Ross Gittins & the Paris Terror Attacks

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Detail from artwork by Tony: Notes for a new reality 1 — Star Wars Program module V —‘Preemption of protorefugees from space’ or ‘Kill ’em before they become a problem’, August 2005 Lambda Print 28 x 23 cm, Edition of 25

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Ross Gittins and the Paris Terror Attacks

Preamble

After setting up BreadtagSagas in April and migrating it to a hosted site in May, this is post number 38. Learning WordPress and blogging was a huge learning curve and beginning writing posts also a major task, but I have to say both enjoyable and rewarding. To some extent after setting up the framework I am still feeling my way. I am also beginning to wean myself off obsessive posting, cutting down slightly so to speak.

I think that I have explored the longer article enough and may try to make further posts shorter on average. Nevertheless, I have been heartened by Noah Rosenberg’s commercial site Narratively: human stories boldly told which demonstrates that long articles are possible on the Net. I don’t want to cater to non-readers.

Sometimes I feel discouraged — a natural feeling — that I don’t have a unified purpose for my blogging, or an end, and that I am appealing to a diverse set of audiences. On the positive side, I still have a wealth of material I want to share with you.

The current article is a new angle on my The Rest category, which was originally meant to contain science and other things. It has contained other things, but no science to date. The current post is really republishing an article by Ross Gittens to a wider audience mostly beyond Australia, but in my mind it is also linked to my series of articles on the death of Osama bin Laden, particularly the middle one which details the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Ross Gittins article is very pertinent to what happens next, which is dominating the media and discourse on the Net.


Ross Gittins and Jessica Irvine

We are fortunate in Australia to have had Ross Gittens educating us on economic issues for nearly forty years. His humanism and concern to give us straight answers on economic issues, in clear language have been an intelligent breath of fresh air in the miasma created by politicians, interest groups and many mainstream economists.

Ross also mentored another brilliant statistical and economics analyst Jessica Irvine who began writing for Fairfax in 2005 under Ross’s tutelage. After eight years she moved to News Corp as National Economics Editor. She returned to Fairfax in late 2014.

I remember that Jessica wrote brilliant articles on the statistics behind economic issues in her first stint at Fairfax. In 2011 when Tony Abbott and other Liberals were making outrageous claims on the costs of a carbon tax, Jessica Irvine wrote an article called: A carbon price that tickles, not cripples which showed that the cost to households of Labor’s carbon price was about the same as two cups of commercial coffee per week (or $7.80). Denise pinned the article on our fridge, where it remained until we moved out 18 months later.

Jessica Irvine said of Ross Gittins in a 2012 interview:

Ross is the best economics editor this country has ever had and probably ever will have. His devotion to his readers is second to none. We in the media have a tendency to get caught up in whatever is the latest political debate — productivity, industrial relations, government debt. Ross has a firm and authoritative message on all of those things. But he doesnt fall into the trap of imagining that these are the most important issues for readers. Your superannuation, your childs education, your health care system, Ross writes about economics as it applies to what people really care about. And he writes it in a clear and accessible way. And we love him for it.

Ross Gittins writes regular comment pieces for Fairfax publications: The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age (Melbourne) and The Canberra Times. He celebrated his 30th year as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Economics Editor in 2008.

Throughout his career Gittins has followed his own line trying to make economic issues, political and economic policies intelligible to a wider audience and also he has been concerned with the human impact of economic policies. Hence his viewpoint often differs from other economic commentators.


The Paris Terror Attacks

I will write more about Ross Gittins and Jessica Irvine again but today my concern is to broadcast Ross Gittins advice on the Terror attacks in Paris on Friday night 13 November, 2015 to a wider audience.

The Canberra Times Headline says it all:

We can’t hit back with anger

Ross Gittins

The Canberra Times 18 November 2015 ©

I’ve spent a lot of my life arguing that the hard-headed “rational” analysis so beloved of economists needs to be tempered by human emotion. But it also works the other way: sometimes we need to curb our emotional reactions and force ourselves to think coolly about what we really want and the most sensible ways to go about getting it.

