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.