Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Foolish Panic over Terrorism

By any objective standard, terrorism is a very minor problem.  It is certainly not, as so many political commentators have been telling us, an "existential threat" to civilization. 

The greatest harmful consequence of terrorism is not the killing of innocent people by terrorists, but the foolish panic over terrorism that leads us to wage a "war on terrorism" that inflicts far more harm on us than any terrorist attack.

Consider what we know from the scientific study of the history of terrorism, which is summarized in Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (pp. 344-361).

Let's take Pinker's definition of terrorism--"premeditated violence perpetrated by a nonstate actor against noncombatants (civilians or off-duty soldiers) in pursuit of a political, religious, or social goal, designed to coerce a government or to intimidate or convey a message to a larger audience" (345). 

Excluding the deaths during the 9/11 attack, over the thirty-eight years from 1970 to 2007, the number of people killed by terrorists in the United States was 340.  The peak attacks were Timothy McVeigh's bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 165, and the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, which killed 17.  The recent attack in San Bernardino, California, killed 14 people, which makes it the deadliest attack since 9/11.  But think about this.  As disturbing as the killing of 14 people can be, this is a very small number compared with the number of people killed every day by other means.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attack.  But even this is a small number compared with the yearly deaths of 40,000 Americans in traffic accidents, 20,000 in falls, 18,000 in homicides, and 24,000 from accidental poisoning.  As Pinker notes, more Americans are killed every year by peanut allergies and bee stings than by terrorist attacks.

Moreover, the rate of deaths per 100,000 people per year has been trending downward since 1970 in the United States, Western Europe, and worldwide.  In Western Europe and worldwide, the highest peaks of terrorist killings came in the 1970s and 1980s.  This was the period of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Freedom Fighters in the U.K., the Red Brigades in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, the ETA (a Basque separatist group) in Spain, the Japanese Red Army in Japan, and the Front de Liberation du Quebec in Canada.

Any sensible person looking at this history should agree with John Kerry's observation in an interview during the presidential campaign of 2004: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance.  As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution.  We're never going to end illegal gambling.  But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise.  It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."  As Pinker says, this is an example of what is called a "gaffe" in a political campaign--"something a politician says that is true."

Indeed, George Bush and Dick Cheney immediately said this remark showed that Kerry was "unfit to lead."  Kerry was forced to reverse himself, and he has never again told this truth--that terrorism is a "nuisance" that should be reduced, but it "isn't threatening people's lives every day."

Of course, the problem is that the emotional perception of the risk from terrorism as an apocalyptic "existential threat" has no relationship to the objective reality of terrorism as a minor problem for most people around the world.  Our evolved psychology of fear inclines us to exaggerate the risks from terrorism because terrorist attacks are shocking and surprising, and so it is hard for us to realistically and objectively assess such risks.  Evolutionary psychology should be able to identify and explain our evolved propensities for mistaken judgments in our assessment of risks, and thus alert us to the need to avoid the foolish exaggeration of the dangers from terrorism.

Americans were so disturbed by the 9/11 attack that they were willing to support the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as a proper response to the threat of terrorism, even though the American casualties in those wars outnumbered the deaths from the 9/11 attack, and even though the economic costs for those wars were astounding.  The huge investment in the Department of Homeland Security and the loss of liberty from government surveillance of citizens adds to the harm that Americans have inflicted on themselves because of their unreasonable fear of terrorism.

Moreover, anyone who studies the history of terrorist groups can see that most of them fail, and they all eventually die.  Social scientists like Max Abrahms and Audrey Cronin have shown that terrorist organizations almost never achieve their objectives.  One of the primary reasons for this is that as terrorists broaden their attack on innocent people, they lose popular support and provoke punishment.

No terrorist group has ever taken over a state.  It might appear, however, that the Islamic State has succeeded in establishing a caliphate ruling over territory from Iraq to Syria.  But based upon the past failures of terrorist groups to establish their own states, one can predict that the Islamic State will also fail.  In fact, the recent mass migration of people out of the areas controlled by the Islamic State, which includes some disillusioned former Islamic State fighters, and the internal fighting between the Islamic State and Al Qaeda indicate the likely coming collapse of the Islamic State.

By some estimates, the United States has spent over $1 trillion dollars in counterterrorism operations, which has also cost the U.S. many casualties (in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).  The odds that any American will be killed by a terrorist is about 1 in 4 million per year.  Do the likely benefits of such counterterrorism activity outweigh the likely costs?  Wouldn't any reasonable person have to say no?

We should see that terrorism is idiotic, and our panic over terrorism is foolish.

I wrote a long series of posts on Pinker and declining violence from October of 2011 to January of 2012 and in April of 2014.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with the underlying reasoning that people are foolishly exaggerating the threat from terrorism. Your reasoning takes the following form: look at terrorism in a statistical way, compare deaths from terrorism compared to deaths from other causes, and then declare that because the statistics for terrorism are currently lower, we should not be as concerned about it as we seem to be. This reasoning makes deaths from human-motivated causes(terrorism) equivalent to non-human motivated causes (traffic accidents, accidental poisoning). I understand that our evolutionary past has caused us to evaluate human-motivated causes of death in a much stronger emotional way than non human-motivated causes of death, probably because the former was more preventable or more likely to affect you in a non-random way, whereas the latter could either not easily be preventable or would affect all groups equally (which is likely why we feel anger when someone has been murdered, but not when they die of a lion attack, even though in both circumstances they're both just as dead).

Unlike some other adaptive responses that may be mis-fit for the contemporary world, I think the greater weight we give human-motivated causes of death is actually still just as beneficial in modernity. For one thing, terrorists can grow and can eventually capture states, which can lead to incredibly destructive state on state wars. For another, terrorist have the capability to capture weapons of mass destruction and inflict grave losses on Western societies, even if thus far they have only managed the occasional bombs or bullets. Though these scenarios are low-possibility, they are high-damage. Treating terrorists as a nuisance would increase the possibility of these attacks.

Human-motivated deaths deserve to carry greater emotional weight because they have the chance (low, but existing) to lead to very high-damage scenarios. Car crashes don't.

David Gordon said...

The new book Chasing Ghosts http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Ghosts-Terrorism-John-Mueller/dp/0190237317/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449934195&sr=1-1&keywords=chasing+ghosts is very good on the low risk of a terrorist attack in the US,