“Terrorism” and irrational fear

My position has generally been that it is reasonable for people to have some fear about “terrorism,” but many have a level of fear that is disproportionately (and damagingly) high.  Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, had an article appear in the Wall Street Journal that, in many ways, expresses this view. Briefly, as Campos says, life is full of risks, and of all the risks we confront each day (particularly living in America), terrorism is a very minor one. Such a position, of course, is not politically acceptable.

As Campos points out, about 6700 Americans die each day, 1900 of whom are less than 65 years of age. About 120 people die in auto accidents, 50 are murdered, and 85 commit suicide in this country each day. Yet while Americans are largely willing to submit to (if not demand) incredibly invasive (and generally ineffective; i. e., making people remain in their seats for an hour prior to landing) air travel security measures designed to make us “safe” from terrorism (Campos uses the term “security theater”), they are largely unwilling to accept such restrictive measures concerning gun ownership or driving — measures that would likely save many more lives than the air travel “security theater.” (Of course, such fear of “terrorism” is problematic not only because it leads many to accept restrictive security measures, but also because it justifies events such as our invasion of Iraq, countless civilian deaths in drone attacks, etc.)

While Campos’ article gives some interesting insight into the irrationality of fear of “terrorism,” it still leaves the question of why such a disproportionately high level of fear exists.  Is it because what we label “terrorism” is an example of “them” (non-Americans, non-Christians, people of color) doing something to kill “us” (white, Christian) Americans?  I don’t have a definitive answer to this question, but I would suspect it has something to do with this type of “othering.”

UPDATE: Nate at fivethirtyeight.com had a piece on the odds of being the victim of terrorism in the U.S. He calculates that when you boarded any given flight in the last decade, the odds of that flight being subject to a terrorist incident were 1 in 10,408,947 (compared to the odds of being struck by lightening in a given year at 1 in 500,000). In other words, if you boarded 20 flights per year, you were still more likely to be struck by lightening than to be the victim of terrorism.

UPDATE 2: Despite all of this, it appears that “terrorism” is still of major concern to many Americans. In fact, “terrorism” ranks third, just narrowly trailing the “economy” and “jobs,” on the list of the American public’s priorities for government according to the Pew Research Center. Again, this brings me back to the question of what factors drive so many Americans to have such a significant concern with terrorism?


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