In responding to terrorist threats (such as Islamic State's highly publicised targeting of Australian suburbs and landmarks), governments need to avoid worsening the very fear that terrorists seek to generate. One popular but flawed method of attempting to undercut this fear is to point out how few deaths terrorist acts cause in Western countries.

Opinion pieces published after terror attacks regularly mention that terrorism kills fewer people than many other causes, including bees, bathtubs, falling branches, and furniture. Most recently, this table comparing terrorism deaths in America to everything from gun crime to lightning and lawnmowers has circulated widely online. The argument is that the relative lack of deaths shows that fear of terrorism is unfounded and that the government response is outrageously disproportionate.

The argument has some merit, but it misses the point in several ways.

First, these comparisons leave out attacks that were prevented by police and intelligence efforts, military action, or target-hardening. For example, attacks on aviation were once a highly effective way to cause mass casualties but have become extremely difficult. In the absence of other evidence, the low number of deaths caused by terrorism could equally be seen as proof of effective counter-terrorism and money well spent. 

Of course, there are strong reasons to think that lots of counter-terrorism funding has been wasted and that many military actions have made things worse. But the low number of deaths does not make that case in itself, because the intended goal of counter-terrorism is fewer deaths. Pointing to low numbers of deaths is no substitute for actually identifying counter-terrorism inefficiencies and proposing remedies.

Second, the argument ignores the moral differences between accidental and intentional deaths. Reactions to terrorism are not based solely on fear, but also on moral outrage. Murders are widely considered a greater moral outrage than accidental deaths. Mass murders by groups that have declared war on a particular society are seen as an even greater outrage still.

Third, the harm of terrorism cannot be determined solely by numbers killed. Attacks can leave many people maimed, cause enormous economic damage, and have dramatic political consequences. For example, the impact of the Sousse massacre in Tunisia went well beyond the 38 people killed; it devastated the country’s tourism industry and escalated political instability.

That said, there is some value to highlighting the low number of terrorism deaths relative to other deaths. It helps deflate characterisations of the terrorist threat as 'existential' (fortunately this claim is not as commonly made as it once was). It is also valuable for showing why people don’t need to avoid activities, like flying on a plane, because they anticipate they will personally be a victim of terrorism.

Most importantly, it can help mobilise support for policy change in other areas, particular when the deaths are more morally comparable (like other violent deaths rather than accidents). Pointing out that gun crime or family violence kills many more people than terrorism has helped get these issues more attention.

But the argument does little to achieve a more restrained government response to terrorism, not least because it can inadvertently come across as callous (particularly when it uses supposedly comical examples like falling furniture). People respond to terrorist attacks as human beings, not as calculating machines that assess risk dispassionately; political leaders must take that into account.

As has been pointed out on The Interpreter before, a more realistic expectation is for a government response that projects calm and confidence, and emphasises our ability to withstand. After Islamic State’s recent threat, the public figure who responded most like this was Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton. He avoided dramatic language and encouraged people to not be deterred by Islamic State propaganda, but did not imply terrorism should not be taken seriously.

Advocates of a more restrained approach to terrorism cannot rely on the ‘people die all the time’ argument; it can come across as ridiculing instinctive reactions and denying the legitimacy of moral outrage at terrorist atrocities.

Photo: Getty Images/Don Arnold