Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. That's a word we constantly hear as justification for everything from the passage of new laws to the establishment of special courts to the invasion of countries and overthrow of governments to the various ham-fisted social engineering campaigns being carried out throughout the West to deal with the miasma of religious extremism. Our governments invoke the threat of terrorist attack as though this represented a unique and menacing existential threat to our societies, our way of life and our own lives.
By its very nature and purpose, terrorism is designed to instill fear and anxiety in its target society: a fear that reverberates beyond those immediately affected by the act itself. If this was not the intent, then the crime would not be considered terrorism but simply murder or mass murder. Therefore, the fear and anxiety that terrorism elicits in the general public is largely understandable and is exactly what terrorists hope to achieve.
However, is it rational based on the risks? Let's ask the question: what is the statistical risk of an average Australian, American or British citizen being killed in a terrorist attack and where does this place terrorism on the continuum of risks faced by individuals every day?
The broad answer is not very likely. The more specific answer is that you are at greater risk (if you are an American) of drowning, being killed whilst walking in the street, or falling off a cliff or building than you are of being killed by a terrorist attack. Or, to translate these risks into the colour-coded alert system, here's something Wired Magazine produced last year:
|S E V E R E
Driving off the road: 254,419
Accidental poisoning: 140,327
Given that the resident population of Australia is projected to be 19,767,520,1 that 11 Australians per year, on average, have died in terrorist incidents during the past ten years and assuming that this toll will continue into the future, it follows that the likelihood that a randomly-selected individual will die under such circumstances during a given year is 0.0000006 (that is, a chance of 6 in 10 million or 1 in 1.7 million).Further, given that 55 Australians per year, on average, have died in terrorist incidents during the past two years, and assuming that WTC and Bali-like incidents continue and therefore that this greater toll will continue into the future, the annualised risk of death from terrorism will increase to 0.000003 (that is, 3 in 1 million or 1 in 333,333).
This risk compares to the odds, over the course of an average North American life span (let us assume that these odds are roughly comparable to their counterparts in Australia), that one will die from pesticide poisoning (1 in 200,000), a lightning strike (1 in 30,000), a motor vehicle accident (1 in 60), and disease caused by smoking one packet of cigarettes per day (1 in 6).2 Relative to the major killers of Australians, the 'terrorist threat' is thus minuscule; and to assert that terrorism poses a grave threat to our safety is simply false.
There are a number of implications to this but one of the key points to remember is that terrorism does not pose a sufficient risk to an average American, Australian or British citizen such that our respective governments no longer need to fully justify every cent being spent in the name of fighting terrorism, every law introduced or every liberty suspended (whether temporarily or otherwise).