Saturday, July 16, 2016


My heart goes out to the many people who have been injured or lost loved ones in terrorist actions around the world, most recently the horrific Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France. These actions are unconscionable and the people who perpetrate or support such acts must be brought to justice.  Terrorism is obviously intended to terrorize, and these attacks are certainly scary, with the scariness amplified by instant and repetitive news coverage that makes Nice or Paris seem as close as Orlando or Boston (and for my friends in France, recent attacks have been all too close). It is a small world thanks to global communication and the internet, and we know that terrorism, like other types of crime, can happen anywhere, so we shouldn’t be complacent. But we shouldn’t panic either.

Terrorism is a real problem, but it is not the end of the world, which is currently home to some 7.2 billion humans and countless other species. For perspective, note that in the US, something like 100 people die in car accidents each day. Worldwide, over a million people die annually in car accidents, and there are over half a million “intentional homicides” each year. So many lives tragically cut short every day, yet we hear nothing about most of these millions of deaths. Commercial plane crashes are rare, and when one does occur, many people may die, so it’s big news. The same with terrorist attacks, which have become more common worldwide, though nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria continue to bear the brunt of those attacks, even though attacks in Western countries get much more news coverage.  

You can Google for statistics as well as I can and find that you are more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by terrorism. My wife has recently told me she’s getting more concerned about my business travel, especially to Europe. But I am far safer on a business trip to anywhere in Europe, Japan, or Korea than I am driving my car to work. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about terrorism. It’s an awful thing if this is the “new normal,” and we shouldn’t simply accept that. We can and should come together worldwide to make progress against this threat, though it is certainly not the greatest threat to civilization that we face (that would be climate change).

Steven Pinker and others have pointed to extensive data to show that even as terrorism and crime fill the headlines, the world is not falling apart, and on an overall basis, violence in the world has greatly decreased, and not only because there are fewer wars.  Other forms of violence and cruelty are also greatly in decline, though they have not reached zero and probably never will. I’m optimistic that we can still build a better world for my grandchildren -- and for everyone else. We should not be complacent about terrorism, but we shouldn’t freak out, change our way of life, or start another war over it. 

The image above has nothing to do with it except that this is the planet we all happen to share (a screen shot from the free Orbiter space flight simulator, and one of my most popular pictures on Flickr). 


Unknown said...

A measured and thoughtful piece. I've heard Pinker's theory many times over the years but never properly looked into it, I really must. There certainly seems to be a disconnect between the expense, laws passed and effort gone to to stop a few hundred people per year dying due to terrorism and the equivalent lengths gone to to save us from more mundane things, car accidents being a good example. If public safety were truly the motivating factor then much of what governments do would appear to make little sense.

Unknown said...
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