Too Much Fear

I am not afraid of terrorism.   The fact that one Nigerian student almost blew up a plane but failed illustrates how rare it is for a terror attempt to get that close to success.  To be sure, it’s good that this is a lesson to make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated, but it’s clear that despite many holes in the system, not too many terrorists are willing and able to even make such an attempt.    The threats facing Americans are far less than those facing Italians in the 80s from the red brigades, the British in the heyday of the IRA, or the Spanish back when ETA was a real Basque movement rather than an organized crime syndicate.

Let’s take some other statistics.  Traffic deaths have reached record lows.  In 2008 they were less than 40,000 for the entire country.  That’s a steady decline form the 50,000 range between the late sixties and 1980.    That is the equivalent of blowing up well over 100 airplanes, or repeating 9-11 about 13 times.    Tobacco causes 435,000 annual deaths, alcohol over 80,000, there are 30,000 or so suicides, and if we had even slightly healthier diets and exercise habits the lives saved would be in the hundreds of thousands per year.

How many terrorist deaths on American soil in 2009?   One deranged sniper at Ft. Hood killed a handful of people.   Perhaps there was a radical anti-abortion bombing or two.  But otherwise, terrorism is so far down the list that it is irrational to be afraid of terrorism, at least from a statistical level.

Yet to judge from the hyperbolic language coming from much of the right and many on the left, Barack Obama “isn’t keeping Americans safe” and that we need to fight a true war on terror.   Despite the tiny rate of terror attacks, the fact that Islamic extremism is the primary motivation for terror attempts against the US, some think we should profile all Muslims, and there is no shortage of pundits denigrating Islam.   Fear is a powerful emotion, if you can use it to your political advantage, it will take you far — and will dampen the rational reflection of those in the grip of fear.

However, before completely dismissing the fear mongering, there are a couple of points that need to be addressed.  First, statistics about the past say little about the future, though year after year terror deaths in the US remain very low.    One can imagine fantasies of major loss of life — nuclear terrorism, bioterrorism, etc. — but so far there is little evidence that any of this is likely.   The potential that terrorists could use such weapons is cause for concern; efforts to reduce that potential are rational.   Having real fear that this is going to happen — an emotional state of fear — is not rational.

Second, many of the causes of death above are due to choices made.  We choose to drive, knowing the risks.   People choose to smoke, drink, kill themselves, or take drugs.    Terrorists actively choose to kill; the innocent victims have no choice in the matter.  Yet these situations aren’t as different as it seems.  A good driver following the rules who is hit by a drunk out of control is just as much an innocent victim of someone else’s choice.   A lot of traffic fatalities happen for that reason.   Cigarette companies use large budgets to manipulate people to smoke, and suicide is often caused by depression or other mental disorders one does not control.    It’s really the illusion of control.

Psychologically, fear of terrorism is much like fear of flying — not statistically rational, but due to the loss of a sense of control over the situation, plus the drama of the plane crashes which do occur, very common.  That, I think explains why people fear terrorism so vividly, while ignoring the threat faced when they pull out onto the highway with their Ford.   The government should be assuring people that we are a very safe from terror attacks.   True, pure security is impossible, and we’re trying our best, but in all people need not fear.   Instead too many political opportunists use any error as a way to say that we are all being endangered by incompetent leadership, or a President who really thinks we are to blame for terrorism and thus doesn’t fight it hard (Glenn Beck said that).

The opportunism is crassly hypocritical.   The far right, who thinks Americans should not expect the government to solve problems by regulating big money (individual responsibility, you know) does expect the state to perfectly protect us from a statistically insignificant chance of being the unlikely victim of a terrorist who managed to slip through the cracks.  Cheney can say Obama “isn’t keeping us safe,” effectively stating that we should expect our government to be akin to our parents.  Others say we have to really make this a “war” on terror…because after a number of years of thwarted attempts, one would be terrorist almost succeeded.   Cede power to the state to keep you safe and secure, just don’t allow it to limit the pay of financial executives whose stupidity and short sightedness helped bring down the US economy!

