How to avoid terrorism getting to you

2017-05-16 12.24.18

An apt response from Londoners

So, dear reader, we are now at the end of our long series of posts on the dangers of overreacting to terrorism. While its existence is grotesque, it kills relatively few people and has limited scope to increase that number. It is not a civilisational threat like fascism or communism. Instead, it is merely an unusually malicious form of criminality. By treating it as a more severe issue than it really is, we not only worsen the problem itself, but also create a host of additional problems like the loss of civil liberties or a greater risk of war between states.

What I have not addressed up till now is that it is easier to recognise logically that there is an extremely low likelihood of you or anyone you know being harmed by terrorism, than it is to feel that. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has written that it feels inappropriate to compare the probability of terrorist attacks with other equally unlikely events because:

terrorism presses many of the buttons that psychologists have identified as features of “dread” risks: we feel out-of-control, it affects the vulnerable, and we have seen media coverage of the consequences resulting in a strong sense of “outrage”.

Cass Sunstein, a senior advisor to Obama, claims that people display “probability neglect” when confronted with vivid images of terrorism, so that:

when their emotions are intensely engaged, people’s attention is focused on the bad outcome itself, and they are inattentive to the fact that it is unlikely to occur”. So the “true” risks are ignored: it’s been shown that people are, rather illogically, willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than insurance against all risks, just because the use of the word conjures up dread.

How are we to avoid this trap? How can we take charge of our emotions?

1. Turn off the TV

In an article for Berkley University’s Wellness Magazine, the clinical director of their anxiety centre suggests that:

one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious…If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.

Therefore, she recommends that we:

Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighbourhood…Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.

I think part of the problem is that we consider terrorist attacks to be highly important events and therefore feel the need to scrutinise what is happening. Given that attacks tend to become a big part of our national conversation, it is probably true that you need to know the basics, but once you have got those, feel free to tune out. In particular, you should not feel the need to wallow in harrowing images or alarmist punditry.

2. Do not reward people who magnify the threat of terrorism

If a TV station is producing lots of lurid and sensationalist coverage of attacks (real or potential) then you should turn it off. Programmers know that coverage of terrorism is emotionally compelling and their reasons for producing so much of it are, at least partially, commercial. We should start giving them an incentive to act more responsibly by not watching. Better still, write to explain why you turned off.

The same goes for politicians who hype up terrorist groups. That is not only bad in itself but also indicates a lack of judgement and a tendency to get carried away. Use your vote and your financial contributions to indicate that you expect better from your leaders.

3. Take only proportionate precautions

Last year, the US State Department responded to a series of terrorist attacks in Europe by advising Americans visiting the continent to, among other things, “avoid crowded places.” The advisory does not narrow that warning by place or type of gathering. Apparently entering any crowd anywhere in Europe is too great a risk. The State Department might as well have also advised American tourists in Europe to carry an umbrella to guard against meteorite strikes!

Making substantial changes to your behaviour to reduce small risks is not only unnecessary and inconvenient, but also liable to accentuate your distress. Robert L. Leahy, a Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written in Psychology Today that:

I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.

I’m not a psychologist but I gather they generally take a dim view of avoidance. It is a shame that where terrorism is concerned many public authorities actively recommend it. If they do, you should ignore it.

4. Laugh at terrorists

I have not seen Four Lions, Chris Morris’ comedy about a group of wannabe suicide bombers, who are barely competent enough to make a martyrdom video. However, the approach seems like a good one. It’s certainly preferable, and closer to the truth, than the likes of Homeland and 24, that depict Islamist terrorist groups as implausibly nefarious and sophisticated. Deflating the pretensions of terrorist groups seems not only bad for them, but good for our psychic well-being.

5. Befriend the other

It’s a lot easier not to be scared of the Muslim guy next to you on the plane or the train, if you actually know some Muslims. They will make the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists appropriately vivid to you.

