And Carry On

When the news feed on your phone explodes with headlines publicizing yet another mass killing, or the attempt of one, anxiety-laced reactions of fear that the bonds of a civil society are fractured and dissolving are not uncommon. Yet while a certain truth may seem incongruent at a moment like that, it should also be reiterated: we are living in the safest time in history.

It might not feel that way, but a cold hard look at the numbers reveal it to be true. “Terrorism is a unique hazard because it combines major dread with minor harm,” says Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. “Historical trends, like the current numbers, belie the fear that we are living in newly dangerous times, particularly in the West.”

Pinker’s exhaustive analysis of the data yields some realities that don’t match the demands that 24-hour news cycles operate on. “Mass killings are media-driven spectacles in which coverage inspires copycats, so [numbers] can yo-yo up and down as one event inspires another until the novelty wears off for a while,” he says, but in truth we actually have more of a chance of dying from lightning strikes or bee stings than actual terrorist attacks.

“Though terrorism poses a miniscule danger compared with other risks, it creates outsize panic and hysteria because that is what it is designed to do. Modern terrorism is a by-product of the vast outreach of the media,” says Pinker. “A group or an individual seeks a slice of the world’s attention by the one guaranteed means of attracting it: killing innocent people, especially in circumstances in which readers of the news can imagine themselves.” And nowhere is this more successful than violent acts perpetrated on sidewalks and outdoor cafes, places that we all feel we could be in any given moment.

While it may not soothe our unease being reminded that killers tend to be loners and losers, many with untreated mental illness, who are consumed with resentment and fantasize about revenge and recognition, “the rise of terrorism in public awareness is not a sign of how dangerous the world has become but the opposite,” says Pinker.

Yet sadly these actions have consequences, as the frayed-nerves of a citizenry inevitably influence the policies of decision-makers. As states try to carry out the impossible mandate of protecting their citizens from violence everywhere and at all time, “they are tempted to respond with theater of their own,” says Pinker. “The most damaging effect of terrorism is countries’ overreaction to it.”

I am by no means suggesting that makers of the built environment should do nothing: security must of course be taken seriously when planning and designing the public realm. A reinstatement of those famous British wartime posters is probably not the answer, but neither are permanent installations of Jersey barriers around every piece of public architecture. A calm civil society deserves better solutions.

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