Overreacting to fears of terrorism

2010-01-27

in Bombs and rockets, Politics, Rants, Security

Writing for Salon.com, pilot Patrick Smith makes some excellent points about the breathless paranoia we now display about terrorism:

What has become of us? Are we really in such a confused and panicked state that a person haplessly walking through the wrong door can disrupt air travel nationwide, resulting in mass evacuations and long delays? “The terrorists have won” is one of those waggish catch-alls that normally annoy me, but all too often it seems that way. Our reactionary, self-defeating behavior has put much at stake — our time, our tax dollars and our liberties.

In fact, over the five-year span between 1985 and 1989 we can count at least six high-profile terrorist attacks against commercial planes or airports. In addition to those above were the horrific bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772, the bombing of an Air India 747 over the North Atlantic that killed 329 people, and the saga of TWA Flight 847.

Here in this proclaimed new “age of terrorism,” we act as if the clock began ticking on Sept. 11, 2001. In truth we’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades. Not only in the 1980s, but throughout the ’60s and ’70s as well. Acts of piracy and sabotage are far fewer today.

Imagine the Karachi attack happening tomorrow. Imagine TWA 847 happening tomorrow. Imagine six successful terror attacks against commercial aviation in a five-year span. The airline industry would be paralyzed, the populace frozen in abject fear. It would be a catastrophe of epic proportion — of wall-to-wall coverage and, dare I suggest, the summary surrender of important civil liberties.

What is it about us, as a nation, that has made us so unable to remember, and unable to cope?

The message is similar to that of the excellent essay “Milksop Nation,” which won an Economist essay contest in 2002. Namely, that we do a poor job individually of assessing risks. We obsess over rare risks in which malicious actors want to do us harm, and we downplay common risks that are enormously more likely to injure or kill us. Worse, our political systems amplify our fears to the point of absurdity.

One thing we certainly need are people with the clear-sightedness and bravery to point out that we are fearful about the wrong things, and that we have real, pressing problems that we ought to be concentrating on instead.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

. January 27, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Pie attack on fisheries minister an act of terror: Liberal MP

Canwest News Service Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010

OTTAWA — An incident in which the federal fisheries minister was hit with a pie by a seal hunt protester should be seen as a terrorist act, says a Liberal MP.

Gerry Byrne made the comment to Newfoundland radio station VOCM after Gail Shea was hit in the face Monday by an American animal-rights activist, unhappy with Canada’s seal hunt.

New York City resident Emily McCoy, 37, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is charged with assault.

Mr. Byrne told VOCM the government should investigate the incident based on the definition of a terrorist act under the law in Canada.

Gail January 27, 2010 at 8:01 pm

Here is a perfect example of misplaced risk assessment:

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127095932.htm

People would rather fetishize remote dangers than recognize and combat those that are real and close to home and demand change or sacrifice.

The more that the evidence piles up, in scientific research and in Joe Plumber’s and Sarah Palin’s backyards, that climate change is a real threat, the more frantically they deny.

alena January 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm

What about H1N1 virus? Did we not over-react just a little bit? Our media is certainly culpable in setting fear in our minds and exploiting this frailty to make money.

Milan January 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm

That was discussed here previously. I am personally of two minds about it. Initially, the H1N1 flu seemed to have quite a high mortality rate. While the initial fears may not have been justified, the aggressive action taken to develop and promote the vaccine may have been justified by the danger as it was perceived at the time.

oleh January 31, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Good comment from this pilot.

“We have nothing to fear, but fear itself” FDR

And the media seems destined to propogate it.

I lament the prevailing practice of driving children to school to prevent their abduction. The consequence is that we deny the child the confidence to take those steps, meet those friends and yes occasionally cope with a situation that may require some good judgement.

We should also excercise a prudent response, and not a panicked response, to such events as a terrorist (or attempted terrorist) attack.

A starting point may be for the media to look at matters with a wider as opposed to a narrow sensationalist lens.

. February 4, 2010 at 10:54 am

Terrorism Derangement Syndrome
The GOP’s scare tactics work so well because the public is terrified already.
By Dahlia Lithwick
Posted Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010, at 6:41 PM ET

America has slid back again into its own special brand of terrorism-derangement syndrome. Each time this condition recurs, it presents with more acute and puzzling symptoms. It’s almost impossible to identify the cause, and it’s doubtful there’s a cure. The entire forensic team from House would need a full season to unravel the mystery of what it is about the American brain that renders us more terrified of terrorists today than we were five years ago and less trusting of government policies to protect us.

