This guy appears on BBC news and explains economics to chumps like you and me (well, not like me. I did ‘A’ Level Economics don’t you know. Just like you.) in an animated style reminiscent of Johnny Ball. At least I think it’s reminiscent of Johnny Ball: it’s over twenty years since I saw any of his programmes and I could be simply inventing this because there is a bit of a physical resemblence there.
Anyway, he has a piece on the BBC website titled Why we need to feel safe from terror, and it left me scratching my head a bit.
Before examining the article itself, it is worth pointing out that we do not need to feel safe from terror at all. Terror means not feeling safe. You can’t feel safe from not feeling safe. It is preposterous.
Other people seem to think that the BBC’s apparent withdrawal of the word ‘terrorist’ from its reporting of the London suicide bombings is a matter of grave concern. I don’t, and I more or less agree with the guidelines it gives for reporting.
However, I think that it is a serious mistake to allow the word ‘terror’ to imply something whose impact is primarily physical. If I put a bomb under your car with the objective of blowing you up, I am not doing it to instil terror in you – I am doing it because I want to kill you. I may also intend to terrorise other people by blowing you up, but it would be surely wrong to say that the principal effect of the bomb is terror. It isn’t. The principal effect is death.
‘Why we need to feel safe from terrorist attacks’ might be a more appropriate title, but this would still have the effect of conveying a message to the reader that ‘we’ do not presently feel safe, and that terror, or terrorist attacks is something ‘we’ really need to feel safe from.
The article is more complicated than that, though, and sets out to establish a rational perspective on the threat posed by terror attacks, as opposed to an anxious one.
In his introduction, he says:
‘One of the lingering effects of the London bombings is the understandable anxiety that many of us feel, whether or not we’ve been injured or bereaved.’ (Emphasis mine)
I find it ridiculous to imagine that the anxiety felt by people who observed events on the TV or internet can be reasonably compared to the anxiety felt by someone who has lost a limb, or the turmoil of someone who has lost a friend or relative. ‘Our’ anxiety has nothing to do with that of the real victims.
He then goes on to describe the commuter emergency kits being currently advertised, and observes, rather curiously:
It’s tempting to dismiss parachutes and emergency kits as exploiting people’s fears – that was my initial reaction – until I realised I would like to have one.
One way of reading this is that while other people fear things, he is supremely rational. (As an aside: can one apply rational choice theory irrationally?) But there may be some self-deprecating humour there. He uses this example, along with that of lifejackets on aeroplanes to make the point that:
making people feel safe is a valuable service, even if rationally they’re not in danger.
Of course making people feel safe can be a valuable service, but is this always the case? Are protection rackets a valuable service?
As for the observation that ‘rationally they’re not in danger’, while there are times you can reasonably deduce that you are in danger, for example when you look to the sky and see a piano about to fall on your head, there are also times when you can not do this, as would be the case if you failed to look upwards. In real life, bombs usually catch people unawares.
I think that the writer is blurring the distinction between something that can be assigned a cash value, and something that is ‘valuable’ in the sense of being ‘good for you’, like a good night’s sleep or fresh running water.
He concludes that:
if the suppliers of commuter emergency kits found a way of making anyone feel safer we shouldn’t knock them.
If people ought not be feeling endangered in the first place, shouldn’t we at least point out that one of the effects, if not intentions (I’m being generous here) of advertising the product is to exploit and amplify fear? If ‘rationally people aren’t in danger’, is there anything wrong with advertising to convey the impression that they really are?
Furthermore (I never thought I’d become one of those irate individuals banging on about the BBC), how does this article provide a valuable service for the British licence-payer?