TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Terrorism Is More Dangerous Than Your Furniture

Europe’s effectiveness in combatting terrorism has been diagnosed many times as being very low.[1] There is increasing solid evidence about the devastating nature of global Islamist terrorism and its thousands of victims each month, from Nigeria to Southeast Asia and also, increasingly, in Europe.[2] A recent survey by the French daily Le Monde revealed that in Europe alone, there have been 2,239 victims of terrorist attacks since 2001.[3] Increasingly, global terrorism is not only a political problem; it also has become a global public health problem, despite certain tendencies among Western social scientists to portray global terrorism as a relatively rare phenomenon.[4]

But ever since the Washington Post printed in a headline in November 2015 that “You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist,” some prominent Western social scientists have been quick to jump to conclusions that minimize the threat from Islamist terror in Western countries. It is said, for example, that terrorism is an insignificant danger to the vast majority of people in the West, and that while the November 13, 2015, Paris attacks left some 130 people dead, roughly three times that number of French citizens died on that same day from cancer. In the United States, such arguments point out that an individual’s likelihood of being hurt or killed by a terrorist (whether an Islamist radical or some other variety) is negligible, and that Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than by being crushed to death by unstable television sets and furniture. It is also contended that even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never comes close to the number of traffic deaths. Such arguments even lead to a discourse about “America’s” or other Western countries’ “panicked obsession” with Islamist terrorism.[5] Central to such arguments is also the hypothesis that there is really no actual terror wave, but only a random cumulation of such incidents.[6] In addition, critics insist that the nationality of terror perpetrators should never be reported in the media, and that the nationality of a terrorist—or for that matter, a rapist—is just as irrelevant as their shoe size.[7] Fitting well into this intellectual climate, especially in Europe, that still does not want to face the harsh realities of global Islamist terrorism ever since the 9/11 attacks in New York, the German newspaper Südkurier even went so far as to say that in Germany one is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist attack.[8]

But the global 32,685 deaths from terrorism in 2014 alone are already comparable in size to the global annual deaths from such diseases as Hepatitis C (54,010), benign prostatic hypertrophy (38,530), schizophrenia (29,590), or rheumatoid arthritis (26,250), as reported by the World Health Organization.[9] Viewed globally, the threat of terrorism is fully comparable with the impact of these diseases, hardly insignificant risks.

Notes

1. William Adair Davies, “Counterterrorism Effectiveness to Jihadists in Western Europe and the United States: We Are Losing the War on Terror,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, forthcoming; James J. Wirtz, Understanding Intelligence Failure: Warning, Response and Deterrence (New York: Routledge, 2016); Rose McDermott, Intelligence Success and Failure: The Human Factor (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017); Mark Bovens and Paul ‘t Hart, “Revisiting the Study of Policy Failures,” Journal of European Public Policy 23, no. 5 (2016): 653–66. On the intelligence failures leading up to the Berlin terror attacks, see “Blame Traded over Berlin Truck Attack,” Deutsche Welle, February 13, 2017.

2. Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2014: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism, 2014; and Peter R. Neumann, “The New Jihadism: A Global Snapshot,” International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, King’s College, BBC World Service and Monitoring, London (2014).

3. Alexandre Pouchard, Anne-Aël Durand, and Gary Dagorn, “Les attentats terroristes en Europe ont causé plus de 2 200 morts depuis 2001,” Le Monde, March 24, 2016.

4. Charles Kurzman, David Schanzer, and Ebrahim Moosa, “Muslim American Terrorism Since 9/11: Why So Rare?” The Muslim World101, no. 3 (2011): 464–83; Charles Kurzman, The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

5. Andrew Shaver, “You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist,” Washington Post, November 23, 2015.

6. One of the leading European social scientists suggesting such a “minimalist” perspective on Islamist terrorism is the sociologist Professor Reinhard Kreissl. See his interview on Austrian Radio, Ö3, July 25, 2016, at Vicesse Institute, http://vicesse.eu/#area_institute.

7. Reinhard Kreissl in Kurier (Vienna), https://kurier.at/politik/inland/der-poebel-hat-von-den-populisten-gelernt/205.008.843. Kreissl also coordinates the important and inter-ministerial “KIRAS” security research project of the Austrian Government; see http://www.kiras.at

8. “Warum vieles wahrscheinlicher ist, als Opfer eines Terroranschlags zu warden,” Südkurier, April 14, 2016. See also Russell A. Berman, Anti-Americanism in Europe: A Cultural Problem (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2004).

9. Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2015, November 2015; and World Health Organization, “Disease and Injury Country Estimates.”

1 comment to Terrorism Is More Dangerous Than Your Furniture

  • Vicente Medina

    Dear Professor Taush:

    I commend you for offering an interesting and challenging argument about the actual threat of militant Islamist terrorism. And yet, while to deny this threat, as some social scientists and pundits try to do, is certainly unpersuasive, it is also true that the actual probability of dying or being seriously harmed by a terrorist attack in a nonconflict zone is rather low or virtually negligible. However, from that low probability it does not follow that the threat of terrorism by militant Islamists is negligible. On the contrary, as you persuasively argue, the threat is serious and significant, especially if one keeps in mind that members of Al-Qaeda and ISIL have been trying to get hold of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). If they were to get hold of these weapons, they would have no scruples in using them against those whom they identify as infidels. Hence, Islamist terrorism could in principle and in practice present an existential threat to all of us.

    Also, those who argue persuasively that we are more likely to die from an accident, be it from a car, a furniture, a bathtub, or being struck by lightning, do not factor into their equation that cars, furnitures, bathtubs, and lightnings do not intend to kill or harm anyone. But terrorists more often than not do intend to harm innocent nocombatants to try to achieve their political goals.

    Vicente Medina
    Professor of Philosophy
    Seton Hall University
    Author: Terrorism Unjustified: The Use and Misuse of Political Violence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)

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