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The (ir)rational fear of terror

The fact that the odds are against being a victim of terrorism does little to beef up anyone's sense of security

A major part of Trump’s campaign for presidency was based on national security and specifically the threat of terror. Immediately after his election, Trump took extreme steps that seem disproportionate to the small number of US terror victims. While many condemned him for it, many also supported him. In post 9/11 period on average only six Americans per year were killed in terror acts. So why are people so worried about a cause of death that kills less people than lightning? Are they irrational?

After the travel ban executive order, death cause statistics suddenly appeared everywhere. Probabilities of an American to be killed by lightning, car accident or violent squirrels were compared to terror attacks in social media feeds and media stories. These comparisons are meant to position fear from terror as disproportionate and irrational. However, a simple and yet basic assumption underlines these comparisons, and it is that all death causes are equal which allows one to measure their severity in terms of probability. But are they really equal? Do families of lightning strikes and murder victims feel the same about the death of their loved one? How about terror and car accidents? Clearly, death causes are treated differently. While people are more likely to be killed in traffic accidents than be murdered, we still tend to look at crime rates when shopping for a house, but not at local traffic accident rate.

Terror is deliberate man-made violence against a community’s way of life in order to strike fear and disrupt its ability to function. It is to traffic accidents what anthrax is to flu virus. Combining this with the pyrotechnics, graphic sights and extensive media coverage that often accompany terror attacks –terror is devastating to people’s sense of security and is legitimately frightening.

Not only that these death probabilities are irrelevant they’re also counterproductive. A person’s overall sense of security is largely made up of physical, economic and health aspects. Consider the sense of security of Trump’s core voting demographic. The rural-suburban non-college graduates working class people who in recent decades saw the economic value of their skills decrease, their healthcare costs increase and thus their overall sense of security drop. This is a group that worries about its sense of security and feels terror is a real threat. Random statistics that don’t connect to how terror actually makes people feel can easily be taken as arrogant, distant and elitist. In other words, comparing death probabilities of furniture crashes and terror is like saying, “It’s ignorant of you to be scared of terror — look at these numbers.” Ever got a person with fear of flight to overcome it by telling him it’s statistically safer than driving a car?

A wise woman once told me that I can’t argue with how something makes her feel. She is right. I doubt anyone ever convinced others by claiming their fears or feelings are stupid. All it does is generate antagonism.

By the way, that woman is my wife, with whom I have yet to win an argument using statistics.

About the Author
Eitan Gor is a business professional with an addiction to politics to which writing serves as an effective outlet. Eitan is an MBA graduate from MIT Sloan where he served as a co-president of the Sloan Jewish Students Organization.
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