Harold Lloyd
This is a stick-up!

Over the last few weeks, as the situation in Syria and Iraq has deteriorated, we’ve seen politicians in the West become more bellicose about the "threat" of terrorism to our way of life. What few in this debate seem to address is whether there is any objective data, compared to other non-terrorist "threats", to support that assertion.

 

Rather like the "reds under the bed" scares of the Cold War, the threat of ‘Islamism’ is held up as an existential threat to the British public innocently going about their daily lives. However, if we look at the statistics we can’t demonstrate that claim.

How many people in Britain get killed by terrorism[1] in Britain in an average year? Given recent media coverage, how many do you think?

Until the murder of Private Lee Rigby in May 2013, no members of the public had been killed[2] by terrorist acts in Britain since 2005. Even with Britain’s history of terrorism, due to the conflict in Ireland, in global terms the risk from terrorism here is low.

The relative scale of the public’s risk of fatality from terrorism was outlined in the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation’s report published in 2012[3]

"During the 21st century, terrorism has been an insignificant cause of mortality in the United Kingdom. The annualised average of five deaths caused by terrorism in England and Wales over this period compares with total accidental deaths in 2010 of 17,201, including 123 cyclists killed in traffic accidents, 102 personnel killed in Afghanistan, 29 people drowned in the bathtub and five killed by stings from hornets, wasps and bees."

That said, must we declare bees and hornets to be as dangerous as al-Qaeda? Perhaps that’s why the Government doesn’t want to ban neonicotinoid pesticides[4] in Britain.

The Government, incited by sections of the media, has made a great play of their tough stance on counter-terrorism – and the powers which we grant our security services. Again, are these proportionate to the objective threat?

In July, Britain’s oldest ethical Internet service provider, GreenNet[5], sued the Government and GCHQ[6] for their arguably unlawful breach of British citizens right to privacy as part of their mass collection of on-line data. The response of the Government was to regularise that breach of privacy laws by rushing through emergency legislation[7]. David Cameron’s justification for this was that[8]

"Sometimes in the dangerous world in which we live we need our security services to listen to someone’s phone or read their emails to identify and disrupt a terrorist plot."

Is the threat to our civil rights and privacy[9] really worth that intrusion? And, compared to the threat to democratic values posed by the Government’s spy systems[10], does that power significantly reduce the risks to the public from terrorism?

To answer that point let’s put that 5 per year terrorism fatality figure into a wider statistical context:

  • We look to the police to protect us from harm – and yet on average 30 people a year[11] die as a result of police actions;
  • Concern has been raised recently about the dire state of food production Britain[12] – the last figures I could find suggest that in 2010, 35 people died[13] from food poisoning;
  • Our politicians are deferential to big industrial lobbies, such as the drinks industry[14]8,367 people died[15] as a result of alcohol-related deaths in 2012;
  • Funding of the health service is a live political argument[16] at present – the last authoritative study suggested that 12,000 people a year died[17] of "preventable causes" at the hands of the NHS; and
  • Britain has a woeful record on air pollution[18], and is being sued by the European Commission[19] – recent research from Public Health England suggest that almost 30,000 people a year may die[20] as a result of air pollution.

I think that makes the relative hazard of terrorism to other "threats" quite clear. Is this reflected in the current media debate? Clearly not!

As I outlined in a recent article for The Ecologist[21], last year David Cameron instructed his aides to "get rid of all the green crap"[22] from Government policy. And yet some of the greatest threats to the public are a result of that so called "green crap".

And you don’t have to take my word for that – let’s look at what the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has to say.

The MoD publishes its Global Strategic Trends report for those within the MoD and wider Government who are involved in developing long term planning. They recently published the fifth edition[23], which identifies long term threats and opportunities to 2045 (it even has a scary cartoon[24] which summarises it).

If you read that report, you could almost think you were reading something penned by WWF or Greenpeace. For example –

"As we increase the stress we place on the natural environment, our need to understand, protect and preserve it will almost certainly grow. Climate change, a rise in sea levels, desertification and reducing biodiversity are all issues that could affect us even more over the next 30 years. They are likely to impact on agricultural production and fishing, and could exacerbate humanitarian crises."

