Does the fear of terrorism outweigh the actual threat level?

So what are YOU afraid of?  Snakes?  Sharks?  Public speaking?  For me it is heights.  I have a hard time even climbing a ladder to clean out the eavestroughs at home.  Seriously, a metre off the ground and I get weak in the knees.  Yeah, I know, what a wimp!

What about terrorism?  Does it freak you out?  Well, it certainly does that to a lot of people.  It consistently ranks high on lists of what people worry about.  The problem is that this fear is wildly disproportionate to the actual incidence of terrorism, depending of course on where you live. If you are a citizen of Iraq or Somalia or Afghanistan you have a justifiable reason to be constantly on edge since in those countries terrorist attacks are a daily occurrence and/or possibility.  Whether crossing the street, lining up at a government office or having a coffee in a public square you are potentially exposed to a very real chance of dying in a suicide bombing, an IED or a vehicular attack so it is not hard to see why you would be nervous.

The same cannot be said for us here in Canada and, to a similar extent, in the US (Europe is a different story but even there Europeans should not be as afraid as Iraqis or Somalis).  In the post 9/11 period, 100 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on US soil, and half of that number succumbed to the Orlando night club Islamist extremist.  In Canada, the total is two (you read that right: two) unless you count the six who died in a mosque shooting in January 2017, although the suspect has not been charged with terrorism  under Canadian law.  Whether it is 100 or 2 (or 8), that is a very small number indeed over almost two decades.  As many have pointed out, more people drown in bathtubs every year than die in terrorist attacks in North America.

That comparison is both useful and useless, however. Useful in the sense that it helps to give us perspective on the scale of the problem we face: i.e. terrorist deaths are a statistical blip.  Useless in that it does not take into consideration the fact that there is a large corollary effect of terrorism that does not exist for bathtub drownings.  Allow me to elucidate.

Bathtub drownings are tragic accidents (usually, unless we are talking about an episode of Midsomer Murders!): terrorist attacks are deliberate acts.  Bathtub drownings rarely involve more than one person: terrorist attacks can kill dozens, hundreds or even thousands as we saw on 9/11.  Bathtub drownings do not have any message other than ‘don’t fall asleep while bathing’ or ‘keep the radio away from the lip of the tub!’: terrorist attacks are chock full of messages – in fact violent acts that do not send a message are not terrorist in nature.  Bathtub drownings never (seldom?) make the front page: terrorist attacks always (usually?) do.

It is thus clear why we worry more about terrorist attacks than we do about bathtub drownings.  The latter, though tragic, do not have wider societal effects.  The former do, in terms of budgets, military actions (drone strikes, invasions and occupations) and the negative repercussions across society (distrust, animosity, fear of the Other, etc.).

There is one similarity between bathtub drownings and terrorist attacks though and that has to do with preventability.  It is not clear what can be done to decrease the number of bodies found floating in a shallow pool of water – aside from watch your toddler in the tub – and equally not clear how to prevent terrorism.  Yes, we pay our security and  intelligence agencies oodles of money to detect and deter, and we are throwing gazillions of dollars at CVE, PVE, PRV and a whole alphabet of prevention programmes, but can we really put a dent in those who radicalise to violence and execute terrorist acts?  Great question: I am a healthy skeptic on the efficacy of what we are doing (a theme I go into a great deal on in my book ‘An end to the war on terrorism’ that is coming out this month).

In the end fear is often irrational and it is far from obvious what we can do to address it.  Some people will just be afraid of things that really pose a limited threat to them.  Like terrorism if you are a Canadian.  We need to be cognizant of the actual threat and still try to put it in perspective.  But then again that is why fear works: it is not often subject to perspectivisation (is that even a word?).  So, yes we will continue to over-emphasise the threat terrorism poses but that is ok, unless it leads to counterproductive or disastrous results (like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq).  It is those mistakes, driven by fear (and shitty intelligence) that we must guard against.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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