Recently, more sentiment about the supposed lack of terrorist threat circulated on social media in the wake of Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from seven Muslim majority countries. A table, extracted from a 2016 Huffington Post article, claims that the death toll of US citizens from terrorism in the last 10 years was fewer than the number of deaths caused by armed toddlers and from lawnmowers; the implication being that terrorism was no greater a threat than these. Otherwise respectable journalists and commentators tweeted the table, claiming to be injecting ‘facts’ into the debate.
How about injecting some facts into the discussion? pic.twitter.com/ZKINcydHsJ— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) 28 de enero de 2017
Even the renowned anti-terrorism analyst Kim Kardashian got in on the act: ‘Statistics’ she tweeted authoritatively alongside the table, garnering over two hundred thousand retweet’s for her efforts.
In a New York Times article entitled ‘Husbands are Deadlier than Terrorists’, Nick Kristof claimed that: ‘The bottom line is that most years in the U.S., ladders kill far more Americans than Muslim terrorists do. Same with bathtubs. Ditto for stairs. And lightning”. The Boston Globe recently described this as the ‘phantom threat of terrorism‘, arguing that this threat is infinitely small when viewed alongside many other absurd and unlikely ways US citizens are killed.
Putting terrorism risk in perspective. https://t.co/L9GRyQ012g @NickKristof— Justin Wolfers (@JustinWolfers) 13 de febrero de 2017
We should only be scared of things that are actually scary.
It’s become increasingly apparent that some proportion of the left is engaged in a kind of ‘terrorism denial’, believing that terrorism poses no real threat, or at least not one worth talking about. They cite the relatively modest fatalities in the US and other western countries from terrorist attacks since September 11 — and it’s always ‘since’ — as evidence of this apparent lack of threat.
These numbers are misleading for a number of reasons. Simply adding up the body count from various causes of death doesn’t reflect why terrorism should concern us — how and why these deaths occurred is also important. Accidental deaths should be less concerning to us than deaths caused on purpose. Lawnmowers and armed toddlers may indeed do us harm, but they don’t intend to do it. More importantly, they don’t seek to do more harm than they actually do. In contrast, the ambition of a terrorist is rarely modest. In almost all cases, the goal is to create as many casualties as possible in any given attack. As a matter of public interest and public policy, those who have no upper limit in the amount of harm they want to cause are more of an existential threat than those who do. As Sam Harris argues, jihadist inspired terrorism ‘takes the guard rails off of civilisation’ in a way that these more mundane causes of death don’t.
But what is most spurious about these numbers is that they ignore the deaths prevented from security and counter-terrorism measures that managed to thwart attacks before they occur. Every day the US and other Western countries are fighting the war on terrorism. They are saving lives before it becomes apparent to the rest of us that they ever needed saving. This may sound dramatic, but it needs to be understood if people believe that the war on terror is a fantasy, or less of a threat than bathtubs. The relatively low death tolls from terrorism in the West are, in part, due to the success in thwarting attacks, not because there is no threat in the first place