Putting terrorism in perspective
It has certainly been interesting over the past few days to observe all of the hyper-ventilating over the failed terrorist bombing on the Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam. I just wanted to put it all into perspective, or at least express my perspetive on the incident, in the form of some key points to keep in mind going forward. I am going to list them in reverse priority order, lowest priority first:
- 6. Of course we saw a "systemic failure" and numerous improvements are needed in our counter-terrorism efforts. That should go without saying.
- 5. Simple fact that gets ignored: The terrorist bomber failed to bring down the plane or cause any significant damage or harm to human life. Sure, he did succeed at terrorizing the passengers for a brief time, but the over-reaction of law enforcement after the incident probably terrorized the passengers even worse than the terrorist incident itself.
- 4. Zero risk a great goal to aim for, but should never be used as our daily criteria for whether we have faith in our system. Incidents are bound to happen. Sure, we want to minimize their occurrence, but absolute zero risk is probably simply impossible, let alone affordable financially and in terms of loss of freedom of movement.
- 3. We should put risk of damage or harm from terrorism in the same perspective of comparable damage or harm from non-terrorist incidents such as accidents and negligence. Whether you die or are harmed from an act of terrorism or an act of negligence should not be material. It is mere political posturing to consider them as distinct. After all, both could be avoided. It is the fact that you were killed or harmed that matters, not how it happened. Terrorism may impact "air safety", but run the numbers of actual harm and lets see how safe or unsafe air travel is compared to past years or alternatives modes of transportation. If the absolute level of harm is very low, let's not obsess over it.
- 2. Public officials should be up-front about the simple fact that life is full of risk and that as much as we try to minimize risk, sometimes incidents will happen. The fact that an incident has happened (or almost happened in this case) should never be treated as some great horror. As long as the freuency of incidents is kept reasonably low and on average the impact of each incident is reasonably low, we should consider that overall, the system is working. And that is a good thing.
- 1. The media terrorized the American public far more than even the terrorist himself. I am not suggesting that there be a media "black out" for terrorist incidents, but the literal explosion of media coverage, with wave after wave of repetition and alarmism and alarmist rhetoric has been simply unconscionable. The media should simply report the news and move on. The media should not be in the business of making news or puffing up over-reaction. It should not be the function of the media to amplify the work of terrorists. That should be as illegal as the terrorism itself.
The short summary is that nothing happened last week that should overly-alarm any American. The hyper-ventilation and over-reaction by the media did more to aid and abet the cause of the terrorists than the actions or intentions of that one terrorist himself. That is the kind of perspetive we need to focus on.
So, our priorities should be:
- Dampen media coverage of terrorist activities.
- Public officials should focus on risk assessment and risk management and and present risks in perspective and remind citizens that they have a responsibility to accept that incidents of terrorism cannot be allowed to take over our public discourse.
- Expect that most terrorist plots will fail. But most importantly, do not treat those failures as if they were successful terrorist actions.
- Improve our technical measures and foreign policy efforts as feasible, but accept that they will never be foolproof.
-- Jack Krupansky