Terrorism and Security Overreactions

gunman1a.jpgBruce Schneier has a thoughtful and provocative post about how our overreactions to terrorism are exactly what the terrorists want:

The point of terrorism is to cause terror, sometimes to further a political goal and sometimes out of sheer hatred. The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. And blowing up planes, trains, markets or buses is not the goal; those are just tactics. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act.

And we’re doing exactly what the terrorists want. . . .

Regardless of the threat, from the would-be bombers’ perspective, the explosives and planes were merely tactics. Their goal was to cause terror, and in that they’ve succeeded.

Imagine for a moment what would have happened if they had blown up 10 planes. There would be canceled flights, chaos at airports, bans on carry-on luggage, world leaders talking tough new security measures, political posturing and all sorts of false alarms as jittery people panicked. To a lesser degree, that’s basically what’s happening right now.

Our politicians help the terrorists every time they use fear as a campaign tactic. The press helps every time it writes scare stories about the plot and the threat. And if we’re terrified, and we share that fear, we help. All of these actions intensify and repeat the terrorists’ actions, and increase the effects of their terror. . . .

The surest defense against terrorism is to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to recognize that terrorism is just one of the risks we face, and not a particularly common one at that. And our job is to fight those politicians who use fear as an excuse to take away our liberties and promote security theater that wastes money and doesn’t make us any safer.

I very much agree. As I’ve argued before, when looking at the big picture, terrorism actually accounts for a very small risk of death or injury. More people die each year of nutritional deficiences than terrorism. The number injured and killed in car accidents each year is over 10 times greater than the toll in 9/11. Likewise for the number who die of the flu each year. Terrorism is certainly a risk, and we should certainly try to prevent it, but we should inflate the risk out of proportion. I’ve likened it to the shark bite phenomenon — when very rare events like shark bites occur, they grab the headlines, and people have a dramatically inflated perception of the risk.

Many security measures strike me as a silly waste of money and resources that could be used in ways that will save more lives, be more beneficial for society, and even provide more effective security. Security measures such as the NYC subway searches cost oodles of money and time and tie up personnel that could be used more productively elsewhere.

The difficult question is how, exactly, we can heed Schneier’s advice. Terrorism is so effective at grabbing the headlines, and it’s hard to convince those in a panic to calm down. And for politicians, it is difficult not to trot out whatever security measures that can be conceived of, regardless of their financial costs, sacrificies in liberties, and even effectiveness so long as they appear to be doing something. I wish I could figure out a structural answer to the problem, but thus far, I have not had much luck.

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15 Responses

  1. Nate Oman says:

    Dan: I am not quite so convinced. While I think that some responses to terrorism are unwise over-reactions, I am less convinced by the this-is-what-the-terrorists-really-want. In particular, I think that many terrorists regard the killing simpliciter of Americans, Israelis, etc. as a fully sufficient marker of success.

  2. Nate: It is hard to formulate precisely what terrorists really want. They probably want to kill people simpliciter, but they also want to get attention and cause disruption. If the goal is just killing people, then terrorism has miniscule effectiveness, as the average number of people killed via terrorism per year over the course of the past decade or twenty years is very low. Terrorists try to create dramatic events, ones that take lots of planning and time to pull off. The goal seems to extend beyond just killing people, but doing so in an attention-grabbing way. But I’m certainly not a terrorist psychologist, so this is all speculation.

  3. Bruce Boyden says:

    I’m with Nate; I’m skeptical of claims in the form of “Doing X is exactly what the terrorists want (and therefore presumably is bad).” And I don’t think you need the claim to make your point. Staying out of the ocean is not “what sharks want,” but it’s still an irrational response to the handful of shark attacks worldwide each year.

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    I’m curious, Dan. Do you take the same calm and rational approach when it comes to threats to privacy and civil liberties? Or is it okay to panic about threats to privacy?

  5. Orin — I’m calm and rational about everything, which is why we disagree so much I guess. 🙂

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Although I’m not part of the esteemed company commenting above, I will say that I think your post was spot on (Cass Sunstein said something like this a year or two ago in the LA Times [I trust everyone knows his fondness for ‘risk analysis’]. Cf. what Burleigh Taylor Wilkins says in his book on Terrorism and Collective Responsibility (1992): ‘But what about members of the “silent majority” who, it would seem, do no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil, or if they do hear aren’t really listening or dismiss what they hear as rumor? [the subject, by the way, of Stanley Cohen’s States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, 2002] If the terrorists are seeking a change in the policies which have led to the violence directed against themselves or the community or group of which they are members, then perhaps the “silent majority” was their ultimate addressee all along, i.e. the addressee whose attention they had sought vainly to get by legal or political means and which they now seek by violent means.’

