There is a phrase I love and which I would like to share with you today as it has a lot to with the theme I want to briefly develop. It’s “past performance is no guarantee of future results”. You may have seen this before, on prospectuses for mutual funds or investments for instance. In essence it means that just because something has happened in the past, especially the recent past, you shouldn’t bet the mortgage – or your savings accounts – that similar patterns will repeat.
I suppose a lot of us have this mistaken idea about how events should turn out (for instance when given a puck to steer through a curved tube many think that the puck will continue on a curved path once it leaves the stick: the correct strategy is to set it on a path that is a tangent to the curve). Then again some of this may be intellectual laziness. In any event, making decisions based solely on your analysis of past events is not a very good idea.
This idea came to me as I read a piece by Gary LaFree of the START Consortium on Terrorism at the University of Maryland. In a recent article on The Conversation Web site Mr. LaFree wrote that “over the past few years terrorist attacks worldwide have actually been declining – in some areas substantially.” He uses impressive statistical analysis to back up his beliefs and it is fairly clear that he is correct. At the same time he does concede that there are a few ‘terrorism hotspots’ where the opposite is happening.
Is it thus time to celebrate and end the ill-advisedly named ‘War on Terror’? Not quite. Aside from the ongoing hotspots there are some areas where I would submit that more terrorism – not less – is more likely in the immediate future: Somalia, Nigeria and the Sahel region of Africa come to mind immediately. In addition there are situations in a number of countries which could escalate terrorist activity: Myanmar, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia are at the top of my list, as well as India-Pakistan especially in the wake of current tensions over Kashmir. Added to all this is the prediction by some that the world will see a spike in far right/nationalist terrorism in the years to come (if it is not already here). One more thing: the ‘end’ of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, as inaccurate as that statement is, will not necessarily lead to an absence of future terrorism by the group.
At the same time it is important to keep reminding people that terrorism does not represent an existential threat to anyone. The level of menace will vary from place to place but we cannot allow a disproportionate and unsupportable fear-based perception of terrorism to dictate our response to it. We have done so in many ways since 9/11 and look where that has gotten us.
Although a continued slide in terrorism would put me out of a job as a terrorism commentator I would welcome that development. Besides I really need to ‘retire’ someday as my kids and everyone else seems to remind me with annoying regularity! Here’s hoping Mr. LaFree’s predictions are bang on, although he does end his piece on a cautionary note: “at the same time, we must humbly admit that prediction is the most precarious task of the social sciences.” We would be smart to bear that in mind.