The term “risk” is not so easily defined. There are many ways one could define risk, in his or her own sense. As Jakob Arnoldi summarizes, “Risks are potential dangers. We take and avoid risks both consciously and unconsciously. Risks are social and political problems.” Then, within the political sphere, it is even more difficult to narrow down the topic of risk. What some nations, governments, and political figures find risky can depend on a multitude of variables. Risk also change as science and technology is modified. From the time of antiquity until now, risk has evolved in various ways. Regardless, there is one common ground that humans at any time can share about risk; throughout the history of times humans are always trying to insure themselves with security of good health for a prolonged future through measuring out risks.
Looking at a timeline, it is apparent to see how risk has changed in human culture. Back when science was not understood, humans did not see the ability to measure out risk. For example, as Jakon Arnoldi quotes, “before modernity humans did not know of risk, but instead thought of possible misfortunes in religious terms, that is, as acts of god(s). With modernity, humans came to see themselves as masters of their own destiny, hence became interested in calculating the likely outcome of their actions.” This calculation Arnolid mentions is what we know as risk today. One must note, uncertainty is immeasurable. These actions that humans presumed as actions of god(s) were considered to be immeasurable because the actions of god(s) were random. It was not fully understood, so the uncertainty about everything was extremely high. For this reason, one could say humans just went along with whatever situation that came about to them. Natural disasters, illness outbreaks, and other threats were just as naturally accepted as life on Earth. So, one could potentially say there was no ‘risk’ during this time period because there was no attempts to mathematically measure threats in order to control or manage potential future threats. It wasn’t until “with modernity, humans came to see themselves as masters of their own destiny, hence they became interested in calculating the likely outcome of their actions.” This is the first account of the evolution from uncertainty to risk. Risk as we know it today can be viewed through this definitions. Since the revelation came that our own actions account for our future, human attempt of managing their futures is one of the prominent goals of life. Although, presently there is also a population of humans that have lost all faith in calculating risk because of the belief their destiny is controlled by not themselves, but other humans. In this last definition, Arnoldi states, “humans are left with neither religion nor science.” By this, Arnoldi means that the humans that believe they cannot manage their destiny not because of workings of a supernatural, but because of their circumstances. This can include to the loss of faith in a higher power as a whole, and the loss of faith in humanity. Overall, humanity went from embracing uncertainty/not knowing their potential to control risk, to managing some forms of risk, and lastly, to accepting the realization of risk but doubting their ability to manage risk. This issue can largely be due to the trust (or mistrust) by citizens of a government.
When risks became measureable, as Arnoldi puts it, “an avalanche of numbers led to the creation of new and powerful ways whereby the state could govern.” These numbers, or statistics, provided that the government should provide “insurance and means of social insurance, one of the prime security for its citizens.” The evolution of uncertainty to risk eventually evolved governments to a new government. By the term ‘new government’, it means the government had the same democratic policies as the previous, however, there was more of a stress of managing social risks for its citizens. This was all due to the fact “risk had become mathematized.” Additionally, “this new understanding of risk…risks are no longer due to chance but are rather subject to human knowledge, they also cease to be purely natural. Nature might behave unpredictably, but once humans have the ability to fathom this behavior, nature also become a social and political problem.” This concept can be exampled in history, and the account for natural disasters. Thousands of years ago, during the time of the great poetic writer, Homer, natural disasters involved grand stories of sea monsters and such. No mention of social or political construct. Presently, natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes all effect national and (depending on how disastrous) global economy and politics. Due to these new insights, these natural disasters are viewed as impossible to completely avoid all. Nonetheless, humans began to understand that the incidence and pattern of the occurrence and begun to control the outcomes to some degree. Above all else, goal was to “turn as much uncertainty as possible into risk.” The idea was to objectify and control the future.”
Out of all the spheres of risk, whether it be risk associated with: technology and nature, knowledge and uncertainty, culture, mass media, pleasure and capitalism, risk is most difficult to measure in politics and government. It is apparent as Arnoldi states, “risks are political,” and within a contemporary society is the “political significance of risks.” Worries about risks that call for regulation measure created a new area of responsibility for the government. Moreover, the governments focused “much less on the abolishment of risk, and more of risk prevention and risk management.” Now risk has become a tool for governing creating “new areas of government intervention and new techniques for intervention.” Arnolid also mentions that governments deal with “government of risk, and government with concepts of risk.” The first focuses on political struggles of risk management and distribution. While the latter focuses on how the concepts of risks are “subsequently used in various forms of government including penal systems, social insurance, health systems, and other institutions.” This forces policy makers the government to have more responsibilities with the new dynamic of politics. Arnoldi also argues the political powers that are able to define what is considered risky in the nation are “granted a new kind of influence” and are “democratically important.” Overall, there is “political power in playing the leading roll in the social amplification process.”
Moreover, trust and accountability of a government plays a critical roll in political risks and society. Not to mention, Arnoldi claims “legal accountability is difficult because the polluter might be in another country, or because it is simply impossible to establish who the culprits are.” This concept surrounds the nature of human history. It is near impossible to find the culprits of countless genocides and wars. Additionally, this legal accountability can be taken in a literal sense. For example, a primary pollution polluter is China, and the pollution of China is affecting the quality of our very own West Coat California. It is also mentioned how there are spatial mismatch between national territories and government responsibility. This can also be exampled globally. In the Middle East there are endless arguments of land and territory ownership. This leads to military action that also hurts innocent civilians. Then, there is a question of who is responsible for the deaths, and which government (near or far) will take action in order to stop this injustice. Nonetheless, the risk of terror is certainly put on a security high politically. The risk of terror can completely change a government’s principles for a particular time being. This is best exemplified when United States allowed the use of torture when interrogating terror suspects. This came as a complete shock to the world because it goes against all human rights principles. Politics as a whole struggle “now so much over which future is best but over which future dangers must most urgently be avoided.”
