Do you feel like you’re more likely than ever to be hit by a terror attack? This is why you're wrong

The reaction I had to the Nice attacks is exactly the reaction the perpetrators of these atrocities want – they rely on us feeling bombarded by the news and they want us to feel at risk

Tom Pollock
Saturday 16 July 2016 11:37
French President Francois Hollande speaks to journalists on Friday in the aftermath of the terror attack in Nice
French President Francois Hollande speaks to journalists on Friday in the aftermath of the terror attack in Nice

I didn’t write this after Paris. I didn’t write this after Istanbul Airport. I didn’t write this after Baghdad the first time, second or third time this year (It’s a grim privilege, but a privilege nevertheless, to be able to refer to a terrorist attack in your home town and not have people ask “which one?”) But I’m writing it now, after Nice, because my first two instinctive emotional responses when I heard about the attacks on the radio this morning were horror (because there were kids there you sadistic f***, and you knew it, you did that on purpose), and then fear.

“God,” I thought. “Another one. It just keeps happening. It seems like it’s all the time at the moment.”

I’m a risk analyst. That’s my job. I use numbers to understand what we ought to be afraid of, and how afraid we should be. So here are some numbers:

In France, in the last two years, there have been eight attacks, killing a total of 247 people. There are 66 million people in France. At the current level of activity, their odds of being killed in a terrorist attack in a given year are less than two ten-thousandths of one per cent. That’s 27 times lower than their odds of dying in a car accident.

The victims of the Nice attack

Even if the current level of attacks continues for 80 years (which would be unprecedented), a child born today in France would have only one percent of a one percent chance of being killed in one.

In Turkey, the probability is lower. 194 people killed in attacks since the start of 2015, with a population of 80 million gives each one of them a roughly one ten-thousandth of one percent chance of being killed in one, in any given year.

In Iraq, the numbers are much worse. Iraq, of course, is enmeshed in the horror of a full-on civil war in which tens of thousands have lost their lives, so this kind of analysis is both trickier and seems a little moot. But still, we have to recognise that there have been at least 13 terror attacks in Iraq on civilian populations since the start of 2015, killing more than 650 people. Even away from the front-line of the civil war, Isis’ victims are overwhelmingly Muslim. Even in Iraq though, your odds of being caught in one of these attacks are less than one in a hundred thousand.

Reducing these deaths to numbers and comparing them to traffic fatalities might seem callous. After all, a car crash doesn’t mean to kill anyone. These people were attacked, the targets of deliberate, violent intent, and that makes a difference. Moreover, none of this will be any comfort whatsoever to a mother in Nice whose child was murdered this week, nothing I can say would be. Before those grieving, I am left in dumbstruck, useless, sympathetic horror, as we all are.

But I think these numbers are important, for two reasons:

First, the reaction I had is exactly the reaction the perpetrators of these atrocities want. They rely on us feeling bombarded by the news. They want us to feel besieged. They want us to feel at risk. They want us to be afraid. It’s called terrorism after all. Understanding the limitations of their ability to hurt us helps, in some small way, to frustrate their aim.

Secondly, there is no reason, none whatsoever, to believe that Isis and other terrorist groups are holding back. They are killing this many of us precisely because this is as many of us as they can kill. And the reason for that is straightforward: there aren’t very many of them. Despite all we hear about radicalisation and recruitment and schoolchildren travelling to Syria to train and fight with them, here, in our cities and our communities, their numbers pale in comparison to our own. They want us to believe they are widespread amongst the Muslim members of our communities, but they simply aren’t. If they were, they’d be killing a lot more of us.

These numbers stack the odds heavily in our favour, and the only way in which we can abandon that advantage is to make more terrorists. Isis understand that, and that is very much what they are trying to make us do.

There is a phrase that we’re likely to hear over the next days and weeks, and it’s a phase that should scare anyone who hears it: “Something must be done.” It was uttered before the UK Parliament voted to join a bombing campaign in Syria. An act which achieved essentially nothing of any military value, as any worthwhile targets were already being hit by the Americans, but handily signed our name to the inevitable civilian casualties that Isis use to recruit allies over here.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to feel, especially not someone living in Baghdad through the middle of a civil war with the front line only a couple of hundred miles away. I have no idea what that’s like. I don’t have any right to legislate those feelings. All I can do, all my work trains me to do, is to provide some perspective on the facts that might change them.

We’re shocked, and afraid and angry, of course we are. That’s a human reaction to attacks like these, and shocked, afraid, angry people want to strike back, to punish those who hurt us and banish the helplessness we feel at being so randomly targeted. But if we do that – and this is tough to accept but that doesn’t make it any less true – as a matter of mathematics, we make things worse.

Sometimes all you can do that will actually help is tend the wounded, bury the dead, comfort the grieving, smile at your neighbour and do your best to live as you always have done. If you live in a country that’s been targeted like this, the terrorists are fighting a battle for your mind, don’t give it to them. Hopefully, in resisting them, the numbers help.

This piece was originally posted on Medium and we have re-posted it with full permission from the author

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