1: “We are living in the safest time in history,” best-selling author and Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes.
And he understands the “incredulity” these words evoke.
“In recent years, highly publicized terrorist attacks and rampage killings have set the world on edge and fostered an illusion that we live in newly dangerous times,” he notes.
“In 2016, a majority of Americans named terrorism as the most important issue facing the country,” he writes, and “said they were worried that they or a family member would be a victim.”
This fear is not limited to ordinary citizens. It is also true of many “public intellectuals, especially cultural pessimists perennially hungry for signs that Western civilization is (as always) on the verge of collapse,” he observes. “The political philosopher John Gray, an avowed progressophobe, has described the contemporary societies of Western Europe as ‘terrains of violent conflict’ in which ‘peace and war [are] fatally blurred.'”
2: The data shows otherwise.
Our fears are out of sync with reality.
The numbers tell us terrorism “is a unique hazard because it combines major dread with minor harm,” observes Steven.
The figures showing deaths due to terrorism in the U.S. must be shown in a table rather than a graph “because swatches for the terrorism numbers would be smaller than a pixel,” Steven notes.
Motor vehicle accidents
In 2015, Americans were 350 times more likely to be killed in a homicide vs. a terrorist attack, 800 times as likely to be killed in a car crash, and 3,000 times as likely to die in an accident of any kind.
Among the categories of accident that typically kill more than 44 people in a given year are:
- Contact with hot tap water
- Contact with hornets, wasps, and bees
- Bitten or struck by mammals other than dogs
- Drowning and submersion while in or falling into bathtub
- Ignition or melting of clothing and apparel other than nightwear
Steven also notes that even the estimate of 44 is “generous” because its source is the Global Terrorism Database, which includes hate crimes and most rampage shootings in the terrorism category.
3: Terrorism is defined as a deliberate attack on civilians committed by a group other than the government.
“The third column shows that for all the recent anguish about terrorism in the West, we have it easy compared with other parts of the world. Though the United States and Western Europe contain about a tenth of the world’s population, in 2015 they suffered one-half of one percent of the terrorist deaths.
“That’s not because terrorism is a major cause of death elsewhere,” he writes. “It’s because terrorism, as it is now defined, is largely a phenomenon of war, and wars no longer take place in the United States or Western Europe. In the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, violence that used to be called ‘insurgency’ or ‘guerilla warfare’ is not often classified as ‘terrorism.'”
A large portion of total terrorist deaths take place in areas experiencing civil war, including 8,831 in Iraq, 6,208 in Afghanistan, 5,288 in Nigeria, 3,916 in Syria, and 1,606 in Pakistan.
When we look at deaths caused by terrorism over time, we see “the death rate for American terrorism for the year 2001, which includes the 3,000 deaths from the 9/11 attacks, dominates the graph,” Steven notes. “Elsewhere we see a bump for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (165 deaths) and barely perceptible wrinkles in other years.”
Reflection: Does anything surprise me about the data above?
Action: Share this data with a friend or family member who is convinced we live in “the worst of times.”