Is terrorism a threat for the future which we should take seriously?   Absolutely.  9-11 showed that in an era of globalization, even the dominant world power can be hit by a small number of people in a way that does real damage.  And as technology grows, the danger of cyberterrorism and other forms of potentially more serious attacks grow as well.  We should be working to put in safeguards, gain intelligence, and try to minimize the risk.

But to engage in a level of fear which we see being stoked from a few pundits and politicians, to use it to discriminate against millions because of their faith, or rationalize torture and other un-American activities, that’s going too far.   Fear is a horrible advisor.   Fear destroys rational thought, and often ends up leading to behaviors which draw the thing one wants to avoid.   So yes, embrace a solid counter-terrorism policy in cooperation with other states, as both Presidents Bush and Obama have done.  But don’t expect perfection, and remember: as of this point, even with 9-11 included, terrorism is not something Americans need fear.   Terrorism remains extremely rare.   There is no need to base a policy, or our emotional states, on such fear.

  1. #1 by Scott Bravard on January 6, 2010 - 20:35

    You’ve written a very insightful and timely post. I often rail against the mainstream media for giving more press to shark attacks than motor vehicle crashes. Making decisions based on fear can lead to serious errors, for both nations and individuals. Thanks for writing this.

  2. #2 by Jeff Lees on January 7, 2010 - 01:54

    I have to completely agree with you Scott, the irrational reaction spurred by opportunistic pundits is only leading to more anger, and unfortunately, just as we saw after 9/11, much of it is being directed at Muslims. The Daily Show over the last few days has covered this quite a bit, and they include a clip of some guys (unnamed) on Fox News saying “all Muslim men age 18-28 should be stripped searched.” a) I don’t know why that kind of bigotry and racism is allowed a cable news network, and b) It highlights all the irrationality behind all of this. Especially when people talk about “Arabs” and airport security, ignoring the fact that the “christmas bomber” was not Arab, he was an African from Nigeria. So to use the logic of the far right, we must start doing extra searches and security measures on blacks?

    I remember a few days after the story came out, I saw a headline that said “Retaliatory strike in Yemen?” And my immediate thought was that a retaliatory strike would cause more problems, and probably spur more terrorism against America.

    It’s just eternally frustrating to see such an irrational response to all this.

  3. #3 by Striker on January 7, 2010 - 09:17

    Very nice post. The problem is that media is more interested in entertainment then actual news. It is like going to a horror movie, the audience likes to be scared by things like “shark attacks” and terrorism.

    The sad thing is that when we make terrorism be something to be afraid of, we start to weaken our nation.

    Very nice view point though, thanks for the read 🙂

    • #4 by Scott Erb on January 11, 2010 - 04:12

      Thanks Striker. I agree completely, and in fact my current research project really focuses on the media and their manipulation of the news. It’s also interesting you mention shark attacks — few people remember that in the week before 9-11, the main news story was the shark attacks. When genocide was taking place in Rwanda, we were focused on OJ Simpson’s guilt or innocence.

  4. #5 by Mike Lovell on January 7, 2010 - 15:00

    Okay, so I would like to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Not that I disagree with the post.

    Jeff Lees stated: “I remember a few days after the story came out, I saw a headline that said “Retaliatory strike in Yemen?” And my immediate thought was that a retaliatory strike would cause more problems, and probably spur more terrorism against America.”

    Terrorism, while lesser in incidence than say car crashes, and other deadly incidents Scott mentioned, has existed for quite a long time. Long before America existed as the United States. It went by many different names, such as piracy, and whatnot, but still technically by today’s standards, terrorist acts.

    So, let me see if I understand you correctly, Jeff. A terrorist, trained, supposedly in a Yemeni training camp attempted to conduct a terrorist act against Americans, on American soil, in an American airliner. Luckily a failed attempt. So, the response to a terrorist act is merely to look the other way? That retaliation against forces who seek to attack Americans, one of the few absolutely governmental responsibilities granted by the constitution, is pointless because it may cause another attack?
    I might ask what here then, if this is your position, what your solution to such problems in our contemporary society might be to address this issue?

