Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Fueling terrorism fears -- last refuge of scoundrels?

They used to say patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, but these days the appellation should probably go to the people who use all the means at their disposal to whip up fears of terrorism. Cory Doctorow comments on a recent study in BoingBoing.
From the number of fatalities produced by terrorism to the trends in terrorism death to the fact that almost no one has ever died from a military biological agent to the fact that poison gas and dirty bombs in the field do only minor damage -- this paper is the most reassuring and infuriating piece of analysis I've read since September 11th, 2001.

The bottom line is, terrorism doesn't kill many people. Even in Israel, you're four times more likely to die in a car wreck than as a result of a terrorist attack. In the USA, you need to be more worried about lightning strikes than terrorism. The point of terrorism is to create terror, and by cynically convincing us that our very countries are at risk from terrorism, our politicians have delivered utter victory to the terrorists: we are terrified.
The study was authored by Ohio State University's John Mueller and published by the Cato Institute (hey, they’re not wrong about everything -- and the study quotes Michael Moore favorably). From the paper, which is available here as a pdf file:
Filmmaker Michael Moore happened to note on CBS’ popular “60 Minutes” last year that “the chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” His interviewer, Bob Simon, promptly admonished, “But no one sees the world like that.” Both statements, remarkably, are true -- the first only a bit more than the second.

It would seem to be reasonable for someone in authority to try to rectify this absurdity. In Kunreuther’s words, “More attention needs to be devoted to giving people perspective on the remote likelihood of the terrible consequences they imagine.” That would seem to be at least as important as boosting the sale of duct tape, issuing repeated and costly color-coded alerts based on vague and unspecific intelligence, and warning people to beware of Greeks bearing almanacs.
Fortunately, whipping up hysteria only works so long, and then the public seems to tire of it. We seem to have reached that stage. Of course, that doesn’t mean the cycle can’t start all over again with a new terrorist incident here at home. Can you spell October Surprise?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Exactly the same logic used to do nothing about hurricane preparation until Katrina came along...