6. Do not use your social media to amplify the impact of terrorist attacks

As soon as an apparently noteworthy terrorist attack happens, it will start showing up in my social media feeds. People will start posting messages like “I hope all my friends in Istanbul are safe” or “solidarity with the people of Brussels”. Facebook will turn on its ‘safety check’ feature.  After the attack in Westminster Bridge earlier this year, I saw several friends who live and work in London but miles away from the site of the attack turning it on. At some point, if the attack is horrendous enough, then the option to overlay your profile picture with a symbol of solidarity will present itself. After the killings in the Bataclan, you could turn yourself into the colours of the French tricolour. After the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, it was the rainbow flag. Then people start opining on what the attack proves, which generally happens to be exactly what they already thought before it happened.

There may be admirable impulses behind this behaviour, but it’s profoundly unhelpful, as it serves to disseminate news about attacks and spread the anxiety that comes with them. Just like conventional media coverage of attacks, discussion of them on social media makes the groups behind them seem more formidable (and therefore more appealing to potential recruits). And even if you are writing a post connecting a place to terrorism in order to show solidarity, that is still helping to forge a mental connection in some minds between that place and terrorism, and as we saw in the previous post that’s liable to damage its tourist industry.

If there is a legitimate question about your safety, then feel free to assure people that you are alright. Otherwise do not post about terrorists.

Indeed, let that be our general rule of thumb: to the extent you can reasonably ignore terrorism, you should ignore terrorism.

A few words of conclusion

Unless something comes up – perhaps a particularly incisive comment that needs responding to – this is the end of this series of posts.

You can find the previous parts here.

The idea that I might write a blog post about how the fear of terrorism has become more dangerous than terrorism itself, first occurred to me over a year ago. It went through numerous actual drafts and many more mental ones. During that process it split, initially, into two posts and by the end, into five. The completed series is now longer than at least one dissertation I’ve written!

So, if you’ve read all (or even just part) of it, then thank you for sticking with me. I hope I’ve repaid your time.

Please also spare a thought for my friend Aaren Tucker. If you have noticed fewer missing words and malapropisms on the blog of late, then she is the one you should thank. She has proof read and edited all this monster series of posts, as well as a number of other recent entries on the blog. Of course, any mistakes remain my responsibility.

Everyone gets impostor syndrome

A story courtesy of fantasy author Neil Gaiman:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

South Korea should totally compete in Eurovision (Cable from Korea #13)

This morning I woke up in Korea. That’s not altogether surprising: I live there. Then (also unsurprisingly) I opened up my phone, and saw that tonne of friends back home were posting and tweeting about Eurovision. Now, that is not surprising either: The contest was held last night. What was surprising is until Europeans took to social media, I’d not really heard anything about the contest. It isn’t something that registers in Korea: people don’t watch it, it isn’t discussed, and there are no viewing parties.

 

There’s an obvious explanation for why: Korea doesn’t compete. But that just begs another question: why doesn’t Korea compete?

Someone only vaguely familiar with the contest, might object that Korea can’t because it’s not in Europe. However, neither are Azerbaijan, Israel or Australia all of which enter. Indeed, Australia is further from Europe than Korea.Just to illustrate the point that being in East Asia is not a barrier to taking part, an entry from China has been considered a possibility. Despite this not yet happening, Eurovision is still shown live by a major Chinese broadcaster.

A better objection would be that Korea already takes part in a similar contest: the Own Asiavision Song Contest. But let’s be realistic, that’s a spin-off of a spin-off of Eurovision, hosted on Youtube rather than TV. Naturally, it has a way lower viewership than the real thing. That’s not where the nation that gave the world Gangam Style belongs. It should be in the premier league of cheesy music.

It is hard to think of a country that would more relish pursuing national glory through riotously over-the-top pop than Korea. It already produces plenty of the kind of music that would work as a Eurovision entry. K-Pop songs may not usually have a great deal of depth- though there are of course plenty of exceptions – but they do tend to be exhuberant, catchy and places a lot of emphasis on visual spectacle.

My impression is that the genre has not yet broken out in Europe in the way it has in Asia and North America. A Eurovision entry might be a good way for the Korean government – which very consciously works to promote cultural exports – to do that. It has a public broadcaster, so would be eligible to join. It should seriously consider the possibility.

