Our Own Fear Is Even Deadlier than Terrorism

For two years now Europe has been hit by multiple terror attacks, most of which occurred in France, Belgium, Germany, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The responses, both political and individual decisions, are likely to be far more damaging than the attacks themselves.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, passenger miles on the main US airlines fell between 12 and 20 percent. In the early 2000s, a German professor by the name of Gerd Giegerenzer, a psychologist specialized in risk, claimed that the dramatic change in people's traveling behavior was nearly as fatal as the attack itself.

This phenomenon is called dread risk. And in fact, Giegerenzer reveals that in the three months following the attacks on the World Trade Center, additional deaths caused by the increased number of cars on roads and highway across the country could be estimated at 350 (almost 100 more than died by flying in the wrong airplanes on September 11). The German professor notes:

Preventing terrorist attacks is difficult, and governments all around the world are focusing on this task. Avoiding the second, psychologically motivated toll could be comparatively easy and inexpensive, if the public were better informed about psychological reactions to catastrophic events, and the potential risk of avoiding risk.

Don't Let Government Become the Threat

I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. They were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic, you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent."

V For Vendetta, by far one of the most iconic and emblematic movies for laying out the case for scepticism towards an intrusive state, is a work of fiction. However, the risks described by V and the idea of a dystopian 1984-style London of the future are not too far-fetched. European countries are all cracking down on civil liberties in the name of security.

Only 1 of the thousands of home searches was classified as necessary to prevent terrorism.

France has been in a state of emergency since November 2015, which disables civil liberties, making searches and seizures or house raids a lot easier. Former prime minister Manuel Valls recommended the country remain in the state of emergency until ISIS was defeated.

According to the law, authorities during a state of emergency are allowed to extend detentions, conduct searches (including home searches) without a warrant, wiretap, ban all types of public and private events, and prohibit gatherings of more than three people.

All of those allowances have been used during the current state of emergency. In its first six months, the police conducted over 3,500 searches that would have been illegal under the normal regime. In fact, as the French newspaper Libération reports, only one of the thousands of home searches conducted in the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks was classified as necessary to prevent terrorism.

Amnesty International has warned about the consequences of this absence of civil rights. Over 600 individuals were under house arrest at the end of 2016, with little to no proof that they had any link to terrorism whatsoever. Today, 60 still are. Amnesty also estimates that only 0.3 percent of conducted searches are in any way furthering the investigation into terrorism.

Numerous protests, against reform laws and during the COP21 Paris Climate Conference, have been banned from taking place, with the government making no effort to justify these decisions as related to terrorism. This absence of legal justification has even worried the United Nations, which recommended that France use “prior judicial inquiries” in order to “guarantee fundamental rights and prevent arbitrary procedures.”

An Excuse to Regulate the Internet

In the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for stricter regulations on the Internet. According to May, international agreements should impose tougher surveillance online, force Internet providers to participate in counter-extremism actions, and make it more difficult to access pornography.

The prime minister said introducing new rules for cyberspace would “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online” and accused technology firms of not doing enough, adding:

So we need to become far more robust in identifying [Islamic terrorism] and stamping it out – across the public sector and across society. That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations, but the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism…

May isn’t the first world leader who believes the Internet must be regulated to prevent terrorism. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump called for “a partial closure” of the Internet in order to combat ISIS terrorism, a practice only authoritarian countries such as Egypt and North Korea have put into place. “Oh somebody will say ‘oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people,” Trump exclaimed at a rally in South Carolina.

The proximity of the threat drives the frightened electorate into the open arms of intrusive government.

In June this year, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron met in Paris to agree on joint efforts to introduce counter-terrorism legislation regarding the internet. Both countries now plan to fine tech companies like Facebook, Google or Twitter who fail to censor advocacy for radicalisation on their website.

These politicians who are usually opposed to one another find themselves allied in their advocacy for larger surveillance and limits on civil liberties, including free speech. The proximity of the threat drives their frightened electorate into the open arms of intrusive government.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that terrorism is a threat. The challenge is evaluating the different threats and ranking them by how dangerous they are. And by that standard, let's certainly not trust the government.