It is quite fascinating how disproportionate the fear of terrorism is within American society relative to the actual threat it poses. Every few days retired generals or intelligence operatives speak on some cable news station about the “ISIS Threat,” or Boko Haram or the Al-Nusra Front. Indeed, both the Republican and Democratic debates, when they do discuss foreign policy, almost always end up somewhere in the Middle East. Candidates tell us about their plans to end the conflict in Syria, defeat ISIS, and debate ad nauseam about which party created the mess in the Middle East. Of course, Russia and China come up occasionally, but the Middle East and terrorism are always the foreign policy topics that reign supreme.
This fear would make sense if the threat from terrorism was large and if groups like ISIS posed an existential threat to the U.S. or its allies. This, however, is far from the case. Numerous studies make this abundantly clear. For example, see here, here, and here. A growing China, an economically stagnant and internally divided Europe, and an aggressive, economically stricken, nuclear-armed Russia are all far more serious and potentially dangerous problems than the threat from terrorism. Why then does terrorism generate such disproportionate fear among the American electorate?
I believe there are three major reasons. The first is psychological. Terrorism is viewed as unpredictable, and to some degree this is accurate. Nobody knows exactly when mass attacks will occur, and this is precisely why tragic events like the recent Paris shootings and 9/11 are so terrifying and disconcerting. After all, the attacks seem to happen in safe, secure, mundane areas. For example, after the Paris attackers shot up a seemingly random restaurant, people began to think “hey, I eat at restaurants… maybe I’ll also be the victim of a terrorist attack.” Of course, this is a gross exaggeration of the threat. For every diner killed by terrorists, millions of others are able to enjoy their meals in peace and safety. Nevertheless, the psychology of fear is pernicious and not necessarily rational. The feeling that one is not in control compounded by the unknowability of when and where an attack might happen makes the threat of terrorism sufficiently powerful to terrify people. Objectively speaking, driving a car is far and away more dangerous than terrorism, but it doesn’t get the same amount of coverage because it is both routine and controllable (or so people think). Of course, driving cars is just as random and unpredictable as terrorism because one can’t control all of the crazy drivers on the streets, and even good driver are prone to human error. Yet, because we have been conditioned to accept the risk and normalcy of driving while also deluding ourselves that we are in complete control behind the wheel, we are far less worried about a far more dangerous activity.
The second reason is that politicians constantly reinforce these irrational fears. Rather than explaining to the electorate that terrorism is a relatively minor threat, politicians use extreme rhetoric and catastrophic imagery to exploit voters’ fears to win elections. If a politician were to actually stand up to the mindless fear of terrorism, they would certainly be branded by rivals as weak on foreign policy and incapable of defending the American public. It’s simply too bad that the likes of FDR and Churchill aren’t around to remind us “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Finally, the long-lasting War on Terror has created a virtual cottage industry of terrorism “experts.” From intelligence agencies to academics to talking heads on TV, many careers require the existence of a hidden enemy. After all, if the U.S. stopped spending hundreds of billions to fight terrorism, many of the prophets of doom would be out of a job. Thus, many self-appointed experts exaggerate the threat of terrorism with little to no basis in actual reality. However, I’m not cynical enough to believe that the majority of government workers or the academics who advise them are all lying simply to further their careers. I think there is also a fear of being embarrassed. After all, 9/11 created a firestorm. Who was to blame? What idiot missed the clues? Why did our intelligence fail so badly? Of course, these questions are not entirely fair. Intelligence analysts work incredibly hard to generate best guesses. There is never 100% certainty, and there are inevitably going to be mistakes. Nevertheless, when even one small mistake costs lives and incurs the wrath of the nation, it’s easy to understand why experts and analysts exaggerate. In short, it’s a lot less costly to exaggerate and be wrong than to underestimate and be surprised.
Ultimately, terrorists are bad people who do abhorrent things. The pillaging, raping, and killing that ISIS has undertaken is truly disgusting and inhuman. Nevertheless, American citizens have the luxury of being largely protected from the repugnant terrorist organizations that receive so much air time on national television. A vast ocean, powerful military, and excellent, dedicated network of intelligence and security personnel separate us from the tragic and dangerous conditions of Syria and Iraq. There are far more important things to worry about and spend money on, so let’s all take a step back and relax. Life is far too short to worry about infinitesimally small risks, and if we all live in fear over just the potential for terrorism, it is the terrorists who ultimately win.