I think this every time we’re faced with another terrible act of terrorism. The first emotions are shock and horror, soon followed by a desire to hit back, to find a government to blame and demand action from. Promise us this will never be allowed to happen again.

Such reactions are only human, but when we surrender to them, we leave ourselves open to manipulation by the unscrupulous – and I don’t just mean the terrorists.

But that’s a good place to start. Terrorism is practised by the weak to get under the guard of strong. Their goal is not so much to terrify us and weaken our resolve as to provoke us into doing something stupid; something that damages us and benefits them.

Vengeance, retaliation, belligerence – these are common emotions at times like this, particularly among men. The great temptation at present is to send all our military might to the Middle East and defeat these forces of evil once and for all.

But how many times have we tried that without it working?

It’s not easy to defeat your opponent so completely that no problem remains. It’s much easier to make a strike that doesn’t fix anything and actually makes things worse.

It never crosses the mind of the bellicose among us that the other side may be hoping to provoke us into hitting back. Why? To make them into martyrs, to show it’s Muslims against the world, and to win them support from young potential fighters or terrorists in our midst.

Even the heroes who indulge themselves by shouting at women wearing headscarves are helping the side they hate.

It’s arguable that, in its desire to punish someone after the terrorist strikes of September 11, 2001, the US has made things worse for itself and the rest of us. It’s doubtful how much lasting benefit will result from all the lives lost and money spent in Afghanistan.

And the decision to invade and occupy Iraq has achieved little, but has destabilised long-standing enmities in the Middle East, greatly increased hatred of the US and, as the rise of Islamic State demonstrates, created a quagmire from which the Americans can’t extract themselves.

No one’s allowed to say it, but it’s obvious: every time Australia muscles its puny way into these problems on the other side of the world – as if the Americans and Europeans need our help – we increase the risk of terrorism Down Under.

It’s funny that the people who worry most about the “unsustainable” growth in government spending, tend to worry least about ever-increasing spending on defence, policing, security and surveillance.

Years of contact with economists has made me hyper-conscious of people using the media to push their vested interests. Almost all the alleged terrorism experts broadcast by a wide-eyed media at times like these seem to have a single message: do more, spend more. Oh, the risks we face.

All the understandable attention the media devote to terrorist attacks, anywhere in the world, can’t help but leave us with an exaggerated impression of the risk of such an attack happening here.

A few years ago, Mark Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at my own University of Newcastle, estimated that the risk of an Australian being killed in a terrorist attack is one in 7 million each year, which is about the same as the risk of being struck by lightning.

It’s not possible for our politicians to guarantee nothing bad will ever happen to us. But it is possible for them to cover their backsides by spending lots of money, progressively diminishing our freedoms in the name of protecting them, and putting on a show at airports.

A timely article in this week’s issue of The Economist says that “a lot of what passes for security at airports is more theatrical than real”.

Despite the likelihood that the recent Russian plane crash over the Sinai desert was caused by a bomb in the hold, attempts to blow up airliners are quite rare, it says. And the enhanced airport security introduced after 2001 has played no role in thwarting any attacks.

The ban on carrying liquids on board was introduced in 2006 after a plot to bring down several planes crossing the Atlantic was foiled thanks to a tip-off. In the time since then, nobody has been caught trying to get liquids on board to combine into a bomb.

Nor have any would-be bombers been intercepted since the requirement for passengers to remove their shoes was brought in, after a shoe bomber trying to set off an explosion was subdued by passengers.

The US Transportation Security Administration has a budget of more than $US7 billion ($10 billion) a year, but this year government inspectors succeeded in getting fake bombs and weapons through the screening process in 67 out of 70 tests in airports across the US.

So maybe no passengers have been caught doing the wrong thing because the security is such an effective deterrent, or maybe it’s largely a showy waste of our time and money.

The article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the heading Paris attacks: Cool heads are needed now more than ever. I know which one I prefer.