The study of risk and government politics can best be exemplified in modern society with the situation of the rise with ISIS. ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. The documentary, The Rise of ISIS on PBS.org explains the current situations and past risks involving the decisions on weather to attack ISIS or not. The there are three key players in this situation: former Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, current United States Obama administration, and the Al-Qaeda formed ISIS terror group.
Mr. Maliki was the Prime Minister put in charge of Iraq when the United States troop had left. He was given the right and was trusted to run Iraq as a sovereign nation without any aid from the United States. However, when Mr. Maliki learned that his actions are not controlled by the United States, he took full advantage of this power. Mr. Maliki had a fear of Sunni people (Sunni Muslims were the sect of the previous Sadam Hussain dictatorship). This paranoia led Maliki to wrongfully accuse and kill many Sunnis. The risk Mr. Maliki was considering was in terms of protecting his government from the previous Sunni dictatorship. However, this risk was not numerically calculated, so it could be considered more as an uncertainty. Mr. Maliki feared any uncertainty that his government would be overthrown. For this reason, the wrongfully accusing, jailing, and killing of peaceful protestors proved to show that Mr. Maliki incorrectly measured out risk. He took the ‘risk on terror’ approach and sacrificed his government’s morals in order to keep a rebel power of taking over. Unfortunately, his fear is what led him to the downfall of the Iraqi government.
The Sunni population did not like Mr. Maliki’s government. The Sunni citizens began to lose faith in this government. Once Maliki had allowed the use of heave artillery (such as takes, heave machinery guns, and missiles) on peaceful protestors, it was apparent the Iraqi government could not be trusted. From the protests against Maliki, the Sunni did not realize they were risking their lives. As mentioned earlier, the trust and accountability of a government is critical. Once Maliki started to lose that from his Sunni population, things in Iraq eventually started to go downhill.
Al-Qaeda at the time was very weak due to the eight-year occupancy of the United States. However, Al-Qaeda moved from the western desert of Iraq into Syria. Syria’s government at the time was under turmoil. Al-Qaeda helped fight the government and started to gain power. A lot of Al-Qaeda were Sunnis, so they ran off donation from wealthy Sunni Muslim in other countries. These wealthy Sunni Muslims did not pay much attention or to the risk to where their money was going. Their main concern was Maliki’s ill treatment of Sunni Muslims and to help Sunnis. When the Iraqi Sunnis concluded their own Iraqi government was against them, and they needed protection (weather they agree with Al-Qaeda or not), the Iraqi Sunnis started to join the Al-Qaeda forces. The political risk Al-Qaeda calculated was carefully managed. Al-Qaeda chose men with good leadership experience to gain more support of others. For example, the leader, Baghdadi, had done something no other terror leader at done- he held a prayer sermon in the second biggest city of Iraq, Mosul. This act gained a lot of support from the religious and praise. Since faith was lost in the Iraqi government, the Sunni started to put some faith into Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda changed to ISIS with Bhagdadi realized he wanted a structured Islamic State, not just a theory society many terror groups dream of. Bhagdadi called upon a caliphate, that is, an Islamic State with no borders and an Islamic nation representing the Muslim faithful for those who knew and felt it to be a religious obligation. The strive for a caliphate ISIS gained even more support from citizens that had previously believed their destiny is not controlled on their own. Joining ISIS would mean they could be apart of a new, revolutionary, excelling group. The risk was between living one’s boring life in which there isn’t much going for you, or joining a life of “exciting” extreme and powerful group. This mindset is how ISIS gained international fame. The risk that ISIS had calculated was completely ignored. From their actions it is very apparent that the risk of death was not risky enough. ISIS had a do or die mentality. No risk was far too great for them.
While ISIS was rising to power, the United States had many opportunities to intervene. The matter wasn’t unknown of ISIS. However, the spatial mismatch mentioned earlier between countries was a big reason the Obama administration didn’t get involved. Even when the United States Ambassador of Syria was telling Mr. Obama that ISIS must be stopped as soon as possible, our government didn’t do much. The risk of terror seemed very thin- it might have threatened the Middle East, but the risk was not threatened to the United States. Another interesting fact to point out, is that many of these leaders of ISIS were former prisoners in Iraqi and United States prisons. To this day, it is hard to understand why/how Bhagdadi was released from a United States prison without the United States seeing him as any risk. It wasn’t until ISIS took over Kirgizstan and threatened the energy resources of the United States (Chevron and Exxon) did the United States willingly get involved. The risk of ISIS taking over our energy resources is what caught the attention of the United States after three years of the first threat of Al-Qaeda formed ISIS. At this time the United States constructed a plan to attack ISIS with our military, and forcibly take out Maliki.
In conclusion, the political spheres of risk are measured differently. Maliki measured risk based on previous culture and fear. The Sunni measured risk through their lack of trust. The Al-Qaeda/ISIS measured risk through cultural/religious/social movement. Lastly, the Obama Administration had carefully calculated risks but the political situation with global politics and economies put many more variables on weather the risk was of high importance for the United States or not. Through all these spheres and ideas of risk, the actions taken and resulting outcomes also came out to be more unpredictable than calculated.
Arnoldi, Jakob. Risk: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2009. Print.
“The Rise of ISIS.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.