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Terrorism? Still Not the Biggest Problem We Face.
Alex Steffen, 11 Aug 06

We got some strongly-worded emails after yesterday's announcement that the Brits had thwarted a terrorist plot. Didn't this, a handful of readers asked, prove that I was wrong when I wrote the post Why Sustainability, not Terrorism, Should Be Our Real Security Focus?

No, actually.

Ally Ze Frank tells why in his latest show:

"Now, the way I see it, you can't have terrorism without terror. The strategy of terrorism is to use isolated acts of violence to instill fear and confusion into the population at large. A small number of people can incapacitate a society by leveraging our inability to understand risk. ...even with the risk of airplane bombings, it's still more dangerous to drive your car, or smoke cigarettes. ... The government's responsibility is to make sure that fear and terror are not disproportionate to the reality of the situation."

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There's also -- DUH! -- the fact that we can do two things at once.

We can deal with terror attacks in whatever way is appropriate, and work on environmental problems.

You can seek to improve the education of poor kids in developing nations and work on seeing that they are fed and receive health care.

* * *

Screenwriter John Rogers wrote a wonderful post about fear and terrorism:

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 12 Aug 06

Alex, I agree, yet we can't overlook the power of instinct and emotions. We need to recognize that how people feel about things is a tangible fact. We can talk until we're blue in the face about risk calculations and actual degrees of harm, but to little effect. If you ride your bike, fall off, and skin your knee, that's one thing. If a bunch of guys hold you down and sandpaper your knee, that's another - the injury may be the same, but the trauma is far worse. I hope that you're never in a frightening or dangerous situation, but if you are, you'll learn a lot about how animal instinct takes over, and how long the nightmares endure. That's a fact, one we must recognize.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Aug 06

A good article in Reason magazine about the probabilities and risks of various ways of dying (haven't double-checked the numbers personally):

In other words, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered.

Posted by: David Magda on 12 Aug 06

The way I see it, the path towards sustainability -- if done right -- already addresses many, although not all, of the root causes of terrorism.

Let's face it: if someone really, really wants to blow up something, and is willing to kill themselves in the process, there is very little we can ultimately do to stop it. We can x-ray lugguage, but then people smuggle more innovative weapons that can't be detected by x-rays. We can ban containers of liquids from planes, but then the liquids will just be hidden somewhere else (inside a terrorist body, for example). And so on.

Perhaps a real security program would focus on *why* people feel motivated to blow us up in the first place? Is it possible that we can do something about alleviating the incredibly injustices in the world, instead of turning the country into a police state? Is it possible that we can work towards a more secure, sustainable and sane world -- rather than fight terrorism with reduced freedoms, more invasive government, and short-sighted foreign policy?

Not to take the conversation off track here, but I guess I agree with Alex. Sustainability is a much more important goal than a narrow definition of "terrorism". A sustainable and more just world would, by it's very definition, have almost no terrorism anyway.

Posted by: Anonymous on 12 Aug 06

When I heard about the thwarted terrorist plot, I knew Alex would get ignorant emails attacking his well written earlier post. The reactionaries begging for security at the cost of liberty did not fail to disappoint us.

Regarding David Foley's comment "Alex, I agree, yet we can't overlook the power of instinct and emotions."

David, people do many things out of fear and emotion, so we have institutions and policies to keep us from harming out own interests by overreaction. Instead, our politicians and media have failed us by appealing to ungrounded fear reactions among the populace. We should never allow base instinct to decide national policy as is currently the case.

Posted by: Paul Zimmerman on 15 Aug 06



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