Terrorism: don’t be scared

Terrorism is a bad thing. But so is irrational fear.

One of my favourite factoids is that an Australian has a greater chance of dying from pesticide poisoning than from terrorism. I’m looking forward to the “war on pesticide poisoning”.

While looking around for a time-series for annual number of deaths from terrorism (which I couldn’t find) I found an article by by Wilson & Thompson called “Deaths from International Terrorism compared with Road Crash Deaths in OECD Countries“, published in 2005.

For calm people with a sense of perspective the results are expected. But for the frightened fear-mongers who demand trillions of dollars spending, various wars and abandonment of civil liberties… the facts are quite inconvenient.

For the 29 countries were comparable data was available between 1994 and 2003, the risk of death from driving was 390 times higher than the risk from international terrorism. Given the amount of fear (and consequent bad public policy) aimed at terrorism there are only two sensible conclusions:

* Either we should be scared shitless of driving, and immediately introduce massive government programs to save us;

* Or (as I would prefer) we calm down about terrorism and stop crying for bigger government every time something bad happens.

35 thoughts on “Terrorism: don’t be scared

  1. John

    The decadent West has become the fearful West. We appear to be scared shitless of everything these days – smokes, beer, McDonalds, the sun, the climate, etc etc, and now the free market.

    And you are right to point out that we need to regain a sense of perspective on terrorism. There isnt a radical Islamist waiting to spray us with his AK-47 round every street corner.

    But your analysis with driving is unusually sloppy. Had most Western govts not implemented more stringent anti-terrorism measures, then there would have been many more attacks. The outgoing head of MI5 has pointed out that there are 200 known active cells operating in the UK alone. Russia claims to have thwarted 300 plots.

    Who knows the real figures. But you gotta compare apples with apples.

  2. I like having disincentives for killing other people, due to negligence or malice.

    That said, we have too many road rules and too much wasted resources on “terrorism” related spending – both do little to either lower road tolls or combat terrorism – and some rules and policies are counterproductive.

  3. And, of course, one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero! Who remembered that today is Eureka Day? The Eureka stockade, and all that?
    They were portrayed (by the authorities!) as terrorists and/or criminals, though they thought of themselves as revolutionaries. It was less than 160 years ago!

  4. That is a strangely naive analysis pommy — and seems to rest on an unfounded faith in government and lack of knowledge of the facts.

    There was no change in the trend of terrorist attacks. The is absolutely no evidence that invading Iraq or maintaining Gitmo has decreased terrorism. And the statistics cited in the above paper was for the years 1994-2003… which is mostly before the “war on terror”.

    At no stage was terrorism ever a major risk to the west. You have bought a fear-campaign of impending doom, and you seem to consequently accept the huge loss of freedom that came with it. No different to the people scared of co2. In both cases, the public policy based on fear has caused much more damage than the original problem. Unfortunatly, we all have to pay for your fear.

    nicholas — the “Zimbabwe freedom fighters” are still called “terrs” (short for terrorist) by my dad and his friends. But whatever you call them, they are not (and have not been) a big problem.

  5. Its funny, I posted on Eureka last year and didn’t give it a thought this time around as it didn’t seem that long ago.

    The Eureka miners were looking to throw off the yoke of British oppression and seek freedom whereas todays Islamofascists are seeking to impose their beliefs on the world, so the comparison leaves a bit to be desired.

  6. I would say 9/11 was a big problem. It demonstrated that these terror groups were quite capable of achieving mass harm, and were intent on making significant efforts to wage a terror war on the West. While the current cost/benefit ratio looks quite dubious, and the curtailment of civil liberties isn’t rational, at the time I believe it was a rational decision to attempt to deal with the platforms that allowed these groups to operate. Furthermore, it’s not like George Bush declared war on the world by himself. This was done through democratic processes in democratic countries with the information available at the time.

    I’m not advocating fear, though. It’s just a problem that needs to be sorted by whatever means are most effective.