    An even more rational approach would attempt to listen to what the terrorists are saying/asking, SOME of which is not in and of itself unreasonable. See, for instance, Charles Glass’ review essay, ‘Cyber-Jihad,’ London Review of Books, Vol. 28, No. 5 (March 2006):

    Bin Laden’s utterances, beautifully translated by James Howarth and well edited with informative footnotes by Lawrence, prove a better guide to his intentions and Weltanschauung than the same words mediated by CNN anchors and New York Times columnists. He does not appear to be deranged, as his detractors insist he is. His message is plain: leave the Muslim world alone, and it will leave you alone. Kill Muslims, and they will kill you. ‘America won’t be able to leave this ordeal unless it pulls out of the Arabian Peninsula, and it ceases its meddling in Palestine, and throughout the Islamic world,’ bin Laden told the al-Jazeera correspondent Taysir Alluni six weeks after the 11 September attacks. ‘If we gave this equation to any child in any American school, he would easily solve it within a second.’ When Bush said in 2004 that his was ‘a war against people who hate freedom’, bin Laden responded: ‘Perhaps he can tell us why we did not attack Sweden, for example.’ In December 1998, two months after his followers had destroyed the American Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and killed hundreds of Africans, bin Laden justified the murder of unarmed civilians on al-Jazeera:

    The infidels tell Muslims that bin Laden is threatening to kill civilians – yet what are they doing in Palestine? They’re not only killing innocents, but children as well! . . . I say there are two sides in the struggle: one side is the global Crusader alliance with the Zionist Jews, led by America, Britain and Israel, and the other side is the Islamic world. It is not acceptable in such a struggle as this that he [the Crusader] should attack and enter my land and holy sanctuaries and plunder Muslims’ oil, and then when he encounters any resistance from Muslims, to label them terrorists. This is stupidity, or considering others stupid.

    ‘They evidently won’t wise up without the language of beatings and killings,’ bin Laden said in his post-9/11 al-Jazeera interview. ‘So, as they kill us, without a doubt we have to kill them, until we obtain a balance of terror. This is the first time, in recent years, that the balance of terror has evened out between the Muslims and the Americans; previously, the Americans did to us whatever they pleased, and the victim wasn’t even allowed to complain.’ Jonathan Randal’s caustic aside in Osama [a book title] sums up the American attitude: ‘How odd that many foreigners thought the United States ran a global empire and intervened at will in the affairs of countries great and small.’

    Israel’s brutality to Palestinians and, in particular, its 1982 invasion of Lebanon appear to have inspired bin Laden’s world-view:

    The events that made a direct impression on me were during and after 1982, when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon with the help of its Third Fleet . . . I still remember those distressing scenes: blood, torn limbs, women and children massacred. All over the place, houses were being destroyed and tower blocks were collapsing, crushing their residents, while bombs rained down mercilessly on our homes . . .

    As I looked at those destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me to punish the oppressor in kind by destroying towers in America, so that it would have a taste of its own medicine and would be prevented from killing our women and children. On that day I became sure that the oppression and intentional murder of innocent women and children is a deliberate American policy.

    Attention! the old French saying goes, cet animal est très méchant, quand on l’attaque il se défend.

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    Actually, I was serious, and there’s a serious point behind the question. No one intentionally overreacts; different people assess threats (whether to privacy or security) differently. So to what extent are you and Schneier essentially saying, “everyone should have my values rather than the values that they have”?

  8. Orin — It is true that people assess threats differently, but I don’t think this means total relativism on that question. Some threats and risks can be quantified at least to some degree. There’s always guesswork, but we can assess the nature of threats. Suppose the government were to spend $100 billion on a campaign to stop shark bites through the killing of every shark in the ocean. I think it would be more than fair to argue that we’re wrongly assessing the seriousness of the threat; that we’re spending too much money on it; that killing all sharks has costs that are not worth the benefit; and so on. Is this just saying that these are “my values” rather than somebody else’s? That said, regardless of whether I’m correct in how the risk of terrorism should be assessed, it matters little unless the people and the government are convinced of this.

    Turning to terrorism, the problem is that rarely is the risk of terrorism put into perspective; the media and government’s actions all seem to push toward assessing the risk as more dire than I’d assess it.

    Turning back to shark bites, there are indeed costs related to overreaction that must be counted in government policy. People might stay away from beaches, thus having an impact on tourism and the economy. There might be a general fear of going into the ocean that makes the experience much less pleasurable for people. These are harms related to overreaction that nevertheless must make it into the calculus of the government’s response. If people assess the risk of shark bites as really dire, should the government take all sorts of measures to address it if this will make people feel better? Or should the government view the people’s reaction as an overreaction and try more modest measures and expenditures?