The real problem is that too many people tend to follow GOP cues about how hopelessly unsafe America is, and they’ve yet again convinced themselves that we are mere seconds away from an attack. Moreover, each time Republicans go to their terrorism crazy-place, they go just a little bit farther than they did the last time, so that things that made us feel safe last year make us feel vulnerable today.

Policies and practices that were perfectly acceptable just after 9/11, or when deployed by the Bush administration, are now decried as dangerous and reckless. The same prominent Republicans who once celebrated open civilian trials for Zacarias Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the so-called “shoe bomber,” now claim that open civilian trials endanger Americans (some Republicans have now even gone so far as to try to defund such trials). Republicans who once supported closing Guantanamo are now fighting to keep it open. And one GOP senator, who like all members of Congress must take an oath to uphold the Constitution, has voiced his concern that the Christmas bomber really needed to be “properly interrogated” instead of being allowed to ask for a lawyer.

. February 4, 2010 at 10:56 am

“This week Glenn Greenwald summarized how far the goal posts of normal have moved when he pointed out that “merely advocating what Ronald Reagan explicitly adopted as his policy—’to use democracy’s most potent tool, the rule of law against’ terrorists—is now the exclusive province of civil liberties extremists.” Upon being elected to the U. S. Senate last month, Scott Brown declared: “Our Constitution and laws exist to protect this nation—they do not grant rights and privileges to enemies in wartime. In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them.” As Adam Serwer observed, “This is the new normal for Republicans: You can be denied rights not through due process of law but merely based on the nature of the crime you are suspected of committing. Brown’s rhetorical framing, that jettisoning the legal system we’ve had for 200-plus years represents ‘tradition’ while granting suspected criminals the right to legal counsel represents liberalism gone mad.””

Gail February 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

I got the following email yesterday and it’s been cracking me up ever since. It’s not just terrorists that Americans fetishize. It’s a lot of other ridiculous safety issues involving germs and bicycle helmets and child molesters. Maybe I should send out my own chain email warning like this one only have a picture of an automobile spewing exhaust instead of a socket burnt from an air freshener! Here’s the message (cue ominous music from Hitchcock score…)

Please pass this one along to your family and friends..

This photo was taken at the scene of a house fire that occurred recently. I’ve never heard this info before…

House fires – please read !!!!!

Received from a friend who is in the insurance property business. It is well worth reading.

This is one of those e-mails that if you don’t send it, rest assured someone on your list will suffer for not reading it. The original message was written by a lady whose brother and wife learned a hard lesson recently.

Their house burnt down.. nothing left but ashes. They have good insurance so the house will be replaced and most of the contents. That is the good news.

However, they were sick when they found out the cause of the fire. The insurance investigator sifted through the ashes for several hours. He had the cause of the fire traced to the master bathroom. He asked her sister-in-law what she had plugged in the bathroom. She listed the normal things…curling iron, blow dryer.
He kept saying to her, ‘No, this would be something that would disintegrate at high temperatures’. Then her sister-in-law remembered she had a Glade Plug-In, in the bathroom.

The investigator had one of those ‘Aha’ moments. He said that was the cause of the fire. He said he has seen more house fires started with the plug-in type room fresheners than anything else. He said the plastic they are made from is THIN. He also said that in every case there was nothing left to prove that it even existed. When the investigator looked in the wall plug, the two prongs left from the plug-in were still in there.

Her sister-in-law had one of the plug-ins that had a small night light built in it. She said she had noticed that the light would dim and then finally go out. She would walk in to the bathroom a few hours later, and the light would be back on again. The investigator said that the unit was getting too hot, and would dim and go out rather than just blow the light bulb. Once it cooled down it would come back on….. That is a warning sign

The investigator said he personally wouldn’t have any type of plug in fragrance device anywhere in his house. He has seen too many places that have been burned down due to them.

PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO ALL THE PEOPLE IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK.

