Flowers outside the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, after seven people were arrested in raids in London, Birmingham and elsewhere linked to the Westminster terror attack.. Picture date: Thursday March 23, 2017. See PA story POLICE Westminster. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

According to an ANU poll, more than half of Australian adults are concerned that we will be targets for terrorism. However, as Greg Austin has pointed out in The Conversation, “terrorist attacks in Australia have claimed the lives of only three people in the last decade”.

Compare this terrorist risk to other risks in our lives:

  • In the two years 2014 and 2015, more than 318 people, mainly women, died from domestic violence. We spend billions to counter terrorism, but we spend a pittance on protecting women and children in the home.
  • Australia’s daily alcohol toll is 15 deaths and 430 hospitalisations. But blaming Muslim extremists is much easier than taking on the powerful alcohol lobby.
  • As Bernard Keane has pointed out in Crikey, during 2003-12, there were 2,617 homicides, 190 deaths from accidental gun discharges, 137 rural workers and farmers died from falling off vehicles, 206 died from electrocution and 1,700 indigenous people died from diabetes.

In this blog post, Christian Downie described the growing threats to food security, water security, and energy supply, as a result of climate change. In 2015, the Pentagon warned that “climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security”. But that warning is usually drowned out by the incessant drum beat of terrorism.

The Australian Climate Institute estimates that more than 1,000 Australians die each year due to rising temperatures, which are likely caused by global warming. The Climate Council describes rising temperatures as a “silent killer”. In The Conversation on May 5, 2015, Kerstin Zander and others estimated that heat stress costs Australia $A6.9 billion per annum in lost productivity.

But despite all the evidence about these risks being far greater than the risk of terrorism, there is no doubt that Australians are more worried about the terrorist threat.

Why is that?

There are several reasons. One is what psychologists describe as the “vividness effect”. Debra Schroeder describes it this way.

Events that stand out in our minds have more influence on our beliefs about the world than statistics and graphs. Risk assessment provides some good examples. Some people are terrified to fly, but think nothing of crawling into a car and driving an equal distance. This, despite the fact that flying is much safer. But, vivid reports of one large airplane crash stand out in our minds more than the 3 to 4 people killed per car crash which actually adds up to more people mile for mile. Anecdotes also draw on the power of the vividness effect. For example, despite the fact that research has been unable to link vaccines and autism, vivid anecdotes continue to sway the beliefs of many in the general public that there is such a connection.  

Terrorists, like insurance salespeople, know this vividness bias well and capitalise on it. For vividness effect, they attack trains, train stations, airlines and crowded areas.

Another reason why there is such a strong interest in anti-terrorism is that powerful and influential vested interests have sprung up that depend on the profits, funding and employment that result from a heightened terrorist threat. Even universities are scrambling to join this booming industry. Just think of the mountains of nail clippers the new and expensive security machines have been able to detect at airports. Far more importantly, the vast military, corporate and intelligence communities in the US, and their satellites in Australia, benefit from heightening the terrorist threat and the vast military expenditures that flow from it.

Our intelligence agencies, ASIO, ASIS and others, have greatly increased funding and powers to combat the terrorism threat. I have found that the easiest way to get money out of governments is to focus on security threats.

Another reason for the exaggeration of the terrorist threat is that some Australian governments see fear as a very potent and partisan political opportunity. Politicians like John Howard and his successors owe a great deal to the heightened terrorist threat. The more we can be alarmed, the greater they see the political benefit. Yet John Howard, by involving us in Iraq and the subsequent deaths and disaster in the Middle East, is more responsible for the terrorism in Australia than any other person in the country. We experience terrorism over here, because our troops are over there. Millions of Muslim people, including a lot of hot-heads, are appalled at the suffering we and our allies have inflicted on Muslim lands. If there is one thing we could do to reduce terrorism in Australia, it would be for us to get our troops out of the Middle East as quickly as possible. But our government will not admit that the original Iraqi invasion was a mistake, and does not want to forego the political bonus it sees from the terrorism threat.

In this exploitation of the fear of terrorism, perception wins against facts at almost every turn. For example, in NSW there is a perception, encouraged by the media, that crime is on the increase. But on almost every important measure, crime rates are substantially down in the last five years. Our media conveys a very different story — worsening threats.

Our Border Force, together with the AFP and state police, further exaggerate the threat from foreigners by giving us frequent and breathless reports about another record drug haul from overseas. But we know that our drug enforcement policies are failing and we need to address the drug menace in a very different way. We have the sham of our media in cooperation with the Border Force and the police, suggesting that somehow these drug seizures are effective in addressing our drug problem. Fact is they are not — but this perception is important for political purposes, avoiding any discussion of the failure of anti-drug policies in Australia and around the world. And of course there are a lot of jobs at stake in the Border Force and in the police!

In short, the terrorist threat is grossly exaggerated. That is not to say it must not be addressed. But we have the whole issue out of proportion. There are very powerful vested interests that rely on exaggerating the threat — governments, politicians, business, intelligence agencies, police, think tanks and even our universities.

We have surely reached an absurd point when the new NSW premier appoints a new Minister for “Counter Terrorism” — when we already have a Minister for Police.

*This article was originally published at John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations