Ross Gittins’ column in today’s SMH takes up a topic sure to get RWDBs foaming with apoplectic rage:
FORGIVE me if I’m not shaking in my shoes over the risk of terrorism on our shores. There is a risk, of course, but it’s being greatly exaggerated. My scepticism comes after 30 years in journalism, watching such scares from close quarters. …
The risk of being killed in a terrorist attack is very much lower than the risk of being killed on the road. Yet after the attacks of September 2001 in America, many people switched from travelling by air to travelling by road, presuming it to be safer.
Gittins goes on to contrast the extraordinary public, media and political attention currently being given to terrorism with the much lower profile of (arguably) objectively more serious issues like road accidents and youth suicide.
Paul Norton takes up the same issue at Larva Rodeo (which has just mercifully been redesigned in a much less bilious purple theme than the previous one), and cites the somewhat hysterical (not to mention hypocritical) approach of politicians to illegal drugs like cannabis by comparison with legal but more risky drugs like alcohol. His post, like Gittins’ article, is well worth a read.
But Gittins’ article prompted me to explore the rather narrower question of just how great the current world risk of terrorism actually is, and how it has varied over time. You’d swear blind from media coverage and politicians’ responses that we are living in a new age of unprecedented risk of terrorist attack. But is that actually true?
From this WAPO article you’d think that the answer was unequivocally in the affirmative (albeit that you might also begin thinking about why that might be the case):
Overall, the number of what the U.S. government considers “significant” attacks grew to about 655 last year, up from the record of around 175 in 2003, according to congressional aides who were briefed on statistics covering incidents including the bloody school seizure in Russia and violence related to the disputed Indian territory of Kashmir.
Terrorist incidents in Iraq also dramatically increased, from 22 attacks to 198, or nine times the previous year’s total …
But a bit more Googling puts these scarey figures in perspective. This 1997 Christian Science Monitor article (written in the wake of the bombings of US embassies in Africa) observes:
Terrorism declining? The bombings come at a time when the number of terror incidents has been on a general decline. There were 304 terrorist attacks in the world in 1997, according to the State Department. That figure represents one of the lowest terrorism totals since 1971.
Thus, while terrorist attacks for 2004 were more than double the figure for 1997, the latter figure was one of the lowest since 1971 . Even the horrific 2004 terrorist attack count appears not to be especially high by comparison with “terrorism’s 1970s heyday”. Moreover, some 2/3 of the doubling of terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2004 is accounted for specifically by attacks in Iraq, events it is reasonable to suggest would mostly not have occurred had the West simply left Saddam in power (whether that would have been preferable on balance is a topic exhaustively canvassed in the past).
A similar picture emerges when we focus solely on air hijackings, as this analysis, written a little over a year before the September 11 hijackings, makes clear:
The number of hijackings peaked in the U.S. at 35 in 1969, and peaked at 53 for foreign carriers in 1970. The hijacking threat during this period, both in the U.S. and globally, galvanized authorities to put in place many of the security procedures seen routinely in operation today. As a result, the growth in the average rate of hijackings has abated.
From the history of hijackings, a number of observations can be made:
* The number of hijackings occurring each year is going down, including overseas (i.e., non-U.S. registered aircraft).
* In the peak years 1969-1970, there were eight times more hijackings than occur today.
Although the September 11 2001 hijackings were especially horrific and resulted in extraordinary loss of life, the fact remains that they occurred against a backdrop of falling overall numbers of hijackings, a trend that has continued thereafter.
It all leads to an obvious question. Why is there so much media and public attention on terrorism today, and such a plethora of quite radical anti-terrorism legislation which significantly impinges on basic human rights and freedoms we have previously taken for granted, when the objective threat level is almost certainly no greater than that which existed in the 1970s? Gittins and Norton point to the various vested interests who benefit from exaggerating the extent of the terrorism threat. But those vested interests also existed in the 1970s, so why didn’t they succeed in stampeding public and political opinion in those days? Were we more concerned with the objectively larger threat of communism, and therefore more able to keep the lesser but still significant threat of terrorism by non-state actors in perspective? Are today’s political leaders more willing than their predecessors to scare the bejesus out of the voting public for short-term electoral gain? Or are there other reasons?
Now before RWDB readers go ballistic, I stress that I’m not arguing against taking terrorism seriously. I’m not even arguing against some version of the current anti-terror bills before federal parliament (albeit with much stronger human rights and accountability safeguards). I’m simply suggesting that we should be keeping our emotional and legislative responses proportionate, and I’m also wondering why so manifestly we’re failing to do so.