NOT ONLY COULD IT SAVE SOMEONE’S HOUSE, BUT IT COULD SAVE SOMEONE’S LIFE

. February 8, 2010 at 8:19 am

Obama Challenges Terrorism Critics

By PETER BAKER
Published: February 7, 2010

WASHINGTON — The White House pushed back Sunday against Republican criticism of its approach to terrorism, calling it “not anchored in reality” as a national security debate that was largely muted in recent years roared back to center stage with an angry intensity.

After a week of sustained attacks led by former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and a host of Congressional Republicans, President Obama and his aides argued that they were handling terror suspects much as the previous administration did, dismissing Republican complaints as politically motivated.

“The most important thing for the public to understand is we’re not handling any of these cases any different than the Bush administration handled them all through 9/11,” Mr. Obama told CBS News on Sunday. “They prosecuted 190 folks in these Article Three courts,” he added, referring to civilian courts. “Got convictions. And those folks are in maximum security prisons right now. And there have been no escapes.”

. April 13, 2010 at 12:03 pm

“There is a general agreement about risk, then, in the established regulatory practices of several developed countries: risks are deemed unacceptable if the annual fatality risk is higher than 1 in 10,000 or perhaps higher than 1 in 100,000 and acceptable if the figure is lower than 1 in 1 million or 1 in 2 million. Between these two ranges is an area in which risk might be considered “tolerable.”

These established considerations are designed to provide a viable, if somewhat rough, guideline for public policy. In all cases, measures and regulations intended to reduce risk must satisfy essential cost-benefit considerations. Clearly, hazards that fall in the unacceptable range should command the most attention and resources. Those in the tolerable range may also warrant consideration — but since they are less urgent, they should be combated with relatively inexpensive measures. Those hazards in the acceptable range are of little, or even negligible, concern, so precautions to reduce their risks even further would scarcely be worth pursuing unless they are remarkably inexpensive.

[…]

As can be seen, annual terrorism fatality risks, particularly for areas outside of war zones, are less than one in one million and therefore generally lie within the range regulators deem safe or acceptable, requiring no further regulations, particularly those likely to be expensive. They are similar to the risks of using home appliances (200 deaths per year in the United States) or of commercial aviation (103 deaths per year). Compared with dying at the hands of a terrorist, Americans are twice as likely to perish in a natural disaster and nearly a thousand times more likely to be killed in some type of accident. The same general conclusion holds when the full damage inflicted by terrorists — not only the loss of life but direct and indirect economic costs — is aggregated. As a hazard, terrorism, at least outside of war zones, does not inflict enough damage to justify substantially increasing expenditures to deal with it.”

. September 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm

What America Has Lost
It’s clear we overreacted to 9/11.

by Fareed Zakaria
September 04, 2010

Nine years after 9/11, can anyone doubt that Al Qaeda is simply not that deadly a threat? Since that gruesome day in 2001, once governments everywhere began serious countermeasures, Osama bin Laden’s terror network has been unable to launch a single major attack on high-value targets in the United States and Europe. While it has inspired a few much smaller attacks by local jihadis, it has been unable to execute a single one itself. Today, Al Qaeda’s best hope is to find a troubled young man who has been radicalized over the Internet, and teach him to stuff his underwear with explosives.

I do not minimize Al Qaeda’s intentions, which are barbaric. I question its capabilities. In every recent conflict, the United States has been right about the evil intentions of its adversaries but massively exaggerated their strength. In the 1980s, we thought the Soviet Union was expanding its power and influence when it was on the verge of economic and political bankruptcy. In the 1990s, we were certain that Saddam Hussein had a nuclear arsenal. In fact, his factories could barely make soap.

The error this time is more damaging. September 11 was a shock to the American psyche and the American system. As a result, we overreacted. In a crucially important Washington Post reporting project, “Top Secret America,” Dana Priest and William Arkin spent two years gathering information on how 9/11 has really changed America.

Here are some of the highlights. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

This new system produces 50,000 reports a year—136 a day!—which of course means few ever get read. Those senior officials who have read them describe most as banal; one tells me, “Many could be produced in an hour using Google.” Fifty-one separate bureaucracies operating in 15 states track the flow of money to and from terrorist organizations, with little information-sharing.

oleh September 6, 2010 at 1:07 pm

The article you just posted identifies the infra-structure that has been created to deal with the terrorist threat. In Canada, our expenditure of some $930 million on security for the G-8 and G-20 summits seem another example of over -reaction and over-expenditure.