    Let me try to make my point more clear, because I’m not sure it has come across with the greatest of clarity. The question I’m interested in is: How should the government assess various the threat of terrorism? The relativist approach: There’s no way to say any approach to assessing the threat is better or worse, and therefore, let’s just see what most people are assessing it as and go with that. The problem: The media and the government’s actions shape how people assess the threat, so there’s no neutral way to assess the threat in this way. The empirical or rationalist approach: Try to quantify the costs the best we can and assess the threat in this manner. The problem: People’s reactions to the threat are costs too, so if people overreact, it can enhance the harms (especially the economic ones). And the harm of terrorism is not exclusively in lives and destroyed property. One of the harms of terrorism is that it creates a feeling of invasion, outrage, and vulnerability. We feel wronged by a terrorist attack in a way we might not feel by a flu outbreak. Such a harm is hard to quantify.

    Nevertheless, we must try to fold this sense of feeling wronged into our equation for how to respond to the risk of terrorism. It’s an imperfect science, but at least there are many dimensions to the threat of terrorism we can assess with at least more accuracy than the “wrongedness” component.

    I believe that we should try to better measure our reactions to terrorism rather than just to go with “gut” reactions. There’s a value to thinking about the risks of terrorism in a larger context as compared to other risks, to trying to examine the threat as calmly and rationally as possible.

    The same holds true for privacy, although what makes threats to privacy more difficult is that they have more difficult-to-quantify dimensions.

    One of the virtues, I believe, of a strong commitment to civil liberties and privacy is that it forces us to exercise more care and attention to how we assess security threats. Protecting privacy can steer the government away from potentially ineffective security measures or from overreactive security measures. It can certainly impede useful security measures too. But one of the key values of a commitment to civil liberties is that it forces a debate and scrutiny about the assessment of the threat and the effectiveness of security measures. Sadly, however, those advocating the security measures want to bypass this step and get a free pass.

  9. Joe says:

    Dan, nice line of thought!

    Let’s not be ‘terrorized’. But at the same time, let’s be aware, be informed (having a good degree of skepticism from what we hear in the media), be patient and take a few proactive steps that can increase our personal preparedness – just in case.

    Good tips for that in http://www.technonllc.com/pd1

  10. Orin Kerr says:

    Thanks for the response, Dan.

    One difficulty, it seems to me, is that terorrism deaths are not some kind of constant. The fact that we hd X deaths in the last Y years does not mean that we automatically will have the same number in the next Y years. I’m reminded of an argument Marc Rotenberg made during a panel discussion with him around late 2000 or early 2001. Marc complained that people who want more government surveillance power just pretended that there was a threat from so-called “terrorism.” If I recall correctly, Marc’s argument was that almost no one had been killed by terrorists in the United States, and so clearly there was no real threat from terrorism in the United States.

  11. Orin — True, terrorism deaths are not constant, but that doesn’t make it impossible to estimate them. Deaths from most other sources (auto accidents, flu, cancer) are also not constant, but we can still attempt to estimate the risk.

  12. Paul Gowder says:

    I’m going to interject my .02 here. Part of the problem is not only that we are failing to accurately overestimate the risks of terrorism, but that we are systematically overestimating those risks in predictable ways, and there’s no effort being made to discount them.

    Dan already made reference to salience bias wrt the shark bites. There’s also more arcane stuff. There’s a school of psychology out there called, appropriately, “terror mangement theory.” (See generally Pyszczynski T, Solomon S, Greenberg J: In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 2002.) They’re getting empirical results consistent with the hypothesis that as salient reminders of their own mortality appear, people become significantly more focused on in-groups versus outgroups, more hostile to perceived outsider groups, etc. etc. This of course feeds into the sense of being wronged that Dan talks about, and provides a ready target for ever-increasing fears.

    Even if Orin’s right and we can’t quantify the risk very well (and to be sure there are statistical ways that can and are being tried), surely we can at least acknowledge that this is an area where our gut reactions are likely to be based on a sense of risk that is significantly more scary than the actual risk, whatever that actual risk might be.

  13. Paul Gowder says:

    (uh, “failing to accurately overestimate” should have been “failing to accurately estimate.”)

  14. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Readers might also want to look at Hanno Kaiser’s post at the Law & Society Blog (Aug. 19), ‘On Instilling Fear and Selling Security: The Counterterrorist-Media-Industrial Complex’: http://www.lawsocietyblog.com/archives/275

  15. Orin Kerr says:


    What’s your estimate of the number of deaths from terrorism for the next, say, 70 years?