    However, with driving, I think the public does not understand that it is bloody dangerous! Government has done everything it can to make it as safe as possible and has no new solutions – so 90% of further government safety initiatives will do nothing but cost money. Further safety will be achieved through technological advances, by the usual means, luxury cars leading the way and a very quick flow down to the average joe’s jalopy.

  7. john – i sometimes wonder if you even read the comments before replying to them.

    what has Iraq got to do with my comment?

    what is my fear campaign?

    i apologise to all here that you will ‘have to pay for my fear’

    if you re-read my comment, you might find i was making the exact opposite point. but that might be asking a bit much.

  8. Pommy — Iraq is relevant because it was justified on the back of a big fear campaign about muslim terrorists. The same applies for gitmo, the patriot & asio act and the various other government responses to the terror-fear.

    You are the one who said that the “stringent anti-terror measures” prevented more attacks. There is little evidence of this. Terrorism has always been illegal and the government has always tried to stop it. The cost and trends in terrorism have not been changing and at no time constituted a rationale for more drastic government action (and much bigger government).

    And after making unjustified claims of government success, you then say that my analysis is sloppy? No. The comparison of different causes of death is very relevant and very appropriate. Even if you double, triple, quadriple or times by 100 the amount of terrorism it is still less scary than car accidents.

    So the fear-mongers should calm down, not be so scared, and stop stealing our money and freedoms.

  9. Mick — the terrorist groups were always willing to commit mass killings. That’s not new.

    And while the benefit-cost analysis looks bad now, it also looked bad back in 2003. That was when I actually did my first benefit-cost analysis. It wasn’t a little bad. It was hugely bad under any sensible scenario.

    9/11 was bad… but lots of things are bad. It’s much worse in the long run with irrational fear is allowed to lead to bad public policy.

    At in case in needs to be said again, AQ didn’t exist in Iraq until the USA invaded. Invading Iraq was never going to stop terrorism. This isn’t 20-20 hindsight. It was blindingly obvious at the time for anybody who didn’t have a blind faith in government.

    This isn’t about Bush. He’s just one idiot who made a bunch of bad decisions. I’m sure that you’re right and lots of other idiots also would have made the same dumb decisions. But my point is that having a hugely expensive and liberty-shrinking “war on terror” was always a bad idea. And was never justified by the very small threat that we faced.

    Fear is the lifeblood of government.

  10. What do you think should of happened? And realistically, in the majority of Western minds, nothing is not an acceptable answer.

    AQ didn’t exist in Iraq until the USA invaded.

    Just for your information, this is irrelevant, and to keep bringing it up in the context that terrorists only ever entered Iraq to fight the coalition is being deceptive. The elements that initially formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq were there prior to the 2003 invasion. They were in many ways a competing political group with Al-Qaeda under bin Laden, but also were already getting funding from bin Laden for various operations. So the relationship was already well and truly there. When al-Zarqawi entered Iraq in 2002 he was not on particularly good terms with bin Laden, or at least had some disagreements, and was pushing slightly different political agendas and vying for power. The fact he later decided to call his group Al-Qaeda for practical and political reasons is not really of any substance – the groups were in Iraq, conducting operations both internal and external to Iraq, under al-Zarqawi predominantly, and receiving funding from Al Qaeda under bin Laden. Just because al-Zarqawi changed allegiance in a political power struggle in the fundamentalist Islamic community is really only of consequence to the fundamentalist Islamic community. To everyone else, they’re the same people doing the same things.

  11. There should have been a war on AQ and thankfully there has been. The war on terrorism was and is stupid because it is open ended. It is like a war on hand grenades. Likewise the war on Iraq was misguided, expensive and the objectives ill defined.

  12. A very rational post. Thousands of lives, billions of dollars, for what, to try and make a few people fell safe.

  13. Actually John, a lot of this is about Bush. He refused to listen to advice warning him to send in twice as many troops into Iraq, or otherwise there would be an insurrection.