After World War II, the governments who had sent their armies to fight in World War II directed its resources into fighting the Cold War. This seemed like an overreaction. Those monies were not spent on more socially useful purposes. Now it seems those funds are directed to fighting terrorism – also an overreaction.

Something I think about when waiting in 30 minute lineups in airport security making sure I do not have liquid in amounts in excess of 100 ml.

Milan September 12, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Part of the trouble is the incentive each official faces to protect themselves. If they loosen security or accept a certain level of risk in exchange for some benefit, they could be end up looking awful if there is an attack. By contrast, they are unlikely to be punished for wasteful or oppressive vigilance.

Tristan September 12, 2010 at 10:46 pm

“Something I think about when waiting in 30 minute lineups in airport security making sure I do not have liquid in amounts in excess of 100 ml.”

Does anyone believe that the purpose of these inconveniences is security? Milan is close – but I think the real goal is the appearance of the attempt. Our security measures are symbolic – they serve to make (the less security conscious) people feel much safer. Actually – that’s not exactly true, they make us feel less safe, because we assume the threat which motivates these measures must be very significant. And I think that is the point, the feeling of fear, and the conservative political implications that fear manifests.

I don’t think the false enemy of “the terrorists” is importantly different from “the communists”. In the end, these performances allow a certain group who find themselves in power, to remain unquestioned in their positions of power.

Systems/institutions which are engineered to repeat and protect themselves, do exactly that.

. October 5, 2010 at 3:22 pm

“A majority of Canadians – 58 per cent – told pollsters at the time Ms. McLellan’s legislation was introduced that terrorism threats outweigh the protection of their individual rights and freedoms and the due process of law. Sixty per cent said they would give police the power to randomly stop and search either themselves or their vehicle. A small majority (53 per cent) even said that law-enforcement officials should be given the power to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely without specific charges.

Where does this thinking come from – if Canadians rate the Charter near the top of the list of things that symbolize their national identity, right up there with the majesty of the land and hockey?

Bruce Ryder, a constitutional legal scholar at Toronto’s York University, looks for an answer in an older cultural theory of Canada. He sees in Canada’s Tory traditions – brought north across the border by Loyalists after the American Revolutionary War – more concern for the well-being of society than for individual freedoms.

“There’s arguably distinct features of Canadian culture that aren’t particularly friendly to civil liberties by dissenting individuals or groups,” he says. “That’s probably stronger than the individual liberties in American traditions.””

. October 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm

To be sure, some terrorists are steely and skilled—people like Mohamed Atta, the careful and well-trained head of the 9/11 hijackers. Their leaders and recruiters can be lethally subtle and manipulative, but the quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable. Acknowledging this fact could help us tailor our counterterrorism priorities—and publicizing it could help us erode the powerful images of strength and piety that terrorists rely on for recruiting and funding.

. November 2, 2010 at 12:18 pm

If the best al-Qaida’s remaining cells can do is hide PETN, a 19th-century explosive, inside a printer cartridge, then perhaps we have already succeeded—far more than we usually realize—in destabilizing at least this particular terrorist threat. We should continue to support the security services and counterterrorism experts who prevented this tragedy and will prevent others. But we shouldn’t let al-Qaida take too much public attention, diplomatic energy, and government funding away from the more complicated, and more dangerous, challenges of the future.

. December 19, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of things innocent people have suffered in order to prevent terrorist attacks on America:

* Monitored them on closed circuit television.
* Asked them to present photo ID at the airport.
* Required them to walk through a metal detector in order to go to the gate.
* Required them to empty their pockets.
* Required them to take their laptop out of its bag.
* Required them to remove their shoes to go through security.
* Prevented them from carrying more than a small amount of liquids past security.
* Required them to put all containers containing liquids in a clear plastic bag.
* Required them to have their carry on luggage hand-inspected by security.
* Required them to put their checked luggage through an explosives detector.
* Monitored their phone calls.
* Monitored their Internet activity.
* Subjected them to minimally invasive patdowns at security.
* Forced them to walk through a backscatter X-ray scanner that shows their naughty bits to someone in another room.
* Subjected them to invasive and humiliating patdowns.
* Placed them on a no fly list for unknown reasons.
* Kicked them off an airplane for looking suspicious.
* Prevented them from flying because of their religion or ethnicity.
* Roped them into terrorist plots using paid informants and then arrested them for being terrorists.
* Tortured them using sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation, and extreme temperatures.
* Subjected them to waterboarding.
* Turned them over to governments of countries like Egypt and Syria in order to be tortured.
* Beaten them to death.
* Shot them.
* Shot and killed them.
* Blew them up using laser-guided bombs.
* Killed them in Predator drone strikes.

