We All Worry About the Threat of Terrorism But Should We? by Stephen Coleman at TEDxCanberra (Transcript)

You may have absolutely no idea what I’m about to talk about, but as soon as I throw up something like this, you’re probably all thinking, “Oh, he’s going to talk about terrorism.” You’re right, I am, but hopefully, I’m going to do it in a slightly different way and get you to think about some things that you may not have thought about before, particularly with regard to the way we react to the threat of a terrorist attack. This sort of image and this event is one of the images of the 21st century.

I think, when we talk about terrorism, the reason a lot of people think of images like this is not just because this was such a huge attack, but also because this was the moment that we, in the Western world went, “The problems over there can come and visit us over here.” Western states had dealt with issues of terrorism before, but basically, it had always been homegrown terrorists they were dealing with, and this is a situation where the problems over in that part of the world suddenly came home; in this case, to the United States.

I want to get you to think about our response to this sort of attack, and our response to terrorism in general. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to get people to agree on a definition of terrorism so I hope, as Kofi Annan says, “We can all agree that any deliberate attack on innocent civilians, regardless of one’s cause, is unacceptable and fits into the definition of terrorism.” That’s actually what I’m going to be talking about.

We all worry about the threat of terrorism, we all think about what sort of response is appropriate to these threats, and we all worry about what might happen if we had a terrorist attack here. Then we hear about terrorist attacks going on around the world, we see images of terrorist attacks, we think about terrorism, and we get this idea in our heads – a not unreasonable idea – that the people that carry out these attacks are truly awful, that they’re evil.

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But what tends to come along with that in our heads is this idea that because they’re evil, we can, and we must do anything we possibly can to stop a terrorist attack from occurring where we are. I think there are a lot of problems with that sort of thought. There’s a lot of risks that come with that sort of thought that we don’t really appreciate. We often see our governments talking about the risks of terrorist attack, and we see them talking about how there’s a need to protect our lives and our security, that we should all be able to walk safely down the street during the day and sleep safely in our beds at night. Obviously, these things are, in fact, really important, but they’re not the only important thing.

I’m sure people in North Korea, for example, can walk down the streets during the day, sit in their houses, sleep safely in their beds at night. They are pretty safe from a terrorist attack there, but who wants to live in North Korea? We can see if we look all around the world, there are places where people are willing to risk their life, their security, their liberty to try and secure some of these other rights that we actually take for granted.

You can see that in the current protests in Hong Kong, a few years ago in the Arab Spring; going further back, to one of the iconic images of the 20th century, the Tank Man in Beijing near the Tienanmen Square Protests in 1989. All these people were willing to risk their lives, their security, their liberty to try and secure some of these other rights that we have. So, it’s clear, when we look at things like this, that our life and our security is not the only important thing, That’s something we need to be keeping in mind when we’re thinking about how we’re responding to the threat of a terrorist attack.

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This is a map of all the terrorist attacks in 2013 all around the world put together by the Global Terrorism Database. They, I should say, take a fairly broad view of terrorism, so there are some events on here that a lot of people might say, “That doesn’t really count as a terrorist attack.” If you look at this map, you can see, from the intensity of some of these things and the concentration of attacks in various places, there are places around the world where terrorism is a really serious, everyday threat. In Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Iraq, and so on, there are lots of terrorist attacks, serious terrorist attacks, happening all the time.

But then if you look at places like Europe, North America, Australia, or New Zealand, suddenly, things start to look a little different. There aren’t many terrorist attacks in these places. We need to think seriously about what the actual risk is. We want it to be the case that there aren’t terrorist attacks in these places, but how do we achieve that? The way we go about achieving that is actually really important. How serious is the risk really?

Let’s compare the risk of terrorism with some other things. You’re nearly 100 times more likely to drown in your own bathtub than you are to be killed by a terrorist. You’re eight times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than you are to be killed by a terrorist. Since 2003, three times as many Australians have been killed falling out of their own beds than Australians killed by terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. Yes, but we really need to protect ourselves, so we start to think, “What about this situation? How do we protect ourselves? What do we need to do?”

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