Recently, I stopped paying attention to the news, and started looking at how it’s being framed. Take this example of what I mean, from a headline published by the Financial Times:
Cynicism is no match for the mortal threat posed by ISIS
The Daily Express had plastered on it three words from the Prime Minister discussing ISIS: Greatest Ever Threat.
If ISIS is the ‘Greatest Ever Threat’, then we may increase the national deficit paying Literature graduates to come up with descriptions for traumas of old. Let’s look at the facts. ISIS is fighting on two fronts in a mere 500-mile stretch between Baghdad and Damascus. To its north is Turkey, the second largest army in NATO, to its west, Israel, the fourth most capable military power on Earth, to its East, Iran, which has been bulking up its armed forces - since being made part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ - to its South, Shiite militias which were able to expel the British armed forces from Basra and on top of all that is the Iraqi army who, now in Shiite areas, are motivated to actually fight than flee as they did in Sunni Mosul. Short of invading Jordan, ISIS has reached the greatest borders it can hope to achieve, conquering an area about the size of Belgium. After ISIS, the fighting in Ukraine is the biggest scare story of the week. That conflict has claimed 2,200 lives, meaning the crude murder rate in Ukraine is about 4.8 violent deaths per 100,000 people, or the same murder rate as the annual one produced in the US from general gun violence. The Game of Thrones being played between Putin and NATO may be interesting for political theoreticians looking at the situation from 30,000 feet, but this isn’t quite Stalingrad. In light of all this, either the press is privy to information of an ISIS/Ukrainian/Putin/NATO super-weapon about to engulf the world, or we’re suffering the biggest stroke of collective amnesia in history. Are we really justified in letting the establishment wrap us all in a blanket of fear before nursing us with the sour medicine of more government policies and curtailment of our liberties? My short answer is no. Here’s the longer one.
Barack Obama was factually correct when reassuring the distraught news and twitter junkies around the world that the world is safer today than it has been. Lets go through our recent track record.
The 19th century was a complete and utter horror show. The ethnic cleansing of the Americas was completed. Across the Atlantic, Africa was completely colonized. Belgium, that small harmless country on the road to France for German armies to march through, killed some 8 million people in the Congo. Lets not even go into what the industrial giants did. I could go on with that century.
The less said about the 20th century, the better. It averaged 1.6 million war deaths per year. How does that compare to the 21st century? You know, the one in which a new crisis seems to pop up like a whack-a-mole every week? Using the highest estimates for the death tolls in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Mexican drug war and other conflicts currently raging around the world, we barely get to one tenth of that figure. One estimate (admittedly using the lower casualty counts) averages it at 1/30th of that figure, about 55,000 deaths per year this century. Even the incurable Ebola virus, after having claimed 2,000 lives, is a well way short of the 60-100 million claimed by the Spanish flu just a century ago. Considering the jolt in speed modern transportation systems have over their counterparts a century ago, it’s quite reassuring it isn’t spreading and killing en masse.
That is of course not to negate the suffering of people today. For instance, the bombardment of Gaza has only recently ended. This conflict could be an article in of itself. But as a barometer, when 300 Holocaust survivors have to come out and condemn Israel for the ‘ongoing genocide of Palestinian people…[we]…are disgusted and outraged by…abuse of our history … to justify the unjustifiable’, that’s a good indication of the state of affairs. Not to mention the quarter of a million people killed next door in Syria by a brutal tyrant.
But if our current panic is to go by, our ancestors would have committed collective suicide in despair had social media and a 24-hour news cycle been available during those times. It should be considered a miracle social media and instant sharing emerged in a time of such relative peace as it did. In light of this there is no good reason to be in the state of bewilderment as people are. The world is a much better place than it used to be.
In 1990 Freedom House only listed 69 countries as being ‘democracies’. Today the figure stands at 122. Be under no illusions, being under democratic governance does not entail justice. In the world’s largest democracy, India, 200 million people live life as an ‘untouchable’, where sweeping excrement from the street is considered their job. Turkey imprisons more journalists than any other country on Earth, and here in England, the police raid the offices of newspapers to destroy their hard drives for printing stories the government disapproves of. But the trend is nonetheless better than its reverse.
The real reason why the establishment is whipping up fear, is to provide an early introduction of laws which will later be used during actual times of crises. Humanity is about to cross over the Rubicon. The effects of global warming are real and being felt. Anyone who has studied the conflict in Syria will know that although the spark may have been lit in Tunisia, the dynamite was already in place to be lit, caused by the unprecedented drought and social disruption that preceded the uprising. The water-wars, lack of sufficient resources and food riots are coming. ISIS and Ukraine are mere stepping-stones over the Rubicon. As the American writer H. L. Mencken once noted:
'The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'
The article I opened with by the Financial Times warned the megaphoning of ISIS and Ukraine was a way of ‘the security state’ being able to ‘account for its existence’. The government needs reasons to put in place more Draconian laws and monitor, literally, everything you do. It now has it in its new hobgoblins to do so. Chin up, wrap tight in the blanket given to you and swallow the medicine, there’s much more on the way.
 Vijay Mehta, The Economics of Killing, p.4