Terrorism perception vs reality – part 2

I am fascinated by polls and the science of polling.  Yes, some firms have taken a hit for what turned out to be inaccurate predictions (especially when it comes to election results), but we do not have a better way at present to gauge the pulse of the public on any given issue.  It is important to  know what citizens think.  In addition, the public’s set of priorities and concerns can have an effect on policy and decision makers, even if that effect is knee-jerk and not well planned out.

So, what do we do when public perception, as reported through polls, bears little relationship to reality?  I am writing of course, about terrorism and the average Joe’s views on how prevalent it is and what governments should do about it.

One of Canada’s leading polling firms, Ipsos Reid, came out with a survey in late February entitled Canadians Reshape Their Issue Agenda.  Among the findings were that average Canadians are really worried about unemployment, taxes, health care and poverty/social inequality (the top four).  This is of course not surprising in light of our sluggish economy, the precipitous drop in the price of oil and the upcoming Liberal government deficits aimed at boosting our country’s performance.

What was truly interesting to me, however, were the rankings of “immigration control” (#5, higher than education and climate change by a significant margin), crime/violence and terrorism (both of which were rated important issues by 12% of respondents) and “rise of extremism” (8%, higher than the threats to our social programmes).   All of these are linked, even tangentially, to terrorism.  The question then remains: are these perceptions in tune with reality, and if not, why not?

In a country that has seen six terrorist plots in a decade (I leave aside the recent stabbing at a Toronto military recruiting centre for the time being) and two deaths from terrorism, it seems clear that terrorism remains a very rare phenomenon.  From this perspective it would then appear that perception is out of step with reality, at least in Canada.

And yet the occurrence of terrorism outside of Canada is on a completely different scale.  A day does not go by without reports of a terrorist act somewhere and many countries are the victims of attacks on a weekly or even daily basis.  From this perspective it is plain that terrorism is on the rise.  And it is this international increase,  I suspect, that is driving the responses to the Ipsos Reid poll to a large extent.

There are two lessons to draw from this.  First, we in Canada, as a nation of immigrants and one that relies critically on trade, do not live in a bubble.  What happens outside our borders on a variety of levels (economic, political, environmental, cultural, etc.) effects us here and we need to pay attention to it.  When it comes to terrorism, it is probable that international trends and actors will come to our shores one day.  So we need to pay attention.

Secondly, terrorism is the new normal, despite the low number of actors and plots in Canada in recent years.  We are not returning to a terrorism-free world any time soon and it is inevitable that we will be beset by other acts (hopefully foiled acts) in the months and years to come.  Canadians must, therefore, give some thought to violent extremism.  This concern is probably behind the high ranking of immigration control, which has been caught up in the over-exaggerated fears that Syrian refugees will harbour terrorists  in their midst.

But should they worry a lot about it?  No, based on recent history and reasonable future extrapolations.  Reason and careful analysis are not, alas, always the most important considerations when responses to polls are concerned.  On the one hand the customer (i.e. the taxpayer) is always right: that’s why we have elections (the poll that drives democracy).  On the other, governments need to take into account aspects other than polling data.  This is especially true when it comes to our response to terrorism, which must be firm but proportionate.  A knee-jerk response is seldom a good one and that is even more true when it comes to our national counter terrorism strategy.

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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