22 July 2005

22.07.22. 7/7: What kills you matters - not numbers

Editor’s note: Professor John Adams contributed this note yesterday to the Social Affairs Unit, a UK charity that “addresses social, economic and cultural issues with an emphasis on the value of personal responsibility”. We are pleased to share it with you as food for thought about the importance of the issues which concern us all here.

7/7: What kills you matters - not numbers

Posted by John Adams

The death toll from the London bombings represents six days of death on Britain's roads. The death toll from the Madrid bombings represents twelve or thirteen days of death on the Spanish roads. In the 25 "busiest" years of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland twice as many people died in road accidents as were killed by terrorists. In Israel, between 27th September 2000 and 26th September 2003, 622 civilian Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists; the annual road death toll over this period was about 550. Last year the World Bank and WHO estimated that more than 1.2 million people were killed in road accidents globally – more than one 9/11 every day. Yet the public fear of terrorism - and reaction to it - is on a completely different scale to that of death on the road. Prof. John Adams - Britain's leading academic expert on risk and the author of the seminal Risk - asks why this should be so.

7/7 is Britain's 9/11. After the events of the 7th July 2005 most of the British press adopted 7/7 as its shorthand symbol of Britain's terrorism victimhood. The eight most-powerful-men-in-the-world, coincidentally assembled for the G8 in Gleneagles in Scotland, stood shoulder to shoulder before the World's television cameras. Tony Blair proclaimed their solidarity, outrage and defiance. The Prime Minister then helicoptered to London to assume command of the emergency. The 60-fold differential in numbers of lives lost was a negligible inconvenience. London, like Madrid, like New York, was a victim of terrorism.

In the following days the Government and the media choreographed the nation's grief, anger and resolution. (As I write I am listening to a BBC radio programme devoted to explaining why it pulled programmes from its schedule the following week for fear of treading on the sensitivities of a traumatized nation.) One week on, millions stood in silence for two-minutes at mid-day to commemorate the events, and tens of thousands assembled in Trafalgar Square in the evening to manifest their ... what?

In Britain on an average day nine people die and over 800 are injured in road accidents. The mangled metal, the pain of the victims, and the grief of families and friends, one might suppose, are similar in both cases. Measured in terms of life and limb, 7/7 represented six days of death on the road. But thousands do not gather weekly in Trafalgar Square to manifest their collective concern. Why?

The 191 people killed by the Madrid bombers on 11th March 2004 were equivalent to the number killed in road accidents in Spain every 12 or 13 days. The latter tragedies usually merit only a few column inches in the local press. The former evoked three days of national mourning in Spain and a 3 minute silence all over Europe. On the first anniversary there was another 5 minute nationwide silence in Spain.

Other examples:

  • In the 25 "busiest" years of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland twice as many people died in road accidents as were killed by terrorists. Most people in England have never seen a report on television or in the press about a road accident in Northern Ireland;
  • In Israel, between 27th September 2000 and 26th September 2003, 622 civilian Israelis were killed by Palestinian terrorists. The annual road death toll over this period was about 550;
  • In the first half of October 2002 two people per day were killed in Washington and its suburbs. They were killed suddenly and without warning by a stranger they had never met. There was no discernible pattern in their age, sex or ethnicity. Their families and friends grieved, but otherwise their fates attracted virtually no media attention. They were victims of road accidents. Over the same period someone was killed every other day by the Washington Sniper. Again there was no discernible pattern amongst the victims chosen by the anonymous killer. Their fates attracted massive media coverage all around the world and led, far beyond the vicinity of their occurrence, to extraordinary changes in behaviour - ranging from a massive policing operation to people jogging to their cars in zigzag patterns with their groceries in supermarket car parks;
  • In 2003, worldwide, 23 Americans were killed by acts of terrorism (compared with 25 in 2002 and about 2800 in 2001). No terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland were reported in 2004. In each of these years about 42,000 were killed on American highways. And yet the resources devoted to countering the terrorist threat continue to increase, and the revocation of traditional civil liberties continue apace.

Outside Baghdad, almost everywhere one might travel in the World, the risk of being killed in a road accident greatly exceeds the risk of being killed by a terrorist.

Figure 1 suggests the way in which acceptance of a given actuarial level of risk is likely to vary widely with the perceived level of control an individual can exercise over it and, in the case of imposed risks, with the perceived motives of the imposer.

Figure 1 Amplification of perceived risk

With "pure" voluntary risks, the risk itself, with its associated challenge and rush of adrenaline, is the reward. Most climbers on Mount Everest know that it is dangerous and willingly take the risk. With a voluntary, self-controlled, applied risk, such as driving, the reward is getting expeditiously from A to B. But the sense of control that drivers have over their fates appears to encourage a high level of tolerance of the risks involved.

