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How significant is the risk of terrorism?

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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:

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S E V E R E
Driving off the road: 254,419
Falling: 146,542
Accidental poisoning: 140,327

An article[pdf] in Australia’s Policy Magazine expressed this risk in more statistical terms:

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).

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Amad

    March 16, 2007 at 9:23 AM

    JazakAllahkhair Br. Amir for this excellent commentary. The political use of this color coding system has not gone unnoticed: Whenever critical times approached in the political arena for the Bush crowd, the fear-level turned orange!

    And you have to admit that this traffic-light type system was brilliantly and Machiavellianly designed fear-mongering technique. Rove recognized that the American public in general forgets quickly, has short attention-spans, and in general doesn’t have time for lengthy speeches reminding them how fearful they need to be. So, why not put into place a ‘fear for dummies’ system.

    Last Elections when the Dems rode to power, Bush & Co. didn’t use it; perhaps the signs of an impending defeat were so obvious, that they were afraid that had they used it and still lost, Dems may not let that one go.

    And as the diagram shows, Americans have more to fear from drunken drivers than a terrorist with the proverbial ‘dirty’ bomb!

  2. ibnabeeomar

    March 16, 2007 at 10:14 AM

    i like these better:

    Terror Alert Level

    and

    Terror Alert Level

  3. Mujtaba

    March 16, 2007 at 1:27 PM

    Your front page indicates that this blog has discourses in the Intellectual Traditions, Political Situation, and Social Ethics of Muslim Life. However, I find nothing but rantings & ravings of misinformed/ill-informed folks trying their hand at writing. I have yet to see a decently written intellectual discourse without typographical errors.

  4. khawla hurayrah

    March 16, 2007 at 1:33 PM

    Jazzakallah for this good post!!

    According to American Obesity Association: Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.

  5. AnonyMouse

    March 17, 2007 at 1:29 AM

    Sister Mujtabah (I’m assuming you’re a sister; if not, I apologize!), I’m sorry that you find it so disappointing. However, please read our Welcome message – you’ll see that the long name just points to our fondness for big words and that we don’t actually claim to be intellectuals. We’re really just a group of random Muslim bloggers who simply wish to present our POV on things happening in the real world.

    May Allah forgive us for any errors we may have made; and may He grant us all success in this world and the Hereafter, ameen!

    -Mouse

  6. Yasir Qadhi

    March 17, 2007 at 6:08 PM

    Great article… nice statistics.

    You wrote:
    ” By its very nature and purpose, terrorism is designed to instill fear and anxiety in its target society”

    As soon as I read that, first thought that came to mind was, ‘Isn’t that exactly what the terror alert levels themselves are doing?

  7. Pingback: muslimmatters.org » Homegrown … On the NYPD “Intelligence” Report

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