The Dilemma of Counterterrorism Policy
Any institution delegated with the task of preventing terrorism has a dilemma: they can either do their best to prevent terrorism, or they can do their best to make sure they’re not blamed for any terrorist attacks. I’ve talked about this dilemma for a while now, and it’s nice to see some research results that demonstrate its effects.
A. Peter McGraw, Alexander Todorov, and Howard Kunreuther, “A Policy Maker’s Dilemma: Preventing Terrorism or Preventing Blame,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 115 (May 2011): 25-34.
Abstract: Although anti-terrorism policy should be based on a normative treatment of risk that incorporates likelihoods of attack, policy makers’ anti-terror decisions may be influenced by the blame they expect from failing to prevent attacks. We show that people’s anti-terror budget priorities before a perceived attack and blame judgments after a perceived attack are associated with the attack’s severity and how upsetting it is but largely independent of its likelihood. We also show that anti-terror budget priorities are influenced by directly highlighting the likelihood of the attack, but because of outcome biases, highlighting the attack’s prior likelihood has no influence on judgments of blame, severity, or emotion after an attack is perceived to have occurred. Thus, because of accountability effects, we propose policy makers face a dilemma: prevent terrorism using normative methods that incorporate the likelihood of attack or prevent blame by preventing terrorist attacks the public find most blameworthy.
Think about this with respect to the TSA. Are they doing their best to mitigate terrorism, or are they doing their best to ensure that if there’s a terrorist attack the public doesn’t blame the TSA for missing it?