Terrorism Anxiety: Evaluating the Risk of Terrorism

In June 2007, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded sharply to Republican criticism that his administration was being too passive on terrorism prevention, asserting on public television, “You have a much greater danger of being hit by lightning than being struck by a terrorist.” With the recent events in Boston fresh in our minds, now is a good time to re-examine the threat that we actually face from terrorism.

In a 2012 paper, “The Terrorism Delusion: America’s Overwrought Response to September 11,” researchers John Mueller and Mark G. Stewart concur with Mayor Bloomberg that the threat of terrorism has been inflated in the United States. The authors contend, “The official and popular reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has been substantially deludedmassively disproportionate to the threats that al-Qaida has ever actually presented either as an international menace or as an inspiration or model to homegrown amateurs.”

The authors empirically illustrate the gap between the perceived threat and actual risk of terrorism. For example, while a Gallup poll conducted in 2012 reveals that 35 to 40 percent of Americans worry that they or their family members might become victims of terrorism, research by Mueller and Stewart suggest that the chances of an American perishing at the hands of a terrorist are miniscule, estimated to be “one in 3.4 million per year.” To further illustrate this point, the authors suggest that the number of deaths related to extremist Islamic terrorism in the United States every year is comparable to the number of deaths related to bathtub drowning.

The authors contend that US government institutions have magnified the threat and contributed to, what they call, “terrorism anxiety.” Mueller and Stewart note that government officials inflate the danger of terrorist threats by emphasizing what terrorist plotters hoped to do, rather than what they might have been able to do or what they did. For example, when evaluating the potential impact of a failed suicide attempt on a New York subway in 2009, experts did not guide their assessment by looking at the impact of analogous incidents, such as the London terrorist incident in July 2005 that killed 52 peopleInstead, authorities speculated numbers based on what the terrorists hoped to do, and “opined that the attack, if successful, might have killed between 200 and 500 people.”

One of the most revealing aspects of the paper is a cost-benefit analysis of terrorism prevention efforts. Considering the annual costs of security and the probability of a successful attack, the authors find that the amount of money spent on preventing terrorism is disproportionate to the actual threat that terrorism poses. They calculate, “For enhanced US domestic expenditures on homeland security to be deemed cost effective…they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 333 very large attacks that would otherwise have been successful every year.”

Mueller and Stewart conclude that “Anxieties about terrorism persist despite exceedingly limited evidence that much fear is justified” and the costs of such “delusion” are very high. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg told critics, “There are lots of threats to you in the world. There’s the threat of a heart attack for genetic reasons. You can’t sit there and worry about everything. Get a life.” This paper echoes such a statement, and opens more room for debate.

Feature Photo: cc/vgm8383

Jonathan Grabinsky
Jonathan Grabinsky is a staff writer for The Review and is an MPP student at the Harris School of Public Policy. He is interested in social policy, international affairs, and urban affairs.

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