[SCMP Column] Growing risks

July 23, 2016

Sometimes the world is a puzzling place: last year in the United States there were 372 mass shootings, killing 475 people and wounding nearly 2000. Of these, 64 were school shootings. Yet after just three terrorist atrocities in 18 months in France, a nation is in shock and a national witch hunt is under way to blame officials for failing to anticipate the Nice rampage.

How is it that crazy armed people in the US can go on the rampage over 370 times without a national outcry, while the desperately sad death of 84 people in Nice traumatizes a country – and perhaps Europe as a whole - and throws it into national mourning?

How is it that tourist visits to France – one of the world’s leading tourist destinations - have slumped by 11% since the first atrocities, while tourism around the US is unaffected by the reality of more than one mass shooting a day?

The reality is that people perceive risk differently, and often very inaccurately. Panels of ordinary citizens interviewed on risk gravely fear nuclear power, flying in airplanes, being a policeman, or fighting fires. Panels of technical experts fear none of these things. Instead, they fear X-rays, electric power, swimming, surgery and pesticides. We ordinary folk fear the unfamiliar more than the familiar. We fear things outside our control. We fear things we can’t clearly observe.

The fear in most mainstream media in the US or Europe is that the terrorist threat has surged to unprecedented levels. Through the lens of hyperactive social media, we must be vigilant against a fast-spreading danger of Islamic terrorism. No doubt, international tourism has fallen sharply as people stay home and avoid crowded places. Tourist bookings to Turkey have slumped 69% since the recent airport bombing, and will no doubt fall father after last week’s failed coup attempt.

But take a deep breath, step back a moment, and take a careful look at the risks around us. In 2015, there were a total of about 30,000 deaths worldwide due to terrorism. By historical measures, this is indeed high, but 78% of these mortalities occurred in five countries – Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. I sense these are not places most of us seriously plan to visit soon. That means in the rest of the world, there were about 6,000 deaths attributable to terrorist acts. Boko Haram in Nigeria was responsible for more terrorist deaths than IS, but few would think it, given the widespread trauma around recent European tragedies. The reality is that lethal attacks like Nice are rare but increasing – just 26 last year. It is true that the number of countries seeing more than 500 deaths from terror attack more than doubled last year, but this doubling was from 5 countries to 11 countries. Hardly the world under seige.

As a reality check, note that 437,000 people were last year murdered worldwide – more than one third of these in the US. In the US alone, 37,000 died from poisoning. Over 30,000 died from accidental falls (and I promise you this number is set to rise rapidly as more and more of us wander our streets gazing deeply into our smartphones). Road traffic deaths last year amounted to 1.25m, with 1.5m HIV deaths. The reality is that if we judge the risks around us objectively, the real care must be in crossing the street or biking to work.
In truth, we live in safer times than at almost any point in the past century. In the second world war, 40m people died worldwide. In the Sino-Japanese war years, 25m perished. Between 1939 and 1945 around 5m Jews died at the hands of Hitler in the Holocaust. In Kampuchea between 1975 and 1979 over 2m died at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. International conflicts and civil wars inflict infinitely more harm than random terror. The relative peace that has reigned over most of the world in the past three decades has made life safer for hundreds of millions.

So do natural disasters inflict much more harm than terror. The 1976 earthquake in Tangshan in northern China killed over 750,000. The December 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean of killed 280,000 unsuspecting innocents along the coast of Sumatra. Over the centuries, Yangze floods have killed millions in central China. The risks from terror pale into insignificance against such ever-present dangers.
Another puzzle to me is how the idea of “terrorism” has become indelible linked with Islam – surely a mistake. In Europe through the 1970s and 1980s, by far the largest number of terror attacks were mounted by Catholic militants in the IRA waging war against Protestant-ruled Northern Ireland. At the same time in Spain, the main terror threat came from Basque Separatists. If you lived in Peru through these years, then it was Shining Path, led by Mao-inspired Abimael Guzman that gave people sleepless nights. Islam may appear to be today’s “clear and present danger”, but that has not been so historically, and need not be so in the future.

Whatever the reality of actual risks facing our daily lives, the distorting prism of our own psychological fears, coupled with social media acting as a powerful amplifier, means that the terror threat will attract infinitely more attention – and funding - from many governments than the real risk justifies. Think of the billions spent in the US on “homeland security” since the 2001 assault on the World Trade Centre, compared with so little policy attention devoted to the harm inflicted on communities by crazy gunmen killing kids in US schools.

If we were paying proper objective attention to the risks that surround our citizens, then as the expert panel noted, we would be doing much more to reduce dangers from X-rays, electric power, swimming and pesticides. And it is arguable that the biggest threats of all are looming unattended: climate change, population growth, and epidemic dangers have the potential to wreak huge damage, but our efforts to protect against these dangers are risible by comparison with the resources being devoted to terror threats. My heart goes out to bereaved families in France, but the reality is that the big risks looming over our futures lie elsewhere.
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