Truck attacks show that the terrorists are losing

by DANIEL HANNAN April 12, 2017

The shocking thing about the Stockholm truck atrocity is that no one was especially shocked. Terrorist attacks in Europe seem to be becoming almost routine. The fact that radicals can turn any vehicle into a weapon means we are more at risk than ever. Doesn't it?

Actually, no. Terrorism remains an exceptionally rare phenomenon. Political violence is not increasing in the West. The fact that jihadis are reduced to using trucks is a sign of their weakness, not their strength.

I realise that these assertions will strike some readers as implausible. Being human, we tend to dwell on recent, dramatic and frightening events rather than remote, dull and unthreatening ones. Terrorists know it, which is why they try to pull off what the IRA used to call "spectaculars".

Ever since the 1970s, for example, paramilitary groups have been weirdly fixated on airports, despite many softer targets where people congregate in equivalent numbers. Why? Because a dramatic attack is more likely to dominate the news and linger in the mind. There is, in short, a reason we call it "terrorism".

Still, let's look at some data. Since the 2005 Tube bombings, there have been eight fatalities as a result of terrorism in the UK - or nine if we count Khalid Masood, the knifeman who died while carrying out the Westminster abomination last month.

One was Mohammed Saleem, murdered by a racist Ukrainian student in Birmingham in 2013; one was Private Lee Rigby, horribly hacked to death in Woolwich in 2013; one was Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered as she served her constituents by an anti-immigrant fanatic in 2016; and the other five were Masood's victims.

Every one of those deaths was an unspeakable tragedy - which is, of course, why we recall them. But horror and frequency are two different things. Over the same period, by way of context, the British Heart Foundation calculates that 1.6 million Britons died of cardiovascular disease. You are, in other words, 200,000 times more likely to die of heart failure than in a terrorist attack.

You might object that terrorism is uniquely threatening because it can strike anyone, of any age, without warning. Even so, we should try to keep a sense of perspective. Oxford Brookes University has compiled data on lightning injuries in the UK, which show that you are three times more likely to die as a result of being hit by a thunderbolt than as a result of political violence. That's the fatality rate, not the strike rate: you are 45 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack.

Look at it another way. More than 1,700 people a year die as a result of being hit by a vehicle. You are 3,400 more likely to be killed by a non-terrorist driver than by one who is acting from political motives. Khalid Masood murdered four people on Westminster bridge - slightly less than the average number of people killed in the UK every day by cars or trucks.

Each traffic casualty is as much the centre of his own universe as the tourists mown down on the bridge; each will leave behind inconsolable relatives. But we generally don't turn traffic deaths into national news. And news coverage is what draws jihadi wannabes.

Are terrorist attacks in Europe getting worse? It depends on when we measure from. If you take the period since the London Tube attacks, as I have done so far in this article, there has been a slight uptick in terrorist violence across Europe in the past two years.

But there have been many worse years in recent memory. 2004, for example, saw 193 people killed in the Madrid train bombings. If we count Russia as part of Europe, we must add the 40 people murdered in the 2010 Moscow metro attacks and the 354, many of them small children, killed in the 2004 school siege at Beslan. Yet see how, already, those abominations are fading in our minds as the brash colours of more recent horrors - the Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm attacks - claim our attention?

Go a little further back, to the years of IRA and ETA bombings, and we sustained a far higher level of violence than today. By no measure is terrorism worse now than then. It's just that we, like every previous generation, wrongly think that the violence of our own age is uniquely monstrous.

What of the rise of cars and trucks as the new weapon of choice? Are everyday objects now potential bombs? Well, think for a moment about what that shift in weaponry tells us. The attackers, up against some of the best counter-terrorism experts in the world, are not getting their hands on sophisticated ordnance. They are not sneaking trained operatives, hardened by war in Syria, past our security forces - at least, not in any numbers. The fact that they are using trucks is a measure of quite how disproportionate this battle has become.

No one likes to write these articles. Journalists are haunted by the memory of a Spectator piece written by the brilliant Simon Jenkins which bemoaned our panicky attitude to terrorism and which, through ill chance, appeared on the day of the London bombings. Politicians are even more sensitive. We know that "Tell that to X!" is an emotionally powerful, if intellectually weak, put-down.

Still, we mustn't take terrorists at their own estimate. They are not soldiers in a civilisational war. They do not threaten our way of life. In truth, they cause us less disruption than heavy floods. They are wicked people, doing cruel things; but they are doing them, relatively speaking, on a tiny scale. Mockery may be a more effective defence against them than moral panic.

I'm going to end on an optimistic note. It won't be long before driverless cars and trucks come into circulation. These vehicles will, one assumes, be programmed with some equivalent of Asimov's Laws of Robotics - in other words, they generally won't be able to hit pedestrians. The sooner the better.

Help Us Grow with flower

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.


blog comments powered by Disqus


FSM Archives

10 year FSM Anniversary

More in PUBLICATIONS ( 1 OF 25 ARTICLES )