We all worry about the threat of terrorism but should we? | Stephen Coleman | TEDxCanberra

We all worry about the threat of terrorism but should we? | Stephen Coleman | TEDxCanberra

Translator: Adam Authier
Reviewer: Denise RQ You may have absolutely no idea
what I’m about to talk about, but as soon as I throw up
something like this, you’re probably all thinking,
“Oh, he’s going to talk about terrorism.” You’re right, I am, but hopefully, I’m going to do it
in a slightly different way and get you to think about some things that you may not have thought
about before, particularly with regard to the way we react to the threat
of a terrorist attack. This sort of image and this event
is one of the images of the 21st century. I think, when we talk about terrorism, the reason a lot of people think
of images like this is not just because this was
such a huge attack, but also because this was the moment
that we, in the Western world went, “The problems over there
can come and visit us over here.” Western states had dealt with
issues of terrorism before, but basically, it had always
been homegrown terrorists they were dealing with, and this is a situation where the problems over in that part
of the world suddenly came home; in this case, to the United States. I want to get you to think about
our response to this sort of attack, and our response to terrorism in general. It’s actually surprisingly difficult to get people to agree on
a definition of terrorism so I hope, as Kofi Annan says, “We can all agree that any deliberate attack
on innocent civilians, regardless of one’s cause, is unacceptable and fits
into the definition of terrorism.” That’s actually
what I’m going to be talking about. We all worry about
the threat of terrorism, we all think about what sort of response
is appropriate to these threats, and we all worry about what might happen
if we had a terrorist attack here. Then we hear about terrorist attacks
going on around the world, we see images of terrorist attacks,
we think about terrorism, and we get this idea in our heads
– a not unreasonable idea – that the people that carry out
these attacks are truly awful, that they’re evil. But what tends to come
along with that in our heads is this idea that because they’re evil, we can, and we must do
anything we possibly can to stop a terrorist attack
from occurring where we are. I think there are a lot of problems
with that sort of thought. There’s a lot of risks that come
with that sort of thought that we don’t really appreciate. We often see our governments talking about the risks
of terrorist attack, and we see them talking
about how there’s a need to protect our lives and our security, that we should all be able to walk
safely down the street during the day and sleep safely in our beds at night. Obviously, these things are,
in fact, really important, but they’re not the only important thing. I’m sure people
in North Korea, for example, can walk down the streets during the day, sit in their houses, sleep
safely in their beds at night. They are pretty safe
from a terrorist attack there, but who wants to live in North Korea? We can see if we look
all around the world, there are places where people
are willing to risk their life, their security, their liberty to try and secure
some of these other rights that we actually take for granted. You can see that
in the current protests in Hong Kong, a few years ago in the Arab Spring; going further back, to one of the iconic images
of the 20th century, the Tank Man in Beijing near the Tienanmen
Square Protests in 1989. All these people were willing to risk their lives, their security,
their liberty to try and secure some
of these other rights that we have. So, it’s clear,
when we look at things like this, that our life and our security
is not the only important thing, That’s something
we need to be keeping in mind when we’re thinking about
how we’re responding to the threat of a terrorist attack. This is a map of all the terrorist attacks in 2013 all around the world put together
by the Global Terrorism Database. They, I should say, take
a fairly broad view of terrorism, so there are some events on here
that a lot of people might say, “That doesn’t really count
as a terrorist attack.” If you look at this map, you can see,
from the intensity of some of these things and the concentration
of attacks in various places, there are places around the world where terrorism is
a really serious, everyday threat. In Afghanistan, in Pakistan,
in Iraq, and so on, there are lots of terrorist attacks,
serious terrorist attacks, happening all the time. But then if you look at places like Europe, North America,
Australia, or New Zealand, suddenly, things start
to look a little different. There aren’t many terrorist
attacks in these places. We need to think seriously about
what the actual risk is. We want it to be the case that there aren’t
terrorist attacks in these places, but how do we achieve that? The way we go about achieving that
is actually really important. How serious is the risk really? Let’s compare the risk of terrorism
with some other things. You’re nearly 100 times more likely
to drown in your own bathtub than you are to be killed by a terrorist. You’re eight times more likely
to be killed by a lightning strike than you are to be killed by a terrorist. Since 2003, three times as many Australians
have been killed falling out of their own beds than Australians killed by
terrorist attacks anywhere in the world. (Laughter) Yes, but we really need
to protect ourselves, so we start to think, “What about this situation?
How do we protect ourselves? What do we need to do?” If we’re really serious about protecting
our lives and our security, maybe, there are in fact,
other things that we should be looking at. So we’ve talked about
some really extraordinary situations, but what about really common ones? You are tens of thousands times
more likely to die an early death from a preventable disease
brought on by unhealthy eating than you are to be killed by a terrorist. So, if we really want to protect
