Policy proportionality


in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Security

Amnesty International display at Blackwell's

I know it’s a theme I have raised many times, but it remains puzzling to me: why are democratic societies so uniquely incapable of accepting the costs associated with terrorism? If you try to circumscribe any kind of dangerous activity, from smoking to extreme sports, you will find plenty of people ready to wave the banner of liberty and claim that the deaths and injuries are worth the costs of the freedom.

If you add up the casualties of all the terrorist attacks worldwide since the end of the Cold War, you arrive at a number that is a small fraction of the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning, from AIDS, from obesity related illness, or from automobile accidents. Heart disease killed 696,947 Americans in 2002, while cancer killed 557,271. About 400,000 died from tobacco usage, while alcohol killed 100,000. And yet there is no call to reorganize society to deal with these horrific threats. We make that choice not because societal re-organization could not eliminate these problems, but because the costs of doing so (or trying to do so) exceed those we are collectively willing to bear to achieve these ends.

In response to a failed two-man terrorist plot in Germany, The Economist claimed that Germany is “immune no more” and that terrorism is sure to “leap up the list” of people’s concerns. Even if the attack had succeeded, it would still be only a blip in the passing into and out of life of the mass of people who we describe as Germany. The same is true of every terrorist plot in history. Yet they have, by contrast, generated shifts in law and power out of all proportion to their lethality or the amount of harm they cause.

Just as terrorists are adept at exploiting the physical infrastructure of modernity to generate and amplify their attacks – coordinating attacks on aircraft over the internet – they exploit the psychology of modernity to generate an emotional impact out of all proportion to the harm caused. The sane response, it seems, is to accept the hundreds or thousands of deaths as a cost we may have to pay in order to continue to live in a free society – just as we accept the deaths from automobile accidents or fatty foods. The point isn’t that we cannot or shouldn’t take precautions (whether we are discussing terrorism or car crashes), but that we should consider them sensibly and in keeping with the actual seriousness and scope of both the threats that exist, and the entities that we may choose to create or empower to deal with them.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

B August 27, 2006 at 7:21 pm

A bigger point is being missed – more than 30000 Iraqi civilians have already died in a war that was made possible by 9-11. If it hadn’t been for all the fear generated in those attacks, the new presidential respect power and trust, and concern about (non-existent) links between Saddam and al Qaeda, it seems unlikely that it would have ever happened.

Talk about a grim tribute to your dead… and that’s not even considering Afghanistan, or the fallout from supporting dictators helpful in the War on Terror

-as for why people get so concerned about it, it’s because they see it as being in a different category of risk – the sort that you don’t bring upon yourself. Drink yourself stupid, and you can’t curse someone else for destroying your liver (though people who sue McDonalds and big tobacco might disagree). Get run down by accident by a drunk driver and you feel more hard done by. Get run down on purpose by someone from another place with a strange religion and culture? Heads are going to roll.

Rob August 27, 2006 at 8:34 pm

It remains slightly puzzling to me why people go on talking about costs and benefits like our moral universe’s description is exhausted by a particularly crude version of the felific calculus acted on by homo economicus, but hey, people are weird. Sorry, that’s harsh, but really: you seem to be confusing two things here. One is people’s willingness to accept that human lives involve some quasi-natural risks – disease, old age and so on – and the other is getting terrified by what are admittedly typically marginal threats by other people to maim and kill them. Why should the response to one be the same as the response to the other? They’re manifestly not the same.

Milan August 27, 2006 at 9:25 pm


I fail to see what makes them sharply distinguised. Each involves making choices that involve some risks (living in cities, flying in planes, eating certain kinds of food, smoking). Each is, to some extent, the subject of governmental attention and legislation. Each also involves decisions being made by individuals both in terms of their own choices, and the kind of governmental responses they favour.

I posit that while people make fairly poor choices on matters like diet, they tend to make truly terrible choices in the face of terrorism. Why is being terrified by certain risks of death that are less likelt than others a comprehensible situation?

Mark August 28, 2006 at 12:43 am

I have been having this discussion a lot recently. What amazes me most is that so many people disagree with Milan’s point of view. To me it seems self-evident.
Yet many intelligent people of my acquaintance argue forcefully for the rationality of spending large sums of money on airport security, while acknowledging that the same sum spent on say, road safety, might save many times more lives.

People seem to think that malice makes a difference. But to me, a mother with a dead son is a mother with a dead son, no mater how he died.

Every designed thing you use embodies a choice an engineer made about an acceptable level of expected fatalities. Why does this analysis fail for the special case of airplanes?

