Deck the halls and all that, it’s the lead-up to the silly season, tainted as it is by relentless media reports about bombings, terrorist attacks and can-it-happen-here scenarios.
Despite the disproportionate Australian media coverage of the Paris attacks that left at least 129 dead, pretty soon it will dawn on Australians that there are just 33 shopping days to Christmas. You already missed surface mail by two months. Cards need to be sent soon, especially if you’re catching overseas airmail (allow three weeks).
Hams and turkeys need to be ordered, family members need to be summonsed (or not). You may care instead to send a Christmas-spend sized donation to the charity of your choice. Or not.
Soon we’ll be swept up in the coming storm and cyclone season and the inevitable bush fires (which appear to have started already). Our parochial media will settle down and report on domestic issues. Between Christmas and New Year, news reports will focus on the Christmas road toll, epic drunkenness outside nightclubs, drug busts, misadventures at the beach, the inevitable ‘year-enders’ (summaries of the year that was) and in desperate times, cat up a tree stories.
But interpretations of reality intrude
Meanwhile, we can all empathise with the French people; after all, about 110,000 people of French descent live in this country. Many people started using a Facebook app, adding the Tricolours to their profiles, as a sign of solidarity, perhaps.
There was also a bombing in Beirut the day before, which killed 46 people and injured at least 249, which was comparatively ignored amid the hysteria about France. Facebook initially copped a bit of flak about not providing a Lebanese flag app.
As many commentators are saying, the hysterical media coverage that followed the Paris attacks is completely disproportionate to the statistical likelihood of being killed or injured in a terrorist attack. Terrorist groups thrive on publicity; it feeds their evil appetites and attracts new acolytes. The more the mass media plays it up, the more it justifies the logic of it to the new recruits.
Alert but not really alarmed
Somewhere caught in the cobwebs of my younger memory, there we are getting on a London underground train and then being told to immediately leave the train and exit to (Oxford Street?) as quickly as possible.
British people take this kind of thing in their stride, calmly riding the endless escalators to the daylight as if they were going to meet a friend for tea and cake.
We were not overly perturbed, although it brought back those conversations with parents when we told them we were going back-packing in Europe, circa 1973. They were panicking, as parents tend to do, about the then current Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) habit of carrying out random bombing attacks on targets in London as a response to British troops interfering in Irish business.
Compared with more recent terrorist attacks, the casualties were small, but the attacks frequent and brutal enough to instil fear and anxiety among London’s populace. The IRA had a habit of making telephone calls to police or newspapers shortly before the bombs were detonated, which may have explained the half-remembered tube evacuation.
And still the west interferes
That’s yet another example, albeit 40-plus years ago, of what happens when supposedly superior western powers stick their noses into the religious and political dynamics of other countries. Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s approach to The Troubles did not work, George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq clearly stirred up the Middle East, ditto Afghanistan, while the US-led tactic of bombing raids on ISIS targets in Syria is arguably fuelling more terrorist activities.
Terrorism is not new. While the use of the term to describe random crimes of violence upon private citizens is in dispute, it is said to date back to the French reign of terror in the 16th century.
In the 21st century, the cowardly practise of achieving some sort of pyrrhic victory through blowing oneself up, thereby killing and injuring random citizens, is universally in the public eye via the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet.
Sure there will be some who opted out of the news cycle and may still be unaware of last Friday’s co-ordinated attacks in Paris. But the Australian authorities are taking no chances. The Australian government website smartraveller.gov.au has set its travel advisory for Paris and the Ile de France area to amber: “Reconsider the need to travel.”
Some avid newspaper readers and commercial television watchers will have called their travel agents already to cancel their romantic Christmas in Paris holidays. Others will go ahead and travel, mindful that the odds of dying in a terrorist attack (one in 20 million) is negligible, compared to the likelihood of dying in a car accident (the lifetime odds being 1 in 100, according to lifeinsurancequotes.org. That’s not to be glib or unsympathetic about what happened in Paris, last week and also in January, but you need to look at these statistics.
Nevertheless, terrorism attacks have been on the rise. Wikipedia.org says there have been 289 attacks in the year to date. A report released this month contains evidence that terrorism deaths have risen fivefold since 2000 and steeply since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 (see chart below).
The Global Terrorism Index released by the Institute for Economics and Peace says 32,865 people died in terrorist attacks in 2014, an 80% increase on 2013. But 82% of attacks occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. The report covers the period 2000-2014 with particular emphasis on 2014.
Points worth noting include:
• Homicide claims 40 times as many lives as terrorism;
• 5% of the 107,000 terrorist fatalities since 2000 happened in OECD countries;
• 50% of all terrorist attacks claim no lives;
• Of the 13 countries at risk of increased terrorist activity, six are in Africa, three are in Asia, three in the Middle East and one in the Americas (Mexico);
• Only 4.4% of terrorist attacks averaged over the past 15 years have occurred in western countries, accounting for 2.6% of deaths;
From my pacifist corner, it seems crystal clear the attacks on France are in response to that country’s commitment to supporting US-led air strikes in Syria. Australia is part of this, so we have to assume we are a target.
There are those who avoid reading mainstream newspapers or watching commercial televisions news because of the anxiety prompted by overblown coverage of terrorist attacks.
Queensland’s Courier-Mail allocated 35 tabloid pages in just three days, making the Sunday Mail’s 10-page wraparound look like a muted response.
But if you don’t trust newspapers, you should also be wary of social media. A reader alerted me to www.thatsnonsense.com, a UK website which explores myths, misleading material and plain mischievous posts. There were many examples this week, not the least of which had US Presidential candidate Donald Trump making insensitive remarks in a tweet about Paris, when the original tweet was made in January, about the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
So yes, terrorist attacks are on the rise, but so is the volume of global media coverage and commentary and the hawkish rhetoric from western countries.
Dial it down, people. Take a breath.