our lives and our security, if we’re really worried about them
maybe we should think about this. If we consider this in the same terms
as we’re talking about with terrorism, does that mean we should give police
great new powers to go out and seek out
those involved in unhealthy eating? (Laughter) To cope with organizations
that promote unhealthy eating practices? That advocate unhealthy
eating practices in others? Should we give police
new enforcement powers? The idea of a fat camp
might take on a whole new meaning if it was located at Guantanamo Bay. (Laughter) Of course, if you were doing this, there might be some police departments that needed some new
internal investigation. (Laughter) I’m sure that there are people thinking, “Yeah, but comparing that to terrorism, when you’re on unhealthy eating,
you’re hurting yourself, and terrorists
are attacking other people.” Maybe there’s something to that,
although, if you think about it, there’s lots of parents and caregivers who give unhealthy foods to those children
and others in their care, but OK, let’s look at something else then: Traffic accidents. You are 1,000 times more likely to die
in a motor vehicle accident than you are to be killed by a terrorist, and this is something
that does affect everybody. Anybody from any walk of life
might well be killed in a motor vehicle accident. If we’re serious about life and security, should be something about this? There’s plenty of evidence that says reducing speed limits saves lives. Heaps of evidence here,
so why not halve all speed limits if we’re really serious
about saving lives? Why not give police
massive enforcement powers, maybe technology that allows them
to track every vehicle and make sure they’re actually complying
with these speed limits? Allow them to target those
who are involved in speeding behaviors, or who might be involved
in speeding behaviors, or who we think may have some involvement with others who are involved
in speeding behaviors. (Laughter) I think if we start talking
about speeding in the same way we’ve been talking about terrorism
and the risks involved with speeding in the same way we talked about
the risks of a terrorist attack, then we maybe start to think
there’s a problem. I suggest it’s not about our speeding, but again, about how we think
about terrorist attack. There are lots of quotes
that I thought about throwing up here to help make my point, but I think, in the end, the best one that was suggested
by one of my daughters – actually, it comes from
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” where one of the villains
in that says basically, “People will fight for their freedom
if people try to take it from them, but if you cause enough trouble, people will willingly give up
their freedom for a more secure world.” That’s what we’ve done
with our response to terrorism. Terrorism is about causing fear, about causing terror, hence the name, and you don’t even need
to kill anybody or hurt anybody to actually cause fear and terror. If we talk about it enough,
if we worry about it enough, we do that to ourselves. We bring in all of these reactions,
police powers, security service powers to try and deal with this problem. So, we bring in laws that say we’ll allow
foreign imprisonment without trial, for massive violations
of people’s privacy. Retroactive laws that make it illegal for people to do things
that they already did that weren’t a crime when they did them. That we allow those people amongst us
who are dealing with these problems to violate the rule of law
in various ways. We have our politicians saying, “We need to make sure that we don’t let
these terrorists steal away our fundamental rights and freedoms,” and then we give them up of our own accord
as a response to the threat of terrorism. There is a real threat,
certainly, a much greater threat, in some parts of the world than in others, and we need to actually
respond to that threat, we need to think about
how we’ll deal with these situations, but our response actually needs to be a calm one, a reasoned one,
a well-balanced one, and it needs to take into account
the actual severity of the threat; it needs to be
a realistic approach about that. Any extreme approach that we take just builds the fear that we already have
and in fact, helps the terrorists. Thank you. (Applause)

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. poking fun at an eminent danger now present in Australia and Europe Perhaps comforting should not include such ridicule of a serious issue .

  2. My heart is breaking over the assassinations in belgium today. Why is it so hard for mankind to live together in peace. I strongly believe in Kants Caterogical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become an universal law." aka "Do as you would be done by".
    We could all live life in all it's glory.

  3. I don't want to start worrying about it when someone finally told me that 'you are eight times more likely to be killed by a terrorist than a lightning strike', the main purpose of terrorist never be only killing random victims or causing lose of property, it is a message generator, which is to spread fear. Threat is threat because it may not be coming true, but it get more than 0% to come true in any crowded area, especially when it came from organization that commit attacks. Should we leave it alone and wait for more people getting encouraged by those attack and be one of them who turned to society?

  4. There was a terrorist attack in Melbourne just a couple days ago. Exploding car, stabbing of three people. Australia needs to take precautions about these things. The government doesn’t want people to think that Australia has terror attacks, but it happens at least twice a year. It never used happened as much after the 2000s to 2010s.

  5. False equivalency. Definition too vague.
    Ethics professor was not a great choice of speaker on the issue of counter terrorism

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