Are We Finally Thinking Sensibly About Terrorism?

This article wonders if we are:

Yet for pretty much the first time there has been a considerable amount of media commentary seeking to put terrorism in context -- commentary that concludes, as a Doyle McManus article in the Los Angeles Times put it a day after the attack, "We’re safer than we think."

Similar tunes were sung by Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, David Rothkopf writing for CNN.com, Josh Barro at Bloomberg, John Cassidy at the New Yorker, and Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, even as the Washington Post told us “why terrorism is not scary” and published statistics on its rarity. Bruce Schneier, who has been making these arguments for over a decade, got 360,000 hits doing so for The Atlantic. Even neoconservative Max Boot, a strong advocate of the war in Iraq as a response to 9/11, argues in the Wall Street Journal, "we must do our best to make sure that the terrorists don't achieve their objective­ -- to terrorize us."

James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation noted in a radio interview that "the odds of you being killed by a terrorist are less than you being hit by a meteorite." Carafano’s odds may be a bit off, but his basic point isn’t. At present rates, an American’s chance of being killed by a terrorist is about one in 3.5 million per year­ -- compared, for example, to a yearly chance of dying in an automobile crash of one in 8,200. That could change, of course, if terrorists suddenly become vastly more capable of inflicting damage­ -- as much commentary on terrorism has predicted over the past decade. But we’re not hearing much of that anymore.

In a 60 Minutes interview a decade ago filmmaker Michael Moore noted, "The chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small." Bob Simon, his interlocutor, responded, "No one sees the world like that."

Both statements were pretty much true then. However, the unprecedented set of articles projecting a more restrained, and broader, perspective suggests that Simon’s wisdom may need some updating, and that Moore is beginning to have some company.

There's also this; and this, by Andrew Sullivan; and this, by John Cole. And these two polls.

And, of course, President Obama himself declared that "Americans refuse to be terrorized."

Posted on May 29, 2013 at 11:22 AM • 28 Comments

Comments

NobodySpecialMay 29, 2013 11:53 AM

To be fair "we" have always thought sensibly about terrorism.

Whether "we" are a home office minister wishing to bury bad news, a president hoping for the patriotic vote on the back of a successful war, a police chief looking for more budget/powers or newspaper wanting sales.

Matthias UrlichsMay 29, 2013 12:47 PM

Sure he refuses to be terrorized. So where's the sensible TSA no-fly policy, and why do we still throw away perfectly drinkable fluids? Rhetorics is cheap and Obama's good at it.

He also makes damn sure that there will be more terrorists in the future. Drones, Guantanamo … the list goes on.

SimonMay 29, 2013 12:59 PM

The ugly truth may well be that we can simply no longer afford it. Everything else is posturing.

Matthias UrlichsMay 29, 2013 3:07 PM

To be fair: as bad as Obama's track record WRT terrorism is (anybody remember that stupid Nobel prize?), IMHO we can be fairly sure that any Republican president would be a lot worse.

Clive RobinsonMay 29, 2013 3:43 PM

@ Matthias Ulrichs,

    IMHO we can be fairly sure that any Republican president would be a lot worse

      As an outsider looking into US politics I can assure you that many people in the same position as myself think both US political parties are "far right" in comparison to our respective native right wing political parties. More importantly quite a few assume that both US parties have been bought and paid for by rabid right wingers such as the Koch family and their ilk.

      Thus we kind of assume that what we see in practice with regards the US war on terror is what those who hold the purse strings want, not what the individual politicians their parties or voters want, as they like the President are mearly front men /glove puppets for those with the money.

      So on that reasoning I would say that the next US President will be worse than the current President irespective of the party. And the only thing the political affiliation will effect is the rhetoric, spin and hype.

Clive RobinsonMay 29, 2013 4:12 PM

Hmm,

    James Carafano... noted... that "the odds of you being killed by a terrorist are less than you being hit by a meteorite." Carafano’s odds may be a bit off, but his basic point isn’t.

Actually his odds might be well off depending on what you mean by a meteorite.

A large number of meteoroids enter the earths atmosphear each year and a very very small fraction of them make it to the surface in lumps large enough to hurt you. But even though we use expressions like "burn up" the reality is much of the estimated 40,000tonnes annualy of meteoroids is considerably heavier than air even when burnt up into rust and dust, so it still comes down and some of it does hit people even though they might not notice.

John HardinMay 29, 2013 4:57 PM

@clive:

quite a few assume that both US parties have been bought and paid for by rabid right wingers such as the Koch family and their ilk.

{belly laugh}

I think George Soros might disagree with you on that.

... the only thing the political affiliation will effect is the rhetoric, spin and hype.

Agreed. Both of our major parties want to tell us how to live, at an increasing level of detail; they just differ in how they think that should be. One way it has been put is roughly: "Right wing? Left wing? They're just two wings of the same buzzard picking at our liberty."

As long as there is political power to be gathered by overreacting to terrorism, the government will overreact to terrorism.

Jenny JunoMay 29, 2013 6:28 PM

@NobodySpecial
> To be fair "we" have always thought sensibly about terrorism.

I disagree. It is easy to wax cynic about politicians, but having recently seen the documentary "The World According to Dick Cheney" - I feel pretty confident in saying that Cheney really does believe in all that rhetoric about terrorism being an existential threat. The documentary made it clear that he was so convinced of the threat that he was willing to sacrifice nearly anything - including the integrity of his office - to combat it.

jimMay 29, 2013 6:55 PM

Terrorism is not treated in the same manner as automobile deaths for the same reason that serial killers are not treated in the same manner as automobile deaths. Committing an act of terror, murdering a mass amount of people is not routine. An explosion that destroys a building and kills 100 people on the streets of the New York is not equivalent to the same in Nigeria. Similarly, a destructive tornado ripping through the streets of Kabul killing 50 people would cause quite a stir. Cultural/geographic norms and common sense should never be left out of analysis.,

ModeratorMay 29, 2013 10:08 PM

Okay, Bruce says that semifinalists in the movie-plot threat contest will be announced when the *next* Crypto-Gram newsletter comes out, on June 15. I'll update the original post for others wondering what happened.

BerndMay 30, 2013 5:19 AM

Ok, can we then have the Patriot Act repealed, the TSA dismantled, FISA courts being closed, and the NSA stopped snooping on everyone, please?

JayMay 30, 2013 10:41 AM

Another article today along these lines with this stand out comment: "The result is a peculiarity of the post-9/11 age: Statistically, Americans are more likely to be hurt from chemical or industrial accidents like the one in Texas than from terrorist attacks like the one in Boston. Yet information intended to keep people safe is concealed in the name of keeping people safe."

http://www.cnbc.com/id/100776265

ScaredMay 30, 2013 12:11 PM

@Matthias Urlichs
"Sure he refuses to be terrorized. So where's the sensible TSA no-fly policy, and why do we still throw away perfectly drinkable fluids? Rhetorics is cheap and Obama's good at it."

I flew to NY a couple of weeks ago. Halfway there the plane got put on a holding pattern "because there was a VIP flight in the airspace ahead". The captain said this usually meant Airforce 1. So the Prez is not refusing to be terrified by a commercial plane....

WTF???May 30, 2013 2:54 PM

@jim - "Cultural/geographic norms and common sense should never be left out of analysis."

With comments like that, I am perplexed as to how anyone in a third world country would ever see first world countries as eveil and uincaring...

You do realize the irony of your comment given the inclusion ofthe refernece to "common sense"? Remeber that whene you regard the iother guy as being from a different culture that also means in his eyes YOU too are from a different culture.

Dirk PraetMay 30, 2013 5:37 PM

A tribute to the great Hans Christian Andersen:

"A vain Emperor who cares for nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession." (Source: Wikipedia)

Sometimes a lie becomes so persistent and so deeply rooted that it takes on a life of its own and becomes virtually impossible to reverse.

qkaMay 30, 2013 11:38 PM

Why do we need terrorists to terrorize us - we have our own government that does it better.

Matthias UrlichsMay 31, 2013 12:12 AM

Getting a hold because of Air Force One is … boring, actually..
When Obama was in Germany, we had a multi-hour highway closure (in Dresden) because his helicopter was supposed to fly across it. WTF?

carpeMay 31, 2013 2:47 PM

Nope. A few articles here and there have very little impact on the actual way in which operations or public/private discourse play out. A system has been established that will take more than a handful of non-establishment actors, no matter how important or revered, to shift. To labor under any other precept is to toil in a falsehood.

HowardMay 31, 2013 3:28 PM

The collective consciousness hasn't improved; the writers mentioned simply have a desire to downplay bad news give who's in office. If Romney were elected, the exact same writers would be howling at him for not doing preventing an attack which maimed 100's. Especially given the fact that the Russians warned us repeatedly (conveniently ignoring the fact that such warnings preceded him).

To take a page from their own book (published a decade ago), "What did Romney know, and when did he know it?" would be the question of the day. After all history may not repeat, but it sure does rhyme.

Wesley ParishJune 1, 2013 2:16 AM

Reading this article, I am irresistibly reminded of The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the exposee of the threat posed by tomatoes with malign intent upon the safety and security of Joe Citizen. Perhaps it's also worth mentioning a few years ago MacMillan's site tor.com ran an article asking why Zombies were so popular of late.

I think zombies are as popular as they are because people resent being treated as mushrooms. A brain-eating zombie is a more active self-image than a shit-eating mushroom.

People have just got sick of being taken for granted. It's the same feeling that led to the Occupy movement.

officerXJune 4, 2013 6:00 AM

Fear is a social challenge and cannot be expressed as a mathematical probability.

The fact that you are less likely to experience an attack than a car accident is meaningless in the context of managing risk on a social and political level.

PeteJune 7, 2013 11:07 AM

In the UK, on average, 3x more people die in police custody (approx, 30 pa) than at the hands of a terrorist (approx, 10 pa).

Phil in NHJune 20, 2013 11:59 AM

And, of course, President Obama himself declared that "Americans refuse to be terrorized."

Coming from the President, that's high comedy.

Matthias UrlichsJune 21, 2013 8:55 AM

Obama certainly "refuses to be terrorized".

The US government simply chooses to terrorize back.

Matthias UrlichsJune 21, 2013 8:56 AM

… edit: for some random value of "back", of course. The US government's overall hit/miss ratio is pretty bad, all things considered.

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