Comment

I’m not a naturally brave person. Nevertheless, I’ve been in London during the IRA bombing campaigns, was in Brixton during the Brixton riots and lived in Derry for a year at the time of the hunger strikes. When bombings and killings happen regularly, you become inured to it. Of course, you don’t want to be a victim but there is nothing you can do to prevent that.

I think 11 September 2001, the bombings in London in 2005, the Bali bombings in 2005, the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Sydney hostage crisis in 2014, the murder of police accountant Curtis Cheng, by a 15 year old gunman in Parramatta, Sydney in October have largely occurred in populations that are not used to such things.

Similarly, the Paris terror attacks, the Charley Hebdo shooting and the shootings in Norway in 2012 are not normal occurrences. The more sensible media have linked the Paris attack with the dreadful bombing tragedy in Lebanon and the crash of the Russian airliner only a short time previously.

No matter what Muslim extremists do supposedly in the name of Islam, they kill an enormous number of Muslims in their own countries and very few of us in western countries. Indeed, bombings by Muslims, outrages by right wing Hindus and killings by police and paramilitaries of poor people have occurred frequently, whilst I have been in India, and as appalling as these events are, people just get on with their lives.

My only other comment, with no knowledge whatsoever, is that it was very convenient for the terrorists and ISIS that a Syrian passport registered in Greece was found near one of the dead terrorists at the football ground. I’m sure ISIS would be very happy to taint the Syrian refugees flooding Europe (and the crisis of policy facing the EU) as potential repositories of terrorism.

Other commentators have covered the issues that Ross Gittins has, but rarely so clearly and succinctly. The things that stood out for me were:

Such reactions are only human, but when we surrender to them, we leave ourselves open to manipulation by the unscrupulous – and I don’t just mean the terrorists.

It’s funny that the people who worry most about the “unsustainable” growth in government spending, tend to worry least about ever-increasing spending on defence, policing, security and surveillance.

Years of contact with economists has made me hyper-conscious of people using the media to push their vested interests.

The classic example that covers these three statements is perhaps the neocons persuading George W Bush to invade Iraq and the media making it seem logical (see Last Days of Osama bin Laden 2).

A few years ago, Mark Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at my own University of Newcastle, estimated that the risk of an Australian being killed in a terrorist attack is one in 7 million each year, which is about the same as the risk of being struck by lightning.

The US Transportation Security Administration has a budget of more than $US7 billion ($10 billion) a year, but this year government inspectors succeeded in getting fake bombs and weapons through the screening process in 67 out of 70 tests in airports across the US.

So maybe no passengers have been caught doing the wrong thing because the security is such an effective deterrent, or maybe it’s largely a showy waste of our time and money.

I’d like to think that we might begin to act sensibly this time as Gittins advises, but I doubt it! Our governments can’t make us safe, vigilantes are always worse than the original problem. We really do need to keep things in perspective because there are plenty of groups that want to exploit us.


Key words: Ross Gittins, Jessica Irvine, Paris Terror Attacks


Further information

Featured image

Detail from artwork by Tony: Notes for a new reality 1 — Star Wars Program module V —‘Preemption of protorefugees from space’ or ‘Kill ’em before they become a problem’, August 2005, Lambda Print 28 x 23 cm, Edition of 25

Ross Gittins

Ross Gittins work

The article

A brief biography by Wikipedia

Previous article on terrorism, which aided the current article:

Terrorism: a vast cost to feel a little more secure 2011

Jessica Irvine

Quote on Ross Gittins by Jessica Irvine in Daily Life Interview

Jessica Irvine A carbon price that tickles, not cripples Sydney Morning Herald 16 April 2011

Jessica Irvine on Facebook

Other

Narratively: human stories boldly told

Waleed Aly an almost ubiquitous radio and TV host and commentator gave an impassioned speech on TV in reaction to the Paris Attack. The material is similar to Gittins but for a younger audience. It went viral on social media.

Waleed Aly Here’s what ISIL want and how we stop them

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