the problem of terror

There are many ways to help people manage their emotions about terrorism, but diminishing every act of terror to a statistical comparison to all the ways you are more likely to die isn’t one of them.  

For one, this form of statistical level setting often overlooks or understates the full impact of terror, because people tend to only focus on death toll and not total casualties.  For example, approximately 3,000 people died on 9/11, but in total 9,000 were killed and injured.  So only focusing on the dead reduces the casualty toll by nearly 3x.  In the 1990’s, the biggest terror attack on US soil in terms of death toll was the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing, which killed 168 people, while the 1993 WTC bombing only killed 6 people.  But the total casualties (killed and injured) of both events was greater than 2100.  

Even today, I’ve seen folks diminishing the gravity of yesterday’s terror attack in London as something the rational among us should not be worried about, because “only 4 people died” (out of London’s massive population).  First of all, yes, while “only 4 people died”, somewhere greater than 40 were injured.  So the number killed and injured is approaching 50 people.  This is not a normal event.  Londoners should not have to learn to accept this as “just another among many ways to die on Westminister Bridge”.  I also don’t think that the average person really is that concerned about themselves being the victim of a low probability terrorist attack.  People’s reactions are not about the relative risk of being a victim of one, but more about what they represent.

To understand this you have to understand human nature.  Terrorism exploits a tendency in people to out group whole populations simply because they are seen as not being in alliance with one’s own interest, and sometimes breeds further conflict that can at times spark whole wars between states.  So the presence of terror in one’s community has important implications for group relations and group harmony in a broader sense.  It can also be just the tip of the iceberg to far more insidious problems lurking below the surface and behind closed doors (such as underground networks of militarized young men with a passion for the afterlife and very little to lose in the here and now).  

While terrorism is not foreign to Europe or even to London, the notion that the kind of terror we are seeing today is something that is just “part of the usual happenings” of European society is a bit mendacious.    Certainly there are important distinctions between previous acts of terror on the continent and the form driven in part by religious fundamentalism taking place now.  I was in Paris this last winter and witnessed first hand the ways that society is having to adapt to this new way of life, and it was a bit depressing.  From heavily armed, military foot patrols all over the city to the new barrier around the Eiffel Terror, something is different about the city of lights. 

So while we should not ostracize people for being part of groups whose minority sects are giving everyone else a bad rap, we should still take very seriously the threat of terrorism and the way it eats away at the fabric of decent society.  If we want to help people to learn to live together, we must tackle the subject by giving it the full weight and attention it deserves, because regardless of how likely we are to ever be involved in a terror attack (vs, say, a car accident), what we know about human nature and human psychology indicates that terrorism will continue to wage phsycological warfare on human populations for now and many years to come, and we dismiss the implications of this on our society at our own peril.


4 thoughts on “the problem of terror

  1. Good post! I might add that since the London terror attack targetted the Houses of Parliament, the political impact of this atrocity far outweighs the number of casualties. The minds of our politicians will be focused once again on a particular religion which they will nobly defend and praise.. The government will proceed to announce that it will never be influenced by terror, and then proceed to put forward policies to “deal” with the threat. Huge sums of money will be thrown at the problem, and thereby the terrorists will have achieved one of their aims – to disrupt the society they have attacked.

    Would you mind if we re-posted this at our new political website “The Participator” (crediting you as author and linking to your blog of course)?

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      1. Thanks, Chauncey – I’m jumping on a coast to coast flight right now but may try to participate later. Don’t put a lot into my blog other than reposting what I post to Facebook. Perhaps I’ll start putting more into the blog as well. Thanks again for the exposure and kind words!

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