Getting to the Specifics

It might be good to request some specifics. I very much agree with William Burns that for Americans “the probability of being harmed” by terrorists is “extraordinarily small,” that “we need solid risk communication” about it, and that effective communication “should foster resilience and not fear.” The question is, what messages does the research on risk communication suggest would be effective at reducing exaggerated perceptions of risk, what messages would foster resilience without exacerbating fear?

Unlike Burns, officials appear to think the public is insufficiently concerned about being harmed by a terrorist. At any rate that is a reasonable conclusion from an assessment of their efforts over the years at risk communication.

For example, on the first page of its defining manifesto issued in 2002, the Department of Homeland Security officially informed us that “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon.” And in 2003 FBI head Robert Mueller proclaimed that “the greatest threat is from al‑Qaeda cells in the U.S. that we have not yet identified,” that the threat from those unidentified entities was increasing, and that they had both “ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning” and would “probably continue to favor spectacular attacks.” Although such hysterical warnings have become less frequent in recent years, the process remains one in which, as Ian Lustick puts it, the government “can never make enough progress toward ‘protecting America’ to reassure Americans against the fears it is helping to stoke.”

I gather Burns would disapprove of this process. But what specifically would he propose in its place? For example, suppose one followed the assertion that “Today’s terrorists can strike at any place, at any time, and with virtually any weapon” with this: “However, at present rates, your lifetime chances of being killed by an international terrorist is one in 75,000.” Would the added observation lower anxieties productively? Raise them counterproductively? Make no difference? As a matter of public policy, should officials routinely include the second statement in their utterances because it happens to be true regardless of the consequences?

In the meantime, I remain a bit unconvinced by Burns’ remarkable suggestion that Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 statement about fearing fear may have had the “momentous unintended consequence” of preparing Americans to fight the world war that was thrust upon them almost nine years later. However, a potentially instructive episode in failed communication stems from that war.

After Pearl Harbor, that generation’s 9/11, Americans tended to envision the worst, and rumors quickly spread that the entire Pacific Fleet had been sunk. Unnecessarily concerned that this might hurt morale, Roosevelt went on the radio two months after the attack trying to reduce the alarm ‑‑ the way, suggests Burns, we should now seek to reduce excessive alarm over terrorism. In his effort, Roosevelt assured his listeners that only three combatant ships had been put permanently out of commission and that all the rest were under repair or had already rejoined the fleet. Roosevelt’s facts were utterly correct ‑‑ actually one of the three destroyed ships was being used at the time by the Navy for target practice and probably shouldn’t even have been included. However, mere facts as put forward by a trusted high public official obviously had no effect. Even today, the early, massively exaggerated, estimates routinely prevail in discussions of the attack.

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