This blog post is part of my series on civil liberties. In this post I shall be considering the question "How dangerous is terrorism?". The post will not address the possibility of terrorism with WMDs. That will be the topic of another post.
I'll break down the terrorist attacks into four types and address the actual risks for each type in human, political and economic terms.
1) Attacks aimed to cause harm to civilians and to public or private property. This is the type of attack that we hear most about and also the type of attack that is brought up in arguments for new 'anti-terror' legislation.
In the UK in the last 5 years the risk of dying in a road traffic incident were greater (by something in the order of 35 times) than the risk of dying in a terrorist attack. The risk to civilians is thus completely insignificant and cannot possibly be considered a public safety priority! Note that I am not considering attacks targeted against particular individuals here.
The direct effect on the economy is likewise insignificant as the damage to infrastructure in such attacks is typically minor (compared to general ware and tear over the same period).
Indirect effects on the economy, however, can be more significant. During the London bombings the entire tube network was taken off line. There is a strong argument that this was not a proportionate response to the incident. Never the less this resulted in large economic losses and furthermore to reductions in tourism to London and the UK.
The economic damage caused by terrorism is real and significant. However, it is arguable that most of this damage is caused by public misconceptions of the actual risk (reduction in tourism) and over reactions by the police force (essentially forced by inaccurate public perceptions of actual risk).
2) Attacks aimed at businesses, industrial infrastructure and shipping. This type of attack is relatively rare these days in the industrialized west although there was a surge of 'animal rights' terrorism in the late 90's to early 00's. Piracy is still a real problem in the pacific.
This type of attack is generally targeted to cause maximum economic damage. Most businesses do not get attacked (outside of war zones) because they simply are not significant enough economically. Major bridges, oil pipelines, refineries and the like are significant targets. Some of these can be effectively protected with local security measures. Others, such as pipelines, can be designed in such a way that an attack against one section can be isolated and quickly repaired.
After these defenses are taken into account this type of attack is not particularly problematic economically.
3) Assassinations and threats of assassinations against prominent figures (for example MPs, political commentators and diplomats). There are many threats but few successful assassinations anymore.
Assasinations can be used as a form of control. The fear that assasinations produce can compell politicians to give in to terrorist demands. Certainly the threat of assasination is an effective tool for influencing public policy if that threat carries credibility.
High profile politicians get police protection (when considered necessary) & enhanced privacy arrangements. Suspected plots against politicians and high profile public servants (such as the head of police) are accorded (correctly in my view) higher priority by the police and security services.
These protections mean that the actual assasination risk of high profile individuals is kept to a reasonably low level.
All in all it seems that the main threats from terrorism are actually economic and that those are mainly caused by the fear of terrorism rather than the terrorism itself.