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The Case for Fear

Overblown: How Politicians And The Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, And Why We Believe Them
By John Mueller
(Free Press, 259 pp., $25)

What's Wrong With Terrorism?
By Robert E. Goodin
(Polity, 246 pp., $59.95)

In 1995, the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky published a provocative book under the title But Is It True? Wildavsky's central claim was that many environmental risks are ridiculously exaggerated. In his view, governments often devote substantial resources to trivial or even nonexistent problems. For example, Wildavsky insisted that most abandoned hazardous-waste sites pose no threat to human life or health. In his view, the risks associated with asbestos and nitrites are far too small to justify the high level of attention given to them by private and public organizations. Wildavsky added that the pesticide Alar, a source of much public consternation in the early 1990s, was essentially safe. He claimed that environmental activists, and government itself, often exaggerated small risks, creating a level of hysteria that promoted their own agendas.

Though Wildavsky's particular arguments proved controversial, no one disagrees with the claim that often people badly overreact to risks to safety, health, and the environment. A highly publicized incident, taken to be a harbinger of doom, can make us exaggerate the probability that other, similar harms will come to fruition. And if the incident is emotionally gripping, it can lead us to forget about the question of probability altogether, focusing only on the worst that might happen. Consider the case of nuclear power: after the Chernobyl disaster, many people asked, "What is the worst-case scenario?" rather than "How likely, in fact, is a serious accident?"

In 2004, John Kerry, sounding a little Wildavskian, suggested that the risk of terrorism might eventually be taken to be "a nuisance," one that would not be seen as "threatening people's lives every day." The suggestion got Kerry in a lot of trouble, but it made some sense. Consider a few numbers. Fewer than three thousand people died in the attacks of September 11, but about forty thousand people die each year in automobile accidents. Even in 2001, Americans were fifteen times more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident than as a result of a terrorist attack; and seven times more likely to die of alcohol-related causes; and five times more likely to die of HIV; and five times more likely to die as a result of accidental poisoning or exposure to toxic substances. The terrorist attacks of 2001 increased the chance of dying in an air crash from a probability of 0.00000128 to a probability of 0.0000024. Since the 1960s, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism is about the same as the number killed by lightning or by accidents caused by deer. If an attack of the magnitude of September 11 occurred every three months for the next five years--an unlikely event, to say the least--the probability of being killed in such an attack would remain tiny: 0.02 percent, to be precise.

If people expressed the same level of concern about a similarly small risk in the environmental domain, it would be natural to wonder whether we were witnessing a grotesque overreaction. John Mueller believes that we are, and that the "terrorism industry" is responsible. In his view, that industry, which includes the American government, has essentially been doing the terrorists' business, because it has taken steps to scare people beyond all reason. In 2004, Osama bin Laden proclaimed that it is "easy for us to provoke and bait…. All that we have to do is to send two mujahideen … to raise a piece of cloth on which is written Al Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses." Mueller thinks that the American overreaction to September 11 supports bin Laden's prediction. Terrorists seek to make people believe that they "cannot be safe," even if their capacity to inflict harm is sharply limited. Mueller believes that it is not terrorism, but the terrorism industry, that has made Americans so fearful, and so willing to believe that they are engaged in fighting not a form of international crime but a never-ending "war."

To support his claim, Mueller emphasizes the statistical realities, which seem wildly inconsistent with public perceptions. Amazingly, nearly half of all Americans remain "very worried or somewhat worried" that they or someone in their family will become a victim of terrorism, even though they are far more likely to die from small risks that occasion no concern at all. Of course Mueller knows that terrorists might be able to inflict much more damage than they have done to date, especially with weapons of mass destruction, but here, too, he believes that the threat is much smaller than most people think. True, nuclear weapons could inflict devastating harm, possibly killing tens of thousands of people or more. But it is "extraordinarily difficult" to make a nuclear bomb, and the dire predictions of the 1950s and 1960s notwithstanding, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been exceedingly slow, in large part because of the technical challenges. No terrorist organization "has shown anything resembling the technical expertise necessary to fabricate a bomb."

