August 21, 2006
Reason magazine science correspondent and TCS Daily contributor Ron Bailey argues that our fear of terrorist attacks is irrational, because you’re more likely to die of a car accident, drowning, fire, or murder. He concludes that, “with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn’t matter — because it doesn’t really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.”
He’s right, of course. Then again, most of us already do that. Who among us isn’t living our lives more-or-less normally, scarcely giving the possibility of getting killed by terrorists a thought?
Indeed, the only time I can recall being personally worried about terrorism was during the reign of the DC snipers, who were randomly murdering people at gas pumps in the two surrounding counties where I was living at the time. Even then, I lived my life normally but was more wary than I normally would have been when purchasing gasoline. Of course, that was a specific, publicized, plausible threat in effect over a very short period of time. Were Malvo and Muhammad still on the loose, I suspect that fear would have simply faded into the background long ago.
I react to the fear of being murdered, mugged, falling, and so forth in the same way. That is, my radar goes up if I’m walking through a “bad neighborhood” at night or hiking on the edge of a cliff or otherwise in a specific danger situation. Presumably, most people do the same thing.
From a public policy standpoint, however, I’m not sure what to make of Bailey’s analysis. That the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are low does not mean that we should not try to prevent acts of terrorism, although it does suggest that we should allocate our resources rationally and limit the incursion into people’s personal freedom.
Unlike being struck by lightning or a meteor, terrorism and other murders are variable human actions, not random events. Taking reasonable proactive measures such as training and deploying police officers, locking one’s doors, and making prudent choices about the situations one places oneself in markedly lower the odds of bad things happening. Even though few planes are hijacked, it probably still makes sense to put secure doors on cockpits and ensure that passengers do not bring dynamite on board. Not only does doing these things make specific plane trips somewhat safer but doing so systematically makes hijacking less attractive as a terrorist endeavor.
At the same time, however, countermeasures can be excessive. Keeping passengers from taking nail clippers, toothpaste, and hair gel with them causes an inconvenience disproportionate to the infinitesimal gain in safety provided. Likewise, forcing people to arrive at the airport three hours early so they may stand in line to have their shoes checked for explosives is plainly silly.
It makes far more sense to harden targets and screen for likely terrorists than to treat all citizens as potential terrorists. It is conceivable, if not likely, that sophisticated terrorist groups like al Qaeda will adapt to this and ensure that operatives selected for such tasks look more like John Walker Lindh than Mohammad Atta. That means taking a scintilla more risk. The trade-off, though, would return a substantial measure of freedom to the traveling public and save billions in lost productivity. Further, we could reallocate the resources spent harassing little old ladies at the airport into intelligence efforts to catch actual terrorists.
That’s a trade-off I’ll gladly take.