 

Updated 21/05/2017 to be less glib in discussing K-Pop, which has more range than I gave it credit for

 

Barter economies are basically a myth

Most of us imagine that before currencies came along economies worked something like this:

Say, you made bread but you needed meat.

But what if the town butcher didn’t want your bread? You’d have to find someone who did, trading until you eventually got some meat.

In an article for the Atlantic, Ilana E. Strauss makes the argument that:

…various anthropologists have pointed out that this barter economy has never been witnessed as researchers have traveled to undeveloped parts of the globe. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”………..When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.

Barter economies were mostly hypothesised by people, notably Aristotle and Adam Smith, who lived in economies with currencies and wanted to explain what might have preceded them. They missed many of the subtleties of how such systems actually worked:

Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.

On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

2017-05-10 15.34.20.png

 

Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks

We pay a serious price for our alarmist reaction to terrorism. Here is what we would would gain if we could better manage our fears.

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first, second and third parts.

In November 2015, Daesh executed a Chinese advertising consultant they were holding hostage in Syria. At first, this was widely reported both in China and abroad, and as a result the execution became a major topic of conversation on Chinese social media. Then the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus bored down on the issue. Reports on the topic by domestic outfits were pulled, those by international organisations were blocked and social media posts that included the deceased hostage’s name, and even phrases like ‘Chinese captive’, began disappearing.

That kind of behaviour is not an aberration. An anti-terrorism law passed shortly afterwards means that “[d]isseminating information about terrorist activities is now banned” in China, and apart from “pre-approved news media outlets, nobody is allowed to report on a terror attack nor the authorities’ response, online and offline”.

The latter point hints at a cynical (and this being China, very likely at least partially accurate) read of the Communist Party’s actions. That an attack has taken place could be perceived as a failure on the part of a government that didn’t manage to stop it. However, in an article for Foreign Policy, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides a more generous rationale. She speculates that “hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots” was in tension with the government’s desire “to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States”. In this context, preventing the public finding out about attacks could allow for a more measured response.

I do not for a moment condone this kind of censorship. Proper scrutiny of how government deals with all issues, including terrorism, is necessary. In addition, creating a healthy public attitude towards terrorism probably requires a degree of trust between government and people that simply won’t be there if citizens discover, as they inevitably would, that news is being kept from them.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there would be benefits if we managed to voluntarily move a bit closer to this kind of situation.

Currently, when an attack happens, it becomes the focus of intense coverage. Politicians will reassure us that they take the threat very seriously. There may be new security measures, changes to the law, or even military action.

I want to suggest an alternative approach. Media coverage of attacks would not be formally limited but outlets would make an editorial decision to afford them only as a much space as a bus crash with the same number of casualties. The topic would not be considered a topic of intense national importance. When asked about security, immigration or foreign policy, politicians would probably not mention terror in their answers. Unless you worked for the police or intelligence services, or were directly affected by an attack, terrorism would be something you only rarely discussed or thought about.

Not only would this be warranted by the actual (as opposed to perceived) scale of the threat but it would have the following benefits:

1. We’d face less terrorism

The less seriously we take terrorism, the less attention we will give it. That attention amounts to publicity for the groups that carry out the attacks. Without it, they’d find it harder to gain additional recruits.

If we were calmer, we could probably avoid unduly punitive responses that imperil our position on the moral high ground.

The air of panic around terrorism is also part of what radicalises the likes of Anders Breivik. Getting rid of it would likely serve to deflate that noxious tendency.

[Further reading: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists]

2. Our civil liberties would be more secure

At the time of writing, France has been in a state of emergency for over a year. That allows, among other things, for the police to search homes without warrants, a power which they have used thousands of times. This often involved doors and other properties being broken, and parents being handcuffed in the presence of their children. Few of these searches lead to a prosecution, and when they don’t, an explanation for why an innocent person’s home was raided is rarely forthcoming. There is no end in sight to the state of emergency.

The Snowden leaks revealed that most electronic communications across most of the world are now monitored in some form. And it’s not only the NSA that has gained greater powers to snoop. In Britain, post-9/11 anti-terror legislation gave local municipalities surveillance powers previously restricted to the police and intelligence services. Predictably, such organisations had little cause to use them on potential terrorists. Instead, they spied on ordinary people suspected of crimes like littering and lying about their address on a school application form.

