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.




  1. Jeffrey Herrmann March 29, 2016 at 6:51 am

    I agree with those who say we should not over-react to terrorism (although I wish they would come up with a cogent statement of just what the precisely correct reaction would be). But the tired statement that your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are less than one in a million irritates me because it is an argument for under-reaction. It would lead to under-reaction, if it were embraced as a valid argument, because the effects of terrorist attacks are not fully measured by the body count divided by the total population.
    Take Brussels for example. The wounded outnumber the dead by about a factor of five. The transportation system was shut for days. Businesses remained closed. Tens or hundreds of millions of Euros will be needed to repair the airport and the metro station. And that is just some effects that come to mind off the top of my head.
    Brussels was not equal to 31 people slipping in their bathtubs and dying from their falls.

    • tonygreco March 29, 2016 at 5:15 pm


      Of course, the fatality statistics don’t fully capture the costs of terrorism. Still, I think that both basic psychology (See Gene Anderson’s comment) and our politics predispose policy toward over- rather than under-reaction.

  2. Gene Anderson March 29, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    Tony, I think you’re right about the lack of control being at the heart of the intense reaction to the prospect of terrorism. My parallel thought about anxiety, from a clinical perspective, is that it is a hardwired reaction to the sense that something is out of whack, even if we don’t know what, exactly.

    We feel a little bit of it in utterly trivial contexts, like a misspelled word in a hastily read paragraph. If we locate the misspelling precisely, there’s a sense of relief, though the time and bother lost to tracking it down adds nothing to understanding what we’ve read, and might be thought a complete waste.

    From an adaptive viewpoint, evolution seems to have bet on it through something like a variant of Pascal’s wager. There’s a rustle in the tall grass without a breeze. Yeah, probably not a tiger. But the consequences of a mistake are highly asymmetrical. If you run and it’s not a tiger, you get a little extra exercise, but if you don’t run…

    Functionally, we get anxious when something is out of whack for which we have no adequate plan. Hence, a mouse or a large roach may well scare us, not because at their very worst they could do us much actual harm, but because we have no way of preventing them doing whatever they want, like running up our leg. And, especially in the case of the roach, we have to confront the problem without any reliance on one of our usual mainstays in problem solving, namely fellow human feeling. Just like the terrorists, only much smaller.

    I think when politicians propose that we just kill ’em all and let God sort the bodies, this feels to many people like an adequate plan, its sense of completeness making up for any lack of selectivity. And the idea that we might make worse difficulties by employing this solution, like throwing rocks at whatever is rustling the grass, feels to many people like so much sophistry, creating problems where no real one exists.

    • tonygreco March 29, 2016 at 5:22 pm


      Thanks, this is helpful. I would follow up with the comment that if over-reaction is natural, then that places a special responsibility on our political leadership (and, I might add, on the media). Responsible leaders will view over-reaction as a challenge, and do what they can to restrain and channel that tendency. Demagogues will see it as an opportunity, and will be demagogues. It’s easier to be a demagogue.

      • Jeffrey Herrmann March 30, 2016 at 3:36 am

        A major objective of most terrorists is to evoke anxiety in the targeted population, and people oblige them by feeling anxious. Probably we are hard-wired to do so, even though it is not completely rational to harbor such feelings on a rational calculation of probabilities.
        One responsibility of political leaders is to assuage anxiety evoked by terrorism. The hard policy question is just what to do, without over-reacting or under-reacting. I don’t have an answer.
        Unfortunately, demagoguery can quite apparently alleviate feelings of anxiety, and so people reward demagogues with their political allegiance. Maybe we are hard-wired to do that, too.

        • tonygreco March 30, 2016 at 11:04 am


          I do want to add what I probably should have said in the original post, which is that I’m not saying that terrorism isn’t a problem. It is, but it’s not the quasi-existential threat that some make it out to be. And, the anxiety terrorism evokes, even if “objectively” excessive, is itself part of the problem.

  3. Gene Anderson March 30, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    (Consisting of some stuff I later wished I’d included in the first post, above)

    Our brains are actually hardwired at various levels to enhance whatever response we’re inclined to make. In a matter of milliseconds the dominant response gets extra neural excitation and competing possibilities, originally stimulated by the situation, are quickly inhibited. When this works well, as it usually does, it produces clarity and vigor. If I ask you who was the Union president during the American Civil War, you probably retrieve the answer from memory virtually instantaneously. The answer pops into your head along with a feeling of certainty that that is indeed the answer. We take this clarity pretty much for granted, or used to, when younger. The clarity comes at the cost of the neural inhibition of any competing responses. Since in the example they are the wrong responses, this seems like no cost at all.

    But he same sort of neural process, boosting the dominant response and inhibiting the competitors, doesn’t always produce optimal results. It runs counter to creativity, for example. And it runs counter to nuance.

    Over the long prehistorical centuries when mammalian brains were evolving, it probably mattered a lot that if an animal decided to flee danger, it did so with all its might, unimpeded by any lingering wish to stick around and fight it out instead. And if fight were the chosen response, it had better be an all-out fight, not one weakened by the impulse to get the hell out after all. This polarizing of responses does seem to be hardwired and largely adaptive, especially in law-of-the-jungle situations.

    I think Trump-type reactions represent the default human condition, and they may be a significant part of why there are still humans around. On the whole, the design has been a winner.

    BUT, we are also hardwired with some override capacity when time allows. I used to encourage some psychotherapy clients to “cultivate second thoughts.” What would happen if you waited 5 or 10 seconds before you threw the ashtray at the television? You might have a second thought, along the lines of, “That thing cost a fortune,” or some such, and now, because you waited that few seconds, you’ve got options. You can still bust the tv, sure, but you can also choose a less destructive action.

    Some clients of mine were able to do this, increasingly well with practice, to their considerable benefit. In more favorable circumstances, people acquire second thought habits as part of maturation, though we should not underestimate this as a developmental achievement that far from everyone reaches. You get the bang-bang, fight or flight, either/or process for free, without work or instruction or modelling by a benign adult. Not so with the habit of second thoughts.

    Fear is noxious and so is anger if there’s no opportunity to actually act aggressively. People want a plan that seems adequate to the danger, and they want it fast, so they can turn to other pursuits, not incessantly nagged by worry about what to do. Trump encourages them to believe that their first impulse is the right one. There’s no need to keep weighing complex and not very gratifying alternatives.

    We need leaders who don’t seize on the first primitive impulse and call it policy. This being a democracy, we need leaders who can also sell complexity to a skeptical public, a harder task than thinking complexly itself. While this is a rather daunting task, history shows, over the very long run, major improvements in our collective capacity to restrain the baser angels of our nature. Unfortunately, it also affords all too many examples of this hard-won achievement collapsing under stress.

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