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Stop Being Scared, You Live In The Safest Time In Human History

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Juriah Mosin via Getty Images
Juriah Mosin via Getty Images

I remember where I was on 9/11 and how scary it was to witness on TV.

Most of us do.

That's likely why, during Monday's Munk debate on foreign policy, Stephen Harper invoked the 14-year-old terror attack while defending his government's decision to strip Canadian citizenship from Toronto 18 mastermind Zakaria Amara.

"A few blocks from here, he would have detonated bombs that would have been on a scale of 9-11," Harper said, defending the government's new Bill C-24 . "This country has every right to revoke the citizenship of an individual like that."

Later, while defending his even more controversial anti-terror legislation Bill C-51, Harper said, "The threat we face today is not CSIS, it's ISIS."

Then, when questioned about sending Canadian soldiers to the Middle East, he warned that ISIS wants to slaughter "hundreds of thousands" and launch terror attacks "against this country."

Obviously, that sounds scary. But here's the thing. I also remember growing up in the 1980s under the threat of global thermonuclear war.

More of us should.

I went on 100,000 people peace marches in Vancouver with my parents, hid under the covers after watching "The Day After" on TV and submitted a Grade 4 book report on nuclear war. For the cover art, I pasted maps of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and drew nukes flying between them.

mushroom cloud(Photo: Time Life Pictures/US Air Force/Getty Images)

Maybe my childhood fear that stray bombs would land on my house was unjustified, but it's hard to argue a hijacked plane, sabotaged subway, or crazed gunman possess an equal threat to a nuclear holocaust.

"We've forgotten all that amazingly quickly. It's like it never happened. As you remember in the mid-1980s with Reagan and so forth, people were seriously worried," University of Ottawa professor Paul Robinson tells The Huffington Post Canada.

Robinson, who also served as an officer in the British Army Intelligence Corps from 1989 to 1994 and as a reserve officer in the Canadian Forces in the '90s is flabbergasted. "I heard a quote by John McCain who said 'the world is more dangerous now than any time in my lifetime.' You were born before the Second World War! And captured and tortured in Vietnam! How could you possibly say that?"

This is not to say there aren't dangers — the war in Syria has created a refugee crisis, ISIS continues its reign of terror and the first anniversary of the Parliament Hill shootings is coming up right after the Oct. 19 election. But according to Robinson, we actually live in the safest time period in human history.

There are fewer wars, less crime, and even less risk of terrorism than ever before.

While in Toronto to speak at the IdeaCity conference earlier this summer, Robinson sat down with HuffPost to explain why we don't know this already, and warn of the real danger posed by the fear of fake danger.

Q&A follows these stats on homicide, war and terrorism

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Q: So if everything is better, why do people think it's worse?

A: It's very complex phenomenon. It has to do with human psychology. The way the human brain operates is not a purely rational computer model. It works on shortcuts and has cognitive biases. These predispose human beings to be very bad at risk assessment and fear things that don't need to be feared.

People will attach much more significance to things that are easy to remember versus things that are not easy to remember. A big event will be easier to remember that many small events. So we worry a lot more about terrorism than we do about car crashes even though we're way more likely to die from car crashes.

But a terrorist attack is more easily retrieved because it's out of the ordinary.

Q: What role does the media play?

A: The media does paint a distorted picture of the world. It will seize on certain stories and develop them out of proportion. So we had the shooting in Ottawa, and it was very tragic, but it got pages and pages and pages of coverage, there was almost nothing else in the newspaper for a week. But actually one man died and, however tragic that is, by giving it that much publicity you make it seem far more significant than it really is.

Q: What else?

A: Some people have an interest in making the world seem less safe than it is. When the crisis in Ukraine came up, you could almost see the glee at NATO headquarters because they could go on about the Russian threat and it gives them a justification for their existence.

If we talk about the military industrial complex, it's not like there's some secret conspiracy sitting in a smoke-filled room where the military are in bed with Lockheed Martin to make us all afraid of the world. But in an amorphous way there is this conglomeration of interests which get money and power and influence by making the world appear more dangerous than it is.

Q: It does feel like those mass shootings are happening more and more, though.

A: I don't have statistics on rampage shootings, but overall homicide rates have declined significantly since the mid-1970s. So we have Harper saying we must build more prisons but crime is significantly down. If your friend is burgled or you are burgled, that makes you think crime is up whereas the drip, drip, drip of crime not happening makes no impact on you emotionally.

Q: Why do you think the politicians do it?

A: They are susceptible to the same cognitive biases as everybody else. Secondly, they're subject to pressures from lobby groups and interest groups. And also, of course, there is a political interest for them.

They need to cover their asses.

If the decision is wrong, the cost will be diffused among a whole lot of people. It will cost $10 billion to fight a war we don't win in Afghanistan, but no Canadian is actually going to notice that because it's divided among 30 million Canadians over a 10-year period. There is little cost for the politician.

But there is a cost if they don't take these measures and something happens. Doesn't matter how unlikely that something is. If they are a politician who is later shown to not have done something which could've stop something from happening, however unlikely it was, they'll get in trouble for it.

Q: What about during elections?

A: There can be political benefits to scaring people. Whereas there doesn't seem to be the same benefit in saying "everything is OK, don't worry about it."

Q: What is the negative impact of this unfounded fear?

A: Although threats are less than they used to be, I think they could be less still. I do not see how invading Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, or the bombing in Libya have done Canadians the slightest bit of good. So we've spent billions of dollars and we probably made ourselves less safe. It's very hard to prove this stuff and there are many, many, many factors which cause domestic terrorism but the shooting in Ottawa, he made it very clear that this was related to the bombing of Iraq.

And by giving increased power to the security services, we restrict our liberty.

Q: Why is domestic terrorism treated differently than Islamic terrorism?

A: I was actually in London the day the bombs went off in 2005. I was about 200 yards away from the bus that blew up. Fortunately, I had a building between us and the bus, but it's not as if it was completely unique. There have been IRA bombings in London and the Guildford bombing, the Birmingham bombing and the rest of it in the '70s. There have been many mass terrorist attacks.

But if you look at the amount of press the July 2005 bombings got compared with the IRA bombings, it's extraordinary. The coverage was vastly in excess of what previously would have been done. I don't know if that's the nature of the enemy — Muslims as opposed to Irish people — or if there's something changed in the way the media treats these things. But we treat the current Islamic threat far more seriously, and give it way more coverage and publicity, in a way we wouldn't have done in the past.

Q: So how do we convince people that world is not as bad as they think it is?

A: It's very difficult to because essentially it's a negative story — crime that isn't happening, wars which are not happening and so on and so forth. But when things do happen, they need to be treated more responsibility and less hysterically.

And we need to be less self-centered. We tend to assume everything is about us. So if there's a war in Iraq with ISIS, it's about us, we are threatened. A lot of these local things are local. And we need to be more modest about believing that doing something about it will actually make it better. Often we make these things worse.

Q: So what would change if people realized the real state of the world?

A: I think it would reduce the pressure to engage in silly policies. We would spend less on defence. We would be less involved in military adventures overseas. We would be more willing to talk with people we don't like, say the Iranians or Russians. We would be disliked less overseas. We would have a reduced security state. The current fashion for incarcerating people, there would be less of that kind of policy.

And it's not just that you're spending this money, it's that you're not spending it somewhere else that would have so much more benefit.

Joshua Ostroff is a senior editor for HuffPost Canada.

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