Finally Talking Terror Sensibly

The aftermath of the Boston bombings saw more measured opinion than prior attacks.

When evaluating post-9/11 U.S. counterterrorism policy, including the increase of over $1 trillion on domestic homeland-security spending, the starting question has typically been the wrong one: “are we safer?” Instead, reflected in the new commentary, it should have been “how safe are we?” Or, as risk analyst Howard Kunreuther put it in 2002, “How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?”

The beginnings of an adult reaction to the Boston attacks in the media suggest that politicians and policymakers might safely start to ask Kunreuther’s question. In doing so they would be following the lead of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg who declaimed in 2007, “Get a life. You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.”

Thus far, that has been just about the only instance in which an official has said such a thing, and Bloomberg received quite a bit of flack for the remark at the time. But politicians should note that he was still handily reelected two years later.

John Mueller is a political scientist at Ohio State and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Mark Stewart is a civil engineer at the University of Newcastle in Australia and a visiting fellow at Cato. Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow at Cato and co-editor of Terrorizing Ourselves. Mueller and Stewart are the authors of Terror, Security, and Money.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Huyphuc1981 nb. CC BY 3.0.