Political

How serious a problem is terrorism?

There is certainly an intended clue in the very name of ‘terrorism’ about its awfulness. It goes with the standard reaction to any act of terror – that whatever is necessary will be done to tackle terrorists.

Yet for all the widespread phraseology about doing whatever it takes, that’s not really what anyone believes.

Take the simple matter of money. There’s always scope to spend more on anti-terrorism measures, whether it’s employing more people, acquiring more technology or better protecting more properties.

But not even the most authoritarian Labour Home Secretary has never got even close to suggesting cutting funding for the NHS to pay for extra anti-terrorism measures. Nor has even the most right wing Conservative Home Secretary demanded a rise in property taxes to fund an anti-terrorism drive.

All politicians cry “halt” a long, long way short of doing everything – and rightly so. Tackling terrorism is not the only way to save lives or protect our values. Yet there is, if you’ll excuse the phrase, a terror amongst politicians of admitting they are making pragmatic decisions about the limits of their efforts.

It’s partly why, for some, demanding more and more restrictions on civil liberties is so attractive. It is – if you’re not a believe in civil liberties much – a ‘free’ hit. No HM Treasury approval to spend extra money required. No tax rises demands required.

Yet even then it’s not free because civil liberties do matter and they are, after all, part of what we’re meant to be protecting in fighting terrorism.

And the terror they are meant to be protecting us against? Individual deaths do involve horrible tragedy and awful heartbreak. Yet they are – thank goodness – very few in number.

So few in fact that the government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation pointed out that bee stings kill as many people in the UK as does terrorism.

So too do suicides and traffic accidents. Yet politicians never promise to do whatever it takes to end suicide or to abolish traffic accidents.

Driverless cars offer up an amazing opportunity to save lives by making driving substantially safer yet politicians vary between ignoring them, treating them as an amusing idea and taking a modest step or two to encourage them.

None demand that we do whatever it takes to make driverless cars a reality as soon as possible – even though the switch to driverless cars will save far more lives, year after year, than almost any extra steps against terrorism is every likely to do.

Judging the relative live-saving merits of different policies is unpleasant and difficult. We are better off for not living in a world where people try to reduce every expenditure decision about saving lives into a spreadsheet-fuelled calculation designed to maximise lives saved per penny spent. Our attitudes towards life and death and towards making choices don’t collapse into a simple mathematical formula.

But just because we often don’t want to think about it and surround ourselves with many inconsistent sets of priorities isn’t a reason to close our eyes and believe everything wheeled out in the name of fighting terrorism

For the reality is that terrorism kills thankfully few people.

For more on how the media gives far more attention to deaths caused by terrorism compared with deaths by many other causes, see my book Bad News: what the headlines don’t tell us

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