how to respond to the terror risk

A diverse range of people are arguing that we have overreacted to terror threats after 9/11. Their arguments include the following:

  • The statistical risk of being killed by a terrorist is very low. As John Mueller writes in a paper for the libertarian Cato Institute (pdf), “Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.”
  • Responses to terror, however, can be very costly. Consider the price and inconvenience of airport screening procedures. Or the deaths caused when people drive instead fly because they are afraid of terror. Or public support for the Iraq war.
  • Acting terrified of terror encourages terrorists. It means that they can damage America simply by talking about plots. There is an emerging “we-are-not-afraid” movement that argues we ought to react to terrorist threats in a calm and unruffled manner.
  • The alleged British bombing plot probably shows a desire to blow up airplanes, but the conspirators may have been far from being able to pull off the terror of which they dreamed. (Phronesisaical has links.)
  • Fear of terror steers public resources to certain agencies and companies that have an incentive to stoke the fear further.
  • Irrational fear of terror distorts public opinion, to the advantage of incumbent politicians. Some see evidence of Machiavellian manipulation; but Mueller draws a more cautious conclusion: “There is no reason to suspect that President Bush’s concern about terrorism is anything but genuine. However, his approval rating did receive the greatest boost for any president in history in September 2001, and it would be politically unnatural for

    him not to notice. … This process is hardly new. The preoccupation of the media and of Jimmy Carter?s presidency with the hostages taken by Iran in 1979 to the exclusion of almost everything else may look foolish in retrospect. … But it doubtless appeared to be good politics at the time–Carter’s dismal approval rating soared when the hostages were seized.”

  • I think these are good points, but there is another side to consider. It’s unreasonable to adopt a strictly utilitarian calculus that treats all deaths as equally significant. Every human being counts the same, yet we are entitled to care especially about some tragic events. If deaths were fungible, then none would really matter; they would all be mere statistics.

    In particular, as a nation, we are entitled to care more about the 2,700 killed on 9/11 than about the roughly similar number of deaths to tonsil cancer in 2001. Pure utilitarianism would tell us that 9/11 happened in the past; thus it’s irrational to do anything about it, other than to try to prevent a similar disaster in the future. And it’s irrational to put resources into preventing a terrorist attack if we could prevent more deaths by putting the same money and energy into seat belts or cancer prevention. However, the attack on 9/11 was a story of hatred against the United States, premeditated murder, acute suffering, and heroic response. Unless we can pay special attention to moving stories, there is no reason to care about life itself.

    In my view, we can rationally respond to 9/11 by bringing the perpetrators to justice, even at substantial cost, and even if they pose no threat. That violates the utilitarian reasoning that underlies Mueller’s argument. However, note that the Bush administration has not brought Bin Laden to justice. Also note that the 9/11 story may justify vengeance, but it does not justify excessive fear about similar attacks.

    Finally, we must think carefully about responsibility. On a pure utilitarian calculus, we might be better off with virtually no airport security. A tiny percentage of people would be killed by bombers, because there aren’t very many terrorists with the will and the means to kill. By getting rid of airport screenings, we would save billions of dollars and vast amounts of time, and possibly even save lives by encouraging more people to fly instead of drive. But this reasoning doesn’t work. If a government cancelled airport screening procedures, some people would die, and it would not be irrational to pin the responsibility for those deaths on the government.

    Thus no government can dismiss the terror threat, because people understandably hold the national security apparatus responsible for protecting them against terror. In contrast, protection against tonsil cancer is not seen as a state responsibility. I like the following passage by Senator McCain (quoted in Mueller), but I’m not sure that any administration could get away with using it as an anti-terror policy:

    Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It?s still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave. Suck it up, for crying out loud. You?re almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you?re not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That?s not a life worth living, is it?

    This entry was posted in philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

    5 Responses to how to respond to the terror risk

    1. Peter Levine says:

      From Tom Hilde via email:

      Conversely, what do we do with the idea that, if terrorists really wanted to induce terror in the citizenry, they could start blowing up randomly selected places around the country: malls, diners, libraries, schools, gas stations, etc. If the terrorist’ goal is what it is portrayed as being, wouldn’t this be the more effective route? Since it’s the route not taken (except in places like Iraq, now), doesn’t this say something about the exceptionality of terroristic acts? That perhaps they aren’t really about instilling deep terror across the population? That terror in a population comes from elsewhere?

      I find a deep cynicism at work in the politics of terror – “go about your business, but be very afraid.”

    2. Joe says:


      Nevertheless, I think that in today’s environment, and having learned our lessons from Katrina, every citizen should take responsibility of his own life. We can’t just wait for someone to come and rescue us should something happen.

      On the other hand, taking a few proactive steps and being ‘prepared’ can be fairly simple and not time consuming (just do it once!). Once we have done our own little efforts for our own sake, we will no longer be paranoid and will be able to continue living a normal life. Check out

    3. airth10 says:

      “…..every citizen should take responsibility of his own life.”

      That sounds great if it was only possible in this unavoidably interdependent world. In the case of Katrina how could one really take responsibility of one’s own life when you depend on others to insure the levees work? I suppose the argument would be, well, you should have studied-up and if you discovered a danger of them braking you could have moved before the they broke. Similarly, in an airplane that is ready to crash you should have your parachute with you.

    4. myrddin says:

      “In my view, we can rationally respond to 9/11 by bringing the perpetrators to justice, even at substantial cost, and even if they pose no threat.”

      Just out of curiosity, in what way was the Iraq war a response to 9/11? If the majority of terrorists and/or sectarian killers in Iraq were created as a result of the invasion and were not responsible for 9/11, is pursuing them still considered a “response to 9/11”? If you are not going to adopt a utilitarian response regarding the relative risk, and you are willing to set policy based on emotion, then why is any single death acceptable?

    5. Peter Levine says:

      I don’t believe that the Iraq war is by any means justified as a response to 9/11. Bombing Bin Laden would be, as long as innocents weren’t killed. It would be justified as a matter of retributive punishment.

      I think you basically have three choices in thinking about war and justice:

      1. A utilitarian calculus.

      2. Pacifism, based on the idea that there is a categorical prohibition on killing

      3. Some version of Just War Theory, which permits war only under limited circumstances.

      I am for 3, but I do not think that the invasion of Iraq is a just war.

    Comments are closed.