Is this an “unprecedented age of terror”? That’s only what they want us to think

By Josiah Odigie

In 2014 David Cameron increased the terrorism threat level from substantial to severe, saying “What we’re facing in Iraq now with Isis is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before.” But comparatively, mortality rates from ISIS or indeed any other terrorist organisation are low. Substances like alcohol, sugar and salt are infinitely more threatening: in the UK in 2014 there were 8,697 alcohol-related deaths. Obviously comparisons such as these are limiting, after all it is the graphic and deliberate nature of terrorism that conjures such alarm; it is not being in control of that which threatens you that sets terrorism apart. Therefore, receiving disproportionate coverage rates, relative to any of the aforementioned killers, is partly excusable.  So, comparisons to society’s deadlier vices aside, why does terrorism dominate the political conversation of today? Does reality warrant this severe threat level?

In what Jonathan Sacks calls an “unprecedented age of terror”, he argues in the Daily Telegraph that the internet has revolutionised terrorism and radicalisation (which it has), and that with the technology available to ISIS they are more dangerous than any terrorist group to date. Well, given the phenomenal rate the words ‘terrorism’ and ‘ISIS’ are plastered over Britain’s daily newspapers, one could be forgiven for thinking so. But Sacks’ absence of statistics is conspicuous and the dedication of a large part of his article to just atrocities committed against Christians (which are of course horrifying) is indicative of a journalist more interested in maintaining frenzy than accurately portraying reality. As suspected, research conducted by the Global terrorism database contradicts Sacks’ claims, showing the most deadly period of terrorism in Europe to be between 1970 and 1988, where the IRA caused more deaths in the UK than ISIS and other Islamist terror groups have in the entirety of Europe. In reality, Sacks’ “unprecedented age of terror” is, put kindly, a little hyperbolic and in harsher terms, utterly unsubstantiated.

To counter this, one might cite the fivefold increase in global terrorism published by the Institution for Economics and Peace as indication of the threat that ISIS pose and as justification for increased coverage. But given that the observable majority of terrorism stories from western news outlets are focused on issues just within the west, this is sadly irrelevant. In an ironic twist that lies somewhere between hilarious and sickening, the media are, in fact, playing into the hands of ISIS and other terrorist groups by engendering the collective fear and notoriety that they so crave within western society. However, taking steps to prevent this rate of coverage raises all sorts of issues. First of all, as I have written before, humans do have an innate inclination towards news stories that warn of danger, and terrorism certainly fits that bill. In turn, news companies take advantage of our cognitive makeup, churning out shock stories of our impending peril on a daily basis. This is a problem which is further exacerbated by the fact that each media outlet is essentially a business, so if a certain type of news story will unfailingly attract readers then why change? Surely that is the very definition of public interest? Press standards and regulation are in place to punish the publication of the untrue, but as we have seen the people can be misled in other ways. For those who it is in their interest for things to carry on as they are, an easy defence mechanism could be to conflate the arguments against disproportionate coverage with those for increased press censorship. Whatever happens, a future marked by drawn-out, convoluted debates and small appeasements is inevitable.

A question that can and should be asked is how the information published by an organisation as fundamentally unbiased and objective as the Global terrorism database is so readily ignored by both media companies and politicians? Why does terrorism continue as priority number one? Various conclusions could be drawn, each as disquieting as the next. The most likely: war is profitable. By continuing to focus on ISIS, war can be maintained and money can be made.

Photograph by Jasper Cox

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