I have argued that Americans’ perception of the terrorist threat tends to be greatly inflated. Our fear of terrorism is way out of proportion to the real danger it poses. Political scientist Stephen Walt has expanded on this theme in a post that is well worth reading in full. Walt sensibly explains:
Compared with other risks to human life and well-being, contemporary international terrorism remains a minor problem. The individuals killed or wounded in a terrorist attack are unquestionably tragic victims, and our hearts should go out to them, their friends, and their families. But as experts have pointed out over and over again, the actual danger from terrorist violence remains astronomically low (i.e., for most of us, the risk of being killed by a terrorist each year is much less than one chance in a million).
Walt’s main message is that our response to terrorism is more of a problem than terrorism itself. Over-reacting–for example, by going into unnecessary wars, or by living in continuing fear, or by reducing our liberties and changing our way of life–is exactly what the terrorists want us to do, since they haven’t the means to hurt us in any really substantial way.
So, how do we explain the exaggerated terror that terrorism evokes? I don’t have any background in social psychology, so I would welcome ideas from readers. I certainly think that the randomness and unpredictability of terrorist acts must be a large part of the explanation. The possibility of being victimized is completely beyond our control. In reaction to a San Bernardino or a Brussels, “It could’ve been me” somehow registers more spontaneously and naturally than a cool calculation of the actual long odds against it having been you. I think probably terror also reflects distress at the terrorists’ demonstration of humans’ capacity for calculated, apparently gratuitous cruelty to other humans. Unlike other threats to public safety and security, like auto and gun accidents, natural disasters, pandemics, and even most wars, responsibility for acts of terrorism is clearly attributable to the very deliberate will of an individual or group of individuals. The fact that human agency is unmistakably involved is horrifying. “There are people out there who would be happy to kill me!”
Whatever its psychological basis, the fear of terrorism is undoubtedly exacerbated by our politics. Terrorism is a gift to demagogues, and Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and most of the departed Republican candidates for president haven’t been indifferent to the opportunities it presents. Since they’re not actually responsible for dealing with the problem, it is in their interest to inflame and then exploit the public’s hysteria, and they show little inhibition about doing so. On the other hand, responsible political leaders, including notably the president, are inhibited from making the kinds of argument Walt makes because they don’t want to be accused of indifference or excuse-making for weakness. So, our political discourse on terrorism is naturally unbalanced, to the advantage of the demagogues, and of the terrorists.