What do you do when the unthinkable happens? It’s not like we haven’t seen these determined and increasingly emboldened acts of terrorism before. The World Trade Center; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Africa — just to name a few.
Innocent lives are lost because of desperate acts committed by a growing number of groups globally. We mourn the lives lost in Paris and the victims of each these attacks; yet their numbers are growing. According to a new study reported by CNN, “deaths from terrorism increased by 80 percent in 2014, with 32,658 people killed.” The sharp rise is attributable to increased acts of terror from a relatively small base. Boko Haram and ISIS accounted for 51 percent of the claimed killings. But is this a “tectonic shift” or a spike in terror events due to an anomaly of success by two terror groups who are willing to attack non-combatants?
I have no special intelligence, nor do I possess the skills to quantitatively measure the likelihood or location of the next terrorist event. I don’t think you need either to consider how to respond to events in Paris. French authorities and, I suspect, other government security professionals are now sharing information and responding to evidence that may have been overlooked in previous surveillance. We must trust that every resource available is working overtime to deal with this new threat. Overreaction, while understandable, tends to lead to less well-informed actions that may not have been taken during times of more clarity. For perspective, consider that 34,017 people died in car accidents in the U.S. alone in 2010, according to NHTSA. That is less than 1.25 fatalities per 100 million miles. In order words, these are relatively rare events, notwithstanding the rising numbers.
What is more troubling is the cognitive threat of this new form of terrorism and its sophistication. In a world where certainty is valued, the threat of terrorism introduces an opportunity and new risks. We have already seen these changes taking place with renewed levels of cooperation and coordination by nation states in their response to ISIS targets in Syria. Now more than ever, a shared sense of unity may be all that is needed to minimize terrorist acts of violence.
Nevertheless, this is different! Cybersecurity, semantic and cognitive attacks, as well as stealthy new technology make these new attacks more problematic. Government officials, including John Brennan, Director of the CIA, have made public statements about their concerns over a possible terror attack. A national debate will no doubt ensue over balancing new levels of surveillance and personal privacy. The insurance industry is holding its breath over governmental support of terrorism insurance as well as a reassessment of coverage in light of these new developments. The list of considerations that could play out is extensive; however, now is the time to respect the lives lost in Paris and use this time to thoughtfully craft a new risk strategy.
Whether you believe this is a tectonic shift or not, these trends may persist even with the best of intentions and actions taken by government officials. It is not too early to explore “what if” scenarios. What was once considered unthinkable has shifted, and so must we.