    • #6 by John H. on January 8, 2010 - 00:48

      Hi Mike,
      Since you weren’t talking to me, I have the freedom to ask you a few questions back 😉

      Are you suggesting that a retaliatory strike against Yemen is a reasonable response? What/where would you strike? What would you hope to accomplish with that strike? What military force would you use, since we’re a bit tapped out at the moment?

      I know you were just playing devil’s advocate, but..well.. so am I 😉

      • #7 by Jeff Lees on January 8, 2010 - 04:15

        Just to clarify, the article was almost immediately after the failed attack, maybe a day after. And the ‘retaliatory strike’ was referring to an immediate attack on these supposed camps, and the possibility of American forces being directly involved.

        My point is that retaliation just spurs more retaliation and violence. What I think we need to do is do a total review of why this attack slipped past us (which we are doing), and I think we need to assess the real threat in Yemen and work with the Yemeni government to make sure any security threat is dealt with appropriately. The Yemeni government says there are about 200 Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. That is nothing compared to the thousands of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan when we invaded, along with tens of thousands of Taliban.

        What I didn’t want to see was a knee-jerk, reactionary response to the attack that would have been completely overcompensating, that could have run the chance of killing civilians (something that we have been all too good at), and galvanize the terrorist we wish to deter. Osama Bin Laden himself became radicalized after he was thrown out of Saudi Arabia because he opposed foreign troop on Muslim lands. Initiating a reactionary attack in the name of retaliation fixes nothing. We need to calculate an appropriate response to the threat in Yemen, which is pretty small from what I am reading in the news.

        In my opinion, one kid, from Nigeria mind you, who trained in Yemen and attempted a terrorist attack, doesn’t warrant a “new front in the war on terror” as it is being sold by many conservative pundits. This was a small time terrorist attack, nothing compared to the many post 9/11 attack we have seen so far.

      • #8 by Mike Lovell on January 8, 2010 - 15:58

        Well John,
        Since you were asking me questions, I have the freedom and probably the responsibility to answer them! 😉 (hows that for addressing in totality?)

        As for a retaliatory strike against Yemen, no, I am in fact against a broad based strike against a country, a poor one at that, over this particular incident. In fact cooperation by the Yemeni government in this matter should, to any sane person, negate this idea. The idea would be, in my mind, very small scale, and Yemeni-rich strike force, assisted by U.S. SEAL, Ranger, or other similar group to locate and identify these training camps and strategically eliminate these sites. Some will die defending these camps, but also an honest attempt at retrieving a few live prisoners to gain more legitimate intelligence on group operations, etc, would be in order.

        As a former military guy, and a strategy and tactics enthusiast/historian of sorts, I’m pretty much in love with the idea of small commando type groups being the main bulk of our active forces in Afghanistan since our invasion there, with the one focused mission we suppsoedly had of tracking, finding and capturing or killing bin Laden. And then getting the hell out.

        Thanks for the questions!

  5. #9 by Jay Burns on January 8, 2010 - 04:34

    Scott, Fine. But you can’t then turn around and say we are losing too many troops in the war on terror. What 6000 since the start of this whole thing? So, please don’t on one hand say that we are losing too many soldiers in the war on terror and then turn around and say that the numbers dying in terrorist attacks are somehow acceptible, or at least not to be feared.

    • #10 by Scott Erb on January 8, 2010 - 13:52

      Remember, I did call for a rational counter-terrorism plan. I just noted that fear was irrational, given how rare even unsuccessful terror attempts are. It’s a problem, not a crisis.

      As for wars, the main reason to oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not the US dead, but the massive destruction to innocent lives, families, and communities in those countries. Nowadays 80% of the casualties in war are innocent, it severely harms a generation of children in those countries. For what purpose? However, in the US not only do the deaths matter (remember, I did say a rational counter-terrorism policy was necessary too), but there are tens of thousands of wounded — sometimes severely, plus huge costs in PTSD and families torn apart by the multiple deployments. It makes sense to question policies that lead to these consequences without there being a clear benefit or even rationale for their implementation. I have a suspicion that when the book is written on the “rise and decline” of US power, the Iraq war will be seen as one of the most disastrous decisions of US foreign policy, and may even be looked at as a victory for al qaeda — their terror attack lead us to over-react and hurt ourselves immensely.

