The responses to your story by Ross Gittins regarding the mammoth difference in risk between dying from smoking or similar and dying from a terrorist incident went someway to revealing the irrationality that lies at the heart of our thinking about terror. Gittins et al argue on a purely statistical basis, while most of the correspondents argued on a moral basis – that terror requires special measures because it is an immoral act, rather than an accident. Both sides strike me as half right, yet missing the point. The key question is one of neither morality nor statistics per se, but of fear, and the particular cultural character of fear.
Consider this – most of us, on a late Saturday night, after a party or some such, are reasonably happy to climb into a car with a group of people and drive home – although we know, in the back of our heads, that even if the driver is stone cold sober, we are committing to a relatively higher-risk situation in our lives. If we are going to be erased by a drunk P-plater, Saturday night is when it’s likely to happen. Yet we usually accept that slightly elevated risk with a rueful “what the hell” feel.
Terrorism, by contrast, works off an entirely different set of motivations – it is not the fear of being killed, but the fear of being murdered that haunts people. What makes it so terrifying is the intimacy of it – that someone out there is out to get us. Terror combines both the impersonality of modern life (anyone could get blown up) with the particularity of the encounter (it was you I blew up).
It’s that bottomless fear of being murdered – rather than of simply dying – that seems to fuel much of the legislative over-reaction to terror. That the risk of a terrorist incident is higher than it has been is obvious. It also seems clear that security provisions which do not abolish habeas corpus, free speech and other core features of an open society, are sufficient to keep the risk at an acceptably low level. What strikes one about so many of the proponents of the new terror laws – politicians and pundits alike – is their cowardice, their willingness to throw such provisions overboard at the first sign of elevated risk. Whether this is an expression of their natural character, or a side-effect of their sycophancy to power remains to be seen.
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I’d suggest that those of us who oppose the new legislation do so from a more forthright position of saying that such slightly elevated risk is worth taking in order to retain one’s self-respect as a human being – rather than suggesting it might never happen. Terrorism, like car crashes, are simply part of contemporary life, and to try and reduce their occurrence to zero (rather than sensibly minimising them) simply wipes out everything – a sense of freedom, of living life, of self-possession – that such futile laws purport to protect. Better we face down our fears than they us.