2016 has been a bad year. David Bowie and Prince and Phife Dawg and Muhammad Ali died, there have been mass shootings and police killings in America and terrorist attacks all over the world, there’s a massive refugee crisis and a hideous civil war in Syria, Britain just decided to sabotage their own economy for the sake of thumbing their noses at immigrants, and America has a 20 percent chance of electing an openly racist, misogynist, megalomaniacal con artist as president in November. The Year of Trump seems to have put everyone on edge. Lots of people keep saying things like, “the world is going to hell” and “what is going on in the world nowadays” and “the right-wing Christians were right—this really is the End of Days.”
Last month, France suffered a horrific terrorist attack in the city of Nice, where an angry wife-beater named Mohamed rented a truck and drove it into a crowd of people who were out celebrating Bastille Day, killing 84 people including 10 children and teenagers. In the aftermath of the attack, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said something remarkable, that no American politician would ever say: he said that although France “will not give in to the terrorist threat…the times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism.”
America doesn’t want to hear this kind of message. Instead, Americans want to believe that we can always fight and defeat terrorism, even if it means surrendering our Constitutional rights and losing thousands of soldiers and killing uncountable thousands of civilians. And on one level it’s good to want to have a sense of agency and control; it’s understandable that people do not want to become complacent in the face of violent atrocities. But we need to find a better middle ground between “complacently surrendering to terrorism” and “invading multiple Muslim countries and occupying them for decades.”
Maybe Manuel Valls was on to something: maybe we need to change the way we think about terrorism. Maybe we need to place terrorism in its appropriate context, as just another minor risk of modern life that needs to be prevented and managed, like plane crashes; something that is a real but highly unlikely possibility lurking in the background—but that doesn’t have to be such a constant preoccupation that it causes us to make shortsighted decisions.
We need to stop reacting to terrorism with fear and blind rage—because that’s exactly what the terrorists want! Whenever there’s a terrorist attack, people act scared, and angry, and look for someone to blame, and say things like, “the world is going to hell,” etc. But here’s the thing: the world is NOT going to hell. In many important, objective, measurable ways, despite all the horrible news in the headlines and the seemingly unending injustices and inequities of late capitalism and the deaths of so many beloved musicians, the world is NOT getting worse. In the big picture, the world as a whole is safer and more peaceful and less violent than ever before. And it’s likely to keep getting better as we move toward an era of greater peace and abundance.
According to an article from Singularity University, during the past 30 years, the global population living in absolute poverty (less than $1.25 per day) has declined from 53% to less than 17%, during the last 16 years the number of children working in hazardous labor conditions has declined by more than 50%, since the mid-1990s, U.S. violent crime rates have dropped from 50 crime victims per 1,000 people to 15 per 1,000, and Western Europe’s homicide rate has fallen to almost zero (it used to be much higher in the Middle Ages; Europe used to be a very violent place, but now they mainly just argue about Brexit).
What about terrorism? Isn’t the recent rash of terrorist attacks in France and Belgium another sign that the world is going to hell? Actually, according to data from the Global Terrorism Database, the number of deaths from terrorism in Western Europe has fallen significantly since the 1970s. Despite the horrible news from Nice, Paris, and Brussels since last year, there are fewer people dying in Western Europe from terrorist attacks than any time in the past 45 years. The article states, “Since 1970, 6,435 people have been killed by terrorist attacks in Western Europe. More than twice as many people are murdered every year in the United States.”
How about America? Since 9/11, there have been several Islamist terrorist attacks in America—but in America, people get shot by toddlers every week. Which one is really a “bigger threat?” You never see the President of the U.S. giving nationally televised addresses about keeping guns out of the hands of 3-year-olds, even though more Americans are harmed by gun-toting babies than by violent jihadists.
Most people don’t want to kill or shoot or bomb anyone. Most people really are good at heart; most of us just want to go through our daily life and work and play and spend time with our friends and families, and have a beer and listen to music and watch football and dance and laugh and love. Despite the news headlines, the world is not being consumed by a rising tide of bloodshed and violent hatred. Terrorism is an aberration, an outlier. The terrorists are killing innocent people because they are so weak and outnumbered. We have to maintain historical perspective here: this is not 1945, when millions of people were dying in World War II and millions of Jews and Roma and Russian POWs and other persecuted peoples were being shipped to Nazi death camps. This is not 1916, when 50,000 British soldiers died in one day at the Battle of the Somme in World War I. Compared to the horrors of 20th century warfare, 21st century terrorism is a goddamn picnic.
Yes, ISIS is despicable and all of those murderous Islam-profaning rapists deserve to die a fiery death in a drone strike. But ISIS and its network of loser, lone wolf wannabes are a tiny, statistically insignificant threat to the world. According to data from the Centre for Research on Globalization, comparing likely causes of death, Americans are more likely to die from a car crash (30,000 U.S. car crash deaths per year) or food poisoning (5,000 deaths per year) or an avoidable medical error (200,000 deaths per year), or excessive alcohol consumption (80,000 deaths per year) or a workplace accident or a lightning strike or a 3-year-old’s accidental gunshot than they are to die from a terrorist attack.
Does this mean that terrorism is unimportant and we should just give up and learn to live with it? No, of course not! Terrorism is one of many risks of modern life in the era of globalization and the Internet, and it’s a public policy problem that needs to be monitored and managed, but it doesn’t mean we have to be obsessed with terrorism all the time. It doesn’t mean we should eliminate our civil rights and bomb every country on Earth in pursuit of “stopping terrorism,” any more than we should make society grind to a halt and kill thousands of innocent people in other countries in order to try to eliminate food poisoning. What if government agents stopped you at the grocery store checkout line and made you take off your shoes to prove that you weren’t hiding expired food in your shoes? What if the U.S. military was bombing South America because of a bad batch of bananas that caused some Americans to die of salmonella? It sounds ridiculous, right? Such a stupidly overbearing government response to such a tiny threat? But that’s the same mentality we’ve adopted with terrorism!
People need to have some sense of historical perspective about terrorism and stop moping and whining about what a terrible place the world in 2016 is, because compared to where we’ve been in human history, even within our grandparents’ lifetime, it’s really not that bad! Despite racial injustice and vast levels of wealth inequality, the world as a whole really has made massive progress to becoming a more peaceful and abundant place. And the world will keep getting better if we can just keep calm and stop doing the terrorists’ work for them.