More acutely, America and some of its Western allies, precisely the countries that thought of themselves as exemplars of human rights, have felt the terrorist threat compelled them to engage in assassination, kidnapping and torture. The latter went by the euphemism ‘extraordinary rendition’ and in one case involved a prisoner having pureed food pumped into his anus.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the War on Terror is especially problematic. Suspending some freedoms in times of war is not unusual but a war against another state will generally have a defined end point – a peace treaty or surrender – after which freedom can be restored. By contrast, a war on a strategy will never end. Thus, our fear of terrorism has not driven us to suspend freedoms but to abandon them altogether.

It would be better if we realise now that we are not at war. We face a nebulous but low-level threat from some criminals, and they are not an adequate reason to discard important rights.

3. It would remove a pretext for autocrats

Assad destroying moderates

In the point above, I was mostly talking about trade-offs between security and civil-liberties that, whilst excessive, are nonetheless mostly made in good faith. There are, however, people for whom compromising freedom is the point and preventing terrorism is merely an excuse.

The most egregious example of this must be Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. It has consistently represented the opposition as almost uniformly composed of jihadis, and sought to present themselves as the only thing standing between extremists and control of Syria. At the same time, by focusing most of their effort on destroying the moderate rebels and largely leaving Daesh alone, they made that fiction into a reality. And there are people willing to applaud, rather than condemn, Assad for this. Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis and, before the sarin gas attacks on Khan Shaykhun, had appeared to indicate support for Assad remaining in power.

Trump has also embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator of Egypt and by Trump’s reckoning, a man doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”, on the grounds that he is opposed to Islamists and terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Sisi killed hundreds of protesters in order to take power, and when he did so, reversed virtually all the increases in political liberty that resulted from the protests in Tahrir Square (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak). Nor does the situation seem to be improving. Amnesty International recently published a report on Egypt with the subtitle “disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism”.

The US also continues to back the Saudi government and its brutal war in Yemen. Riyadh argues that only by propping up its client regime in the country can a victory for Al Qaeda and/or Iranian-backed militias be prevented. At home, the theocracy uses anti-terror legislation to outlaw atheism.

The equivalent legislation in Turkey was used to prosecute a British academic for the crime of carrying an invitation to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Which seems strange but anyone writing in Kurdish or about Kurdish issues is now liable to prosecution as a sympathiser with the PKK, a group that wants an independent Kurdish homeland. This goes a long way towards explaining why Turkey has 1% of the world’s population but a third of its imprisoned journalists.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the Middle East. Beijing has used a small number of jihadis amongst the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority living in the remote west of the country, as a pretext to suppress the Uighur culture and religion. Civil servants can be fired and students expelled for fasting during Ramadan, long beards and face coverings are banned, and mosques are routinely closed or demolished.

If we recognised how rare terrorism is, we’d see more clearly that it is no excuse for such widespread abuse.

4. There would be fewer wars

Terrorist attacks are often the trigger for wars that kill vast numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 precipitated American invasions. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was the trigger for the First World War and the millions of deaths that resulted. There is even a real possibility of terrorism triggering a nuclear war, as the most likely scenario for a war between India and Pakistan would involve a militant attack within India being blamed on Pakistan. In all these instances, the resulting wars have (or would) produce massively greater casualties than the terrorists themselves could ever hope to. A more measured, non-military response would save numerous lives.

5. We could do away with security theatre

Security measures that don’t make us all that much safer but do consume our time and money (known as security theatre) are a bane of modern life. It encompasses measures like having to take your shoes off before boarding a plane or being patted down on the way into sports events. Terrorism is rare, so unless measures like these achieve a significant reduction in its probability, or are very low cost, then it’s probably not worth implementing.

I suppose you can argue that security theatre makes people feel safer. However, I suspect that in the long run, constant needless reminders of the threat only makes us more anxious. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d very much like to stop having my bags searched before going into the Natural History museum!

