Steven Pinker and terrorism – time for some good news

I have just had the pleasure of seeing Steven Pinker give a talk at the Ottawa Writers’ Festival about his new book Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress.  Picking up where he left off in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined, Mr. Pinker makes a compelling case for why things on this planet are not as bad as we think they are.  In fact, if you follow the numbers, the world is in better shape than it ever has been, if by better you mean life expectancy, death from disease, incomes, ‘happiness’, etc.   I have no intention of summarising this man’s work  in a blog but can say with confidence that he has me convinced that, even with the remaining challenges we face as a species, and there are many serious ones that we may not resolve – not because we can’t but because we decide not to – we are indeed living at the best time in human history according to every meaningful measurement.

Mr. Pinker began his talk by trying to show why we think we are going to hell in a handbasket.  He cited negative news bias, the odd attraction of bad news vs. good news and a whole series of cognitive phenomena that serve to minimise the good and maximise the bad.  It turns out that it is hard to act and see the world rationally and through the lens of reason but that if you can achieve this you cannot arrive at any other conclusion that we have it pretty good.

As I sat there listening to him, and the irony of the superiority of reason over faith and superstition was not lost on me as the talk was delivered in an Ottawa United Church, my mind turned, as it often does, to terrorism.  You see, much like Mr. Pinker, I believe that things are not as dire as most people think when it comes to terrorism, and I’d like to trot out a few stats of my own (not that I can replicate his mastery of numbers!) to support my views.

Starting with my own country, Canada, it should be beyond doubt that the threat from terrorism, focusing on Islamist extremism which remains the #1 terrorist menace no matter what others tell you, is minimal.  Yes, I know that the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre (ITAC) has set the national threat level at medium (halfway up the scale), but according to my calculations we have seen two deaths from jihadis in Canada since 9/11.  Two. If you add in the massacre at the mosque in Quebec City in January 2017, which was carried out by a possible white supremacist (by the way, the alleged perpetrator has pleaded not guilty), that number jumps to eight.  Eight deaths from terrorism in this country since 9/11 (less than one every two years).  This rate of death is so small as to be essentially zero.  So, the Islamist terrorist threat in Canada is essentially zero.  Of course we have to factor in, if we can, the lives saved thanks to CSIS and the RCMP and their investigations (Toronto 18, etc.) but even then the numbers are very,very, very small.

When we extrapolate out to the world we do see a precipitous spike in deaths from terrorism from 2011 to 2014 (from 8200+ to 43500+), although the numbers have fallen since.  And if you take into account two important factors – the rise of the barbaric Islamic State and the fact that two-thirds of deaths occur in five countries (Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Pakistan, all of which are either at war or near war) – you see that just about everywhere else terrorism is a non-factor.

I realise that I am writing this in the wake of the attacks in southwestern France last Friday and I do not intend to minimise the loss of human life.  But it is really important to keep the terrorist threat in perspective.  I have said it before but it bears repeating: terrorism is real and serious but not an existential threat and all but non-existent in most of the world.  In an era of pessimism and concerns  over the rise in illiberal populism and rising inequality, problems we need to resolve, we cannot allow the minor spectre of terrorism to dominate the headlines as it does.  As Mr. Pinker says we are in a good place and getting better all the time.  Yes, there will be roadblocks and some backsliding, but we need to maintain a rationed view and not give  in to fear, superstition and the error of the crowds when it comes to the terrorist threat.  Terrorism is not as bad as we are led to believe.

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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