Cycling from A to B (I write as a London cyclist) is done with a diminished sense of control over one's fate. This sense is supported by statistics that show that per kilometre travelled a cyclist is 14 times more likely to die than someone in a car. This is a good example of the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute risk. Although 14 times greater, the absolute risk of cycling is still small - 1 fatality in 25 million kilometres cycled; not even Lance Armstrong can begin to cover that distance in a lifetime of cycling. And numerous studies have demonstrated that the extra relative risk is more than offset by the health benefits of regular cycling; regular cyclists live longer.

While people may voluntarily board planes, buses and trains, the popular reaction to crashes in which passengers are passive victims, suggests that the public demand a higher standard of safety in circumstances in which people voluntarily hand over control of their safety to pilots, or to bus or train drivers.

Risks imposed by nature - such as those endured by those living on the San Andreas Fault or the slopes of Mount Etna - or impersonal economic forces - such as the vicissitudes of the global economy - are placed in the middle of the scale. Reactions vary widely. They are usually seen as motiveless and are responded to fatalistically - unless or until the threat appears imminent.

Imposed risks are less tolerated. Consider mobile phones. The risk associated with the handsets is either non-existent or very small. The risk associated with the base stations, measured by radiation dose, unless one is up the mast with an ear to the transmitter, is orders of magnitude less. Yet all round the world billions are queuing up to take the voluntary risk, and almost all the opposition is focussed on the base stations, which are seen by objectors as impositions. Because the radiation dose received from the handset increases with distance from the base station, to the extent that campaigns against the base stations are successful, they will increase the distance from the base station to the average handset, and thus the radiation dose. The base station risk, if it exist, might be labelled a benignly imposed risk; no one supposes that the phone company wishes to murder all those in the neighbourhood.

Less tolerated are risks whose imposers are perceived as motivated by profit or greed. In Europe, big biotech companies such as Monsanto are routinely denounced by environmentalist opponents for being more concerned with profits than the welfare of the environment or the consumers of its products.

Less tolerated still are malignly imposed risks - crimes ranging from mugging to rape and murder. In most countries in the world the number of deaths on the road far exceeds the numbers of murders, but far more people are sent to jail for murder than for causing death by dangerous driving. In the United States in 2002 16,000 people were murdered - a statistic that evoked far more popular concern than the 42,000 killed on the road - but far less than the 25 killed by terrorists.

Which brings us to terrorism and Al Qaida. How do we account for the massive scale, world-wide, of the outpourings of grief and anger attaching to its victims, whose numbers are dwarfed by the those of other causes of violent death?

Up to this point we have been discussing individual responses to a range of risks. Terrorism targets governments. Terrorists pose a threat not just to individuals but to the social order - and to those who purport to maintain it. Murderers and careless drivers are not seen as threats to the ability of the government (the Hierarchy) to govern.

And governments have multitudes of press officers and IT experts to amplify their anxieties. Leading the way is the US Department of Homeland Security. I now have on the toolbar of my Internet browser an icon provided by them. It is currently set at amber - "Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks". The Patriot Act, the US Department of Justice proclaims:

has played a key part in a number of successful operations to protect innocent Americans from the deadly plans of terrorists dedicated to destroying America and our way of life.

Others see the Patriot Act itself as the more significant threat to the American way of life. The American Civil Liberties Union observes:

Many parts of this sweeping legislation take away checks on law enforcement and threaten the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect. For example, without a warrant and without probable cause, the FBI now has the power to access your most private medical records, your library records, and your student records... and can prevent anyone from telling you it was done.

Until recently terrorists could be relied upon to choose iconic targets, such as the World Trade Center. But as these targets have been "hardened" - the Houses of Parliament in London now have highly sophisticated screening of entrants, and barriers to prevent car and lorry bombers getting near - terrorists have begun conferring iconic status on more mundane targets - such as bars in Bali, commuter trains in Spain, and buses in London.

Taking an advantage from a necessity the terrorist now seeks to spread the idea that nowhere is safe. But this makes the selection of victims more random, as with road accidents. If acts of terror continue to be more widely dispersed, might we become more fatalistic about them, and begin to treat them with the same indifference with which, as a society, we react to road accidents? An actuary asked to pronounce on the risk of terrorist incidents, comparing them to road accidents, would conclude that everywhere is very safe.

Such a perspective, by putting the perceived threat into a context with which most people feel less anxious, would undermine popular support for "security" measures - such as those currently invoked to detain "terrorists" in Belmarsh and Guatanamo without the need to provide traditional proofs of guilt, and the further police-state powers of surveillance that governments are in the process of granting themselves.

Or might this perspective also foster a reassessment of the equanimity with which we accept the toll of death on our roads?

[An extended version of some of the ideas discussed below can be found in Science and Terrorism: Post-conference after-thoughts, World Federation of Scientists, International Seminar on Terrorism, Erice 7-12 May 2004.]

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography at University College London.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home