6. We’d avoid unnecessary behaviour changes

The threat of terrorism pushes many of us to engage in a kind of internal security theatre, where we change our behaviour in the hopes of making us less vulnerable to terrorism. In reality, this is just a silly inconvenience to ourselves.

For me, the paradigm example is that after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a 5% drop in tourists visiting the city. The drop was much more pronounced amongst some nationalities, in particular Chinese and Japanese tourists, with the number of the latter falling by 40%. This not only denies tourists an experience they were presumably looking forward to – and Paris is objectively a great city – but also puts jobs connected to tourism in danger. Indeed, it seems that the attacks cost the city billions of euros. What happened to Paris was not an isolated incident . It seems to happen after most widely publicised attacks. Often, it happens to places less able to cope with it than the French capital. ISIS’s attacks on resorts in Tunisia resulted in a massive drop in visits to the country. That was especially unfortunate, as its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. An economic downturn at that point would have been especially problematic considering Tunisia was trying to consolidate its new democracy after the Arab Spring.**

While I understand being frightened of terrorism and wanting to avoid it, I can’t really condone this kind of response. For starters, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack whilst on holiday is like the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack almost everywhere – small. The news brings us coverage of the single or double digit casualties amongst tourists visiting a certain place, but not the five, six or even seven figure for people who visit the same place and are not caught by an attack. What’s more, there’s something thoughtlessly callous about it. The effect is to financially penalise somewhere for being the victim of a terrorist attack. That seems to me to be compounding a wrong.

7. We could focus on more pressing security challenges

Military strengths graph.jpg

My suspicion is that when our current time is taught as history, our priorities will baffle many students. Teachers will have to patiently explain that, as strange as it seems, whilst North Korea became a nuclear power, Russia modernised its military, and China displaced the US as the most influential power in the Pacific, Americans and Europeans were focused on a few thousand religious zealots with rifles and trucks!

As rival states grew stronger, we worried that weak states might incubate terrorism.  We went into many of the least stable and developed parts of the world, and expended our strength fighting messy, anti-guerrilla wars against groups that had no prospect of defeating us.

We have allowed the threat of terrorism to warp our thinking about security in other ways. Donald Trump has branded NATO ‘obsolete’ because it offers ‘no terrorism protection’ as if terrorism was the only thing its members might need defending against.* While a lot of what Trump says is idiosyncratic, the line of reasoning that says ‘it doesn’t defend against terrorism therefore we don’t need it’ is a pretty common one. For example, we often saw the strange argument against missile defence, here articulated by John Kerry, that it would “do nothing to address…a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” With North Korea moving closer to developing an ICBM, and missile defence playing a key role in the American response, this view already seems spectacularly short sighted.

We have already made ourselves less safe and the broader world less stable with our fixation on terrorism and the resulting overemphasis on issues in the Islamic world. It is time to take our eyes off the fringe and refocus on more consequential matters.

8. Less of a backlash against innocents

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and only a few thousand jihadis. Not only do the bulk of Muslims not associate with groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda but polling evidence shows that they view them unfavourably.  They are widely condemned and reviled, which is unsurprising given that most of their victims are Muslims.

Despite this, ever since 9/11, Muslims have faced discrimination and demonisation. The same research that shows that most Muslims reject terrorism also shows that most Westerners perceive them as ‘fanatical’ and ‘violent’. They have been subjected to hate crimes and even terrorist attacks. They have borne the brunt of punitive counter-terrorist measures and have had to suffer the indignity of an attempt to ban them from the United States.

This issue is not confined to Muslims. During the Northern Irish Troubles, numerous Irish men on the British mainland were wrongly convicted of involvement with IRA attacks on the basis of their ethnicity, thin circumstantial evidence, and confessions the police beat out of them.

Prejudice is closely connected to fear, and if we can calm down about terrorism, then we can probably avoid acts of cruelty against people whose only crime is coming from the same community as some terrorists.

