Belgium Terror Attack Highlights Need to Redefine "Risk" and "Threat"

A horrific grenade and gun attack in the Belgian city of Liege which killed five and injured 123 others has dominated headlines.

Despite being at a conference at the time, I was soon informed nonetheless, as relatives and friends in theUK called through to ask if I was safe. I, of course, appreciate their concern, but Liege is 100 miles away from where I am located. There was almost no risk that I was involved.

The scale of risk associated with these types of events is disproportionate to the level of danger associated with them. And despite data proving that threat levels associated with events like terrorism are typically inconsequential, officials often use these events to trump up the risk of these threats.  

This incident got me thinking about the distinction between risks and threats in security policy. Whilst a “threat” is a binary statement (it is either a threat or not a threat),  risk is far more complex, and includes aspects of culture and perception, as much as statistical likelihood. This distinction in the modern discourse on security threats like as terrorism is problematic, and threatens to invalidate our efforts to make people safer.

When such a security incident occurs, people turn to perceptions and appreciations of a threat. In this case, the threat in question is a lone gunman in public spaces. That threat, we are reliably informed, “is growing.” Anyone could fall victim to it, hence, increased sensitivity and concern over these types of incidents.

But there are some issues with this initial reaction. Firstly, a “threat” cannot grow. A threat either does, or does not, threaten you. Thus, public spaces inEuropedo indeed face the threat of a lone gunman. At this time, they do not face the threat of elephant stampedes. These are simple facts, and actually, not particularly useful when it comes to forming security policy.

What really matters is the risk that a threat will manifest into an incident. “Risk,” then, is the metric in which we should perceive and appreciate the significance of threats.

However, “risk” is a complex concept. In simple terms, most people will understand that there are statistical elements at play in an assertion of risk. For example, smoking tobacco statistically increases your risk of cancer, a scientific fact widely proven.

But risk cannot be described as purely statistical. If it was, drinking alcohol or eating excessive fatty foods would be considered as risky for your health as smoking. The fact they are not, illuminates a key cultural factor in how we perceive risk. Our history and joint ideas as a society will often dictate a risk perception more than hard numbers.

In security policy, this is a key understanding. While society can face a host of threats on any given day some more so than others will spark public reaction.

When one considers counter-terrorist policy, this dynamic reveals some gross problems with risk perception. For instance, despite the annual people falling victim to the risk of a car accident in the U.S. out-numbering the casualties of 9/11 by a wide margin, this is not ranked as a greater threat to U.S. security than terrorism. Equally, although Islamic groups account for just 1% of all terrorist incidents in Europe — a low risk — Jihadist terrorism is still viewed as one of the “greatest threats” to our security.

If this perhaps seems semantic, or disrespectful to those who do fall victim to such incidents, let me be clear: I am not saying that security policy, due to the heightened risk of incidents actually occurring, is unnecessary.

However, it seems the scale of the risk in public perception has become disproportionate. And rather than dispel such fears, state security services seem content to reel off the same “greatest threat” narrative year on year, despite data to the contrary.

Society will always face threats of a random and sometimes high-risk nature. Some will require special security considerations that may include foregoing certain liberties. However, if our perception of a threat, and its incumbent risk, is disproportionate, we may grant too much concession to security concerns, and surrender too many liberties.

I don’t think we need to reflect much on the so-called “war on terror” agenda of the last decade to fear that, in our desire to eliminate threats, we have forgotten how to calculate risk.

Photo Credit: Caveman Chuck Coker