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A False Sense of Insecurity

This is [almost] the name of a short paper written some two years ago by John Mueller, who holds the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at the Mershon Center of Ohio State University. On Tuesday, it was noted on Dave Farber's IP list as a paper that Bruce Schneier had called "interesting" on Monday. I call it outstanding.

[T]here is a perspective on terrorism that has been very substantially ignored. It can be summarized, somewhat crudely, as follows:
• Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.
• The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions....

[T]he number of people worldwide who die as a result of international terrorism is generally only a few hundred a year, tiny compared to the numbers who die in most civil wars or from automobile accidents. In fact, in almost all years, the total number of people worldwide who die at the hands of international terrorists anywhere in the world is not much more than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States.

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts....

Frantz Fanon, the 20th century revolutionary, contended that "the aim of terrorism is to terrify." If that is so, terrorists can be defeated simply by not becoming terrified — that is, anything that enhances fear effectively gives in to them....

What is needed, as one statistician suggests, is some sort of convincing, coherent, informed, and nuanced answer to a central question: "How worried should I be?" Instead, the message the nation has received so far is, as a Homeland Security official put (or caricatured) it, "Be scared; be very, very scared — but go on with your lives." Such messages have led many people to develop what Leif Wenar of the University of Sheffield has aptly labeled "a false sense of insecurity."

I was horrified for days after September 11. I had some feelings of concern for the kind of world my grandson was born into on nine days later. But I very quickly came to the conclusion that the actual risks were low, that the costs that society was (and continues) paying are much too high and that most of our politicians are playing directly into the hands of terrorists. On September 11, 2002 I even announced to several members of my family and to some close friends that Al Qaeda couldn't be much of a threat since a whole year had gone by with no further acts of terror from them.

Yes, there have been horrific and deplorable acts of terrorism in the following four years. Just yesterday came the news of a foiled plot to simultaneously blow up 10 planes over the North Atlantic. Somehow I expect to learn in the weeks ahead though that the threat was not what it's been made out to be.

Regarding the plausibility of the North Atlantic airline plot, see this, this and this from Dave Farber's IP list.

And this article from the Washington Post. My expectations are being dashed.

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