Phillip Knightley: To be gripped by fear is to lose the battlle

Moscow, Washington, Bali: we live in terror. But are we becoming wimps?

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If you go to the opera you risk being taken hostage. If you go on holiday you might be blown up. If you stop for petrol you could be shot by a sniper. Open a letter – does it contain anthrax? What's going on these days? Where will the next outrage be? People feel a sense of unease and a loss of innocence. Safer and happier times, they believe, are now gone for ever. But is life really more dangerous, or are we becoming wimps?

If you go to the opera you risk being taken hostage. If you go on holiday you might be blown up. If you stop for petrol you could be shot by a sniper. Open a letter – does it contain anthrax? What's going on these days? Where will the next outrage be? People feel a sense of unease and a loss of innocence. Safer and happier times, they believe, are now gone for ever. But is life really more dangerous, or are we becoming wimps?

At the height of the Cold War, even the bitterest enemies of the Soviet Union had one good word to say about the Communists. They were hot on law and order. Moscow was one of the safest cities in the world, especially for foreign visitors. There were no muggers, there was no street crime, and there was great civic pride. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union did the truth emerge: Moscow was actually one of the world's more dangerous cities. Visitors thought it was safe because the Communist authorities simply suppressed the crime statistics that showed otherwise. It was all a matter of perception. People perceived Moscow to be safe, therefore it was.

But can the reverse apply? Do we now mistakenly see danger everywhere? The truth is that in the very aspects of our life that seem to cause us the most unease, safety has improved immeasurably. Most of our forebears did not live long enough to be worried about the things we worry about because they suffered early deaths from industrial accidents, poverty and disease. Is it that we now know more about what is happening around us?

Some say yes, even those journalists in part- responsible for reporting on events that stir our fears. Take the American sniper story. The journalist Matthew Engel, who lives in sniper territory, admits that he has twitched a little while walking in the open. "Nevertheless, this week has been a classic case of an ongoing truth: that newspapers distort the facts, that TV news distorts the facts utterly, and the 24-hour non-stop-news distorts the facts utterly, totally and completely. We don't mean to do it, guv. We don't lie. But the parameters under which we operate just ensure that we mislead.''

Engel points out that the area in which the sniper operated had a population of about four million. Thus, if the sniper had shot someone every day for the next year, the chances were still 10,000 to one in your favour. This fact was lost in a welter of news about random death, and speculation about the sniper's identity and motives.

It is a dilemma for the media that remains unsolved. It can hardly ignore terrorist acts, even though to do so would defeat one of the terrorists' main aims: publicity for their cause and an advertisement for new recruits. But the way terrorists' acts are presented – a drama with each episode crafted like a thriller and the lack of a proper assessment of the real risk – causes alarm, concern and faulty perceptions.

Out there in the rest of the world there has been a perception over the past, say 25 years, that in Britain we went around terrified of IRA bombs, race riots, car hi-jackers, train crashes, rapists and child murderers. In fact, most of us were getting on with the reality of our everyday lives. The fact is that more people die on our roads every year than were killed during the entire history of the Irish troubles. More people were killed in one recent car pile-up in the fog in Wisconsin than by the sniper, but we didn't see that on the news. As the Qantas pilot told his passengers as he approached Sydney airport: "Folks, the safest part of your journey is over. The most dangerous is about to begin. Drive carefully.''

People have an amazing ability to cope with the direst of threats by finding comfort in the banal. On that night, 40 years ago this weekend, when President Kennedy was waiting for the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev to decide whether there was going to be a nuclear holocaust over the Cuban missile crisis, how did Kennedy spend what could have been his last hours on this earth? He watched Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. If you look closely at the television footage of many violent incidents you will almost certainly see in the background behind the burning cars or off to the side from the stone-throwing youths, someone going about their business, bringing home the bread, hanging out the washing. Life goes on.

The point of terrorism is to interrupt this normality, to convey the impression that evil is everywhere, that it is capable of striking us at our most vulnerable point. The aim of a terrorist act is to produce a public reaction disproportionate to the actual injury caused. The sad truth is that because of the modern hunger for excitement, such a reaction can almost be guaranteed. The Chechen terrorists in Moscow need not have killed anyone to have grabbed the world's attention. The dramatic nature of their initial act ensured that. Once the world was watching and listening, the Chechens were able to put their case, and people begun to ask: "Well, what is Russia doing in Chechnya? Why is the war still going on?''

Governments have a divided attitude to terrorism. Some leaders feel that a little fear out there in the streets is not necessarily a bad thing. It can help enforce discipline, keep citizens alert and patriotic and, when properly directed, it makes governing an easier task. Intelligence services certainly believe that every country needs a monster to confront. For the West, communism filled the role admirably for many years. Its demise left services such as the CIA, FBI, MI6 and MI5 floundering until terrorism came up on their screens, as George W Bush put it. He knew there was an enemy out there somewhere for America to confront, but until al-Qa'ida came along he did not know who it was. On the other hand, terrorists attract attention.

This is why governments hate terrorist acts. No matter what they do, they cannot win. The acts attract attention, they can change public opinion, and they can influence government policy. This is why Mrs Thatcher wanted to deny the IRA the "oxygen of publicity'' – a difficult thing to do in a democracy. And it's why many a government would like to resolve terrorist situations away from the glare of television. And, like the police in many a kidnapping case, it's why they want to reveal the outcome only when it was all over. Instead they offer a devil's contract: "You want to be safe from terrorism? We can probably manage that. But to do so you will probably have to surrender a lot of those civil liberties you keep going on about.''

The writer Susan Sontag says she would not be surprised to see martial law in the United States if there were to be another terrorist attack, because many of those Americans used to feeling safe would be prepared to trade their liberty in order to feel safe again.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, says freedom is not absolute, and there has to be a balance between freedom and security. But who strikes that balance? And if, in the end, to defend ourselves against terrorism, we have to change our way of life so radically that it becomes unrecognisable from what it once was, doesn't that mean that the terrorists have won? We can only take care, while recognising what the real risks are. And if you don't smoke, don't get into a road accident, and someone you know doesn't kill you, you'll probably make it to a happy old age.

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