    No insurrection = shorter occupation period.

    It is obvious how competency would have made Iraq a diversion, not a roadbloack to fighting in Afghanistan. It would have also been massively cheaper. It would have reduced blowback and overall casulties. They would have gotten Saddam quicker. They would have stopped the mobilisation of al Qaida sympathisers. They could have rediverted resources and defeated the Taliban. The neoconservative strategy of spreading democracy and coercing rogue states might have worked (better).

  14. Mark – I don’t get your final paragraph, can you elaborate?

    I haven’t written off the neoconservative strategy of viral democracy through force(!) to enhance your own security. But it doesn’t have a great track record! Having said that, I suspect when the US declines in influence, and China and India rise, there will be a climate of uncertainty, discomfort and mild fear. Kind of like the Cold War, but not as bad.

    Actually John, a lot of this is about Bush. He refused to listen to advice warning him to send in twice as many troops into Iraq, or otherwise there would be an insurrection.

    This isn’t entirely fair. Elements of the US military (many who were considered to be the avant garde thinkers of the day) were pushing the Revolution in Military Affairs doctrine, which in many circles was the new and enlightened gospel. Rumsfeld was a big fan of this. Bush, and many of the US politicians would have reasonably believed that this was the path to follow, especially if all they could do was rely on advisers. That’s not to say there weren’t people on the other side of the equation both at the start, and increasingly as things got underway, so it’s fair to say this is a risk that should have been considered.

  15. I can’t be much more concise:

    A better run Iraq war would have given tactical and strategic benefits in Afghanistan, strengthened the US economy, nipped insurgency and terrorism in Iraq in the bud, reduced blowback and overall casulties and the deterrence effect critical to Neoconservative foreign policy would be more credible.

    I don’t care if it is fair. The buck stops with the President.

  16. Roger that. I agree. Although, you know, so many uncertainties in any war, especially one that’s asymmetric as this one……….it’s a risky business and hard to run well. However, regardless, the buck should stop with the Prez, as Commander-in-Chief, and he paid the price for his lack of success. And rightly so.

  17. I agree that a better run Iraq war is better than a worse run Iraq war. But (1) even a well run Iraq war failed a benefit-cost analysis… the primary reason being that terrorism simply isn’t much of a problem (see original article)… and (2) since when does the government ever run anything properly?

    I find it both amuzing and sad that libertarians seem to be genuinely shocked — SHOCKED — that a trillion-dollar government program didn’t go as expected. Perhaps the next time the government says to be scared and promotes a huge spending program we’ll be more skeptical.

    I fear that some of the “war on terror” has contributed to the relative decline of US global power. And I think that is a bad thing. Despite all of their mistakes, the US is a relatively good world super-power, and certainly better than China.

    And the sad thing is that this whole mess was based on a fear which was drastically over-blown. Just like the fear of co2, drugs, guns etc — the government solution is often worse than the problem.

  18. Wouldn’t a libertarian view be that 9/11 would not have happened had the U.S not been pursuing “strategic interests” (meddling) in the Middle East? If the U.S had no military bases or presence overseas and did not participate in the affairs of other countries then what reason could there be for a terrorist attack on America?

    Wouldn’t the libertarian approach be to immediately withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan (and everywhere else) and commit to a foreign policy of non-intervention/peaceful co-existence?

  19. Jaz, in many ways you are right. Non-interference is the ideal state, though individuals should be free to fight for whatever causes they think might be worth dying for.
    However, many muslims also take the view that the muslim countries should be at the forefront of all human progress, since the Koran tells them that they are the blessed of the world, blessed in this world AND the next! The fact that we have successfully stopped the Caliphate from expanding is an insult to their sense of destiny. Their holy book tells them to wage war until the whole world is Muslim!
    Plenty of scope for terrorism there, even without input from us!

