Lies, damned lies and statistics

It is obvious that a lot of people are worried about terrorism.  The news is full of stories of attacks, both successful and thwarted, and sometimes really alarming accounts like the news out of France that the government suspects that there are 15,000 French residents radicalising.  More than 70% of Americans think more terrorist attacks are likely in the near future.  Many are changing travel plans out of fear that a terrorist attack will take place if they go to a certain country (or even continent – like Europe).

These fears are of course not completely unfounded.  Terrorism is real and there have been attacks in a worrying array of countries lately: France, Belgium, Germany, Turkey, Australia…  In addition, the threat  does not appear to be dissipating any time soon.

And yet despite the reality of terrorism, events are still few and far between.  Even if the news is full of accounts of terrorist acts, they are not daily – or even monthly – occurrences in the vast majority of nations. Of course there are exceptions like Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan where terrorism is at least a weekly thing, but these are not the areas of the world being shunned by Westerners out of fear that tourist spots are now dangerous places.

The statistics have been talked about ad nauseum, about how you are more likely to drown in your bathtub or get hit by lightning than die in a terrorist attack.  And yet these statistics do not seem to register with most people. The fear of terrorism leads us to make decisions that are not only baseless but actually expose us to greater danger.  In the year after 9/11 many decided that driving is safer than flying and this change in transportation is believed to have led to 1500 more traffic deaths than normal.  Why then do we act this way?

There may be something neurological going on here that makes us react the way we do to bad news.  According to an academic at Oxford, when we are exposed to threats the fear system in our brains is activated and that part of us works to shut down the rational part of brain.  As a result we actually seek out more bad news.  If this is true it may account for our tendency to believe things are worse than they are.  It’s as if fear takes over our lives and shuts down the ability to think of other possibilities.

All is not hopeless though.  As humans we have an uncanny ability to adapt to change.  Terrorism has become the new normal and we have altered some of our responses to deal with it (think of the way air travel has become).  As the situation shifts so do we.  And the shifts do not have to be negative all the time.  The fear of attack has also led to some great initiatives on integration and social cohesion/resilience.

We can elect not to react to the terrorist threat in unhelpful ways if we so choose, irrespective of what our brains are telling us.  Politicians and senior officials can put forward positions and attitudes that, while demonstrative of the seriousness of the issue, do not cause panic or contribute to negative and counterproductive stereotyping.  We also have to communicate rational policies and approaches and not give in to the demagoguery which is all too prevalent these days.

At the same time we really have to keep the threat picture in perspective.  The world is not as bad as we may think it to be.  We must try to react in a proportionate way to the dangers we face, meet the challenges as they appear, but also continue to live or lives in an optimistic, yet realist, manner.  After all, what is the alternative?


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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