. January 18, 2011 at 10:51 pm

HISTORIANS may well wonder one day at the fuss America’s rulers made over a few thousand Islamist fanatics. They will certainly look unkindly on some of the steps taken against them.

America has not suffered a major terrorist incident within its borders since the September 11th attacks almost a decade ago. But it has spent over a trillion dollars on two inglorious wars, in which thousands have perished. It has insulted some of its oldest allies, tortured its enemies and helped inspire a surge in Islamist militancy in many countries. America’s armed forces, though still supreme, are weary and in need of reinvestment. Osama bin Laden is still at large and his former hosts, the Taliban, are running riot. The war on terror, as it was wrongly called, has been damaging to America and the world.

To read “The Longest War” by Peter Bergen, an American journalist and al-Qaeda watcher, is to be amazed afresh at how badly America has handled the affair. Largely ignorant of al-Qaeda, Islam and weak states, the Bush administration’s response to September 11th was, he argues, conditioned more by its existing prejudices and strategic impulses than by any proper assessment of the terrorist threat. The invasion of Iraq, based on false intelligence and mendacious claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, was the most obvious example of this. The administration’s enthusiasm for such interrogation techniques as simulated drowning, which yielded little or no crucial new intelligence, according to Mr Bergen, was another. So, too, was the bungling of the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2002 America had 8,000 troops there and an aversion to nation-building; now it has 100,000 and faces the possibility of defeat.

. September 7, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Given the credible estimate that we’ve spent $1 trillion on anti-terrorism security (this does not include our many foreign wars), that’s $62.5 billion per life [EDITED: lost]. Is there any other risk that we are even remotely as crazy about?

Note that everyone who died was shot with a gun. No Islamic extremist has been able to successfully detonate a bomb in the U.S. in the past ten years, not even a Molotov cocktail. (In the U.K. there has only been one successful terrorist bombing in the last ten years; the 2005 London Underground attacks.) And almost all of the 33 incidents (34 if you add LAX) have been lone actors, with no ties to al Qaeda.

And I think arguments like “the government has secretly stopped lots of plots” don’t hold any water. Just look at the list, and remember how the Bush administration would hype even the most tenuous terrorist incident. Stoking fear was the policy. If the government stopped any other plots, they would have made as much of a big deal of them as they did of these 33 incidents.

oleh September 8, 2011 at 2:19 am

The cost of money and time in the anti-terrorism measures is unbelievable. Al Quaeda succeeded not only on Sept 11, but in creating such a sense of fear for ten years later.

. September 8, 2011 at 9:09 pm
. September 21, 2011 at 7:53 pm
. July 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Such dread was a large part of the post-9/11 decade. A culture of fear had created a culture of spending to control it, which, in turn, had led to a belief that the government had to be able to stop every single plot before it took place, regardless of whether it involved one network of twenty terrorists or one single deranged person. This expectation propelled more spending and even more zero-defect expectations. There were tens of thousands of unsolved murders in the United States by 2010, but few newspapers ever blared this across their front pages or even tried to investigate how their police departments had to failed to solve them all over the years. But when it came to terrorism, newspaper and other media outlets amplified each mistake, which amplified the threat, which amplified the fear, which prompted more spending, and on and on and on.

. July 10, 2012 at 9:59 pm
. November 12, 2012 at 4:48 pm

How do terrorist groups end? The evidence since 1968 indicates that terrorist groups rarely cease to exist as a result of winning or losing a military campaign. Rather, most groups end because of operations carried out by local police or intelligence agencies or because they join the political process. This suggests that the United States should pursue a counterterrorism strategy against al Qa’ida that emphasizes policing and intelligence gathering rather than a “war on terrorism” approach that relies heavily on military force.

