An unwelcome sentiment on an unhappy day

Image created by Plantu, cartoonist for Le Monde, via twitter.

Like many around the world today, I was startled to wake up to the news of serial bombings in Belgium. As I write this, the radio behind me is keenly informing me in between its scheduled programming that an uneasy confusion has descended over Brussels, though this is better than the jittery chaos of the morning. A rifle, a discarded suicide belt have been found. Foreign dignitaries have pledged condolences, foreign analysts are pitching blame, foreign firebrands have made a shrill noise on the dogwhistle politics to which they cater for.

What has happened in Brussels is tragic - unfortunately, ever since November last year, it has more a matter of when rather than if.

However, I would kindly draw some attention to a data report produced by Max Roser's  (twitter) most excellent site Our World in Data, which builds on many sources, and that which is also eloquently put across in Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature, a book certainly worthy of the word 'tome' but should be compulsory reasoning for any arm chair politician. As the data shows, the world is getting less violent. It may not feel like it; but the fact that we can report on incidents like this and Paris, or even Ankara, Baghdad and Kabul in more complex contexts,  is testament to our progress of making violence and increasingly unacceptable and ineffective solution to conflict.

Deaths from terrorism worldwide, from The Better Angels of our Nature, via Our World in Data.

It is also clear looking at the data that in the West, we are focused on terrorism resulting from a single ideology. This map of terrorist incidents between 2002 - 2011, by The Economist goes some way to demonstrating this. While Iraq and Afghanistan are notably dense marks on this map, ranks 8, 9, and 10 (Thailand, Russia and the Philippines) may come as surprise to some.

But this data is old! says someone at the back, probably me if I wasn't writing about it. You're right, it is old. The RAND corporation possibly can only get someone to compile such a grim list for so long. But nonetheless, the uptick in Stephen Pinker's graph above is not approaching the scales of the 1980s. Even for my own nation, our transport network bombing in 2005 was an exercise in shock, not an exercise of war. Since the Second World War, many European countries have unfortunately been dealing with terrorism on a regular basis, as per these charts below (from Our World in Data), but the increase in events since the data set finishes is not markedly different. What is markedly different is the world wide exchange of knowledge, which amplifies the shock effect of terrorism.

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This is not an effort to diminish the frightening events of Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, Madrid, London or even New York, now fifteen years on. But to listen to those firebrands is to make a terrible error, to give in to the effects of terrorism and like a patient not completing their antibiotic medication, to create increasingly resistant strains of ideologies ruining the lives of many. But to heed the data, to understand that the world is becoming less violent despite what we see and hear on the news, is to subsequently understand how we can try and expunge this activity from our societies - rising living standards, falling levels of desperation, and ensuring that everyone has a stake in the societies they live in.

This article was updated on Wednesday, 25 May 2022