Although we keep hearing about the “ongoing threat of terrorism“, the Canadian political leaders and senior government officials who use this phrase are glossing over the important difference between a “threat” and a “risk”.
By definition a threat is a specific menance – there is no such thing as a “general threat” or “ongoing threat”.
The correct term for a general or ongoing hazard is a risk.
Both a threat and a risk are uncertain – meaning that they may or may not occur and the likelihood of occurence can be understood in terms of probabilities.
A threat usually has a higher probability since it is based on a clear indication of an imminent possible loss instead of the mere possibility of a loss.
By confusing a threat with a risk, anti-terrorism advocates grey the boundary between a clear indication and a foggy possibility.
In other words, there is no such thing as a general or ongoing ”threat of terrorism”, only a “risk of terrorism”.
Although an ongoing threat of terrorism doesn’t exist, it is possible that a specific “terrorist threat” exists.
Assuming that it is possible to define what a “terrorist” is (another foggy concept), any specific threat can be analyzed in terms of:
- capacity of a specific criminal to implement a specific threat,
- probability that the threat will be implemented based on that capacity, and
- potential impact to the public if implemented.
Notice that the impact of a threat in a threat analysis is discounted by both the capacity of the criminal to act and the probability that they will act.
By comparison a risk is analyzed in terms of:
- identification of different types of hazards,
- probability that each hazard can occur,
- potential impact of the hazard when it occurs.
Notice that in a risk analysis the impact of each risk is discounted only by the probability that the risk can occur.
Although a risk analysis has less detail than a threat analysis, the probabilities of risk are much smaller. Hence more detail would just be lost anyway.
For example, the probability of a terrorist attack on an airplane is less than 1 in 16 Million.
In Canada, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not grant absolute rights to privacy or even human rights. These rights are subject to reasonable limits as can be demonstratably justified in a free and democratic society.
Unless we challenge the justification presented every time our civil rights are trampled by so-called “anti-terrorism” activities, we risk the loss of those rights.
Worse yet is the fact that the loss of each right magnifies the impact of losing subsequent rights.
For example, the UN Human Rights Council warns that the loss of privacy rights leads to the loss of freedom of association and expression, and to miscarriages of justice, failures of due process and wrongful arrest.
Clearing the fog of language and putting the actual risks in perspective is essential to stopping the ongoing abuse of our civil liberties.
The real enemy within our society is our willingness to
- accept remote risks as imminent threats, and to
- accept charter violations as the price of protection against improbable “threats”.