  20. I should have said “little incentive” instead of “no incentive” for a terrorist attack. I know that there may be a minority of extreme Muslims who want to create an Islamic caliphate and this could form the basis of attacks but I think the chance of this would be quite low if there was no American involvement abroad. Certainly I would think that it would be low enough not to have to waste lives and tax money on pursuing potential terrorists overseas. Loss of life and money aside it is argued that it really just encourages more terrorist attacks anyway.

  21. Mark — I wasn’t talking about anybody in particular. But there were many libertarians who were supporting the Iraq war without factoring in the (huge) possibility that things wouldn’t go right.

    Jaz — while I agree with your reference to blowback and I would prefer the US shift to non-intervention, I’m not sure that the logical consequence is immediate withdrawel from everywhere. It’s a bit like those signs in a shop “you brake it, you buy it”.

    Once the war in Iraq started, I think it was very hard to work out the best path forward. Every option (including quick withdrawel) was crap. Another good reason not to go there in the first place.

    Afghanistan is just as difficult. The return of the taliban would be a very unfortunate outcome, but there aren’t many good options to choose from. I think the coalition needs to help Karzai make a deal with the taliban, and they need to effectively (though perhaps not technically) legalise drugs there before the violence will stop. But that approach is not going to happen.

  22. If the U.S had no military bases or presence overseas and did not participate in the affairs of other countries then what reason could there be for a terrorist attack on America?

    The Brady Bunch. They have a lot to answer for. 🙂 .

    Seriously: the extent of US military reach has a lot to do with the collapse of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union and the need of the US to secure its economic interests and ‘open doors’. A lot of this is just imperialism, but a lot of it was competition with communists.

    If the Yanks had taken a somewhat longer view and put their money where there mouth was instead of playing new versions of the same old game they might stand a bit better in the estimation of some regions. Live and learn. Or not.

  23. I really do think John that immediate withdrawal from everywhere would be the approach that a libertarian government should take. As a gesture of good will America could ask Iraq and Afghanistan (and Japan, South Korea and everywhere else) whether they would prefer an immediate withdrawal or a coordinated phased out withdrawal with a very definite time frame.

    I understand the “you break it you buy it” reasoning of taking responsibility for previous policy errors (hence the option of phasing out withdrawals) but I think the libertarian approach to foreign policy is pretty clear isn’t it?

  24. Jaz — the libertarian approach was to never go in there. I don’t think that means we should necessarily pursue immediate withdrawel.

    The same applies in some other areas of government policy. If we abolished the pension, that reform should be “grandfathered” so that it only applies to people who are currently young and can make offsetting personal decisions to save for their own retirement.

    Leaving Iraq now will do little to decrease terrorism. Indeed, by abandoning people who now need America it may (ironically) increase anti-American sentiment. I’m not arguing that the troops should stay. I’m just saying that the best path forward isn’t obvious to me, and that no course of action looks appealing.

    I agree that America could more easily pull back their troops from Japan, Korea and many other countries. But I don’t believe (as do some) that the logical consequence is no troops overseas. If there are some countries happy with accepting some American troops, and having overseas postings provided a clear benefit to America (such as training) then a few overseas posts would be helpful.

    The same applies to Australia. While Australia probably doesn’t get much direct benefit from our peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands… it was probably worth it for the training.

  25. “Jaz — the libertarian approach was to never go in there. I don’t think that means we should necessarily pursue immediate withdrawel.”
    If the libertarian approach was never to go in there in the first place then there is no reason to stay “in there”. As messy as it sounds the logical thing to do would be to remove all forces (within an agreed time frame if need be) and immediately pursue a policy of non-intervention.

    “The same applies in some other areas of government policy. If we abolished the pension, that reform should be “grandfathered” so that it only applies to people who are currently young and can make offsetting personal decisions to save for their own retirement.”
    Yes hence the time frame for withdrawal of troops. It’s a concession to a necessary adjustment of new foreign policy. This should not take years though.

