How serious a threat is terrorism to Australians? We devote billions of taxpayer dollars to it, impose economic costs on ourselves and our industries and sacrifice some of our most basic freedoms for it. So it must be a huge threat to Australia, correct?
Since the 1978 Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney, there have been 113 Australian victims of terrorism. That includes Australians killed overseas in terrorist attacks as well as non-Australians killed here, such as the Turkish consul-general murdered in Sydney in 1980.
For the purposes of comparison, we’re going to cheat a little and only look at more recent data on what kills Australians from the last 10 years, from 2003-12, using the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Cause of Death data. But we figure that’s a reasonable comparison because the terrorism threat is perceived to have increased in the last decade-and-a-bit. And we’re focusing only on the causes of death, not on injury — not because being injured in a terrorist attack is trivial, but because the numbers are clearer that way, and people are also wounded and made ill by many of the other threats that we’re going to discuss here.
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During the period 2003-12, there have been 2617 homicides in Australia, or around 23 times the number of all victims of terrorism since 1978. There have been over 8500 victims of car accidents (just car accidents, not pedestrian deaths or accidents involving other types of vehicles). There have been over 22,800 suicides in that time. So clearly terrorism isn’t comparable to common threats to the lives of Australians — even the extraordinarily rare fate of being murdered is vastly more common than terrorism.
So let’s scale it down to find some specific threats to life that are comparable to terrorism. For example, 230 people died falling off ladders from 2003-12; 190 Australians died from accidental gun discharges; 137 rural workers and farmers died falling off or rolling in tractors; 206 died from electrocution, which like tractor accidents is a tragically all-too-common form of workplace fatality. That’s starting to get close to terrorism, but you have to get very specific to find a cause of death that has claimed fewer lives than terrorism. Lightning, for instance, has killed 10 Australians in the period 2003-12. There were around 66 deaths of indigenous people in custody in that period. Whooping cough, mostly due to the murderous stupidity of anti-vaxers, has claimed 20 lives; chicken pox six (shingles has claimed 228 people; gastro and diarrhoea, 168). Social problems like the high rates of arrest and incarceration of indigenous people, and preventable diseases, get us closer to the sorts of numbers terrorism has claimed in the last 30-40 years.
Now that we have a sense of scale, let’s get some sense of what the numbers mean given the resources we throw at terrorism. In the period 2003-12, nearly 1700 indigenous people died of diabetes at a rate, on average, about seven times higher than non-indigenous Australians. If we’d invested a little of the money we spent going to war in Iraq or inflating the budget of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on programs that lowered indigenous diabetes to just twice that of non-indigenous Australians, around 1200 lives would have been saved, or around 10 times the death toll of terrorism. Then again, there’s nothing sexy for the media in saving indigenous people from dying of diabetes.
In the same period, between 700 and 1000 women and children have been killed by their partners or parents in domestic homicides. We offer such a vague figure because we can only estimate it — getting specific numbers of domestic homicides is, for some reason (we could never guess why), impossible in official statistics compared to other forms of crime. Even assuming the lower figure, reducing the number of women and kids murdered in domestic violence by just 20% would save far more lives than have ever been lost to terrorism.
But, you might say, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have surely stopped lots of terrorist attacks with all those extra powers and extra money? That’s debatable. Institutions like ASIO and the AFP already had extensive powers and lots of funding before 9/11 to deal with terrorism. What they got after that were additional powers and funding, including some powers never used. Whether these additional powers and funding made any difference in the performance of agencies isn’t clear. But ASIO insists that four “mass casualty attacks” have been stopped by the actions of security agencies since 9/11 in Australia.
“The point of all these numbers isn’t to cavalierly dismiss the threat of terrorism … But many, many other things that we can also prevent kill many more of us… “
Let’s go with that. What would those four attacks have done?
The problem is, history says terrorist attacks are, by and large, bad at killing people. The global terrorism database (which is downloadable) contains details of every terrorist attack since 1970, from Northern Ireland to South Sudan, from al-Qaeda to the ANC. It shows that around half of all terrorist attacks since 1970 haven’t inflicted any casualties. The average casualties of all terrorist attacks, including perpetrators, is 2.25. And that number hasn’t significantly escalated in the era of al-Qaeda — since 2000, the average death toll, including perpetrators, has been 2.27. So four terrorist assaults in Australia would not, on average, have reached double figures.
But let’s assume otherwise. The average death toll from attacks by al-Qaeda and its various offshoots is, according to the database, 7.5. But let’s strike out al-Qaeda in Iraq (AKA Islamic State, currently being touted as the enemy du jour) and al-Qaeda in Yemen, and al-Qaeda in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb, and stick with straight, vanilla al-Qaeda, which has carried out 9/11 and dozens of other attacks both in the West and (mainly) in the Middle East. The average toll from their attacks is 61, mainly because of 9/11. Let’s assume that, of the four mass casualty attacks that have been stopped, each would have cost 61 lives. This would place them in the top 0.2% of all terrorist attacks in the last forty-plus years, but let’s assume it anyway. Four attacks of that scale would bring the total Australian death toll from terrorism to just under 360.
That’s around 80 more than have died from exposure to cold in 2003-12, but well short of the 417 who have died falling out of beds (falls are a significant cause of death and injury for older Australians).
So, even with the most pessimistic assumptions about possible casualties, history suggests terrorism would still rank below some of the more obscure causes of ordinary deaths of Australians — and way below the number of Australians whose lives we could save if we got serious about domestic violence or indigenous health.
What about the economic impact of terrorism? While 9/11 was a financially catastrophic attack, it remains, thankfully, unique. It was estimated to have directly caused between US$83 billion and US$123 billion in economic losses, or around 0.6%-0.9% of United States GDP that year, but it did accelerate an economic decline that was already in place under George W. Bush and is likely to lead, in the long run, to around $4 trillion in unnecessary spending from the Iraq debacle. The 2005 London bombings were estimated to cost the UK 2 billion pounds. Four similar large-scale terrorist attacks in Australia would cost us perhaps $3.6 billion each, but let’s round it up to $10 billion each for argument’s sake, for an economic impact of $40 billion in total. That would represent around 0.4% of total GDP over the last decade.
The point of all these numbers isn’t to cavalierly dismiss the threat of terrorism. It is a real threat, which has claimed the lives of over 100 Australians in recent decades. But many, many other things that we can also prevent kill many more of us, and particularly target people the media and politicians have less interest in, like indigenous people, the elderly or victims of domestic violence. If the focus of policymakers should be on the lives and wellbeing of Australians, terrorism should be far down the list of their priorities.
Yet, politicians only have to say the word “terrorism” for Australians, and especially the media, to abandon all reason and demand “whatever it takes” to “keep Australia secure”. The vague and trivial threat of being killed by an evil ideological force — unWestern, non-white, non-English speaking, unChristian — pushes our buttons in a way that far greater threats to our lives — “normal” homicide, domestic violence, preventable diseases and accidents — that kill many, many more Australians and cause persistent economic losses, do not.