Terrorism: Is Fear Itself the Problem?

Terrorism: Is Fear Itself the Problem?

Michael Zoorob

What if I told you that there was a threat to the people of America which was eight times more deadly than terrorism? What sort of policy response would be justified? What sorts of bloated government bureaucracies, intrusions, inconveniences, and wars would we be willing to endure in order to mitigate this threat?

Of course, there are plenty of phenomena more lethal than terrorism. The average American is, for example, eight times more likely to drown in a bathtub than die from a terrorist attack. That’s not to say that drowning in a bathtub is a particularly probable event; an American has only a one in 800,000 chance of dying from drowning in a bathtub. But there’s only a one in twenty million chance of dying from a terrorist attack [1]. This hasn’t stopped the United States from pouring well over a trillion dollars into homeland security spending since 9/11 without demonstrably making us much safer [2].

Of course, deaths from terrorism aren’t quite the same as deaths from bathtub drowning. Still, there appears to be very little threat, statistically speaking, posed by terrorism.

In the 11 years since 9/11, arguably sixteen people in the United States have died from Islamic terrorist attacks (about as many have died from domestic terrorism) [3].  Naturally, advocates of our current counterterrorism strategy say that terrorism deaths are so low because of our dedication to security. This is a difficult argument to test, since there were very few deaths from terrorism before 9/11 and very few deaths afterwards.[4] However, the evidence does not suggest that the absence of many  terrorism deaths is due to greater security. The Shoe Bomber and Underwear Bomber, for examples, passed through every element of U.S. security.

The simplest explanation is that the real threat posed by terrorism is not especially large. Jonathan Mueller of Ohio State University estimates that counterterrorism spending has saved just 52 lives per year (or about $600 million per life saved), though if 9/11 is factored out of this analysis, that number is essentially zero [5]. Indeed, 9/11 is the single, anomalous case of a mass-destructive terrorist attack, and between greater vigilance and reinforced cockpit doors, it has almost zero chance of being repeated [6].

Every death from terrorism is a tragedy, just as every death from drunken driving, air pollution, and gun crime is a tragedy. But our uniquely knee-jerk reaction to terrorism, which assumes a dramatically exaggerated risk, actually makes us less safe.

For example, a Cornell study suggests that after 9/11, some Americans substituted driving for flying on relatively shorter trips after the inconveniences imposed by new airport security measures made driving a quicker means of transportation. Since flying is far safer than driving, the result of this change was that 500 additional people died in car accidents [7].

Another interesting perspective: if we had invested even a fraction of the trillion dollars we have spent on homeland security into other life-saving measures, we could have saved far more lives. For example, a $178 million investment in smoke detectors could save 890 American lives annually. That’s orders of magnitude more efficient than national security spending [8].  A $2 billion investment in vaccinations and nutrition for children in impoverished nations would save fully 1.5 million lives (though not American lives, of course) [9].

And remember, increased spending on homeland security isn’t the full story. After 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq.  In Afghanistan, the death toll for American soldiers recently surpassed 2,000 and continues to climb. The War in Iraq—which almost certainly would not have occurred without 9/11—cost 5,000 American lives. The combined cost of these wars will total in to the trillions; by itself, the War in Iraq cost the United States approximately $3 trillion, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz [10]. There is simply no justification for these massive sacrifices.

Terrorism is certainly a threat to the United States, but our excessive fear of terrorism has resulted in dangerously miscalculated policy responses—and, consequently, wasted money, lives, and liberties.

When it comes to terrorism, is fear itself the problem?

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