You, your family members, your friends, and your community are all significantly more at risk from a host of threats that we usually ignore than from terrorism. For instance, while the Paris attacks left some 130 people dead, roughly three times that number of French citizens died on that same day from cancer.
In the United States, an individual’s likelihood of being hurt or killed by a terrorist (whether an Islamist radical or some other variety) is negligible.
Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.” Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University, has observed that “[e]ven in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never [comes] close to the number of traffic deaths.”
No one in the United States will die from ISIS’s —or anyone’s — terrorism today.
What accounts for the fear that terrorism inspires, considering that its actual risk in the United States and other Western countries is so low? The answer lies in basic human psychology. Scholars have repeatedly found that individuals have strong tendencies to miscalculate risk likelihood in predictable ways.
For instance, individuals’ sense of control directly influences their feeling about whether they are susceptible to a given risk. Thus, for instance, although driving is more likely to result in deadly accidents than flying, individuals tend to feel that the latter is riskier than the former. Flying involves giving up control to the pilot. The resulting sense of vulnerability increases the feeling of risk, inflating it far beyond the actual underlying risks.
When people dread a particular hazard, and when it can harm large numbers at once, it’s far more likely that someone will see it as riskier than it is–and riskier than more serious hazards without those characteristics. For instance, people have been found to estimate that the number killed each year by tornadoes and floods are about the same as those killed by asthma and diabetes. But the latter (diabetes, in particular) account for far more deaths each year than the former. In fact, in the year that study was conducted, actual annual diabetes deaths were estimated in the tens of thousands while fewer than 1,000 people died in tornadoes.
Islamist terrorism has all three of these characteristics, inspiring excessive fear — surely by design. For instance, the Paris attacks harmed large numbers; its victims could have done very little to escape it, since the timing and location of such attacks are unpredictable; and the idea of being shot or blown up by a mysterious set of masked extremists is incredibly dreadful.
When we miscalculate risks, we sometimes behave in ways that are riskier than those we are trying to avoid. For instance, in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, millions of Americans elected not to fly. A significant proportion decided to drive to their destinations instead. Driving is more dangerous than flying. And so one scholar of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, calculated that more people died from the resulting automobile accidents than the total number of individuals who were killed aboard the four hijacked planes Sept. 11.
Kahneman believes that the news media’s disproportionate focus on cases of Western terrorism reinforces such mistaken perceptions. As he explains in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “extremely vivid image[s] of death and damage” resulting from terrorist attacks are “reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation,” leaving us with highly accessible memories of such events. When people who have been exposed to such coverage later assess how likely more terrorism is, such events come readily to mind — and so they are likely to assign probabilities biased upward.
America’s panicked obsession with Islamist terrorism is understandable but may skew public policies in costly ways. In particular, a serious public policy problem emerges when unsubstantiated fear fuels excessive public spending. More than a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has committed trillions of dollars to fighting the war on terror. Certainly, some – perhaps even most – of this funding is warranted.
Consider, however, that federal spending on improving vehicular safety and research for Alzheimer’s and diabetes pales in comparison. Yet traffic deaths, Alzheimer’s and diabetes account for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in the United States.
Whether diverting counterterrorism funding to research in Alzheimer’s and diabetes research would save more American lives depends on the respective marginal benefits. But our government is unlikely to objectively evaluate its investments as long as most Americans have outsized fears of the threat of Islamist terrorist attacks.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the United States and other Western countries are facing no risk of more terror. Quite the contrary: We will almost certainly be attacked by terrorists again during the coming years and decades.
But people will also die from other unlikely events during this same period: a number of unlucky individuals will die after falling out of bed. Others will die of head injuries from coconuts falling from trees. The likelihood that you or those you love will be directly affected by any of this in your lifetime is exceedingly small.
And so perhaps the best way to counter terrorists is to do just as the French pianist who played “Imagine” in public outside the Bataclan did after the attack, or as did the widower whose wife died in the attack, and whose open letter to the terrorists included this: “I will insult you with my happiness.” We can refuse to give them the fear they so desperately want from us.
Andrew Shaver is a PhD candidate in public policy at Princeton University. He served previously as a Pentagon analyst and foreign affairs fellow with the U.S. Senate.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.