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Terrorism Denial on the Left

At the end of last year I attended a large conference of social science academics and researchers in Melbourne. Speaking on a plenary panel in front of hundreds of attendees was the director of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Australia’s primary refugee advocacy organisation. He opened the plenary by describing the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers, decrying the cruelty of Australia’s policy of offshore detention toward refugees, and the need for a more humane approach. He pointed out that funding for refugee services had been cut by a seemingly callous government that was indifferent to the plight of refugees. These are all legitimate — if familiar — points in the debate about this topic. However he then went on to say that all of this was happening whilst we spent billions of dollars on a “fictitious war against terror”.

Hold on, ‘fictitious’? A fiction? Made up?

I looked around the audience, and no one seemed perturbed by what he’d just said. No one challenged him in the Q&A session afterward. Was I the only one bothered by this?

Two weeks later, counter-terrorism forces arrested a group of young Muslim men who were planning to bomb St Paul’s Cathedral in downtown Melbourne on Christmas Day, along with other targets. Up to 1400 people were going to be attending the service on that day, so the likely death toll from such an attack would have been catastrophic. The alleged plotters had been closely monitored for months by security and counter-terrorism organisations. Many had social media activity profiles that were indicative of strong sympathies with ISIS. This followed a number of terrorist plots thwarted by Australian counter-terrorism measures since the mid 2000s targeting football matches, the Australian Grand Prix, an army barracks, and former Prime Minister John Howard.

These are the circumstances we live in. They are not ‘fictitious’.

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.

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.

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.

In this respect, terrorism denial commits the same faulty reasoning that the anti-vaxx movement uses to deny the reality of the threat posed by infectious diseases and pandemics. Anti-vaxxers argue that the small number of deaths caused by infectious diseases in recent times is evidence of them posing no threat. However, those who understand the underlying science recognise the nature and scale of the threat, and the critical role that vaccination and pandemic prevention play in neutralising it. Were we to stop vaccinations — or counter-terrorism — it’s clear that the death toll from both these threats would rise significantly.

This isn’t to say we should be consciously fearful about terrorist attacks on a day-to-day basis. Yes, there are legitimate debates to be had about the balance between intelligence gathering, national security, and civil liberties. We should be skeptical of political leaders who seek to capitalise on the fear of terrorism for cheap political gain. We should be careful to recognise their rhetoric and bombast about being ‘tough on terrorism’ when it’s a substitute for actual knowledge about the threats posed by it.

But claiming that the war on terrorism is ‘fictitious’ is conspiratorial and irresponsible. When the left cites misleading death tolls in order to play down the terrorist threat, it discredits itself in they eyes of anyone who knows better.

 

Andrew Glover is a sociologist based in Melbourne. He tweets at @theandrewglover

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32 Comments

  1. Joscha says

    The article makes a very sensible point: It is nonsensical to equate terrorist acts and their prevention with accidents and individual criminal activity. However, perhaps it would make sense to disentangle the cost of successfully preventing terrorist attacks (to the degree that is possible) from the actual cost of the war on terror.

    A multitude of measures, such as the security theatre enacted on airports, is ill suited to stop actual attacks by dedicated individuals (or will shift those simply to other venues), and very inefficient in its implementation, as many of the individuals that pose a threat are actually known to the authorities, and most of the other passengers can be easily established as not posing a threat. By reducing screening to passengers that cannot be pre-checked for some reason, security lines would become extremely short.

    A bigger issue is that international wars over resources and regional influence are often disguised as “war on terror”, which may invert cause and effect.

    Last but not least, it is disturbing that some of the domestic terrorism (as for instance the NSU murders in Germany) does involve the active support by the organizations that are meant to fight it. The black bloc attacks during the WTF protests in Genoa were conducted by state sponsored neo nazis. The tools of surveillance that purportedly fight terrorists are instead used to fight independent journalists, anti war activists, environmentalists, and whistleblowers.

    More generally, the misconduct and incompetence of the very organizations that the state supports with extralegal powers and exempts from public scrutiny puts much of the war on terror in question.

    That said, I agree that terrorist threats do indeed pose a problem that warrants the maintenance of a highly effective (and democratically supervised) police force and screening mechanisms, and that the comparison of terrorists with toddlers is an embarrassment.

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  3. Leigh says

    As a former worker at the ASRC I did find that the CEO would often go a bit overboard on the hyperbole when it came to racism, terrorism or other similar issues. It had little impact on the incredibly valuable and important work the teams did to help thousands of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers in Melbourne (and anyone who thinks otherwise should pop in to the Centre for a visit and see for themselves what goes on there), but there definitely was a bit of a grievance culture there that took away from all that was good about the organisation.

    But that’s often how many people in these sectors think – they’re not faced with the practical implications of day-to-day governance and so can act like puritans when it comes to the complex and grubby issues of immigration, international law and human rights.

