There was, all too predictably, no shortage of political profiteering in the wake of November’s London Bridge terror attack, in which Usman Khan fatally stabbed two people before being shot dead by police. In particular, the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, swiftly called for longer prison sentences and an end to “automatic early release” for convicted terrorists.
In the two decades since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, terrorism has become the archetypal moral panic in the Western world. The fear that terrorists lurk behind every corner, plotting the wholesale destruction of Western civilisation, has been used by successive British and US governments to introduce stricter sentencing laws and much broader surveillance powers – and, of course, to wage war.
In fact, terrorism in Western Europe has been waning since the late 1970s. According to the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), there were 996 deaths from terrorism in Western Europe between 2000 and 2017, compared to 1,833 deaths in the 17-year period from 1987-2004, and 4,351 between 1970 (when the GTD dataset begins) and 1987. Historical amnesia has increasingly blotted out the memory of Europe’s homegrown terrorism: the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the IRA in the UK, Basque and Catalan terrorism in Spain, and Kosovar terrorism in the former Yugoslavia.
The situation is clearly different in the US – not least because the data are massively skewed by the 9/11 attacks, in which 2,996 people died. But even if we ignore this anomaly, it is clear that, since 2012, deaths from terrorism in America have been rising steadily, reversing the previous trend. Much of this “terrorism,” however, is simply a consequence of having so many guns in civilian circulation.
To be sure, Islamist terrorism is a real threat, chiefly in the Middle East. But two points need to be emphasised. First, Islamist terrorism – like the refugee crisis – was largely a result of the West’s efforts, whether hidden or overt, to achieve “regime change.” Second, Europe is in fact much safer than it used to be, partly because of the influence of the European Union on governments’ behaviour, and partly because of improved anti-terrorist technology.
Yet, as the number of deaths from terrorism declines (at least in Europe), alarm about it grows, offering governments a justification for introducing more security measures. This phenomenon, whereby our collective reaction to a social problem intensifies as the problem itself diminishes, is known as the “Tocqueville effect.” In his 1840 book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that, “it is natural that the love of equality should constantly increase together with equality itself, and that it should grow by what it feeds on.”
Moreover, there is a related phenomenon that we can call the Baader-Meinhof effect: once your attention is drawn to something, you begin to see it all the time. These two effects explain how our subjective estimates of risk have come to diverge so sharply from the actual risks we face.
In fact, the West has become the most risk-averse civilization in history. The word itself comes from the Latin risicum, which was used in the Middle Ages only in very specific contexts, usually relating to seafaring trades and the emerging maritime insurance business. In the courts of the sixteenth-century Italian city-states, rischio referred to the lives and careers of courtiers and princes, and their ensuing risks. But the word was not frequently used. It was far more common to attribute successes or failures to an external source: fortune, or fortuna. Fortune was unpredictability’s avatar. Its human counterpart was prudence, or the Machiavellian virtu.
In the early modern period, nature acted upon humans, whose only rational response was to choose between reasonable expectations. Only with the scientific revolution did the modern discourse of risk begin to flower. Modern humanity acts upon and controls the natural world, and therefore calculates the degree of danger it poses. As a result, tragedy need no longer be a normal feature of life.
The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann argued that, once individual actions came to be seen to have calculable, predictable, and avoidable consequences, there was no hope of returning to that pre-modern state of blissful ignorance, wherein the course of future events was left to the fates. As Luhmann cryptically put it, “The gate to paradise remains sealed by the term risk.”
Economists, too, believe that all risk is measurable and therefore controllable. In that respect, they are bedfellows with those who tell us that security risks can be minimized by extending surveillance powers and enhancing the techniques by which we gather information about potential terror threats. A risk, after all, is the degree to which future events are uncertain, and – as Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory, wrote – “information is the resolution of uncertainty.”
There is a clear benefit to being safer, but it comes at the price of an unprecedented intrusion into our private lives. Our right to information privacy, now guaranteed by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, is increasingly in direct conflict with our demand for security. Omnipresent devices that see, hear, read, and record our behaviour produce a glut of data from which inferences, predictions, and recommendations can be made about our past, present, and future actions. In the face of the adage “knowledge is power,” the right to privacy withers.
Furthermore, there is a conflict between safety and wellbeing. To be perfectly safe is to eliminate the cardinal human virtues of resilience and prudence. The perfectly safe human is therefore a diminished person.
For both these reasons, we should stick to the facts and not give governments the tools they increasingly demand to win the “battle” against terrorism, crime, or any other technically avoidable misfortune that life throws up. A measured response is needed. And when it comes to the chaos and mess of human history, we should recall Heraclitus’s observation that “a thunderbolt steers the course of all things.”