Fear the bee, not the terrorist

Edition 28 December, by Johannes Visser

The Dutch are world champions in complaining about all that is not right, as well as finding solutions to problems real or perceived. As one of the most fundamental challenges of a human life is about security, it turns out the Dutch don’t really have that much to complain about.

This is the conclusion of Henk Leenaers, who recently published his ‘Atlas of security’. The Netherlands is one of the safest and most peaceful countries in the world, based on his research. There are some real dangers, like articulate matter and radiation, but those are usually not the evils one reads about in the news. In the 128 pages of his atlas Leenaers describes the largest and smallest dangers to the average citizen’s safety. It turns out the Dutch are more likely to die from falling down or getting stung by a honey bee than they are perishing in a terrorist attack.

It’s mostly good news according to Leenaers. Murders and traffic casualties are down, as are deaths resulting from war and medical accidents. But as casualties from direct manmade disasters are down, at least for now, those resulting from natural catastrophes are up. Unpredictable and largescale disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes are causing more death and destruction. Rising sea levels as a result of global warming continue to be an existential challenge to those living below sea level, as much of the Dutch do. Regardless, The Netherlands is all the time becoming a safer place with less people dying before their time has come.

Unrealistic perceptions

And yet most people’s view is that life is getting more dangerous, not less. According to crowd psychologist Jaap van Ginneken this results from our tendency to disproportionally magnify certain risks while minimizing others. Terrorist attacks like suicide bombings or fanatics firing their full automatic rifle indiscriminately around a shopping mall have a deep and lasting impact in the fear center of the brain, even if those events are rare. In contrast, driving a car does not register with most people as dangerous, while car accidents take many lives every day.

As a result the feeling of (in)security of the Dutch does not match reality. Compounding this problem is the misunderstanding or lack of information about those dangers that are relatively new, such as the use of drones, resistance to antibiotics or digital crimes (like hacking and theft) spilling over into the physical world. The sense of not knowing about these kinds of things or mistrusting the information that is available adds up to a general feeling of peril. It is not so much about the fear of dying, according to Leenaers, but other factors. “Some people are scared of e-numbers, because it is unclear what they mean. Others fear vaccinations because they don’t trust the people that set the standards. Radiation we don’t fear so much, because it is invisible.”

According to the writer of the security atlas the data shows that the Dutch really don’t have much to worry about. He says only five out of every one hundred deaths in The Netherlands have a cause that ‘did not come from within’. Of those five, one will die because of suicide and about two because of falling down. This means that only the two others will decease because of an event that is considered ‘dramatic’ and which consumes most of people’s attention. And as about 200.000 policemen, firefighters, military and medical personnel are doing their utmost to prevent even these less likely events, there should be enough reason for the Dutch to be optimistic about their security.