Sorry all you calculator-wielders, we are right to be scared about terrorism

A series of terrorism raids carried out across Sydney late last month allegedly uncovered two plots to bring down passenger planes flying from Sydney to the Middle East. One of the plots allegedly advanced as far as an explosive device being taken to the international terminal at Sydney Airport on July 15.

Do you find this information disturbing? Does it incite, even, a sense of panic? And is it your view that federal and state governments are justified in taking whatever additional measures they deem reasonable and necessary to circumvent such threats?

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My answer to all of the above would be, “Yes” – or, more accurately, “Too bloody right!” Yet, according to a certain class of media commentator, this makes me an irrational and emotive idiot. Even worse, it identifies me as vulnerable to manipulation by politicians seeking to play something called the “national security card”.

You’ve all seen these articles, right? Academics or media experts, wielding their calculators, regularly delight in informing us just how naive we are to allow ourselves to be whipped up into a fervour over the statistically remote terror threat.

So, they remind us, in recent years just three people have died in Australia as a result of terror attacks. In Australia, you are more likely to be killed by a shark than a terrorist, and immensely more likely to be killed in a road accident. In the US, to use a controversial example cited by academic Lawrence Krauss​ on the ABC’s Q&A in May – more people are killed by refrigerators falling on them than by terrorists.

Reeling off a set of statistics like these, admittedly before the recent arrests in Sydney, Ross Gittins concluded in the Herald: “These days there aren’t many scams bigger than all the fuss we’re making about the threat of terrorism coming to our shores.”

To cite another example, late last year a story on the ABC News website asked, “Should we be more concerned about cars, planes or terrorists?” The story reported on visiting Canadian statistician Jeffrey Rosenthal, who had told ABC News Breakfast, “If you look at the 9/11 terrorism attacks, in the month of September 2001 more people in the United States were killed in ordinary car crashes than were killed in the 9/11 attacks.”

Could I be permitted to mount a modest defence of those of us who do want to “fuss”, just a tad, over the terror threat, and who don’t accept that the calculator app on our iPhones is necessarily the right tool for resolving these issues?

First, we are humans, not calculators. That means we’re not just part of the world – we’re in the world. As phenomenologist philosophers such as Edmund Husserl​ and Martin Heidegger​ pointed out in the last century, we have an attitude or intention towards everything that confronts us in our world. Telling me I should fear the horror of falling out of the sky in a bombed Airbus A380 less than I fear driving to work, because the latter is statistically more of a threat, is like telling me I should cease to be a human being and become an abacus.

Mind you, as an aside,  even a human abacus might be open to being convinced the terror threat should be rated higher than road trauma. Tragically, we lose more than 1000 of our fellow Australians on the roads each year. But an A380 can carry more than 800 souls. God please forbid it should ever happen, but if the terrorists were allowed to realise their most evil imaginings, the statistics would shift very quickly.

Let’s not leave it there, though. I don’t want anybody to think I’m simply promoting squishy, subjective humanity over a more objective kind of knowledge.

You see, unlike all the dumb working stiffs like me who fall for the terror “scam” every time, the calculator-wielders are making a basic category error.

Terrorism is not like car accidents, or shark attacks, or being squashed under a Westinghouse. Terrorism is not a variety of accidental death; it is a politically or religiously motivated variety of international organised crime.

Terrorism mobilises and recruits. It adapts to our counter strategies. It plots remorselessly against us. Sharks and refrigerators and cars don’t do any of this. Terrorists are humans with intentions that go fundamentally against our own intentions. Whether we underrate or overrate the threat they pose is certainly open to discussion, but has nothing to do with other kinds of threat that belong to misfortune or happenstance.

So go ahead and put a strict ruler across any claims from the government that counter-terrorism needs more resources, or justifies a further curtailment of convenience or civil liberties. But frankly,  comparing terrorists with sharks and fridges insults my intelligence,  whether it’s the intelligence of a squishy human or just some kind of walking algorithm.

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