    • Andrew Glover says

      Thanks Leigh. Agreed that the ASRC does valuable work. I had read somewhere that there was tension between the CEO and other staff in the organisation. My concern is that his public rhetoric will give reason for people to doubt the value of the ASRC completely if he’s denying terrorism even exists.

  4. Aldo Matteucci says

    “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.”

    Same argument applies to home violence, stairs, lawnmowers and what not.

    • Seems like a strong counter-argument regarding the relative importance of the problems.

    • “Same argument applies to home violence, stairs, lawnmowers and what not.”

      No, it doesn’t. Re-read the article. The conflation between private accidents (or private malice, in the case of domestic violence) and public acts of mass murder is spurious, and always will be.

      How many resources we should divert to prevent such acts, and what laws we should pass to allay them, are open questions. But comparing them to lightning strikes is absurd, and also revealing of the Orientalist attitude that is prominent on the left nowadays, which denies brown-skinned terrorists moral agency and treats them rather like forces of nature, like animals lashing out at a perceived threat.

      If you really want to stop terrorism, hold the ideas motivating it, and the people perpetuating it, morally accountable.

  5. Jazi Zilber says

    Israel is a great supporting example.

    Israel spends the most on fighting terrorism. And is extremely aggressive in doing so

    Yet, Israel has relatively little successful terrorist attacks (relative to the potential!)

    The numbers are sometimes staggering.

    You sometimes hear from intelligence agencies on TENS of mass suicide bombing attacks stopped. While none actually occurred.

    This is true. Tens of planned attacks nipped in the bud at one stage or another.

  6. This argument is obviously true in principle but I’m not convinced in practice.

    Since 1970 19 people have been killed in terrorist attacks in Australia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_Australia).

    What fraction of fatalities do you think are being prevented by aggressive security efforts? I’d guess about 80%.

    But let’s say you were optimistic about them and thought it was actually 95%. That means we could get rid of most such security and still only have ~10 people die in terrorism a year on average – a negligible fraction of all deaths. Real yes, but no big deal.

    It’s not even clear it’s worth the extra money and effort to work hard to stop the last few hardest terrorist attacks to prevent. Better to put the money on healthcare, road safety, or normal crime.

    The strongest response would be that we’ve underestimated the average risk due to the low probability but high impact of e.g. a nuclear, chemical or biological attack. I buy that, but it calls for different priorities in counter-terrorism.

    • Austin says

      This math does nothing to illuminate the problem. The article cites a specific example where the absence of counter-terrorism forces and steady intelligence operations would have likely resulted in a bombing killing 1400+ people in a church. That same plot also included two other high traffic locations- Federation Square & Flinders Street station, which those arrested had been planning to bomb as well. Add that one thwarted attack into your math- and you’re looking at the prevention of 700 deaths per year on average (assuming we prevent 95%). But thinking this way isn’t productive.

      Take a random sampling of bus vs pedestrian accidents and we can, with a high frequency of success, tell you how many people were likely killed in each. Same goes for a random sampling of toddler shootings- likely only one death per incident. This is why it makes sense in these instances to use your method of finding an average number of victims and track it over time.

      However, take a random sampling of terror attacks- and you’re looking at huge variations. Which incident do you consider the “average” amount? Adding them up and dividing them per incident sheds zero light on the nature of those attacks. Saying an average of “1500” per incident, if the only two attacks in question are 9/11 and an abortion clinic bomber who killed one doctor- has afforded you no ability to speak anything meaningful towards “terrorism” as a whole. Whereas, the opposite is true when we want to speak about toddler shootings. When we average those incident numbers- they actually do tell us what the likely death toll from almost any future singular armed toddler event will be. We don’t see such a stark contrast between the “average” and all known outliers- even if by some bizarre event one toddler killed 10 people- that is only a 10-fold increase above the median. Terrorism? From one incident to the next we could see upwards of a 100-500 fold increase. So, it seems to me that while attempting to approach the topic practically, you used the least practical means of addressing it if we want to actually understand the nature of the threat.

      • I concede the point about the average fatality rate being undersampled due to rare but very destructive attacks. For those I’d focus on weapons of mass destruction which seem an under-rated risk.

        That said, we have a pretty large sample over many decades across Western countries with a population in the hundreds of millions. As far as I can recall only one terrorist attack has killed over 1,000 people in the West during my life time (9/11). Putting together all of this data the base fatality rate remains very low.

        One reading would be that the security services are incredibly effective at reducing the death toll from terrorism (reduce it by 99%+). It could be that as you say. Alternatively, we could think it’s highly likely for attacks like the one described to fail of their own accord through defection, incompetence, lack of follow-through, normal reporting to the police, only killing a few people, etc.

        That seems more plausible to me. What kind of government effort solves 99%+ of a problem? We haven’t reduced other kinds of crime anywhere near that much. Or indeed any problem that I can think of.

