Let’s set aside our growing preoccupation with big data for one moment – the obsession with which seems to be propelled by a rapidly expanding digital literacy. Instead I want to focus on one facet of data. Simple, everyday facts and figures about mortality and the threat of death.
Numbers inform our beliefs and shape our expectations in unique, often tacit, and occasionally unexpected ways. For the past few centuries Western knowledge has been circumscribed and characterized by numbers. We worship at the altar of numbers, fascinated by their cryptic qualities yet trusting them for establishing and maintaining order, calculating probabilities, evaluating progress, and synchronizing our activities.
Without numbers we would be lost - segregated from one another. All scientific disciplines are based on numbers. Industrial production, distribution, exchange and mobility are all reliant on them. Value is calculated using numbers as is wealth and well-being. We interpret demographics through numbers. Numbers enable digital functionality. We even tally our days on this planet by them. Numbers have a fascination and a potency found in no other facet of modern life.
Over centuries the Western cultural mindset has forged a reality mesmerised by the power of averages, measurements, percentages, estimations, quotas and statistics. Numeracy has become the key literacy for making sense of, and contributing to, our material world. But numbers can also reveal things about our values and attitudes, our hopes and our fears. As I watch the global population clock on my computer desktop ticking over at 7,262,798,536 other numbers revealing information about human nature cause me to pause and wonder. Especially how we think about (and deal with) mortality issues: like the costs involved in preserving life in comparison with the amount we are prepared to spend eliminating specific risks – both real and perceived.
On any given day, an average of 150,000 people will die. Approximately 30,000 of those people will have died from hunger - mostly needlessly given that we produce sufficient food for every person on the planet. Ischaemic heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections and chronic obstructive lung disease claim around 20 million lives each year. Approximately 7.6 million die from cancer. Fatalities from HIV/AIDS are around 1.5 million while road traffic accidents account for 1.2 million. At the lower end of the scale death from a lightning strike, thought to be so rare that it has become a metaphor for extreme bad luck, still ranges anywhere between 6,000 - 24,000 deaths annually. And over 102,000 people die each year from circus stunts that go wrong – more than those killed from isolated acts of terrorism if we exclude war zones like Gaza, Iraq and Syria from our calculations.
A far more worrying trend concerns increases in all forms of dementia. There are around 7.7 million new cases of dementia each year - implying there is a new case of dementia somewhere in the world every four seconds. As of last year there were an estimated 44.4 million people suffering from dementia worldwide. This number will increase to an estimated 75.6 million in 2030 and 135.5 million by the year 2050. Much of the increase will be in developing countries.
As astonishing as these numbers are, they don't seem to scare or invite our attention nearly as much as other newsworthy events such as plane crashes, shark attacks, roller coaster mishaps, the recent outbreak of Ebola fever in West Africa, or acts of terrorism. And because the corporate news media is shrewd about (and complicit in) stirring up our fears, we are fed an endless supply of news regarding death that has little to do with how most people actually die.
Recent figures from the National Center for Health Statistics in the US suggest that the lifetime odds of dying in a plane crash are about 1 in 20,000. The odds of being killed on a single trip in a commercial aircraft accident are 52,600,000:1. Those same figures put the chances of dying in a car accident at around 1 in 100 – much higher in countries like Thailand, Libya or Venezuela. Yet even seasoned travellers will admit to slight apprehension as their aircraft takes off after casually getting in their cars and making what is, statistically speaking, a far more perilous drive to their local airport.
Perhaps the actual risks and, by extension, the multitude of daily tragedies such risks engender, simply hit too close to home. We don’t think too much about car accidents, dementia or heart disease not because we believe it could not happen to us but because we suspect or even assume it will. Given the high probability, our response is to put it out of our minds entirely.
But all that unlocked mental space leaves plenty of room to obsess about a proverbial lightning strike. Take the recent case of terrorist arrests in Australia. The event involved around 800 ASIO intelligence officers and members of the police force who used “overwhelming but justifiable force” when acting on the basis of a single explicit telephone call. Although fifteen people thought to be connected with Islamic State were arrested only one remains in custody. Yet the country remains on high terror alert – a chimera feeding purely off the suspicion of an “imminent attack” which is being used to justify a $630 million counter-terrorism upgrade - ranging from limitless digital surveillance to laws banning Australians from flying directly to countries such as Iraq and Syria.
As a consequence the lives of ordinary peace-loving citizens have been indefinitely disrupted and residents are uncertain how to go about their everyday lives.
Certainly this particular event had the kind of visually intense storyline television news demands and the idea of an innocent passer-by being publicly executed on a Sydney street is horrific. But within hours, it seems, the initial fog of confusion and misinformation lifted to reveal a reality far less extreme or melodramatic. And although that does not make the potential for terrorism on Australian soil disappear, it does make me wonder what other stories were bumped in favour of breathless, round-the-clock coverage of the security operation, the families of those arrested and their unsuspecting neighbours, and the ensuing public alarm.
Of far greater concern in the long term however is dread of our own shadow. As our deepest fears are exploited by anxious fundamentalist regimes, including national governments in Europe, the US and Britain, many freedoms we take for granted are being eroded. We have been brainwashed into looking for terrorists around each corner and crying “alert” at the sound of a door banging.
Death does not discriminate. But when it comes to the deaths of strangers it is not immune to certain hierarchical precepts. A cursory glance at what we pay most attention to suggests that grand spectacles rule the day – especially when youing people are involved. So sinking ferryboats trump bus accidents. But school massacres trump ferries. Plane crashes and large-scale acts of violence, with their unspeakable brand of horror, are the most riveting of all.
We know that an incendiary combination of grief, anger and fear occurs as a result of terrorism. We also know that this fear, whether rational or not, leads to increased nationalistic fervour. This is precisely why the mere threat of terrorism has become a political strategy. But the actual number of deaths from terrorism is small compared with deaths from other forms of violence - and positively miniscule compared with deaths from heart disease or lung cancer for example.
Contrary to what is alleged by right-wing bigots and media fearmongers, no religious group is more inclined to violence than others. Muslims are not more violent than people of other beliefs. In fact murder rates in most of the Muslim world are very low compared to most other countries. Nor is Islam hell-bent on embedding a universal caliphate. That is pure hysteria masquerading as intelligence. As for political violence, people of Christian heritage during the twentieth century polished off tens of millions of people in two world wars and colonial repression – a massive carnage that occurred not because European Christians were worse than, or different from, other human beings, but because they were the first to industrialize war.
The use of terror spreads across a wide variety of groups, ideologies, and targets. Terrorism is cheap. It requires little manpower, captures the world’s attention and gives the weak the ability to terrify the strong. The material cost of a suicide bombing, for example, can be as low as $150. This modest investment will result in an average of 12 deaths and spread fear throughout the targeted population. In response to this uncertain menace the developed world has resorted to building ever-bigger, ever-better fortifications around key targets. So transit through airports has become a protracted and unpleasant affair, embassies are far more difficult to access, while key landmarks like sports stadia, government buildings, energy utilities and even large shopping malls, for example, are blocked from potential bombers. I cannot help feeling that this kind of response is informed by a prejudice born of obsolete views of patriotism underpinned by a set of flawed logics.
Collective violence occupies a perilous but coherent place in contentious politics. It emerges from the ebb and flow of collective grievances and struggles for power. It interweaves incessantly with non-violent politics, varies systematically with political regimes, and morphs as a consequence of the same causes that operate in the non-violent zones of collective political life. Understanding those causes will help us minimize the damage human beings inflict upon each other. In our own violent time, advocates of non-violent political struggle need all the help they can get.
Since 2001 the economic cost of dealing with terrorism has escalated exponentially. Actually it is unquantifiable but undoubtedly runs into the billions of dollars each year – mostly in the form of counterterrorist activities. Predictably, this has reduced the number of transnational attacks by about 34 per cent. On average, however, terrorism has claimed 67 more deaths each year since then. This rise in the death toll has occurred because terrorists are responding realistically to the higher risks imposed by greater security measures. They have focused on plans that create more carnage and that generate fear in the hearts of the community.
A small yet relevant footnote. While calculating the costs against terrorism is possibly futile, two related issues stand out:
- The 2012 Global Peace Index calculated that the economic benefit to the global economy was projected to be $9 trillion in 2011 had the world been completely peaceful.
- The psychological and emotional damage being done to individuals and communities through violence is an epidemic that can only be reversed by reframing risk.
In an age where comfort, convenience, choice and variety have become commonplace for so many of us, it is easy to forget that life remains tough and unfair for large numbers of our fellows who eke out a living in conditions we would find intolerable. Why should this be so? Life, so we are led to believe, has never been so good. Major wars have been consigned to the past, rampant poverty is in decline, we travel more frequently and experience the many marvels of what it means to be human on a regular basis. In addition, fewer people are starving and we live longer, healthier lives. We might be forgiven for thinking that our world is perfect.
But for some people struggling through each day is a living nightmare. Furthermore individuals are deciding to end the misery of it all in far greater numbers than ever before. So far this year 784,752 people have committed suicide – roughly one person every 40 seconds. In the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean more than 5 per cent of the adult population suffers from depression. The most depressed countries are Afghanistan - where more than one in five people suffer from the disorder – Iraq and Palestine. Clinical depression leading to suicide has become a cancer on our society. Depression is the second-leading cause of disability with registered cases running at around 4 per cent of the populace. Taboos against mental health disorders in some countries, in addition to fewer services for mental illness, makes this a conservative estimate at best.
At this point one can only guess at the root causes for such a global outbreak. We do know that conflict, poverty and the presence of serious epidemics, all push depression rates up. Personally I have no doubt this scourge betrays the absence of hope in an uncertain future where wealth is enjoyed by for fewer and fewer people in relative terms. Ignoring a few insane extremists, I believe a similar sense of hopelessness drives the terrorist’s rationale for creating havoc.
That a sense of despair should hang in the air, invading the psyche of even our most talented people and potentially alienating an entire generation, is surely a valid reason for a massive re-boot of our shared worldview. This is not simply utopian foolishness. Using our resources for peace rather than conflict also happens to be the most economically sane policy we could possibly pursue. Eliminating war and using the money to provide free education, for example, would be a good start. Over time such policy intentions would almost certainly eliminate the main reasons behind contemporary terrorist activities. Who knows it might even restore hope to the extent that fewer numbers of people decide to take their own lives.