Saturday, August 21, 2004

Terrorism scares 

Doug Saunders writes a terrific column in today's Globe. He asks "If we won the war on terror, would anyone tell us?"
He describes how terrified people are about terrorism, and for how little reason, as recent research has shown. ". . . terrorism (defined as attacks against civilians by non-state organizations) reached its peak in 1988, and has been on a more or less steady decline since then. . . . Even including those 4,000 deaths [from 9/11], 2001 had a lower terrorist death toll than 1998, or almost any year in the 1980s. If another attack on that scale were to occur later this year, we would still all be safer from terrorism than we have been for much of the past two decades. . . it's clear that the attention from media and governments is working: Terrorism has almost disappeared as a tactic. Former menaces such as Ireland's IRA or Spain's ETA or America's survivalists have been put out of business, through diplomacy or policing or both. The war on terrorism has succeeded.
But we're all scared. "
This rang a chord. Yesterday I was chatting with a co-worker who spent part of her summer holiday in New York. She was visiting family just outside the city during the most recent "orange alert" scare. I was on the verge of saying something about how stupid it was when she began to describe how frightened she and her family had all been, how closely they had been following the news, and how the family debated long and hard about whether she should even go into Manhattan at all -- they all had the impression that they risked imminent death with every minute in the city. In the end, I had the impression that she felt she was lucky to be alive to tell about the experience.
So, of course, I did not make any snarky remarks to her. But her story could have been an example for Saunder's column:
"What is dangerous about these times, in truth, is our fear: Much as hypochondriacs often worry themselves sick, our culture's mass delusion of imminent danger may actually be more damaging than terrorism or murder . . . It is a global version of a well-established municipal phenomenon, known for decades as the crime scare . . . For the past couple of years, [Toronto] newspapers have been filled with front-page stories about "Jamaican crime sprees" and deadly Vietnamese gangs, and TV newscasts have led nightly with endless details about grisly child abductions. It was not hard for many citizens, myself included, to become fearful . . . And then, three weeks ago, a news item appeared, for precisely one day, on the deep inside pages of most newspapers: The violent crime rate in Canada has fallen to its lowest point in 37 years. Canadians have not been this safe since 1967, and in no major city are people safer than in Toronto. There, your chances of being murdered have fallen to 1.9 in 100,000, making it one of the least dangerous cities in the world. . . . Police, ever mindful of budgets, encourage people to believe that . . . extremely rare incidents are part of a growing trend. The people of Toronto recently made the wise decision to sack their police chief, who among other things spent considerable energy trying to persuade people that menaces lurked on every corner. The reality, that violent crime had virtually been wiped out and that the city was probably over-policed, was an unmentionable budgetary taboo. We should consider doing the same for a good number of cabinet ministers, national-police chiefs, intelligence-agency heads and directors of homeland security around the world. They have learned the old crime-scare trick, and are playing it to the hilt, with help from glorified cop-shop hacks often known as national-security reporters. "

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