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Terrorism -- the very small threat

You could call him Dr. Gwynne Dyer, historian, journalist, and CBC commentator. Here is some of what he had to say for a CBC-broadcast commentary about the bombings in London:

Knowing that you CAN bargain with the terrorists doesn't make Londoners want to, because they also know that terrorism is a very small threat. It's been going on most of their lives, and the vast majority of them have never even seen an incident.

Greater London has around eleven million people, and every day about 400 of them die of natural causes. Yesterday, closer to 450 died, and almost ten percent of the day's deaths were due to terrorism. Today another 400 Londoners will die, none of them from terrorism.

I guess Dr. Dyer is suggesting we should consider 7/7 as just a 10% blip in the mortality statistics of London. For an educated man, he seems to fall into the same trap that a lot of people less knowledgable fall into -- that this has everything to do with foreign policy:

Blair, like Bush, pretends that the current crop of terrorists are unmotivated, basically inexplicable people whose attacks have nothing whatever to do with American or British foreign policy in the Middle East. They are just evil people who "hate our freedoms." It's a handy explanation that avoids all those awkward public debates about foreign policy, and it works pretty well in America.

He goes on to equate the Islamic terrorist with the Irish terrorist. Since the Irish terrorist would stop killing once the British quit Northern Ireland (his assertion, not mine), it stands to reason that if the US and the UK adjusted their foreign policy, Islamic terrorism would drop off.

Of course, what he doesn't say is that the results of these two cases would be very different. Though I don't doubt life would be unpleasant for some time for Protestants in Northern Ireland if the Republicans took over, no one seriously suggests that they would be subjected to a genocidal bloodbath. Unfortunately, that is exactly what would happen to Israel and her people (the Jewish ones, in any case) if we followed through on Dr. Dwyer's "awkward public debate".

He also does not mention that Ireland is a country secure in its culture and economy, confident of its place in the world. If the South took over the North, I would expect the government in Dublin to be magnanimous and accomodating of Northern counties. The success of the South would guarantee that. On the other hand, the Arab world is a patchwork of dictatorships, socialist distopias, theocracies, kleptocracies, and autocratic monarchs of the worst kind. Their economies are non-functional except for oil, and that sector runs only because Western companies are present managing it at all levels. Their glory days are centuries past (Arabia), millennia even (Egypt). They sell trinkets to Western tourists, hating them for their wealth and success, even as their children aspire to a Western lifestyle, wearing Western style clothes, listening to Western music, indulging in Western vices. Their arts and sciences are non-existant, stifled by a combination of a miserable education system and Islamic disdain.

To suggest that the effect of altering foreigh policy would elicit the same response from these two very different adversaries, terrorists based in the Irish Republic and those from the Arab world, cannot simply be stated without some sort of justification. No such justification is forthcoming, unless you count Dr. Dyer's resume. For me, it's not enough.

On this basis alone, I would dismiss his commentary as ill-informed and unworthy of further consideration. But the point that I started with, that terrorism is such a small event compared to life in London, that we could hardly consider this to be Britain's 9/11, needs to be addressed.

To be sure, the number of dead was mercifully fewer than the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But credit for that has to go to the security forces and intelligence apparatus of the US and the UK that have made foiling terrorism their first priority in the years since 9/11. Of course, Dr. Dyer assigns no such credit.

Instead, he callously dismisses the number of dead as hardly worthy of the attention doted on these events. But I think he misses the point of a terrorist attack. Those 50 dead could have been anyone. Among the 400 normal deaths include those old and sick, and those engaged in dangerous activities (either work-related industrial accidents or self-destructive behaviour such as drug abuse). Those deaths are not a surprise, even for those who die. Of the rest, many are accidents, such as traffic-related fatalities. Though these are essentially random (a pedestrian struck in the street by a car, a motorist who crashes into a light standard), we can all take precautions to minimize the chances of a fatal incident (cross at a marked crossing, wearing seat belts). That those precautions are not always successful is accepted by all as an unfortunate fact of life, and even then we work to improve our chances to survive our day-to-day encounters with the Grim Reaper, knowing that we have some power to affect that potentially life-ending roll of the dice.

But these terrorist attacks mark something different. A malevolent intelligence is actively trying to subvert our strategies to survive for the sole purpose of killing us. When a motorist strikes a pedestrian, in the vast majority of cases, the motorist is trying to avoid the accident in the first place. When a terrorist is waiting on a subway platform with a knapsack filled with 10 pounds of high explosives, he is endeavouring to get on the subway car and set the timer to go off when the most damage and death will result. No regular day-to-day strategy for survival will work in this situation. New strategies, such as subjecting any dark-skinned subway rider carrying anything larger than a lunch bag to an intrusive search is impractical for a civilian to carry out, and are probably politically unacceptable.

That powerlessness to affect the outcome of a terrorist attack despite years of honing urban survival skills is what magnifies the effect of the attack, well beyond the numbers that form a fetish for Dr. Dwyer. The knowledge that the only thing that has kept your name off the roll of dead is pure dumb luck is a knowledge shared by everyone.

That knowledge is humbling, and that humility connects everyone together with a new sense of community.

Perhaps Dr. Dwyer's problem is that his towering intellect is such that the humility most Londoners feel is beyond his ability to experience.

In any case, Dr. Dwyer is right when he says that 50 people died yesterday in a city that suffers 400 deaths daily. But despite what the math says, he is wrong when he says that it represents a mere 10% increase. Those were deaths keenyly felt by every one of 11 million people.

Well, not every one. Not Gwynne Dwyer.

[Update: With a hat tip to Captain's Quarters, the Telegraph is reporting that "the proportion believing that Islam itself - as distinct from fundamentalist Islamic groups - poses a threat to western liberal democracy has risen from 32 per cent shortly after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre to 46 per cent now." Sounds like Dr. Dyer has his cut out for him if he wants to convince people that these terrorists are likely to respond to foreign policy "adjustments".]

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