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Chapter 10: Terrorism (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

Since 11 September 2001, every year terrorists have killed about fifty people in the European Union, about ten people in the USA, about seven people in China, and up to 25,000 people globally (mostly in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria).1 In contrast, each year traffic accidents kill about 80,000 Europeans, 40,000 Americans, 270,000 Chinese, and 1.25 million people altogether. Diabetes and high sugar levels kill up to 3.5 million people annually, while air pollution kills about 7 million people.3 So why do we fear terrorism more than sugar, and why do governments lose elections because of sporadic terror attacks but not because of chronic air pollution?

Harari starts the chapter by showing us the deaths that have resulted from terrorism compared to other culprits. It isn’t that terrorism has no catastrophic consequences to the fate of nations, or that it destroys lives, but when it is put into perspective by shedding light on other killers, we see that terrorism is not that dangerous – when it comes to the total number deaths recorded.

The next question to ask would be: are global efforts in trying to reduce terrorism decreasing terrorism or are they helping the terrorists accomplish their mission?

Consider the literal meaning of the word terrorism: It is to spread fear. And in that sense, the terrorists have overwhelmingly succeeded. Now, it is difficult to know to what extent terrorism has served the political agendas of certain groups that have a vested interest in combating terrorism, but there is no doubt that considerable government resources have been allocated to combating terrorism – resources that could have been allocated towards healthcare and education.

The terrorists themselves are in a weak position, they have no way of engaging in a fair fight against their enemies. They must resort to these asymmetrical tactics to have any kind of leverage. They use the grand spectacles, like the destruction of the symbolic twin towers of the World Trade Center, to deliver their message with an extra punch. But in reality, their efforts are futile when compared to war, for example.

However, like a fly in a china shop, the only way to inflict any material damage is to get in the bull’s ear and get the bull to do the job for it.

If you add all the people killed and wounded in Europe by terrorist attacks since 1945 – including victims of nationalist, religious, leftist and rightist groups alike – the total will still fall far short of the casualties in any number of obscure First World War battles, such as the third Battle of the Aisne (250,000 casualties) or the tenth Battle of the Isonzo (225,000).

Of course, modern states cannot withstand terrorist provocations easily. A state can only maintain its legitimacy when the public is not exposed to political violence.

While present-day terrorism is mostly theatrical, the future forms that terrorism might take are not. Cyberterrorism, nuclear terrorism, and bioterrorism are far more dangerous. It is not today’s terrorists that the governments must react to, but these future forms of terrorism.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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