I live just on the outskirts of Brussels. I’ve just returned from two weeks working in the Middle East to find my home city has suddenly become a hotbed of terrorist activity and that the government is playing tough, shutting down schools, metro systems, public events – pretty much warning people against doing anything inside the city. It has become like a weird ghost town. It would probably be a great time to make a zombie movie. Someone has just said that they think it is a great example of risk management being done, but I don’t really agree. My social media feed has been going crazy; people are scared and confused…
The purpose of risk management is to make a structured decision about the acceptable level of risk to be exposed to, by engaging with all relevant stakeholders. As a citizen of Brussels, it’s very hard to see and understand what risk factors are really being weighed up. Yes sudden violent deaths are a bad thing for a society to bear and they should be taken seriously. But so is preventing people from travelling, working, shopping and enjoying their lives. The opportunity cost of this clampdown is massive and real.
There is also an argument to make that there is genuine harm in taking such a cautious approach, demonstrating the appearance of fear. ISIS is a group that propagates itself on the fantasist vision of being a collection of heroic adventurers, who are ready to change the world to be a better place (in their eyes only, my Islamic friends would insist). They will certainly be emboldened by the dramatic affects they would appear to have won these last ten days, their recruitment and selling of their dream of heaven, that degree easier.
I very much doubt this long-term impact is being considered in the risk calculations currently being performed. Belgian Intelligence services were 150 staff short of their target of 750 employees at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, and now, 10 months later, only 42 new officers have been recruited. Brussels is still split across 6 different Police authorities for just 1.4M population, with intelligence flows and cooperation bogged down in between them. These are the sort of long-haul issues, where risk management must be effective – to cajole, remind and to insist that deviation from agreed standards is unacceptable.
Instead, we see a rather short-term special effort being made, to create as much the appearance of competent management of the security threat, in the context of stagnation and under-performance over time. This makes me think that this weekend’s reactions are somewhat knee-jerk in nature, more designed to win column inches than to be any real deterrent to the terrorist, who typically has time on their side.
16 people were arrested in anti-terror raids overnight but the key fugitive is still at large. If they find him before anything happens, this will be proclaimed as a victory for good risk management. But no one will really able to count the socialised cost of this effort and I already suspect that the mayhem caused by the Brussels Lockdown is not warranted.
In January this year, some 4,000 Belgians more than expected, died from the Influenza outbreak. Following statistical averages, approximately 27 Belgian citizens will have died in road traffic accidents since the attacks 10 days ago in Paris. And these numbers highlight just one more area where Risk Management should provide a duty of service – to provide a calm and rational voice to the public about how fear can grip us and turn us insensible.
The Britsh war time poster was perfect – Keep Calm and Carry On. Fellow citizens of Brussels, please heed this sage advice.