Chemical weapons are easier to get, but their capabilities are modest, and Mueller believes that they should not be counted as weapons of mass destruction at all. One ton of sarin nerve gas, delivered perfectly under ideal conditions against a heavily populated area of wholly unprotected people, would cause between three thousand and eight thousand deaths. If conditions were slightly less than ideal--owing, say, to a moderate wind--the number of deaths would be cut by 90 percent. Biological weapons have far greater destructive potential, but for terrorists who seek to use such weapons the record thus far is discouraging. To work well, such weapons must be dispersed in low-altitude aerosol clouds, and that process destroys 90 percent of the micro-organisms. The really destructive effects of biological weapons take days or even weeks to occur, and in that time medical and civil defense measures can be deployed.

All in all, Mueller maintains, any terrorist group is likely to face exceedingly serious difficulties "in obtaining, handling, growing, storing, processing, and dispersing lethal pathogens effectively." Radiological weapons, or "dirty bombs," are easier to obtain and to use, but they cannot inflict a great deal of immediate damage. And if significant terrorist attacks do occur, the resulting damage, even if it includes hundreds or thousands of deaths, "can be readily absorbed"--so long as we do not overreact. (Recall that forty thousand people die in automobile accidents every year.) In Mueller's view, moreover, terrorists may "scarcely exist in the United States."

In these circumstances, Mueller contends that the massive attention given to the risk of terrorism is fueled not by reality but by the terrorism industry, which greatly benefits from that very attention. Politicians play a key role here, of course. Mueller does not question the sincerity of President Bush's concern about terrorism, but he does note that for many years the "war" against terrorism greatly boosted Bush's popularity. Bureaucrats play a crucial part as well. Consider the first page of the defining manifesto of the Department of Homeland Security, which Mueller finds absurd: "Today's terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon." Mueller emphasizes that for bureaucrats, political incentives encourage the exaggeration of threats, so as to ensure that officials can "protect themselves from criticism should another attack take place." Of course the media plays its own part, offering "endless yammering" about terrorism, and failing to try to put the relevant risks in perspective. The media seeks to attract viewers and readers, and it is a simple fact that terrorism sells. With evident exasperation, Mueller notes that media outlets fail even to mention that for each of us, the underlying risk is very low.

Mueller also thinks that we can learn a great deal from past overreactions, and he gives a lot of attention to what he considers to be illuminating historical comparisons. In 1957, Americans responded hysterically to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, with an influential report warning that "the United States was falling behind in the arms race and in a few years would be much inferior to the Soviet Union in intercontinental missiles." For a long period, Americans were excessively fearful of the risk of internal subversion; McCarthyism stoked those fears, which persisted for decades after McCarthy's own demise. In 1954, about 42 percent of Americans believed that American communism posed a great or very great danger; ten years later, the level had barely declined, continuing at 38 percent; even in the mid-1970s, when the question was last asked, about 30 percent of Americans said that American communism was a great or very great danger to the nation. Mueller's lesson is that "there is a great deal in dramatic first impressions: once a perceived threat is thoroughly implanted in the public consciousness, it can become internalized and accepted as a fact of life."

Mueller points to many more examples of excessive fear. In the late 1980s, for example, Americans were greatly alarmed about the economic growth of Japan, wrongly seeing it as a genuine danger to America's national security. Americans have also focused on a long series of "devils du jour" supposed to threaten our interests, including Nasser of Egypt, Qaddafi of Libya, and Sukarno of Indonesia. In these and other cases, Mueller believes that fears greatly outran reality and sometimes produced expensive and unnecessary precautions. He thinks that the "war" on terror should be seen as an extreme example of the same political dynamics.