. January 3, 2013 at 5:48 pm

TEN years of legal duelling, and pictures of Abu Qatada being ferried from a high-security prison to the bosom of his family are still screaming across Britain’s front pages. The government is desperate to deport the Muslim cleric—once described as Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe—to his native Jordan, where he has been convicted in absentia of terrorist charges. The two have tussled right up to Britain’s Supreme Court and through the European Court of Human Rights. When the latter denied an appeal by Abu Qatada in May, Theresa May, the home secretary, assumed the man was as good as gone. But a last appeal to Britain’s Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) produced a surprise on November 12th.

The hearing over which Mr Justice Mitting presided was a Closed Material Procedure (CMP), in which evidence deemed threatening to national security was not revealed to the appellant or his lawyers—in other words, a secret trial. Although it is unlikely that this material was central to the outcome of the case, the public will never know, and neither will Abu Qatada. The judge produced two judgments: an open one for all to see and a closed one.

anon June 15, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Mr Yglesias and Mr Walt are right: conventional terrorism poses no major threat to America or to its citizens. But that’s not really what it aims to do. Terrorism is basically a political communications strategy. The chief threat it poses is not to the lives of American citizens but to the direction of American policy and the electoral prospects of American politicians. A major strike in America by a jihadist terrorist group in 2012 would have done little damage to America, but it could have posed a serious problem for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. For the president the war on terror is what the Vietnam War was to Lyndon Johnson: a vast, tragic distraction in which he must be seen to be winning, lest the domestic agenda he really cares about (health-care, financial reform, climate-change mitigation, immigration reform, gun control, inequality) be derailed. It’s no surprise that he has given the surveillance state whatever it says it needs to prevent a major terrorist attack.

. October 5, 2013 at 7:55 pm

The Terrorism Act 2000 was aimed at Irish republican terrorism. One section gives police exceptional powers to question travellers at British borders for up to nine hours—without suspicion and without a lawyer. Refusal to answer is itself a crime. (Mr Miranda was forced to divulge encryption passwords.) Police may seize property, though it must be returned. The only constraint is that the purpose should be to ascertain if the person “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.

. October 13, 2016 at 12:35 am

Barack Obama was correct when he said earlier this year that the danger of drowning in a bathtub is greater than that of being killed by terrorists. Baths are a one-in-a-million risk. Even if the terrorism deaths in San Bernardino and Orlando were doubled to give an annual death toll, the risk would still be about one in 2.5m. Yet the president was lambasted for his otherworldly complacency.

. April 24, 2017 at 11:08 pm

At that moment, science tells us, Trump will have a powerful ally — our own brains. Thanks to millions of years of human evolution, when confronted with a threat, we’re hard-wired to react first and think later. Fear is “very easy to trigger and hard to turn off,” explains Joseph LeDoux, professor of neuroscience at New York University, “in order to think logically and make decision based on facts, we have to get past our non-thinking brain.”

But how? “Awareness of being in this physical state,” says LeDoux, “can serve as a cue to engage in a cognitive state.” In other words, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Knowing in advance how Trump will try to manipulate our emotions after another attack better equips us to resist his attempts to exploit our fears.

And when he does, it will be essential to remember basic facts. Since the 9/11 attacks, 95 people have been killed in the United States in terrorist attacks committed by about a dozen individuals apparently inspired in part by al-Qaeda or ISIS, according to the New America Foundation. Every single one of those 95 deaths is a tragedy. At the same time, every attacker responsible for those 95 domestic deaths was an American citizen or a lawful resident. And not a single American has been killed in a terrorist attack inside the United States by an individual from the Muslim countries included in his travel ban.

. June 18, 2017 at 7:09 pm

The Manchester bombing
Don’t give the jihadists what they want

Britain should ignore siren calls to lock up and tag people it suspects of becoming radicals

. September 6, 2017 at 6:46 pm

What makes the “terrorist threat” look big in the West is the natural human tendency to be fascinated by violence. The mass media know their audience, and they cannot resist catering to this appetite: that’s why thousands of fictional characters die violently on television and in movies every week.

Violence in real life is even more interesting – especially if there is some possibility, however remote, that it might affect the viewer. So the media reflexively, instinctively inflate the threat, and to people who don’t understand statistics (i.e. almost everybody), terrorism starts to look like a very big deal.

There is no way to avoid this without imposing official controls on media coverage, and it’s not worth paying that price, so we’ll just have to live with the media’s hype. We will also have to live with the terrorism itself, even though it’s generally considered to be political suicide to say this in public.

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