9. We’d all be less upset

Heart watches the news

This is the least tangible point but in many ways the most important. Each of the proceeding eight points come about because of how learning about terrorist attacks makes us feel: deeply demoralised. It makes us feel scared, upset, angry, vulnerable, powerless and defensive. We think it tells us something bleak about our world. But as we’ve established in earlier posts, acts of terrorism are freak occurrences. They take place against a backdrop of decreasing global violence. They are weapons of the weak, not the strong. We cannot stop them happening altogether but our societies are well able to overcome them.

 

 

 

*It is worth noting that the only time the mutual defence clause of NATO’s charter has ever been invoked was in response to 9/11, and that the alliance has played an active role in Afghanistan.

**Though in fairness as the attacks in Tunisia were targeted at tourists, I find the risk calculation that says to avoid the country more reasonable than for Paris.

9/11 is NOT history’s most deadly terrorist attack

It’s not terrorist attacks that produce mass casualties. It’s our overreactions to them.

sarajevo_merenylet_rajz

This is the third post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first and second part.

Grim reading

Wikipedia has a list of the terrorist attacks with the highest death tolls. This is not a fact that should come as a surprise. It has thousands upon thousands of lists including “people who have lived at airports” and “works with the subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.”

The rather more sombre accounting of victims of terror is an instructive read. Not least because so many of the deadliest attacks loom so small in our collective memory. Many are massacres in villages in developing countries, which is not even what most people think of when they think of terrorism. Others had a larger place but then faded: the slaughter at a school in the Russian town of Beslan horrified the world when it happened, but I cannot recall the last time I heard it mentioned. Others seem to justify greater mention but don’t receive it: For example, a 1978 arson attack on an Iranian cinema by an anti-Shah revolutionary that killed 400 people. Others represent causes that now seem arcane, such as the Columbian far-right or Sikh nationalism. In general, it serves to support the broad position of this series of posts: that whilst terrorism is both grisly and morally repugnant, it is also mostly ineffective at changing the course of history.

There is, however, one atrocity that stands out amongst the others: 9/11. Not only is it an order of magnitude deadlier than others, it lives on with a vividness none of the others can match. Most of us can recall it not only as a fact or a name, but can playback images of the event in our head.

The pebble

Despite this, 9/11 only constitutes history’s deadliest terrorist attack if we confine our attention to direct casualties. Once we consider not only those who die as a result of the attack but also the reaction to it, then 9/11’s dubious honour passes to a shooting in which two people died.

One of them was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The other was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

On the 28th June 1914, they were visiting one of the empire’s southern most cities: Sarajevo in the then province of Bosnia. Its population was overwhelmingly neither Austrian nor Hungarian. They were mostly Serbo-Croatian speaking Serbs and Bosniaks. They lived just over the border from the independent kingdom of Serbia, and many among them dreamed of creating a new nation that would unite all the Southern Slavic peoples – Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and others – into a single nation.

One group that were especially radical in pursuit of this objective were ‘the Black Hand’. They had already killed the royal family of Serbia so that they could be replaced by one more sympathetic to their goal. Now they would target Austro-Hungarian royalty.

A team of six Black Hand agents threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. They missed. They had not accounted for the convertible hood on the vehicle and the bomb simply bounced off it. One member of the team attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide and then throwing himself into the river. Both efforts failed and he was captured. One member, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, skulked off to see if he could make a second attempt. The other members scattered.

The Archduke arrived at the City Hall where he was due to give a speech and, after berating Sarajevo’s mayor for allowing the attack to happen, did so. There was discussion of bringing in troops to protect the Archduke until he left the city, but this idea was vetoed because the soldiers were taking part in an exercise and would not have dress uniforms appropriate for being seen by the Archduke. The decision was then made to rush the royal couple out of the city as quickly as possible. Their other visits in Sarajevo were cancelled and the plan was for them to be driven straight to the train station.

In some alternative version of history, that’s exactly what happened. They arrived back in Vienna with scars, a harrowing story and perhaps further evidence that something was awry in the Empire’s southern provinces. But they would have been alive and their deaths would not have served as the starting gun for the sequence of violent conflagrations that would define the twentieth century.