    “Leaving Iraq now will do little to decrease terrorism. Indeed, by abandoning people who now need America it may (ironically) increase anti-American sentiment. I’m not arguing that the troops should stay. I’m just saying that the best path forward isn’t obvious to me, and that no course of action looks appealing.”
    I wasn’t aware that 30 million Iraqis have said they “needed” America. I think the reason it is unclear of the best way forward is because, as you say, America shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. It is inherently flawed policy and there is no neat way of getting around that except by pulling out according to an agreed time frame with the Iraqi government. I think we need to avoid falling into the trap that so many people and governments make of thinking that they know what’s best for other people/countries.

    “The same applies to Australia. While Australia probably doesn’t get much direct benefit from our peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands… it was probably worth it for the training.”
    I can see there might be a benefit in regards to training but I think it is too subjective and open to abuse by the respective governments. Additionally this kind of exercise has to be paid for by the taxpayer which is unacceptable from a libertarian standpoint I think.

  26. One good thing to come out of Iraq is that future US Presidents will at least be a little wary of foreign adventures.

    The most important lesson of a cost benefit analysis is to ignore sunk costs. Even if immediate withdrawal temporarily increased violence in the Middle East, long term this would cost American taxpayers less. Of course such a power vacuum would increase instability and promote the interests of Iran and Syria, while making life difficult for Israel and Turkey.

    Having said that, Iran is growing off the back of this conflict anyway, so withdrawal seems to be a no win scenario for the Iran containment advocates. However, the US already has the ability to shut down Iran without needing to be neighbours.

    Perhaps the best realistic end game is an independent Kurdistan, a Iranian backed Shia-Iraq and an independent Sunni-Iraq.

  27. Jaz — maintaining an army in a non-anarchist world will be paid for by the tax-payer. This already includes training based in Australia. I can’t see any reason why it shouldn’t also include training overseas.

    The grandfathering of pensions would take more than years. It would take decades.

    Perhaps the troops should leave Iraq. However, the argument that “if you shouldn’t have gone, then you shouldn’t stay” is simply a non-sequitor. When the information changes (as it did after the invasion) then it’s necessary to re-do the analysis. Perhaps the analysis says we should leave. I don’t know. But you have to re-do the analysis, based on the new information.

    I like Brendan’s suggestion of a three-state solution. But then again… I always like smaller states. 🙂

  28. John, we might look at it as a useful training exercise but the reality is we are sending troops to a foreign country and participating in the internal affairs of that country which is a direct violation of the principle of non-interference. Period.

    I don’t see the “if you shouldn’t have gone, then you shouldn’t stay” argument as a non-sequitor. You cannot fix inherently wrong policy by doing more of the same. I don’t think you can promote non-interventionism on the one hand while at the same time continue to “interfere” until the present situation.is “fixed”.

    Whether Iraq becomes three states, one state or no state should be left entirely up to the government and people of Iraq to decide for themselves.

    Regarding the year phase out sorry I meant for the case of military withdrawal only not the pension scheme

  29. John, death by terrorism has much wider political and other consequences than death by road accident and so it makes perfect sense for public policy to respond to such deaths asymmetrically.

  30. Stephen, deaths from terrorism only have wider political consequences because of the irrational fear-mongerers demanding political action.

    As for the vague “other” consequences, I wonder if you would support any other multi-trillion dollars spending project based on such a robust analysis.

    Reading between the lines, you seem to be saying “but… but… but… I’m really REALLY scared” and concluding that the government should drasitcally over-react. That is a really REALLY bad approach to public policy.

  31. They are both important. But the situation is that the rate of deaths from terrorism is extremely low and it’s not changing much.

    If you find that scary, then I can only imagine what happens when you see a spider.

    Seriously, there is no way a rational person can see a significant threat here, and absolutely no reason to be making excuses for the fear-mongering crew who are undermining our freedoms.

  32. If they,re the poisonous variety and in the house then I kill spiders. However perhaps it’s spite rather than fear.

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