R.K. August 27, 2006 at 9:52 pm

These posts would be more interesting if they were original, but you’re just beating Bruce Schneier’s drum:

It’s time we calm down and fight terror with antiterror. This does not mean that we simply roll over and accept terrorism. There are things our government can and should do to fight terrorism, most of them involving intelligence and investigation — and not focusing on specific plots.

But our job is to remain steadfast in the face of terror, to refuse to be terrorized. Our job is to not panic every time two Muslims stand together checking their watches.

Similar, n’est pas?

Rob August 28, 2006 at 11:20 am

“Why is being terrified by certain risks of death that are less likelt than others a comprehensible situation?”

Because one’s the risk of heart disease and the other’s the risk of being blown up, and heart disease and terrorism aren’t the same. Notice this isn’t to say that public reactions have been reasonable, merely that they don’t have to resemble your hyper-rational moral universe in which dying in your bed is the same as being murdered.

Milan August 28, 2006 at 12:53 pm


I am not saying that they are the same, but rather that they are fundamentally comparable. I can spend money on a fancy digital camera or on a plane ticket to Vancouver. The two options are not ‘the same’ in most regards. They are the same insofar as a choice must be made that compares the two. The basis according to which the choice is made is only ever partially rational (since it isn’t rational or irrational to prefer one over the other; it is just a preference), but it always involves comparison according to some set of criteria.

In another analogy, dying in a plane crash isn’t the same as dying in a car wreck. All the same, it makes sense to think about the relative chances of each, per kilometre, before I decide how to make a journey.

Anon June 7, 2007 at 11:09 am

We will never be able to prevent a small group of misfits from planning some terrible act of terror. No matter how far-seeing and competent our intelligence and law-enforcement officials, people will always be able to slip through the cracks in a large, open and diverse country. The real test of American leadership is not whether we can make 100 percent sure we prevent the attack, but rather how we respond to it. Stephen Flynn, a homeland-security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that our goal should be resilience—how quickly can we bounce back from a disruption? In the materials sciences, he points out, resilience is the ability of a material to recover its original shape after a deformation. If one day bombs do go off, we must ensure that they cause as little disruption—economic, social, political—as possible. This would deprive the terrorist of his main objective. If we are not terrorized, then in a crucial sense we have defeated terrorism.

Fareed Zakaria


. July 22, 2009 at 4:41 pm

In fighting terrorism, looking for a “solution” is the wrong test. The utility of counterterrorism isn’t decided on the basis of what it solves or fails to solve. The police, the courts, and the jails are no “solution” to crime; schools, libraries, and universities are no “solution” to ignorance; yet no one concludes that the justice system or the education system has no utility. Shooting Osama bin Laden probably wouldn’t eliminate terrorism, but it would eliminate Osama bin Laden. Certain battles need to be fought every day, not necessarily to make the world a better place, but to prevent it from becoming worse.

Fighting terrorism takes many forms, including economic sanctions (or aid) and state-to-state military action. Counterterrorist measures are neither the only nor the most important ones. But confusing cops with robbers because they both carry guns is sophomoric. Crashing planeloads of civilians into an office building is wrong in a way shooting known terrorists isn’t. Ultimately, both the morality and usefulness of resisting evil are contained in the uselessness and immorality of not resisting it.

. October 13, 2009 at 11:48 am

“For the United States, 9/11 changed all that. The Europeans had deep sympathy for the United States post-Sept. 11, sympathy that was on the whole genuine. But the Europeans also believed that former U.S. President George W. Bush had overreacted to the attacks, threatening to unleash a reign of terror on them, engaging in unnecessary wars and above all not consulting them. The last claim was not altogether true: Bush frequently consulted the Europeans, but they frequently said no to his administration’s requests. The Europeans were appalled that Bush continued his policies in spite of their objections; they felt they were being dragged back into a Cold War-type situation for trivial reasons.

The Cold War revolved around Soviet domination of Europe. In the end, whatever the risks, the Cold War was worth the risk and the pain of U.S. domination. But to Europeans, the jihadist threat simply didn’t require the effort the United States was prepared to put into it. The United States seemed unsophisticated and reckless, like cowboys.

The older European view of the United States re-emerged, as did the old fear. Throughout the Cold War, the European fear was that a U.S. miscalculation would drag the Europeans into another catastrophic war. Bush’s approach to the jihadist war terrified them and deepened their resentment. Their hard-earned prosperity was in jeopardy again because of the Americans, this time for what the Europeans saw as an insufficient reason. The Americans were once again seen as overreacting, Europe’s greatest Cold War-era dread.”

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