Mueller does endorse many of the steps that followed the September 11 attacks, above all the massive increase in international policing. But with respect to terrorism, he wants government to reduce fears, not to heighten them. To this end, he argues that public officials should "inform the public reasonably and realistically about the terrorist context instead of playing into the hands of terrorists by effectively seeking to terrify the public." Above all, he thinks that government should put the risk of terrorism in context, so that people can make sensible comparisons. Mueller's model here is John McCain, who has written, "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." But Mueller does not think that his prescriptions will be followed. Elected officials will play to public fears, simply because they have such strong incentives to do so. The same is true of bureaucrats and the media.

Robert E. Goodin, a distinguished political philosopher, agrees with Mueller's assessment of the facts. As part of an extended discussion, he points to a report by the Office of Technology Assessment, which concluded that the likelihood of a serious terrorist attack (killing at least ten thousand people) is at worst "very low." He also accepts some of Mueller's prescriptions; he wants to domesticate the problem of terrorism, assimilating it to a range of low-probability hazards that people face. Indeed, Goodin thinks that "fearlessness" might well be a good response to terrorism, precisely because it prevents what terrorists most want. As a promising model, he points to London's relatively low-key response to the transport bombings of July 2005.

But Goodin's more fundamental arguments are conceptual rather than empirical, and for this reason his focus is radically different from Mueller's. Goodin wants to identify the distinctive features of terrorism--to see what makes it different from mere violence or war. His central conclusion is that terrorists "act with the intention of frightening people for their own political purposes," in a way that intentionally undermines "people's capacity for democratic self-government, by evoking visceral responses rather than reasoned reflections." For this reason, Goodin contends that terrorism is not properly defined as a form of unjust war in which innocent civilians are killed. Unjust wars need not involve terrorism at all, and terrorism may exist even if the victims are military personnel rather than civilians. Goodin contends that once we properly understand the basic category, we will be able to see that an entire nation, and not merely a private group, can qualify as terroristic. If a nation kidnaps people for political purposes, or assassinates the leaders of foreign countries in order to frighten their citizens into making political concessions, it is, to that extent, a terrorist. The distinctive wrong of terrorism, Goodin says, is that it "undermines rational discourse" in a way that "deprives us collectively of the capacity to be genuinely self-governing, reasoning together."

Goodin enlists these arguments on behalf of a highly provocative conclusion. In his view, public officials can fall within the definition of "terrorist" too, at least if they are attempting to frighten people for their own political purposes. Goodin does not claim any informed view about the intentions of particular people, and so he does not say that specific leaders, such as President Bush and Vice President Cheney, should be counted as terrorists. But he does contend that so long as the requisite intention (to maintain or to obtain political power) is present, a form of terrorism is genuinely involved, even if the warnings are offered with the belief that the underlying risk is real. He insists that if officials in the United States and the United Kingdom have issued such warnings in order to serve their personal political ends, they are themselves "committing terrorist offenses against the polity, every bit as much as the bombers themselves."

At first glance, this argument seems preposterous, a form of name-calling. But Goodin promises to offer "an exercise in political philosophy, in the hard-nosed analytic mode," and he delivers on the promise. Much of his argument comes in the form of a long series of hypothetical problems, designed to ask whether certain people, engaged in certain actions, count as terrorists. We can agree that if Jones, a member of some "liberation front," plants a bomb, and tells public authorities that the bomb will be detonated unless his group's demands are met, then Jones is a terrorist. We should also be able to agree that if Smith does not plant the bomb, but is a member of the same organization as Jones and tells the authorities the same thing, then Smith too is a terrorist. But Goodin asks: what about Williams, who does not work with Smith and Jones, but who supports their cause, receives a report of a hidden bomb, and goes to the authorities in the hope that they will accede to the terrorists' requests? On the basis of examples of this sort, Goodin argues that "whether or not the issuing of the warning itself constitutes an act of terrorism should turn on the intentions of the person issuing the warning." It follows that public officials, frightening people for their own ends, are to that extent terrorists, even if the underlying threat is real, and even if they are not responsible for creating that threat in the first instance.

