Americans are clearly concerned about terrorism, but are they too concerned about it? Exit polls revealed that 18 percent of Americans who voted in the 2016 presidential election named terrorism “the most important U.S. issue,” a figure consistent with the findings of previous surveys. This has prompted criticism from skeptical intellectuals and commentators who argue that voters are overestimating the threat.
Philosophers Michael Huemer and Mylan Engel Jr. have given two of the most compelling arguments of this kind. Huemer observes in a TEDx talk that the number of people killed by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is about 3,000. That sounds like a lot, but the number looks unimpressive on a chart that registers all of the approximately 802,000 homicides that occurred in the U.S. between 1968 and 2009. In “9/11 and Starvation,” Engel poignantly observes that over 33,000 children are estimated to have died from extreme poverty on September 11, 2001, which was not an atypical day for such deaths. That figure, fortunately, has since fallen to around 20,000 per day, which is of course still appalling.
Such comparisons make fixation with terrorism seem difficult to justify. Engel is surely right when he notes that people tend to pay inordinate attention to spectacular events at the expense of those that unfold less dramatically in the background, even when the latter are responsible for more harm. Huemer has some legitimate criticisms of the American response to terrorism as well. What I resist is the further inference which Engel and Huemer seem to be inviting (and which others make explicitly): because terrorism casualty numbers are low, our fears of terrorism are irrational.
Fatality statistics, first of all, don’t account for the possibility of unprecedented terror events. We may yet witness attacks in which terrorists poison the water supply of a major city, detonate a nuclear bomb, or release a weaponized pathogen at an international airport. (If these scenarios seem far-fetched, then read this response to nuclear-terrorism skeptics.) A cyberattack on the electric grid could cause power outages that last for months and span several states. Affected areas would immediately be plunged into a total breakdown of civil order and could suffer from mass starvation within days. (In Lights Out, journalist Ted Koppel concludes not only that this scenario is alarmingly plausible, but also that no effective preventative measures, nor plan for dealing with the aftermath, are in place.)
These numbers also fail to reflect the broader costs of terrorism. According to figures provided by Tuskegee University, 4,745 lynchings occurred between 1882 and 1968 — roughly 55 per year. In 1920, the population of the United States was 106.5 million and 68 lynchings occurred. Given that the death rate at the time was 13.1 per 1,000, lynching deaths comprise .0048 percent of the nearly 1.4 million deaths that occurred in the U.S. that year (indeed, they constitute less than one percent of the 7,200 homicide deaths).
I hope that no one would conclude from this that lynching, a form of racial terrorism, was then only a minor problem.
Chess master Aron Nimzowitsch famously said, “The threat is stronger than the execution.” Terrorists use literal executions as a means to generate an atmosphere of perpetual threat. To change the metaphor jarringly from chess to nuclear war, the physical damage of a terrorist attack, like an atom bomb’s mushroom cloud, is its most immediate and obvious consequence. The shadow of fear, like radioactive fallout, lingers insidiously afterward.
In 2013, Islamists in Bangladesh circulated a “hit list” with the names of 84 people whom they found troublesome. As of this writing, nine of those people are dead, as are dozens of others, due to grisly terrorist attacks in which victims were often dispatched with machetes. Soon after the targeted killing commenced, Ananya Azad, a blogger on the list, quit his job as a columnist, stopped blogging, and now rarely goes outdoors. (His father, litterateur Humayun Azad, had been gravely wounded in a 2003 machete attack). Doubtless many others whose names we don’t know are being intimidated into silence.
Terrorism is a much bigger problem than a by-the-numbers analysis initially suggests.
Bangladesh is about 90 percent Muslim and has an officially secular government. If it is to remain that way contrary to the wishes of the Islamists, then there must be intelligent opposing voices. But those voices are being effectively silenced. Thus, a few dozen killings can significantly aid efforts to push the world’s ninth-most-populous country, with 160 million people, irretrievably into theocracy. Needless to say, the human cost would be much worse if jihadists ever seized control of the country’s government.
The shadow of fear extends into the Western world, too. Behold how our leaders reacted with panic in 2011, when Florida pastor Terry Jones proposed to burn a copy of the Quran. (He eventually did so, and violence predictably erupted.) Or the fact that cartoonist Molly Norris has been in hiding for five years, at the FBI’s recommendation, because she suggested that there be an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Or the fact that Yale University Press published a book about the 2006 Danish cartoons of Muhammad, which sparked international violence, but omitted from the book images of the cartoons themselves.
Episodes like these worryingly suggest that the sword (or, if you like, the machete) might after all be mightier than the pen, provided those wielding it are persistent enough.
And then there are the economic consequences of terrorism. The New York Times estimated that the total cost of the 9/11 attacks was $3.3 trillion. Spending over which we have control — spending on things such as war and homeland security — comprises 90 percent of that total, and its wisdom may be disputed. But that still leaves $55 billion worth of physical damage and an additional $123 billion in economic damage to various industries caused by 9/11.
In addition, the Times – extrapolating from a Rand Corporation study — figured that the extra waiting time for passengers at the airport cost about $100 billion over the next decade. In the aftermath of 9/11, many passengers chose to drive rather than travel by plane. According to a 2009 article published in Applied Economics, this led to as many as 2,300 car-crash fatalities that would not otherwise have occurred. A full reckoning must also count the psychological impact on millions of people, including children, of seeing people leap to their deaths on live TV, and the still-unfolding harm done to tens of thousands who were exposed to asbestos-laden smoke from the two towers and who are now at risk of mesothelioma.
Recent terrorist attacks have put cities as important as Boston, Brussels, and Paris on lockdown. This year, fears of terrorism following the attacks in Brussels, Nice, and Paris caused the annual open-air market in Lille, France — a tradition dating back to the 1300s — to be canceled for the first time since the Nazi occupation. Last year, that event attracted 2 million people and 10,000 vendors. Terrorism isn’t doing the extremely poor any favors, either. Boko Haram’s terrorist activities have led to the internal displacement of over 1 million people in Nigeria, and remain an impediment to development in many other African countries.
These considerations ought to put to rest the contention, promoted by a spate of memes and irresponsible pundits, that terrorism is no more a threat than death-by-unstable-furniture or other fantastically improbable modes of demise. They aren’t alone sufficient to vindicate the strong claim that terrorism is “the most important U.S. problem,” because the U.S. has many big problems. But they do prove that terrorism is a much bigger problem than a by-the-numbers analysis initially suggests.