mini-series titled “Terrorism Is What We Make It.” The idea is to level out our skewed Western view on terrorism, what psychological and public phenomena are responsible, and how our emotional reaction deals right-wing populists into play. The way most of us use the term “terrorist attack” is terribly flawed in itself, as 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 will touch on the three misconceptions that seem most relevant to me in this context and dedicate one article to each issue.
To sell an article like the one on offer here, the prudent journalist or blogger would back their cliffhanging headline with a provocative statement, perhaps something mind-blowing even, in the first sentence; could be something bloody, something hair-raising, or something so contagious that it goes 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 nobody will hear what I’m about to say and that’s the irony:
Terrorism in the West isn’t what we make it out to be.
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 those who tell grim tales of Islamic assailants, allow me a word or two (thousand):
TThe fifteen 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. Without any attacks registered in other Western countries, I will focus on the US and Europe here. To get solid numbers for Europe is actually quite difficult, as the research for this article taught me. Not only do you have to gather the numbers for each country in Europe separately – 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, make this a deep dig.
Anyhow, these excavated numbers certainly carry 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 one would be completely right. These are innocent people who died in heinous attacks. And that’s at least as infuriating as it is saddening. BUT (and this is an all-caps BUT for a big reason), let’s cool our emotions for a moment to put these numbers in perspective.
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, claiming 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 that are a little more exotic (I will limit this to the US as it is a lot more difficult to pull data 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 likelihood of dying by the hand of a terrorist assailant is even less likely than these exotic life-endings, and yet no government has declared a war on beds or dogs yet. That would be silly. Meticulously we counted 94 fatalities in the US due to Islamic terror since 9/11, while 9,000 of us died rolling out of bed without anyone hearing about it. For some more figures of the likes have a look here.
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 beds. But why, if both kill? It’s not impossible to take precautions against falling out of bed, or dog attacks, or even lightening. Lightning might be un uncontrollable mood of nature, but a dangerous ideology is 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 vastly increased since we started the war on terrorism; so if anything we’ve worsened things. And how many Western lives did we really save? Certainly not the millions that could potentially be saved with higher research budgets for heart disease, cancer, or diabetes.
One could also argue that the 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 did the death of 2,996 New Yorkers really justify a war that has claimed at least 1.3 million lives in the countries we waged war upon, among which innumerous innocent civilians? This number only covers Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and doesn’t include Syria. 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?
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 in fact (and facts are so important in times of blind outrage) infinitesimally small. Small enough for a statistical analyst to use the word “insignificant.” I wouldn’t use that word. Every life is significant. But that’s the point. Our emotional response costs a lot more lives than it saves.
Terrorist attacks blow numbers out of proportion 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 one of my psychology classes. 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 dying horrific deaths in terrorist attacks and your mind will inevitably make this event appear far more likely than it is. The lame old heart attack won’t get a mention, even though it occurs daily, or rather because it does, while the bloody terrorist attack is showered in unparalleled limelight, 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, the less we care about the actual number value.
Don’t get me wrong with 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 facing a merciless gunman sends a chill down my back; I have even caught myself checking for exits in crowded places that could be attractive targets. But that’s the crux: this emotional response clouds the factual reality that getting killed in a terrorist attack is as likely as winning the lottery. 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 these 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 the War on Drugs; torture has become a legitimized 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); not to mention that we have gradually imposed a cage of surveillance on ourselves that bears more and more resemblance to Orwell’s 1984.
"And 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 tremendously 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 aware of the motives behind main-stream media blowing up terrorism instead of soothing citizens by telling them that the threat isn’t so big after all, and that today was just a normal day. Just Another Day Without Terrorist Attacks doesn’t sell. Madness and random chaos 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 is already 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 authoring our history not because they are actually impactful and powerful in the West, but because we make them so by feeding them our dread. In the same breath, we overlook the actual dominion of their power in the Levant, where they cause death every day (this is elaborated in part III).
But when we blame the media, we should foremost blame ourselves. The media is at our service. As long as we have an insatiable thirst for horror stories that happen close to us, the media will serve them to us. And 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. In Europe the picture isn’t much better with right-wing populism and its brown entourage on the rise.
You could argue that terrorism isn’t all that factors into this political shift and polarization. True. But fearmongering is certainly a strong undercurrent in alt-right campaigns, maybe the strongest. In the end, terrorism correlates with a lessened openness towards immigration as a whole. Unfortunately, in the 2016 US presidential election, 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. Well, great, but absolute security doesn’t exist and the true 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. Now we let the government squander our household’s money on the prevention of something less probable than being struck by lightning instead of investing into cancer research.
So what can we do, me and you?
We can take terrorism seriously but without dramatizing attacks. We can try to calm ourselves with a statistical bottom line that reads “you are extremely safe” (beware of your bed though). And we can stop paying too much attention to media pieces on terrorist attacks in the West (and more to the ones elsewhere). Less such news views, less news blues, less emotional bias, less fear, more anchorage in the political center for those drifting towards the right.
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 (instead of arming rebel forces that birth the very terrorist organizations we are trying to eradicate)? 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 egregious 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.
from the same series
MINI-SERIES: TERRORISM IS WHAT WE MAKE IT
how me, you, and Western media empowered
ISIS & Co. and 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
No matter how much we want this world to be predictable and safe, we have to accept that complete certainty, and with it, complete security, are complete illusions. read more
Part III of III
Of Muslim Victims, White Terrorists, and Indifference towards Faceless Strangers
how we overlook the real victims and perpetrators of terrorism
How do we arrive at such clouded conclusions, mistaking us for victims and actual victims for perpetrators, in an age where all the facts are readily available? read more