Of course Goodin is careful to acknowledge that western political leaders who merely warn of terrorist attacks for partisan purposes are not nearly as bad as Osama bin Laden. It is much worse to plant a bomb or to use violence than to offer a warning that other people are planting bombs or using violence. But such warnings, if issued for political purposes, nonetheless represent "a capital crime against democratic politics." Goodin concludes that certain political campaigns and speeches, pointing to the risk of violence, might well turn out to commit the distinctive wrong of terrorism.

Mueller and Goodin raise a host of important questions, and their answers deserve to be seriously confronted. Five years after September 11, many people are starting to express skepticism about the magnitude of the threat of terrorism, and Mueller has offered the most sustained account of why that skepticism might be warranted. Many people think that Republican candidates and officials have been frightening people for their own political ends, in a way that badly disserves the democratic process. Goodin elaborates this claim and makes a much stronger one, which is that such conduct does not merely amplify the effects of terrorism but also counts as a form of it.

The first question is whether Mueller and Goodin are right to suggest that people have a wildly exaggerated sense of the risk of terrorism. It is true that this suggestion is fully consistent with current theories about risk perception. In evaluating dangers, people are influenced by the "availability heuristic," which means that they tend to assess probabilities by asking whether relevant events are cognitively available or easily brought to mind. In the aftermath of a rare and terrible event, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, people typically overestimate the risk of a re-occurrence. Since the attacks of September 11 have been so visible and salient, an inflated sense of the risk would not be at all surprising.

It is also well known that if people's attention is focused on emotionally gripping outcomes, they tend to neglect the question of probability altogether. When a bad outcome triggers strong emotions, people think about the worst that might happen, without asking about its likelihood. Defending the Iraq war, Bush showed an intuitive understanding of this point, trying to direct the nation's attention to a worst-case scenario: "Imagine those nineteen hijackers with other weapons and plans, this time armed by Saddam Hussein. It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known." Terrorists sometimes succeed in promoting worst-case thinking by making people fear that they cannot be safe anywhere. And in fact, people often do ask the unhelpful question of whether they are "safe" or instead "unsafe," when the only real question is the probability of harm.

Standing by itself, however, an understanding of how people perceive risks does not demonstrate that Americans have overreacted at all. After some salient events, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, threats are more accurately understood, and not necessarily inflated. A highly publicized catastrophe can give people a clear signal of reality, leading them to see that they had been wrong to ignore a risk or to see it as trivial. The least convincing part of Mueller's analysis consists of his long elaboration of past cases in which people believed, wrongly, that some person or practice created a threat to national security. Hindsight is infamously 20-20, and it would not be difficult to catalogue cases in which nations neglected clear warning signs. Consider the relatively late attention given to the significant dangers associated with cigarette smoking, air pollution, and climate change (not to mention Nazi Germany). With respect to terrorism itself, the United States was doing far too little on September 10, 2001. Everything depends, then, on whether Mueller is right to think that the likelihood of a highly successful attack is small, and that if it occurs, the relevant damage can be readily "absorbed."

For two reasons, he might be wrong. The first is that the very social dynamics that Mueller deplores might actually argue in favor of the current level of concern. Psychologists and economists have long been studying the "social amplification of risk"--the mechanisms by which certain events ultimately impose burdens and costs far beyond those produced by the events themselves. The attacks of September 11 are an obvious example. As Mueller knows, many people decided to drive rather than to fly in the year after the attacks. Since driving is more dangerous than flying, about fifteen hundred people lost their lives--more than half as many as died in the attacks themselves. Those deaths are simply a small fraction of the extraordinary losses that followed the 2001 attacks, which include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, large economic costs to taxpayers and private business alike, and countless increases in domestic security.

In this light, it is an understatement to say that an additional terrorist attack would result in massive burdens on citizens of the United States--burdens that would go far beyond the number of deaths that might occur on that day. Even if the likelihood of a successful large-scale attack is very low, and even if the relevant deaths could in some sense be "absorbed," it is worthwhile to do a great deal to prevent an event for which the effects would extend so far beyond the day itself. A loss of three thousand people is a tragedy, whatever produces that loss; but a loss of three thousand people from a terrorist attack is a crisis as well as a tragedy.

