Fear is the key in this theatre of the absurd

AN average of about 1,000 people a year have been killed by terrorists worldwide over the past ten years - and that figure includes the Twin Towers atrocity.

Each death indeed represents a shattering tragedy for the families involved. But, approximately the same numbers die each year as a result of lightning strikes. So, statistically, you have about as much chance of being a terrorist victim as you have of being struck by lightning.

The response of governments around the world to the perceived terrorist threat has been varied, but most have sought to increase security measures. Many have also introduced new legislation to help them combat the terrorist - legislation which inevitably gives those same governments more power and intrudes further upon the private lives of their citizens. They could hardly do anything else. And yet, and yet.

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Terrorism is theatre. Hardly good family entertainment, but a bizarre genre of theatre nonetheless. It is designed to grab our attention, to publicise a cause, and to make us change our behaviour. Kill a hundred, terrify a hundred thousand, fascinate millions. The terrorist wants to terrify.

However, the damage and destruction he inflicts is relatively minor when compared to other violent and deadly threats that we face daily. While the incidence of lightning strikes is unlikely to increase, did you know that an average of more than 3,000 people each day die in road traffic accidents? Or that 9,000 people are expected to die each day this year of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses?

How do we relate this to the average of the three a day who will fall victim to terrorists? This is not to trivialise terrorism nor to underestimate its potential horrors, especially if nuclear weapons were to be involved. We require our government to protect us against this. But how much governmental response is theatre, too?

You can no longer go through airport security with anything much more threatening than a nappy pin on your person. But, once through, you can go to the shopping mall in virtually every airport in the world and buy a weapon with such a noble pedigree that the verb "to bottle" has entered our language.

Included in the raft of new legislation is the intention to introduce identity cards. This will bring with it the National Identity Register and the collection and storage of information such as fingerprints, iris scans, facial dimensions and DNA profiles. It is meant to be a voluntary scheme to begin with, but how long will it be before it is an offence to be found not in possession of your ID card? Does anyone suppose for a minute that this will make it any more difficult for terrorists to get legitimate ID cards than it is now for determined criminals to get hold of firearms - in spite of draconian measures to restrict their availability? The Twin Tower terrorists and the Madrid train bombers had legitimate ID papers. To what problem is an ID card supposed to be the solution?

It is the nature of bureaucracies to want to know everything - but do they need to? And as for going to war against Iraq ...

So, what should our own response to the terrorist threat be?

Firstly, don’t be terrified. Don’t even be anxious. Keep things in proportion. Yes, we might suddenly find ourselves slammed out of the blue into some vile violent terrorist hell. But we might also be hit by lightning, or a bus - or a tsunami. So, relax and don’t worry about it, and don’t let the media wind you up. Secondly, don’t let our own government get things out of proportion. A baleful, sceptical eye should be cast over all attempts to introduce illiberal laws and to increase government powers and spending on the back of the apparent increased threat. Don’t let them erode further your privacy or your liberty without good cause.

And, lastly, don’t stand under trees during thunderstorms, mind how you cross the road - and remember to use a condom.

Ian Gardiner is a former Royal Marine.

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