Learn to live with more risk might make living better

From last week you can carry 3-ounce (85-gram) flasks of liquids and gels on to planes in the United States. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it sad?

The mightiest nation on earth cowers. Jihadists score a victory with every shoe taken off at security points, every bag offloaded, every flight delayed. That is tens of thousands of victories a day.

The London swoop in August thwarted would-be jihadists. But the immediate cost, to airport companies, airlines and travellers and their employers was hundreds of millions of dollars and is ongoing.

The jihadists won — except only that they did not actually blow up planes.

Is this the way it is going to be? Travellers, their conveyances and their ports crimped and more crimped? Always on the retreat?

How has this come about?

Ask a parent driving her child to school for fear of abduction or worse. Everyday life, it seems, has become hugely more dangerous, more certainly hazardous.

Or, rather, perhaps it seems that way because the media magnify a tiny number of bad deeds into constant threat so that everyday life seems fraught with risk.

And perhaps we now believe science owes us an absolute right to a riskless long life and we therefore now are highly sensitised to all risk.

Even war should be riskless, it seems, at least to Americans: a war must not claim American lives. (But it does, daily.)

Contrast India where thousands have died in floods and droughts in the past few months. Contrast the jihadists who count it an honour to die for Islam. How does someone determined not to risk death fight someone who relishes death?

It is an uneven contest. And the riskless ones appear slowly to be losing.

This is not just in actual warzones. British, French and United States experts at an Australian Strategic Policy Institute conference in Canberra last week said Iraq is now in “incipient” civil war (that is, actual civil war but for occupying troops’ presence).

The Afghanistan state, two of the experts said, is little more than Kabul. The Taleban controls much of the rest and the economy heavily depends on opium. Suicide bombings were rare even two years ago. Now they are multiplying.

The NATO forces promised so far are insufficient and most NATO countries are unenthusiastic about sending troops.

Follow Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution, a United States thinktank, around the Middle East and surrounds and the picture, from a “western” point of view, is of unrelieved gloom: in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no peace process for Israel-Palestine, Hizbollah is stronger in Lebanon, Syria has an anti-American dictator, Turkey an Islamic government and Pakistan a decaying regime and liberalisation has stalled in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. Then there is Iran, oil rich and on the way to the bomb.

This vast area breeds jihadists. A United States intelligence report made public last week candidly conceded the occupation of Iraq has stimulated recruitment.

Professor Paul Cornish of Chatham House, a British thinktank, extended the gloom to take in Aceh, west and east Africa, the Balkans and Chechnya.

Since the Cold War ended, Cornish said, globalisation has had “precisely the opposite effect to that imagined by the liberationists: it has contributed to a climate of perceived total vulnerability to everything from climate change to narcotics networks to internet fraud out of west Africa to international terrorism”.

Oh, and disease, such as extreme drug-resistant TB and organised crime and the unknown hazards of living in the megacities to come. And the spread of sophisticated chemical, biological and nuclear weapons technology in the hands of those Cornish calls “the weak but clever and determined”.

Time, one might say, to pull a brown paper bag over one’s head.

Thankfully, the gloom lifted as the conference focus moved east. Professor Chung Min Lee, of Korea, depicted an on-balance optimistic future for security in east Asia, including the divided Korean peninsula and the China-Taiwan standoff.

And Cornish himself had some tips for optimists. Notable among them: avoid over-reacting, as some Americans had, both in “war” against terrorists and in constricting civil liberties; don’t replay the last asymmetric threat in meeting the next; use diplomacy, trade, argument, aid, tolerance and law enforcement in addition to armed forces; and recognise that the “west” is actually rather strong civilly, educationally and economically and owns the internet.

The “west” “isn’t such a bad idea,” Cornish said. “If we can accept that, it might make it easier to live with more risk than we appear willing to.

“And if we can live with more risk, we might be less brittle and embattled and less inclined to feel all at war with everything and everybody.

“Perhaps then we will be in a better position to deal with, even to pre-empt, the security challenges.”

And, perhaps, we might add, to navigate the skirmishes of everyday life instead of frightening ourselves silly.