  6. #11 by Mike Lovell on January 8, 2010 - 16:03


    Thanks for the clarification. The way I read your initial statement, and maybe it was a combination of tiredness, kids home from school due to weather closings (they just got off a 3 week winter break- I’m going mad!), and hopped up on my 2nd pot of coffee, was that you were more for the biblical iidea of just ‘turning the other cheek’ to any terrorist attacks, successful or otherwise, which in my mind can only go on so long before something in the realm of retaliation, not just assessing (which obviously needs to be done) has to be done on one level or another. For more on my basic opinion to this, see my response to John’s questions. Thanks for addressing my questions!

  7. #12 by renaissanceguy on January 19, 2010 - 14:05

    Okay, from a statistical standpoint, it is unlikely that a given individual will be killed in a terrorist attack. I find that fact completely irrelvant to anything that anyone in America is saying.

    I don’t take my position because I’m scared I might die in a terrorist attack; I take it because I don’t want to see anyone die in a terrorist attack. One such death is too many for me.

    Apparently as long as it is only a few dozen or a few hundred (or even a few thousand, it seems) you don’t think that there is cause for fear.

    I can’t believe that you would conflate car accidents with terrorism. I know that you are much, much smarter than that.


    One thing that really bugs me is calling a concern about terrorist acts by Muslims “bigotry.” If people were saying, for example, that Muslims are out to drink the blood of Christian children, that would be bigotry, pure and simple. It’s patently libelous. If people say, however, that there are Muslims who are bent on blowing up airplanes and beheading journalists (not to mention beating their own women and executing homosexuals), that is not bigotry. That’s simply the truth.

    What’s wrong with the thinking of the left? The same people who want same-sex couples to get married in the United States are against criticizing a religion that promotes the execution of homosexuals, the honor killing of naughty daughters, and the lashing of women who end up in the company of men by mistake. Sure, not all Muslims do those things or approve of them, but why should we pretend that none do?

    It seems to me that the irrational fear is on the part of those who are afraid of “retaliation” if we go after terrorists or dare to question their actions. I would further say that it is they who are actually anti-Muslim, since they believe that Muslims will retaliate for our just outrage at terrorist killings. A person who respects Muslims would believe that the best Muslim people would support any efforts to stop terrorism. And if, as the terrorists believe, we were in a holy war,then surely they expect us to fight back, despite the phony indignance on their part.

    • #13 by Scott Erb on January 19, 2010 - 14:33

      I’m very clear that there is Muslim extremism, just as there is extremism from many groups. Moreover, given the socio-political and demographic situation in the Mideast, there is a real danger that extremism could increase. It’s only bigotry if people take those very few cases of Muslim extremism and talk about the whole religion or all Muslims. That’s patently wrong — yet some people make really outlandish statements like ‘all Muslims should be strip searched’ and things like that. One takes the fallacy of looking at a few examples of horrid acts, and thinks that pertains to the entire group. Separate out Muslim extremists, a tiny fringe, from Muslims writ large. George Bush, to his credit, did so.

      I still think that it is logical to look at danger from terrorism in the same light as any other danger, including deaths from auto accidents. I’m not sure why you think that would be wrong. The chances that people will die from car accidents is much greater than terrorism. If you don’t want even one death, then you have to, logically, look at deaths from car crashes (or murders, crime, etc.) in the same light. All of those things kill far more, and stricter laws would save lives. Yet we accept those deaths, and some people irrationally fear terrorism and treat it as a far greater danger than it is. That makes no logical sense to me. Note I did call for a solid counter-terrorism policy, I don’t want deaths from terrorism either. But if you really want to save lives, some investments in Auto safety or other new regulations would give you a much greater rate of saved lives than some mis-named ‘war on terror.’

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