The Practicality of Instructing about Terrorism

While it is easy to agree on the benefits to better educating citizens about risks from terrorism, there are many paths to enlightenment, some more practical than others. The task would not just be about preparing the people most likely to be exposed to an emergency, namely those in the largest metropolitan areas, but about educating the entire nation so that citizens’ political responses to the next attack will be better calibrated to the risk. It is particularly essential to explain that terrorists are not killers by vocation but provocateurs, and that nothing better serves their purpose than an overreaction.

The most sensible way to get there would be to incorporate a course on risk and probability in the secondary school curriculum, as part of civic education. As it happens, there are abundant risks in the United States—natural catastrophes, industrial catastrophes, epidemics, and human rampages, from killing sprees to terrorism—so it is possible to incorporate education on terrorism into a broader framework of homeland security, and avoid singling it out as an existential threat.

The only problem is that risk alertness is like a vaccine: it needs to be refreshed. You need a few hurricanes, a few earthquake tremors, a few shootouts now and then to remind that the risk is there and that behaviors should be adapted to it. The best efforts to educate citizens about the reality of the risk they face from terrorism may become useless after a long period without incident. And when the incident occurs—10, 20 years down the road—no one will be prepared, leaving the field wide open for the kind of overreaction we have witnessed.

There is one puzzle with regard to the recent experience in the United States. The attacks of the 1990s were characterized by underreaction—and underreaction was robust. If we add attacks against American targets overseas (twice in Saudi Arabia, in Kenya, in Tanzania) and failed attacks (the bridges and tunnels attack, the Millennium plot) to the attacks that did occur on U.S. soil, the existence of a risk from terrorism was very apparent at the time, even though the risk of exposure for each American was very low.

Then came the overreaction after 2001. There are several explanations possible for the complete reversal of outcome. One is the temperament of the leadership at the time, which influenced the nation’s response. Another is the effect of the unique imagery and pathos of the New York attack, which may have tilted the scales. A third explanation is the nature of the enemy: Americans killing Americans (Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph) in the United States was a low emotion risk; Islamists killing Americans in Muslim lands was also a low emotion risk. But the possibility of an alien fifth column already in the country and ready to strike may have been overwhelming.

Those powerful emotions died out when it became clear that this fifth column never existed. In the end, the appetite to pursue Jihadists into the slums of Baghdad and in the caves of the Pamirs was limited, and support for Bush’s wars quickly waned. That says something of how Americans envision—and “feel about”—the safety of their homeland. Dr. Finel ventured to explore the national temperament: imperial reach is not part of it.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Path Well Taken: Making the Right Decisions about Risks from Terrorism by William Burns

    In his lead essay, William Burns argues that national discussion of terrorism can take one of two forms: It may be reflexive and fear-driven, or scientific and confident. He expresses hope that the new administration will choose the latter: In recent years, abundant research has been conducted on the social psychology of risk, and that of terrorist risk in particular. Moreover, the transition to a new administration offers an opportunity to change the official tone of public discourse about terrorism, and to employ many of the insights now being produced in social psychology. Burns outlines some of the major findings and describes how they might be applied to public counterterrorism policy.

Response Essays

  • Just Finding the Right Words Won’t Solve Real Problems (Or, Leave Madison Avenue Out of This) by Bernard Finel

    In his response to William Burns, Bernard Finel argues that “the fear of fear” can also be exaggerated: Panics come and go, and U.S. institutions that support liberty and limited government are more robust than we often tend to think. Finel also expresses skepticism about the power of messaging, which he terms a “blunt instrument.” Although terrorism has been used, regrettably, as a tool of partisan politics, the right response is simply to condemn this approach and leave it behind. A better message about terrorism won’t do much to combat public fear, in part because the U.S. government is just one voice among many, and fearmongers are still out there regardless of what it might say. Finel argues that a better strategy for actually ending terrorism might include U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, nuclear nonproliferation, and energy independence, among other measures, and that these, too, are likely to ease public fears.

  • Fearing Fear by John Mueller

    In his response essay, John Mueller assigns some (astonishingly small) numbers to the likelihood of being killed by terrorists. He also notes that the dangers of overreaction and fear are indeed quite great, often greater than the dangers that prompted the fear in the first place. Irrational fears lead to lost civil liberties, useless or near-useless government agencies and programs, and a variety of anxiety-related public health problems. Each of these may well be worse, in terms of hurting our quality of life, than whatever terrorism they were designed to stop.

  • The Death and Rebirth of Common Sense by Camille Pecastaing

    Camille Pecastaing argues that although the United States had faced terrorism before September 11, something about that particular attack clearly induced more widespread fear. Was it the magnitude of the attack? The foreignness of the attackers? The response of the Bush administration? A combination of all of these? Our answers, about which there is no consensus, may prove important in responding to future attacks.

    He also observes two particularities about the response to September 11: First, there was overwhelming momentum toward hysteria. And second, that momentum dissipated very quickly. Although we are still paying the price for this overreaction today, we at least inhabit a political world where the costs can be assessed soberly and where we can attempt to craft better counterterrorism strategies for the future.

The Conversation