In stating that, the MoD are not being alarmist. You can find similar reports being produced today by other ‘establishment’ organisations – such as the World Economic Forum[25].

US military researchers produced a broadly similar document[26] in March 2014, which considered climate change to be a particular threat. In response, in May 2014, the US Congress passed a bill which banned the US military[27] from considering the security implications of climate change.

As that US example shows, where the real statistical threats to public life are concerned, we might judge the inaction of our politicians to be a greater "threat" than the risks from terrorism.

In my view our politicians concentrate on terrorism because it’s the perfect "paper tiger". It’s scary, and unpredictable, but by its very nature the success or failure of their policies are not subject to external assessment. The secretive nature of the agencies involved allow politicians to say what they wish, and justify their actions to some abstract threat[28], without any great risk of being proven wrong.

In contrast, if the Government started to address some of those really serious, ecologically-based issues, then that would require fighting some very difficult political battles – abandoning historic commitments to certain economic and ideological principles to achieve those ecological goals.

Terrorism, globally, is a serious issue – one which we should all be concerned about. What we’re talking about here is the relative weight of that issue compared to other issues which the UK Government, arguably, has a far greater power to address.

When it comes to the problems of the Middle East, the historic issue of the control of oil supplies is a key factor in the West’s foreign policy strategy. Arguably Britain and France created these problems when they enforced the Sykes-Picot Agreement[29] on the region in 1916 – creating the boundaries within the region we see today.

However, adapting to ecological limits requires that the world wean itself off oil-burning within a decade or two at most. That would allow us to try and find a new, less exploitative way to co-operatively engage with the peoples of that region.

The UN’s decade-old study of "future threats and challenges"[30] highlighted the range of problems which will confront in years to come. And, despite David Cameron’s desire to "get rid of the green crap", most of these issues have a common ecological root which drives them.

Instead of the current Western policy of control and exploitation, we need a new strategy, as outlined in that report:

"{we} face threats that no nation can hope to master by acting alone – and opportunities that can be much more hopefully exploited if all nations work together. The purpose of this report is to suggest how nations can work together to meet this formidable challenge."

What I’ve seen come from the mouths of politicians and pundits over the last few weeks does nothing to address the root of the greater human ecological crisis – manifesting itself in the many regional problems we see in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Until we have that discussion about global equity and justice, and we end the ‘exceptionalism’[31] in Western foreign policy, the issue of terrorism will not go away. Instead, as we escalate measures to control dissent at home and abroad, knee-jerk security and surveillance measures will arguably degrade the democratic principles which our government’s claim to protect.

References:

