Will 2016 go down as one of the worst years in history? a glance at the news might make you think so.
Last week’s grotesque murder of the 85-year-old Normandy priest, Father Jacques Hamel, came hard on the heels of the Nice massacre a fortnight ago. In France alone, nearly 250 people have been killed by terrorists over the last year and a half – more than the total number of French civilians killed by terrorists over the entire 20th century. The fear after the terror is great, too. In Cannes, that byword for free and easy French Riviera living, authorities last week banned any beach bags big enough to conceal a weapon.
Then there’s Turkey, where the failed coup a fortnight ago left more than 300 people dead and more than 2,100 injured. And that was less than three weeks after three suicide bombers hit Istanbul Ataturk Airport, killing 41 and injuring more than 230.
The list goes on: police killing civilians in America, civilians killing police; the mass bloodbaths of Syria and Iraq; the Zika virus devastating Brazil, just before the Rio Olympics.
The funereal tone for the year was set, perhaps, by the global shock at David Bowie’s death in January, swiftly followed by the loss of an equally unexpected series of household names, in strangely quick succession.Alan Rickman died the same week as Bowie; Ronnie Corbett exactly one week before Dame Zaha Hadid; Prince the day after Victoria Wood. The sad coincidences all added to the sense that we were in the middle of some sort of celebrity death epidemic.The dismal weather and the England football team’s embarrassing exit from the European Championship did little to lift spirits, before the relentless roll call of tragedy these past two months led some to suggest that if 1967 was the “summer of love”, 2016 will surely go down as the “summer of hate”. As we face the increasingly feasible prospect of ending the year with President Donald Trump, nuclear codes at his fingertips, there are calls on social media memes for the world somehow to cut its losses and start this year all over again.
But are we really entering Armageddon territory? You only have to ask the question to know the answer is a firm “No”.
A brief skim through history gives you any number of worse years.
Take 1916, when on the first day of the Somme (July 1), 19,240 British soldiers were killed and 38,230 injured. Or the years between 1939 and 1945, when more than 60 million people lost their lives during the Second World War. Much further back, to the 14th century, the Black Death is thought to have killed 1.5 million people out of a population of 4 million in England between 1348 and 1350, and as many as 200 million across Europe and Asia between 1346 and 1353. On practically every single measure, the globe today is much healthier, richer and happier than it was even half a century ago. The average person earns three times as much as they did in 1966, adjusting for inflation; their lives are a third longer; IQs have risen everywhere. Whatever your views on global warming, the chances of dying from storms, floods or droughts is 98 per cent lower than in the 1920s. The malaria death rate has fallen 30 per cent since 2000.
Having said that, 2016 is, admittedly, looking slightly more dangerous than 2015, according to the 10th annual Global Peace Index. The Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which compiles the index, says that deepening conflict in the Middle East and north Africa, the refugee crisis and increased terrorism mean the world is less peaceful now than last year – and has been getting less peaceful for the last decade.
The number of battlefield deaths in the last year – 112,000 – is at a 20-year high. The number of annual terrorist incidents has nearly tripled since 2011 and the number of terrorism deaths has increased from under 10,000 to over 30,000 during that period.
But, still, 2016 is nowhere nearly as bad as 1945, 1916 or 1348. Three quarters of those 112,000 battlefield deaths have been in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Horrific if you live in those countries; an anxiety-reducing thought if you don’t.
According to Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace: “If we took the Middle East out of the index over the last decade – and last year – the world would have become more peaceful.”
For most people, then, 2016 certainly isn’t one of the worst years in history – but no wonder it feels that way if you’re a worrier, you live in the West and you’re an avid consumer of news.
Rolling 24/7 news networks, with a greater global reach than ever, bring death and tragedy into your living room most evenings. Statistics showing increasing prosperity across the world will do little to assuage anxiety levels, when daily news alerts pop up on your smartphone detailing fresh terror attacks.
And that anxiety naturally increases the closer the atrocities get to home. A month ago, 292 people were killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad, the biggest death toll in an Isil attack. I’m afraid it is only human nature that most British readers will be more interested in – and concerned by – the murder of a single priest in Normandy than the killing of nearly 300 Iraqis. Normandy is on our doorstep. Even in near-secular Britain, most recognise the familiar, comforting, sacred scene of a Catholic priest in the middle of a service, and we’re appalled by its bloody desecration.
It is human nature, too, to think more about ourselves than others. So, when we see a knifeman in a Normandy church, a madman on a Nice beach, a gunman in a Munich shopping mall, or a bomber at an Ansbach music festival, we think about our own churches, beaches, shopping malls and music festivals – and imagine the terrifying silhouette of a terrorist, bristling with bombs, looming over every familiar horizon. In fact, the chances of a terrorist turning up on your doorstep are vanishingly small – much smaller than you, your father, son or husband, being killed on the Western Front in 1916. Smaller, too, than during the IRA and Real IRA attacks on Britain from 1969 until 2001. So why should fears be higher?
“While some measure of fear was constant during the years of IRA terrorism, the English communal memory of surviving the Blitz gave a sense of perspective,” says Ruth Dudley Edwards, author of The Seven – the Lives and Legacies of the Founding Fathers of the Irish Republic.
“Also, unlike Islamist jihadis, Irish paramilitaries had boundaries: they had no taste for suicide missions and their eye for public relations made them usually selective about their targets and disinclined to commit wholesale murder. An enemy who is happy to decapitate innocents on camera and who longs to wipe out all his ideological enemies with weapons of mass destruction inspires horror and terror at a level usually experienced only in nightmares.”
Nightmares about modern terrorism soar, too, thanks to the echo chamber of the internet. Thirty years ago, you might read a single news report about an atrocity in the papers, and you reaction to it would be tempered by the other pages: the sport, the obituaries, the jollier stories doing the rounds.
Now you can spend all your waking hours concentrating on a single story, infinitely expanded on thousands of blogs, international newspapers and magazines across the internet.
Worried about Donald Trump or a rise in racist incidents? Then you can find a thousand articles that confirm your views and deepen your concerns.
The internet is the natural home for confirmation bias. If you’re terrified by global warming, you’re drawn to George Monbiot telling you the sky is about to fall on your head. If you think the world is going to Hell in a handbasket thanks to idiot Lefties, you may even find yourself in commune with Katie Hopkins.
The rise of social media has both democratised and debased national discourse, enabling “trolls” to generate heat with the posting of inflammatory and offensive comments. Following the killing of Jo Cox MP in June, female parliamentarians reported being sent sexualised taunts and violent threats, with one saying that online abuse had now become part of the job. The echo chamber effect applies to non-political news, too, particularly when it comes to 2016 celebrity deaths. Whether you’re a fan of Muhammad Ali or Harper Lee, you can now steep yourself in grief for as long as you wish.
You then drag yourself away from the computer screen with the misguided impression that this has been a deadlier year than usual, when, in fact, everyone – celebrities included – are living longer, healthier lives.
The paradox is that the richer your country is, the greater your access to that exponential worry intensifier, the internet – and yet the safer you are.
According to the Global Peace Index, seven of the 10 safest countries in the world are in Europe. The five least peaceful countries are, in descending order, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria.
The world is now a tale of two groups of nations. The more peaceful countries are becoming even more peaceful, while the less peaceful ones grow more dangerous.
If you live in Syria – the world’s least peaceful, most terrorised country – you might well call 2016 one of the worst years in history. If you’re lucky enough to live in a rich, northern European, peaceful country like Britain, things may not be perfect, but they have been a whole lot worse.