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On the Probability of Terror

By | Thursday, 7th November, 2013

The recent Al-Shabab attack on Westgate shopping mall, Nairobi, brought the world of terrorism once again into sharp relief. Watching the rolling news, it seemed almost inevitable that a friend or colleague would somehow be involved, such was the unnerving familiarity of the images beamed a halfway across the world: I know that mall, I know that car park, the roads; I have shopped there.

And so it was. As first-hand accounts of the three day attack began to make the news, I discovered that the partner of a safari operator we regularly use was shot while protecting a boy beneath a car. Fortunately, the injuries sustained weren’t life threatening and he is, I understand, making a speedy recovery. The boy was physically unharmed.

Given this, I confess to feeling surprised not to know anyone else either killed or injured at Westgate. And in confessing this, I feel a little ashamed. Ashamed because while the Kenyan safari community is indeed relatively small, and largely based in Nairobi, and qualifies as being part and parcel of the strata of Kenyan society targeted by the terrorists, there is, statistically speaking, no logical reason why I, my family or anyone I personally know, should be caught up in a terrorist attack. Contrary to everything I believe, I allowed the irrational – as perpetrated by the distorting lens of television – to get to me.

I say contrary to everything, because statistical comparisons tell a very different story to the impression given by the media, as conveyed by television or the internet: I am much more likely to die on a skiing holiday than I am in a terrorist attack. Last year more Americans were killed by gun toting toddlers than by terrorists. Choose any life threatening illness, and I am almost certain to be at greater risk from dying of that than I am terrorism. Rated statistically, the dangers posed by terrorism pale into insignificance when compared to those predicated by cancer, heart disease, prescription drugs or medical error. The car, falling over, storms, policemen, dogs, even lightning – all are more likely killers than terrorism.

Seen in this light it feels extraordinary that I should have begun to experience Westgate so personally. And not just me , us, individuals: While on this occasion the Foreign Office and the US State Department wisely held off issuing all-but-essential travel warnings, their advice has, in the past, resulted in insurance companies withdrawing cover for specific destinations. The knock on effect is immediate. Only those happy to waive insurance will travel to these areas. Countries for whom tourism constitutes a significant percentage of the economy suffer – local communities especially. We are being held ransom to media generated phantoms, to grains of truth.

All of which is why, when faced with something as horrific as Westgate, I constantly remind myself of the facts. I did happen to know someone affected by the attack, but in the grand and rational scheme of things, terrorism as threat punches way, way above its weight.  I am as likely to be crushed to death by my television as I am killed by the terrorists it is so endlessly concerned with. In short, it could happen, but it absolutely most likely won’t.