Finally Talking Terror Sensibly

May 24, 2013 Topic: TerrorismSecurity

Finally Talking Terror Sensibly

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


In one respect at least, the reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings was commendably restrained. A number of commentators across the political spectrum have tried to put the danger in context and argued that the best way to undermine terrorism is to avoid being frightened by it.

To be sure there were some overwrought responses by public officials. The Federal Aviation Administration established a no-fly zone over the bombing site, San Francisco banned back packs at crowded events, and tourists near the White House were backed off an additional 40 yards.


And a few pundits immediately began making extravagant claims about the relevance of the attacks. The New York Daily News proclaimed that the Boston bombs “once again blew up the idea that any of us will ever be safe again,” and The National Journal’s Ron Fournier claimed that the bombing “makes every place (and everybody) less secure.”

Yet for pretty much the first time there has been a considerable amount of media commentary seeking to put terrorism in context—commentary that concludes, as a Doyle McManus article in the Los Angeles Times put it a day after the attack, “We’re safer than we think.”

Similar tunes were sung by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, David Rothkopf writing for, Josh Barro at Bloomberg, John Cassidy at the New Yorker, and Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, even as the Washington Post told us “why terrorism is not scary” and published statistics on its rarity. Bruce Schneier, who has been making these arguments for over a decade, got 360,000 hits doing so for The Atlantic. Even neoconservative Max Boot, a strong advocate of the war in Iraq as a response to 9/11, argues in the Wall Street Journal, “we must do our best to make sure that the terrorists don't achieve their objective—to terrorize us.”

James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation noted in a radio interview that “the odds of you being killed by a terrorist are less than you being hit by a meteorite.” Carafano’s odds may be a bit off, but his basic point isn’t. At present rates, an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year—compared, for example, to a yearly chance of dying in an automobile crash of one in 8,200. That could change, of course, if terrorists suddenly become vastly more capable of inflicting damage—as much commentary on terrorism has predicted over the past decade. But we’re not hearing much of that anymore.

In a 60 Minutes interview a decade ago filmmaker Michael Moore noted, “The chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” Bob Simon, his interlocutor, responded, “No one sees the world like that.”

Both statements were pretty much true then. However, the unprecedented set of articles projecting a more restrained, and broader, perspective suggests that Simon’s wisdom may need some updating, and that Moore is beginning to have some company.

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.