from the psychology-of-security dept
The knee-jerk response of politicians to terrorist attacks — calling for more surveillance, more crackdowns, more displays of purposeless force — is by now so routine that we don’t even remark on it. We tend to go along with their plans because we are very poor at estimating risks, and thus often end up making bad decisions about trade-offs — specifically, trading off liberty in the (misguided) hope that it will deliver security. That’s not a new insight — Bruce Schneier wrote two fascinating posts on what he called “The Psychology of Security” as far back as 2008. But maybe it’s time to start challenging a strategy that hasn’t worked, doesn’t work and will never work. Maybe we should start pushing for an alternative response to terrorist attacks — one based on logic and the facts, not rhetoric and fear. That’s exactly what Björn Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at Regensburg University in Germany, has done in a short blog post about a more rational approach that avoids bad trade-offs. As he writes:
It is very difficult to prevent casualties such as those in the recent terror attacks in Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels or elsewhere, without violating basic human rights and abandoning hard-won liberties.
So what might we do instead? Brembs suggests a new kind of “death prevention program.” Not one based on futile attempts to stop every terrorist attack, but a compensatory plan to save far more lives than terrorists ever take:
There are ~1.2 [million] preventable deaths in Europe alone every year. These deaths are due to causes such as lung cancer, accidental injuries, alcohol related diseases, suicides and self-inflicted injuries. With even in the 1970s and 1980s terrorist-related fatalities never exceeding 500 per year, we are confident that we will be able, from now on, to save at least 100 lives for every one that is being taken in a terrorist attack.
To reach this ambitious goal, we will start with increasing our efforts to prevent alcohol and tobacco-related deaths through effective public-health intervention programs as well as basic and applied biomedical research into the prevention, causes and treatment of these diseases and disorders. With about 30,000 annual fatalities in traffic-related accidents, we will also introduce European-wide speed limits, strong enforcement via speed-traps and an increased police force which collaborates across Europe. Drivers convicted of violating speed limits or DUI will have their driver’s licenses withdrawn for extended periods of time. Should these activities fail to reach these goals, we will start targeting more areas.
Although it could be argued that some of those measures are themselves restrictions on freedom (and things like speed traps haven’t been shown to make the roads any safer), against the background of today’s harsh anti-terror laws, and plans for even more surveillance — the UK’s Snooper’s Charter, for example — those don’t look as bad. In any case, implementation details are less important than shifting emphasis to this very different approach. The idea of focusing on stopping preventable deaths caused by known factors, rather than chasing after unpredictable events is a good one. Moreover, as Brembs writes, a “death prevention program” would not only preserve basic human rights and civil liberties better than today’s response, it would also benefit the economy and boost employment:
Our investment in basic and applied research will yield discoveries that will benefit all of humanity long after the last terrorist has sacrificed his life in vain. With our new program, every single terrorist attack will save the lives of countless more citizens than it has cost, turning terrorism into a net life-saving activity.
That, surely, is the way to truly defeat the terrorists — rather than handing them an easy victory by accepting disproportionate measures that destroy the very freedoms politicians claim to defend.