Having intervened once to save the royal couple’s life, fate would intervene again and reverse the outcome. In the confusion, no one communicated to the royal couple’s driver that the route had changed. So, he drove them back into central Sarajevo. It took a while for anyone to notice the mistake and tell the driver. By awful happenstance, they did this just as the car was passing Gavrilo Princip, the member of Blank Hand who had slipped away to look for a second chance to kill the Archduke. The driver slowing down to turn the car round presented the perfect opportunity. He shot and killed the Archduke and the Duchess.

The avalanche

As news of the assassination spread throughout Europe, it does not appear that most people realised that something world changing had happened. For example, British politicians initially appear to have been more concerned about the situation in Ireland than Bosnia.

However, the possibility of a catastrophic confrontation had long been foretold. Ten years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle had imagined a fictional Prime Minister trying to engage Sherlock Holmes’ services on a case of geopolitical intrigue with the warning that:

It is not too much to say that peace or war may hang upon the issue…The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power…[war might] well mean the expenditure of a thousand millions and the lives of a hundred thousand men.

That was to prove overly optimistic. In the conflict that followed the assassination, British casualties were closer to a million and worldwide the figure may have been as high as twenty million.

How did the world get from two fatalities to twenty million? Well, the Austro-Hungarians blamed Serbia for the assassination and sent the Serbs an ultimatum demanding that Serbia allow Austro-Hungarian police to operate on Serb territory. They refused and the Austro-Hungarians declared war.

This was unacceptable to the Serb’s principal ally: the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians also had an important ally: Germany. Berlin was not prepared to see Vienna defeated by Moscow, so they declared war on Russia. This also expanded the war westwards. Russia was allied to France and the Germans did not want to fight two powers on two flanks at once, so they decided they had to knock France out with a pre-emptive strike. The Franco-German border was heavily fortified, so the German forces went through Belgium. London objected to this breach of Belgium sovereignty and declared war on Germany. That prompted the German navy to begin sinking ships headed to the UK, in the hopes of throttling the island nation’s economy. As much of that shipping originated in the US, that, in time, brought the Americans into the war. Naturally, both sides sought to expand their circle of allies. Germany offered the Ottoman Empire – which ruled most of the Middle East – warships. Britain offered Germany’s holdings in the Far East to Japan. All sides deployed men and materials from their respective colonies. For example, the outbreak of war prompted Gandhi to suspend his pacifism and actively encouraged Indians to enlist to fight in Europe. It is, therefore, far from hyperbole that this conflict is now known as the First World War.

The war’s casualties would not only be people. Nations would also perish. The Ottoman Empire broke apart to create a map of the Middle East that looks a lot like the one that exists now. The Russian Empire was overthrown by Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, who transformed it into the USSR. The end of the war also meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was on the losing side and defeat discredited its ruling family. Revolutionaries seized power in the capitals of the Empire’s many provinces and declared them to be independent republics. Austria-Hungary became Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Yugoslavia. The latter being precisely the Southern Slavic state the Black Hand had wanted to create. In the process of trying to avenge the slaying of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary not only destroyed itself, but also achieved the Black Hand’s objective.

Those who do not learn from history

Deadly overreactions to terrorist attacks are sadly not a thing of the past. More Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed on 9/11. Those two conflicts also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. They also contributed to the instability that allowed the Syrian Civil War to turn so deadly.

As we have seen in a previous post, terrorist attacks claim relatively few lives. You are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist. Wars, on the other hand, really do claim enormous casualties. On a single night in 1945, American bombing of Japan killed the equivalent of thirty 9/11s. Battles in Berlin, Leningrad and Stalingrad produced over a million casualties. And while the armed conflicts of the twenty-first century are nothing like as deadly as those of the twentieth, there were still fourteen conflicts that claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past year.

It stands to reason that small cells can kill fewer people than armies of thousands. That means it will almost always be a bad idea to treat terrorist attacks as if they are an assault by a rival military. Going after the groups behind them with tanks, battalions and fighter jets is more likely to put lives in danger than protect them. The capacity of terrorism to produce direct casualties is modest but, as the sorry case of the Archduke and World War I demonstrates, the potential indirect casualties are almost limitless.

 

Further reading

If you are interested in the assasination in learning more about the Sarajevo assasination then I would recommend The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher.