Opinion: Divert resources away from fighting terrorism

By any measure, we’re beating terrorism in the UK. In the western world, the number of terrorist attacks has been falling since the end of the Soviet Union. In the UK there have been just a handful of attacks over the last few years. Across the whole world, with the exception of Israel, an individual’s chances of dying in a terrorist attack are less than one in 10,000 (the level at which experts generally deem a risk as to be not worth worrying about) – typically a lot less.

We also have no reason to think that terrorists have the ability or equipment to deliver some enormous attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or will gain it any time soon. Even if they were able to, we’ve no reason to think that it would usher the end of civilisation.

The Japanese Aum cult devoted years of research by over a hundred scientists to developing chemical and biological weapons. Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent and no avenue was left unexplored. Aum launched 17 attacks in Japan in the early 1990s and yet their deadliest attack killed just 12 people. Al-Quaeda don’t have those sorts of resources. Even the security services (understandably keen to maximise their budgets and importance) have been unable to suggest any more than that terrorists may develop these weapons at some time in the future. Despite what we might see in the movies, big terrorist attacks turn out to be quite difficult to pull off.

Unlike the US (where billions of dollars invested in Homeland Security has failed to turn up any significant threat), the UK has discovered terrorist threats within our shores. But what risk do the threats pose? How do they compare to the risks of, say, organised crime or obesity? Judging by the cases that have been made public, the risk is pretty low.

We had the high profile arrest of “terrorists” allegedly creating ricin poison, who were later found not guilty when it became clear in court that the plot was little more than a recipe downloaded from the Internet. (Tragically, a policeman was murdered during the original arrests and his murderer was rightly convicted, but there was no ricin).

Elsewhere we see more religious fanatics with half-baked schemes and a few downloaded documents; or comedy terrorists like the idiots who drove a car into Glasgow airport in the mistaken belief that the gas canister it carried might explode and do serious damage.

So terrorists in the UK, and the rest of the Western world, kill a tiny number of people. Over the last four decades, across the whole world, and including 9/11, the Madrid bombings and 7/7, international terrorists have killed nearly 15,000 people. That’s a lot of lives lost, but we need some perspective. In the UK alone, smoking kills around 16,000 people every ten weeks. In lists of risks to life and limb, terrorism comes so low down as to hardly register.

Should we ignore the threat of terrorism? Certainly not. It’s a small but significant threat and should be treated as such. Doubtless several more people would have been killed without the work of the police and security services.

But should we be so frightened of terrorism that we divert billions of pounds of investment from hospitals, schools and crime-fighting into targeting it? Should we be so scared as to hand over our liberties in a desperate plea to the Government to save us? Of course not. It makes no sense.

Not only does that scare us even more (just what the terrorists want), it means thousands of criminals escaping justice, thousands of deaths from preventable illness and thousands of children in under-funded schools. If a few incompetent fanatics downloading the Anarchists’ Cookbook from the Internet can achieve that, we need to take a serious look at ourselves.

The terrorists have failed to bring the economy to its knees (though it seems our own bankers might have rather more success with that one). They’ve failed to wreak death and destruction. Now is the time to put the final nail in their coffin: they must fail to terrify us. Right now, the war against terrorism is costing more lives, in diverted funds, than Bin Laden could ever hope to take, and it’s managing that because we’re allowing ourselves to be very frightened of a very small risk. Let’s see them for what they really are, bring our anti-terrorism spending and laws back in line with reality, and then get on with our lives.

* Iain is a member of Cheadle Liberal Democrats.

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16 Comments

  • A solid utilitarian article, though surely there’s also a strong utilitarian argument for considering terrorism (a kind of murder) as worse than, say, lung cancer.

  • The thing about terrorism is that its psycholgical impact is often a magnification of its actual impact; so while you are quite right to cite those figures it is worth noting that very few people have any realistic perspective on terrorism.

    This is what has allowed politicians to get away with getting away with purusing reckless wars, excessive extension of state power and of course massive hikes in the budgets for defence and the intelligence services by tacking it all onto the ‘war on terror’, the worlds first war on a noun.

    Good solid article and I couldnt agree more.

  • Geoffrey Payne wrote: “We need to consider that 911 took everyone by surprise,”

    Yes, that was the one where a 47-storey reinforced steel building that had not actually been hit by an aeroplane collapsed symmetrically into its own footprint in 6.5 seconds. And an aeroplane managed to penetrate five reinforced concrete walls leaving a hole in the first substantially narrower than the diameter of its fusilage. Evidently someody was waiting for them. So not quite everyone was taken by surprise.

    Yes, it is perfectly true to say that Al-Qaeda has been singularly unsuccessful in its attempts to terrorise Britain, and that is largely down to the good work of the Security Services and Special Branch.

    In fact, I think I am probably right in saying that Dr Harold Shipman actually killed more people on the British mainland than all terrorists since World War II.

    According to the Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, the purpose of terrorism is to encourage the state to become more oppressive towards the working-class thereby making socialism a more attractive option. That was clearly the rationale of the Red Army Faction, whose activities were vaingloriously nihilistic seen from any other perspective. Those on the left who reject terrorism say it is a diversion from mass revolutionary action that actually harms rather than advances the cause of workers.

    For those who say we have to talk to terrorists, there are two answers, and they are cumulative: “Which terrorists?” and “What about?”

    ETA has a perfectly straightforward demand that can be given in to quite easily: the end of Spanish and French sovereignty over the Basque Country. So there is plenty that the Spanish and French governments could talk to ETA about if they felt so inclined.

    But what would be the terms of reference of a dialogue with Al-Qaeda? The aim of this group, as far as it has one, is to force all infidels to become Moslems. What could our government say? OK, if we allow Saudi Arabia to run 500 state schools, will you stop your attacks? How about legalising female genital mutilation? Or closing every synagogue within a ten-mile radius of Golders Green tube station? Would that be enough?

  • Iain Roberts 30th Mar '08 - 2:49pm

    A couple of people have asked how much we’re spending on terrorism.

    I don’t have a figure because, of course, there isn’t one. Two reasons: firstly that different people will disagree on whether something is a spend on terrorism and second the budgets of the security services aren’t available at that level of detail.

    However, I’d be very interested if anyone has a realistic claim that it’s less than billions.

  • Iain Roberts 30th Mar '08 - 3:14pm

    Laurence:

    “”We also have no reason to think that terrorists have the ability or equipment to deliver some enormous attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, or will gain it any time soon. Even if they were able to, we’ve no reason to think that it would usher the end of civilisation.”

    Oh, well that’s all right then.”

    Did you read the following paragraph where I explain [b]on what evidence[/b] I take that view?

    There are a number of areas where there’s a small risk of something genuinely catastrophic happening. The most obvious is an asteroid strike, as Lembit Opik will tell you (at great length, I’ve no doubt). Tsunamis and other natural disasters also have the possibility of wreaking far greater havoc than any terrorist strike could ever hope to.

    We could spend huge amounts of money on these very tiny risks. In fact we spent relatively little.

    These are judgements Governments have to make. We have finite resources, so we need to decide how much we spend on countering risks that don’t exist right now but may, possibly, exist at some time in the future and how much we spend on the things that we know are killing and causing suffering today.

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