The second problem is that Mueller may have underestimated the danger of a successful attack, because this is a domain in which we cannot easily assign probabilities to future events, and because any probabilities that we do assign will not be trivial over the long run. What was the probability that a small band of terrorists, armed with box cutters, would bring down the World Trade Center? True, it is most unlikely that in any given year terrorists will be able to use nuclear or biological weapons against the United States. Any figure will be arbitrary, but let us simply suppose that the likelihood is merely 1 in 100,000. Even if so, the risk of such an attack is 1 in 10,000 in the next ten years, and 1 in 5,000 in the next twenty years--not the most comforting odds. To come to terms with them, it is important to distinguish between two questions. The first is whether any particular American should feel personally vulnerable to a terrorist attack. The second is whether the United States government should be undertaking burdensome and costly steps to reduce the risk of terrorism. It is possible to answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second.

To be sure, neither Mueller nor Goodin is attempting to specify the proper set of policies in response to terrorism. Neither of them means to mount an attack on general increases in surveillance and security. Their concern is public fear, not public policy. But even if ordinary people have been far more frightened than reality warrants, an elaborate set of precautionary steps remains worthwhile. And in fact, excessive fear may even be desirable, if it ensures that the public will support desirable policies that it would otherwise resist. Of course everything depends on how much those policies help and how much they hurt.

Goodin believes that public warnings about terrorism might themselves be terroristic. Let us begin with a quibble. In his view, terrorism amounts to an intentional effort to undermine people's capacity for self-government. Does he therefore mean to make the implausible claim that, as a matter of definition, terrorism cannot be committed against an undemocratic regime? Suppose that Al Qaeda commits violent acts against Saudi Arabia, with the goal of influencing the government, but without trying to undermine the people's capacity for anything. Or suppose that pro-democracy revolutionaries commit violent acts in and against Cuba with the specific goal of promoting the public's capacities for self-government. It would be odd to exclude such acts from the domain of terrorism. Goodin's best response, which keeps his principal claims intact, is to concede that any use of violence to promote political change may count as terrorism, even if the victim is an authoritarian nation and even if the terrorists' goal is democratic.

But the more fundamental problem with Goodin's argument lies elsewhere. If Bush could be counted as a "terrorist" on the prevailing understanding of that term, then we had better rethink that understanding of the term, and start making some distinctions. Of course we should count as terrorists those who help to plant bombs with the goal of producing political change. Perhaps we can agree that those who approve of the goals of terrorists, and offer warnings in order to achieve those very goals, are in a sense terrorists too. But words have purposes, and for any reasonable purpose it is important to distinguish between terrorists and public officials who warn or scare people in part to achieve their own political goals. Lyndon Johnson did not engage in terrorism when he ran his famous advertisement warning of the risks of nuclear war if Barry Goldwater were to be elected president. Nor should we accuse Democratic candidates of being terrorists when they attempt to gain political advantage by frightening people into thinking that if Republicans get their way, the Iraq war will be prolonged indefinitely or they will lose Social Security or health care benefits (and maybe die prematurely). Unfortunately, there is no precise English word for candidates and officials who inculcate fear for their own ends, but "fearmongers" comes pretty close. We produce confusion, not understanding, when we subsume both members of Al Qaeda and fearmongers under the general rubric of "terrorists."

I do not mean to suggest that Goodin has no point. He is right to insist that a serious wrong is committed by those who deliberately scare people in order to obtain political advantage. He is right to object, on democratic grounds, to efforts to "play the terrorism card" in the aftermath of September 11. He is right to say that a good response to terrorism is to refuse to capitulate to mindless fear. Whatever our government ought to be doing in terms of security, individual Americans continue to feel far more vulnerable to terrorists than the statistical realities warrant. Our state of mind, and our behavior, will be better if we are able to appreciate that fact.

Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor.