According to a recent news report, “You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist.”¹
This argument is compelling. We don’t worry about dying in a car crash, despite the relatively high odds that we will: one out of 113. Then why should we worry about dying in a terrorist attack, which carries an infinitesimally small risk?
This thinking is dangerous and misleading.
Terrorism Poses Special Risks
Terrorist attacks are not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively, different from day-to-day risks. Terrorism carries with it a wide range of societal effects.
Unlike falls and vehicle accidents, successful terrorist attacks reduce everyone’s quality of life. They demoralize the population. They restrict normal activities, such as going to the mall, catching a film at the movie theater, riding the bus, and interacting with neighbors. Ultimately, they change the way we live. Just ask the Israelis, who, in times of intense terror activity, drastically reduced their routine activities.
On an emotional level, it is more difficult to recover from a deliberate criminal act (which is avoidable), than from an unavoidable and routine life risk, such as death from an illness. If the criminal act is carried out by a sinister group that bears us ill-will, and if it is celebrated by large groups of people, victim recovery becomes yet more difficult. Victims are left with a feeling of injustice, an imbalance that cries out for correction. But how to level the imbalance?: More violence? Resignation?
Terrorism necessitates increased security. To date, we have spent trillions of dollars on foreign interventions to rout the terrorists. On the home front, there is the extra expense of airport security checks, increased police patrols, and the like. Every dollar spent on security is a dollar we could have spent to increase our quality of life, our health, education and welfare.
Terrorist attacks, especially dramatic attacks, with large numbers of casualties, also degrade the economy. After the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. for example, air travel was interrupted for several days, disrupting the economy. Consumer spending dropped precipitously and GDP went down. It took a long time for the economy to recover from these effects.²
An often overlooked effect of terrorism is that successful attacks empower our terrorist enemies. This is especially true when there are large numbers of casualties. Successful attacks, apart from encouraging the perpetrators to do more harm, bring prestige to the terrorist group. This, in turn, attracts both money and followers to the group. In the end, unless we fight back, we become less secure.
Most terrorist attacks are carried out by individuals and groups motivated by radical Islamic ideas. As we experience more attacks, relationships between ethnic groups become tense and frayed. Racism rears its ugly head, as do hate crimes. Groups not involved in terrorism (think moderate Muslims and undocumented persons) become scapegoats and attract public outrage and even physical attacks. Scapegoated groups often respond by becoming more alienated from society. They sometimes turn to violence.
In a terrorist climate, government becomes more intrusive (for example, by monitoring phone calls and internet communication) and restrictive of civil liberties (for example, by additional security screening and undercover infiltration of religious or political opposition groups).
The Future May Not Be Like the Past
Experts believe that terrorism is not “an existential threat” to our country. So far, it has not been.
But this view assumes that the future will be like the past. In the past, the most powerful weapon used by terrorists has been a hijacked airliner. As we saw on 9/11, that is bad enough. But if, as many experts believe is likely, terrorists get their hands on Weapons of Mass Destruction, the devastation in lost lives and property will be far greater. We can’t afford to be lulled into complacency by yesterday’s statistics.
We shouldn’t sap our energies with worry about terrorist attacks. But neither should we underestimate their profound and sustained effects on our lives.
- Shaver, A., “You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist.” Washington Post, November 23, 2015.
- Rose, A.Z., & Blomberg, S.B. (2010). Economic consequences of terrorist attacks: Insights from 9/11. Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, Volume 16, Issue 1, Article 2.