        And as someone points out above it’s peculiar to compare the fatality rate from terrorism *without* preventative efforts, to the fatality rate from other causes *with* them. We’ve greatly reduced death from lots of problems. But unless counter-terrorism is vastly more effectively than healthcare or general police-work, we can still fairly compare the size of the risks after the fact.

        Anyway – you’re right that the problem isn’t fictitious. Whoever said that is silly. But that doesn’t mean it’s large.

        • Travis says

          Missing from this discussion is a recognition that radical Islamic terrorism has been growing steadily over the past 15 years worldwide. There are significantly more terrorist events now than there were in say, the year 2000 or 2006, or 2009…etc etc.

          So I question the validity of arguing using data going back to 1970.

          Look at Turkey- until a couple of years ago terrorism only ever happened over the near eastern border with Syria. Recently there have been numerous attacks in cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Or consider Paris and Nice- two *major* terrorist attacks recently. 2 years ago French people could’ve been having this debate and talking about how rare it is that major terrorist attacks happen in France.

  7. Perhaps we need to sit down have a little talk. You really don’t get the left. You think they’re only in denial about terrorism. Look a little deeper. It is denial of basic reality.

    The left has two main rules: People are basically equal and basically good.

    In the world of equality, those countries that have gotten ahead are cheaters. Those that have fallen behind are victims (of the cheaters.) The strategy of the left is to get things back into balance – all countries equal. Or at least the West should be a lot more equal. How does that work?

    Equality within countries (communism,) and equality between countries (globalism, immigration.)

    The way you make the West equal is to flood it with third world immigrants. Muslim immigrants are the best because they help to undermine Christianity.

    If people are basically good, then why do we see terrorism? Because the West caused it by provoking the Muslims. There is simply no other mechanism to the left.

    Never mind that none of this is true. They live in their own world. Ultimately, denial about anything is really the denial of basic reality.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till says

      By doing as you do and judging one side by its most cretinous, hyperbolic representatives I could make similar claims about the right’s denialism and dogmatism – but it would just be posturing.

  8. MattW says

    How many people of middle Eastern heritage live in the US versus how many lightning strikes, buses, beds, toddlers, etc. Per capita matters, and Islamic terrorism is much worse than the other things on that list.

  9. Grant. says

    Author “They made a claim, then had a Q&A and I didn’t challenge it. Now I am outraged!
    The war on terror is not fictitious. The threat posed is stupendously small.
    Facts, can’t spin them.

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  12. Simon says

    Starts with a misunderstanding and it get worse from there,

    My reading is that the speaker who stated “fictitious war against terror” was not saying that terrorism is fictitious but the war is. I assume the writer misinterpreted this because he is biased and was EXPECTING the speaker to state that terrorism is fictitious. Which is really ironic.

    I can’t speak to what the speaker was referring to, but he may have been alluding to the Iraq war which was a war that was conducted under the guide of being against terror, but this of course, has been shown as false.

    Aside from this, the writer seems to creating a strawman argument. That is, no one on the left thinks that terrorism isn’t real/scary/threatening, but what people do say is that relative to other issues, if we weigh the significance of terrorism in terms of loss of live, it is not that important, relatively speaking.

    Now, to be clear this is not that same as denying that terrorism exists, but it seems to be a point that the author has misunderstood.

    • Andrew Glover says

      I was genuinely surprised that he said this. He didn’t need to say it. Support for refugees doesn’t entail denying that terrorism is real, as is the war on it.

  13. Interesting that planning automatically = will do. Which is not always the case. The people have the most to gain from increasing Terror funding support are the ones reporting incidents and preventions. A HUGE conflict of interest.

    • Andrew Glover says

      If you read the article I linked to about the thwarted Christmas Day attack, the counterterrorism agents indicated that they waited until the attack was in an advanced stage of planning before arresting them.

  14. Is there a place where I can read more of your work Andrew? I found myself jaw dropped over the same things when they took place and am looking for more sensible information.

    • Andrew Glover says

      Hi Lisa, I’m on Twitter and a link to my blog is on there.
      twitter.com/theandrewglover

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  17. Mr. Glover,

    What about context? Your article does little in appreciating the differences between how terrorism affects the Middle East, Europe. America, and Australia, yet evidence from an American context are treated as universal.

    Speaking for the United States, we do not have the problem that Europe and the Middle East have. Our terrorism problem is not from terrorists masquerading as refugees or a militant army of Islamic fundamentalists in our midst. Our problem stems from self-radicalized, 2nd or 3rd generation individuals. That’s a very different problem – with a very different solution – than what European or Middle Eastern countries face. In fact, many Americans would argue that rightwing terrorism is a much greater problem for the U.S. than Islamic terrorism.

  18. iiiii says

    The government arms terror groups and then uses their violence to justify state oppression, is there another word to describe that fake war?

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