  1. Wikipedia: ‘List of terrorist incidents in Great Britain’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_Great_Britain
  2. pages 14/15, The Terrorism Acts In 2013, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, July 2014 – https://terrorismlegislationreviewer.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Independent-Review-of-Terrorism-Report-2014-print2.pdf
  3. pages 26/27, The Terrorism Acts In 2011, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, June 2012https://terrorismlegislationreviewer.independent.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/report-terrorism-acts-2011.pdf
  4. Government rejects the science behind neonicotinoid ban, Matt McGrath, BBC News, 10th September 2013 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24024634
  5. GreenNethttp://www.gn.apc.org/
  6. Legal complaint filed to end GCHQ attacks on ISPs, GreenNet, 2nd July 2014 – http://www.gn.apc.org/network/news/legal-complaint-filed-end-gchq-attacks-isps
  7. UK government to rush through emergency surveillance legislation, Patrick Wintour and Alan Travis, Guardian On-line, Thursday 10th July 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jul/10/high-court-snoopers-charter
  8. PM and Deputy PM speech on emergency security legislation, Prime Minister’s Office, 10th July 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-and-deputy-pm-speech-on-emergency-security-legislation     Watch the video on-line via Guardian On-line – http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/jul/10/david-cameron-surveillance-law-explain-security-services-video
  9. Wikipedia: ‘European Convention on Human Rights’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Convention_on_Human_Rights
  10. Hacking Online Polls and Other Ways British Spies Seek to Control the Internet , The Intercept, 15th July 2014 – https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/07/14/manipulating-online-polls-ways-british-spies-seek-control-internet
  11. Deaths during or following police contact: Statistics for England and Wales 2004/05 to 2013/14, IPCC, July 2014 – http://www.ipcc.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Documents/research_stats/Time_series_tables1314.pdf
  12. Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry, Felicity Lawrence, Guardian On-line, Wednesday 23rd July 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/23/-sp-revealed-dirty-secret-uk-poultry-industry-chicken-campylobacter
  13. ‘Food Poisoning’, Written Answers to Questions, Commons Debates, Hansard, Wednesday 25th January 2012 – http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201212/cmhansrd/cm120125/text/120125w0002.htm
  14. Powerful lobbyists and fawning ministers are corroding society, Will Hutton, The Observer, Saturday 11th January 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/11/corrosive-influence-big-business-lobbyists
  15. Alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom, registered in 2012, Office for National Statistics, 19th February 2014 – http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/subnational-health4/alcohol-related-deaths-in-the-united-kingdom/2012/index.html
  16. The coming crisis in the NHS, Daniel Boffey and Denis Campbell, The Observer, Saturday 28th June 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jun/28/nhs-funding-crisis-general-election
  17. Preventable deaths due to problems in care in English acute hospitals: a retrospective case record review study, Helen Hogan, Frances Healey, Graham Neale, Richard Thomson, Charles Vincent and Nick Black, British Medical Journal Quality Safety, 2012 – http://qualitysafety.bmj.com/content/early/2012/07/06/bmjqs-2012-001159.full.pdf+html
  18. WHO names and shames UK cities breaching safe air pollution levels, Press Association (via Guardian On-line), Wednesday 7th May 2014http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/07/who-names-uk-cities-breaching-safe-air-pollution-levels
  19. UK cities will exceed EU pollution limits until 2030, figures show, Euractiv, 11th July 2014 – http://www.euractiv.com/sections/sustainable-dev/uk-cities-will-exceed-eu-pollution-limits-until-2030-figures-show-303422
  20. Estimating local mortality burdens associated with particulate air pollution, Public Health England, April 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332854/PHE_CRCE_010.pdf
  21. Fracking Britain: without debate, the Government imposes its ‘right to rule’, Paul Mobbs, The Ecologist, 21st July 2014 – http://www.theecologist.org/campaigning/2486001/fracking_britain_without_debate_the_government_imposes_its_right_to_rule.html
  22. David Cameron orders aides to ‘get rid of the green crap’, Adam Bienkov, Politics.co.uk, Thursday 21st November 2013 – http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2013/11/21/david-cameron-orders-aides-to-get-rid-of-the-green-crap
  23. Global Strategic Trends out to 2045, Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), Ministry of Defence, July 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-strategic-trends-out-to-2045
  24. Global Strategic Trends, YouTube, July 2014 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1Fv9cRMaJQ
  25. Insight Report: Global Risks 2014 (Ninth Edition), World Economic Forum, 2014 – http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GlobalRisks_Report_2014.pdf
  26. Climate Change and National Security in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, Center for Climate and Security, March 2014 – http://climateandsecurity.org/2014/03/04/climate-change-and-national-security-in-the-2014-quadrennial-defense-review/
  27. House Directs Pentagon To Ignore Climate Change, Kate Sheppard, Huffington Post, 23rd May 2014 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/23/pentagon-climate-change_n_5382067.html
  28. UK terror threat raised from substantial to severe, Alan Travis, Guardian On-line, Friday 29th August 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/aug/29/uk-terror-threat-raised-severe
  29. Wikipedia: ‘Sykes-Picot Agreement’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sykes%E2%80%93Picot_Agreement
  30. A more secure world: Our shared responsibility, Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, United Nations, 2004 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/limits/un_hlpt_2004.pdf
  31. Wikipedia: ‘American exceptionalism’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_exceptionalism