Terrorism, immigration and rationality

Is there a case for closing the borders to avoid terrorist attacks?

The symbolism of the latest terror attack in Europe at a Berlin Weihnachtsmarkt on 19 December is palpable. Even though the religious connotation of Christmas has been diluted over the years, in Germany especially, it is still very much a period in which the Christian faith is at the forefront. And it is of course the season of peace and goodwill, so the time and place of this attack could barely have been more significant.

Events like this tend to lead to extreme responses. System 1, our fast thinking engine, is quick to react to fear and take control: under mental pressure there is no time for the deliberative approach of System 2. The risk is that thinking fast leads to irrational decisions — that is, decisions that are actually not in our advantage. It would be very understandable if people in Berlin and elsewhere, under the influence of their System 1, chose to stay away from Christmas markets or simply stayed indoors, despite the fact that the risk of becoming the victim of a similar attack is exceedingly small.

Yet the people of Berlin, like the Parisians not much more than a year ago, appear to have followed their System 2 and shunned impulsive responses with dignified defiance. The city’s main newspaper, the Berliner Zeitung, headlined on Wednesday evening “Sad but indestructible” over pictures of thoughtful people holding simple but powerful messages like “You will not divide us” and “Berlin sticks together”, and of two choirs (one made up of refugees) singing “Berlin, ich liebe dich” (Berlin I love you) right next to the place of the attack.

Who is rational?

The same evening, a demonstration by the extreme right-wing NPD called for a closure of the borders for immigrants, and a separate protest organized by the opposition party AfD demanded “more security for Germany”. Simultaneously, near Bahnhof Zoo, people protested against right wing appropriation of the attack, urging solidarity, tolerance and love. It’s tempting to regard the latter group as rational — heeding the guidance of their System 2 — and the former as irrational, giving in to the impulses of their System 1.

But is it really that simple? Sure, Germany has had its fair share of home-grown terrorism forty years ago, so keeping people out is not a guarantee for safety. However, recent attacks across western Europe have been mostly perpetrated by terrorists originating from the Middle East or North Africa, often having entered or re-entered the country as part of the refugee streams. The logic that shutting the borders for migrants would avoid such attacks is not weaker than the logic that not getting onto an aircraft means you pretty much avoid perishing in an airline crash.

Now fear of flying, too, is often regarded as irrational. The likelihood of dying in an air disaster is 1 in 11 million flights, while it is 1 in 5,000 car journeys. Most people who suffer from flight phobia do not have a similar aversion of getting into a road vehicle — so that must be irrational, mustn’t it? Captain Tom Bunn, an airline pilot who helps people overcome their fear looks more closely at this question, and comes to a more nuanced decision: “it is irrational to believe planes are not safe enough to fly, […b]ut, it can be rational to be concerned about feelings.” Many people have different feelings about losing their life in an air disaster than in a car accident, so for them dying ≠ dying.

Risk in the balance

Life is full of uncertainty and risk. We all take a risk every time we leave home — the risk of being run over on the pavement, of being robbed, of being in a fire or indeed a terrorist attack. We also take a risk when we stay at home of course: homes have been known to catch fire or collapse, or we could fall down the stairs. In the UK, this happens to 1,000 people every year, yet few people systematically refuse to go up or down the stairs for this reason.

Whether we do it consciously or not, and with full knowledge of the facts or not, what we do is trade off the risk against the benefit the risky action entails. We are willing to take more risk for things we believe to be more important, and this means we reveal our preferences not just by what we sacrifice in terms of money, time or effort, but also in terms of the risks we are willing to run.

There is evidence that eating barbecued meat increases the risk of prostate or pancreatic cancer, and that drinking alcohol heightens the risk of cancers of the digestive tract, as well as breast and liver cancer. Yet most of us are happy to occasionally indulge in a nice chargrilled hamburger or half a bottle of rioja. It just looks like a sensible trade-off between the infinitesimal increase in long-term risk, and the enjoyment in the moment.

The consumption of grilled meat and booze may be widespread, other risky activities are much less so. Not many people fancy jumping out of a plane attached to a piece of cloth — irrespective of the thrill they would experience doing so. If you don’t want to die in a skydiving accident it is simple: just don’t do a parachute jump.

Risk as a sacrifice

Statistics almost dictate that, if a country allows in hundreds of thousands of refugees, there will be several people with evil intent among them. You don’t need to be either irrational or racist to conclude that the risk of attacks like the most recent one in Berlin, and the ones apparently foiled since then in Australia and Germany, would be much lower if the borders were closed. And so it is not surprising that the ideas propagated by anti-immigration campaigners gain traction with people who otherwise would have no truck with extreme nationalism.

Yet there is another way of approaching this: think of people who do a tandem skydive to raise money for charity. This is a rather unusual way of contributing to a good cause — most people are happy to donate money or time, but here we have people would otherwise not remotely contemplate this kind of thing making a very different kind of sacrifice. They are willing to take a risk, which is just as much a sacrifice, in order to provide a benefit to other, unknown people.

If we care for strangers fleeing for war or persecution, then perhaps a similar kind of generosity is not so irrational.

Especially at this Christmas time, it might make sense to think rationally about the trade-off we could make: is it not worth accepting an infinitesimal increase in the risk of dying in a terrorist attack, in order to give hundreds of thousands of genuine refugees sanctuary?

Remember, your preferences and values are revealed by your attitude to risk…

Merry Christmas!

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on December 23, 2016.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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