Political terror has returned to Germany.
Compared to terrorism of past years, which was carried out mostly by extremists on the left or right, this new variant is particularly perfidious: It kills randomly.
After the recent series of attacks, every German can imagine being the victim of a terrorist attack. Because no one can completely avoid large gatherings of people, public transportation or all street cafés and airports.
The random impact is, of course, also deliberate: Terrorists know that nothing is more frightening than the uncertainty of being exposed to death without really being able to protect oneself. For the first time, Germans say in surveys that they consider terrorism to be the greatest threat to their lives.
But chance occurrences can at least partly be calculated. Fear of terrorism is psychologically understandable, but is scarcely justifiable in statistical terms.
Over the last 20 years, for instance, an average of 48 people annually have been victims of terrorist attacks in all of Europe. In Germany, it was less than one every 12 months.
From a statistical perspective, the number of people throughout Europe who die from poisonous mushrooms is significantly higher.
For the first time, Germans say in surveys that they consider terrorism to be the greatest threat to their lives.
Only one in 27.3 million people die in terrorist acts. The one in 10 million probability of being killed in an airplane crash is significantly higher.
In comparison, driving in a car is downright perilous: 3,500 men, women and children die each year on German roadways.
So it would be rational to focus more on risky activities where there is a higher likelihood of death.
For example, someone who stays at home out of fear of a possible terrorist attack, and therefore walks 80 percent less, increases his risk of death by more than 100 times from inactivity. Lack of movement drastically lowers life expectancy.
Such an attitude would also have grave consequences for our economy, our behavior as consumers and the willingness of entrepreneurs to make investments.
But what’s behind this gap between the actual security situation and our perception of it? Three trends are primarily responsible.
First, the major share of our knowledge is no longer based on personal experience. A century ago, our grandparents knew from experience what dangers could be expected in a farmer’s daily life — through food poisoning, inadequate clothing or technological accidents (for example, with the notorious scythe).
But in today’s world, our knowledge is based mostly on communication. No one can say, based on personal experience, whether criminality and vulnerability have actually increased in Germany. Instead, we experience these dangers through the media and other forms of communication, frequently through social media on the internet.
At the same time, we often recognize that many supposed certainties proved to be false or at least not entirely correct. The less we ourselves can assess the danger, the more helpless we feel.
Second, clear-cut undeniable truths can no longer be claimed in a pluralist society. Are foreigners more criminal than Germans or not? Is Islam by nature fundamentalist and susceptible to terrorist tendencies? For the most part, there are dependable answers to these questions, but in public and published discourse there remains – quite justifiably – room for many opinions.
Third, today’s media exposes us instantly and non-stop to calamities around the world. With 7 billion people worldwide, some catastrophe or attack can be expected almost every minute. In earlier times, it was more or less by chance if this reached the awareness of people living far away. This led to the belief that such catastrophes were unlikely. But as soon as we become surrounded by daily announcements of disasters, the fear grows that throughout the world, we are exposed to constantly increasing risks.
As difficult as it is might be, we should question each new danger that is cited by the media as further proof of our being threatened. We should view recent developments over a longer term. When the next actual or supposed attack occurs, we should examine whether it actually constitutes a trend.
The watchword for politics, economy and society today should be to take a more relaxed attitude and not overreact to perceived danger. Only in this way can we concentrate on what actually threatens us.
Ortwin Renn is a professor and director of the Stuttgart Research Center for Risk and Innovation at Stuttgart University. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org