In view of what this post is going to be about, I had better start by saying that it is not about how the authorities in Boston handled the hunt for the perpetrators of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. There are opinions concerning whether locking down a city was appropriate in the circumstances, but I don't have one myself - not yet, at any rate - and it isn't what I'm interested in discussing here.
What I'm interested in discussing is the way in which virtually every time a terrorist incident, or apparent terrorist incident, occurs, there are those seemingly at the ready to suggest that the reaction to it is over-excitable, exaggerated, uncalled for, to offer statistical comparisons in support of the suggestion, and to say that the overreaction plays into the hands of those who use terrorism as a weapon. So it has been on this occasion. One never-failing voice in this connection didn't fail: 'The terrorist craves us to give him publicity, reaction and retaliation. The media is his megaphone... This week's media has shown no inclination to deny terror the oxygen of publicity.' The same thing here:
But by letting one fugitive terrorist shut down a major American city, Boston not only bowed to outsize and irrational fears, but sent a dangerous message to every would-be terrorist - if you want to wreak havoc in the United States, intimidate its population and disrupt public order, here's your instruction booklet.
It is a case, apparently, of Americans 'allow[ing] themselves to be easily and willingly cowed by the "threat" of terrorism' - with the word 'threat', you will notice, enclosed in scare-quotes. Then there are the statistical comparisons: some of these not at all to the point and others of some relevance perhaps but - as I shall go on to argue - not decisive for all that.
None of this fear has anything to do with rationality. The libertarian writer Ronald Bailey recently calculated the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack over the past five years is one in 20m. The risk of being struck by lightning is one in 5m. The risk of dying in a car accident is one in 19,000. More strikingly, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that the number of terror attacks in the US in the decade before 9/11 was 41 a year. Since 9/11, it has been 19 a year. And yet our terror panic endures - and even grows.
And not decisive, even if of interest:
On an average day, 85 people are killed by a bullet. The US has three times more assault deaths than any other OECD country.
...more than 30,000 Americans die in gun violence every year (compared to the 17 who died last year in terrorist attacks).
And once more:
More than 85 people – including eight children – are killed with guns on an average day in America and more than twice that number are injured.
If I say that the statistics about forms of accidental death aren't to the point, this is because rightly or wrongly - and I would say rightly - people tend to get less excited and upset about the chances of accidental death than they do when they see a boy of six killed by the deliberate act of another in planting explosives or people having their legs blown off at the end of a race. I've made this point facetiously once before, but it's a perfectly serious point, one that will be obvious to most ordinary people. The supposed 'overreaction' to terrorist attacks isn't primarily about the extent of risk relative to accidental death, or about fear for one's own safety. It's about people taking quite proper exception when, finding it morally outrageous indeed that, individuals moved by some grievance or other and/or the tenets of a murderous ideology, freely choose to put the innocent in peril by random acts of violence.
As for the statistical comparisons with gun deaths in America, I don't dismiss these as irrelevant. It is a matter for both surprise and dismay that the opposition to effective gun control in the US remains as stubborn as it is in face of so appalling a death rate. Yet, that doesn't show that the 'excitability' about terrorist killing is unjustified; it shows only that the lack of excitability vis-à-vis gun killing should also be a cause for upset and action to put this right. After all, it's no argument against how upset people get about gun killings in American schools that the typical statistics on genocide are worse.
One other point worth making is that the belittling of the terrorist threat tends to slide across, or minimize, the global context over what is becoming a long period. It's as if each incident were a mere blip. But it isn't. Even if one begins only with 9/11, the list of terrorist incidents visited upon civilian populations going about their business continues to lengthen: 9/11, Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Burgas, and how many in Iraq, and how many in Israel, now Boston. And anyone can quickly ascertain for themselves that this list is far from complete, especially if one adds the many failed attempts. Moreover, 9/11 should have sufficed to convince all but the most blind that if the opening for a bigger terrorist atrocity than that one ever became available there would be those willing to take advantage of it.
The advocates and perpetrators of terror will eventually lose, but the battle against them needs to be fought and fought relentlessly, because it is a battle for democracy, human rights and civilized values and against wanton murder. It has to be fought by intelligence, detection and prevention, by capture or killing, by prosecution and punishment, by moral and political argument - and a certain amount of mockery would also not come amiss. Belittling the terrorist threat as something we take too seriously is, on the other hand, wrong-headed - and that's putting it kindly.