The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose.’

Bruce Schneier is a security expert and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive." I spoke with him on Monday, just hours after the bombing in Boston. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Ezra Klein: What should people be thinking about in the aftermath of an attack like this?

Bruce Schneier: They should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism is a crime against the mind. What happened in Boston, horrific as it is, is theater to make you scared. That’s the point. The message of terrorist attacks is you’re not safe, and the government can’t protect you -- that the existing power structure can’t protect you.

I tell people if it’s in the news, don’t worry about it. By definition, news is something that almost never happens. The brain fools you into thinking the news is what’s important. Our brains overreact to this stuff. Terrorism just pegs the fear button.

EK: Why does it hit the fear button more effectively than other threats?

BS: Many reasons. It’s rare and spectacular. It’s random. It comes out of nowhere. It’s immediate. It’s graphic. Compare this to global warming, which is a gazillion times more dangerous. There’s no comparison. This terrifies you, the other is boring.

EK: What should policymakers do in the aftermath of this kind of event? 

BS: Nothing. This is a singular event, and not something that should drive policy. Unfortunately, you can’t prevent this sort of thing 100 percent. Luckily, terrorism is a lot harder than people think, and it happens rarely. The question people asked after 9/11 is what if we had three of these a year in the United States? Turns out there were none. People get their ideas on terrorism from movies and television.

EK: What makes terrorism so difficult? After 9/11, lots of people thought we’d see suicide bombers in malls across the country, or crude chemical weapons unleashed in subway systems. Why were they wrong?

BS: Because there are a lot of steps to pulling it off, and if you make mistakes in any of them, you go to jail. There’s not a lot of practicing you can do. The criminal mastermind is an invention of comic books; 9/11 just barely worked. They got unbelievably lucky; it was by no means inevitable.

EK: You seem skeptical of the ability of policy to keep us safe, but doesn’t the relative safety of the last few years suggest that our post-9/11 policies have actually worked?

BS: The problem with rare events is that you can’t make those sorts of assessments. I remember then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking two years after 9/11. He said that the lack of a repeat event was proof that his policies worked. But there were no terrorist attacks in the two years before 9/11, and he didn’t have any policies in place. What does that prove? It proves that terrorist attacks are rare.

Almost everything we have done post 9/11 is mere security theater. The stuff that did work was interdicting terrorist funding and rolling up terrorist networks. Unfortunately, the FBI relies so much on informants and moles that they essentially create terrorists out of disaffected youth -- and that’s not good. Some of what the FBI does is good, and some is not. But I wouldn’t say we’d all be dead if not for the FBI or the Patriot Act.

EK: So what should we be afraid of?

BS: Car crashes. Global warming. It feels insensitive to say it so close to the tragedy, but it’s true. What people should worry about are things so common that they’re no longer news. That’s what kills people. Terrorism is so rare, it’s hardly a risk worth spending a lot of time worrying about.

EK: This doesn’t sound insensitive to me. It sounds affirming. It sounds like you’re saying that we aren’t as vulnerable as these acts make us feel.

BS: The damage from terrorism is primarily emotional. To the extent this terrorist attack succeeds has very little do with the attack itself. It’s all about our reaction. We must refuse to be terrorized. Imagine if the bombs were found and moved at the last second, and no one died, but everyone was just as scared. The terrorists would have succeeded anyway. If you are scared, they win. If you refuse to be scared, they lose, no matter how much carnage they commit.