The Path Well Taken: Making the Right Decisions about Risks from Terrorism

Choices and Challenges

Current Challenges. Current times provide us with no shortage of challenges and perceived threats. At present we are preoccupied with the financial crisis as economists, politicians, and journalists inform us that it is the worst since the Great Depression. We talk frequently about the credit crisis, foreclosures, and the potential for financial meltdown. Recent polls suggest that many Americans are afraid, angry, and profoundly uncertain about what the future has in store for them (Burns, Peters, & Slovic, 2009). For the moment, thankfully, we are not focused on terrorism. However, the threat of terrorism has loomed large in our public discourse since the events of September 11th. These events, and particularly the conclusions we have drawn from them, have profoundly influenced the way we think about the risks our nation and communities face. We have added to our vernacular words like anthrax, suitcase nukes, dirty bombs, and homeland security. Perceived threats in the Mideast, supported by a fearful and angry public, took us to war with far-reaching consequences few could have imagined.

Important Choices. With Barack Obama’s historic win our nation now seeks to chart a different course both at home and abroad. It is a time of great challenge and hope. Most of all it is a time of opportunity and choice — a new beginning. Arguably terrorism is not our largest challenge, but it is a threat likely to bring out the best and worst in our nature. If we follow our present course, we will continue to allow fear and anger to permeate our national debate and unduly influence our judgment. We will amplify some risks at the expense of doing little about others. Along this way we may squander adversity, allowing it to teach us precious little that will make us stronger individuals and a better country. Fortunately our nation is poised to embrace another course in which we accept the lessons adversity has to teach with calm compassionate deliberation. The start of this transition will be hard going because mistakes are not easily understood or even acknowledged. Honest dialog requires courage at many levels. However, such a course fosters resilience. Our response can and should reflect the best blend of our scientific and cultural institutions. The choice of either path to be sure will chart our personal and collective futures.

Terrorism: A “New Species of Trouble”? Terrorism is about making everyone within a community feel afraid and uncertain. It is about heightened vulnerability. It seeks to disrupt society with fear and dispel any sense of safety (Hall, Norwood, Ursano, Fullerton, & Levinson, 2002). In the long term, it hopes to exact costs that go far beyond the immediate victims or damaged property and into the fiber of our social and political fabric. Perceived danger may far exceed any reasonable statistical risk of being harmed, and this may cause us to consider trading important personal freedoms for a measure of personal security. Terrorism differs from other types of disasters in two fundamental ways. First there is the cunning intentionality and level of malevolence which define terrorist acts. Chilling is the realization of how ill equipped we are, practically and emotionally, to confront this level of desperation. Second, with terrorism we can find no natural closure, no way to sound the “all clear.” Our sense of alarm persists much longer than in other types of disasters regardless of their scale. This has prompted some authors to refer to terrorism as a “new species of trouble” (Slovic, 2002). Responding to this challenge will require insight, resolve, and a willingness of diverse groups with unique perspectives to work together. Learning to communicate about the risk of terrorism requires that we first examine its currency, fear.

Fear: Roots, Diffusion, and Cost. Terrorism inspires fear because of its unique ability to evoke a profound uncertainty and a lack of perceived control with regard to one’s safety (Lerner & Keltner, 2001).Terrorist attacks are of course carefully staged to gain widespread media attention. Following an attack, the vivid and memorable images produce a very negative affect, which causes people to overreact to events posing vanishingly small probabilities of future harm (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic, & Johnson, 2000; Peters, Burraston, & Mertz, 2004). Public attention is largely riveted on the potential consequences of an attack, and not on the likelihood of its ability to inflict future injury. This phenomenon is so pronounced that researchers have come to refer to it as “probability neglect” (Sunstein, 2003, 2005, pp. 39–41, 64–88). Risk analysts and policy makers, who do pay attention to probabilities, stand mystified. Burns and Slovic (2007) have simulated the diffusion of fear in a community following different types of disasters including terrorist attacks. Based on surveys and simulations they predict that fear will be much more pronounced following a terrorist attack than for technological accidents and natural disasters. These simulations indicate that while fear may escalate rapidly, it decreases only slowly. Their findings suggest that once generated, fear takes time to abate, possessing its own form of psychological inertia. They have speculated that community intervention may help defuse this reaction. Though media coverage and casual conversation may turn to other issues, the residual affect lingers and may influence risk perceptions and behaviors far out into the future. These observations should give pause to politicians who would use fear to further their own agenda to the long-term detriment of the public good.

Fear does serve a critical function when it causes us to flee from danger or exercise caution in our actions — nature has its own wisdom here. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt understood fear’s darker side as he noted famously in his first inaugural address

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

The phrase “unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts” is key. Unreasoning fear may exact a high cost to our state of mind, civil liberties, and economy. Surveys at the time indicated that many continued to be fearful and highly stressed for months following the events of September 11th (Silver, Holman, McIntosh, Poulin, & Gil-Rivas, 2002). Researchers also found a connection between heightened sense of threat and willingness to restrict civil liberties in the aftermath of these tragic events (Davis & Silver, 2004). In 2001, Herron and Jenkins-Smith (2006, pp. 65–93) found almost fifty percent of Americans they polled strongly agreed that government must stop terrorism even if it intruded on some people’s rights and privacy; in 2003 this number still was substantial at thirty percent. And there are economic costs associated with being afraid. Consider what happened to the airline industry. One econometric study concluded that fear accounted for as much as a thirty percent demand shock to the industry (Ito & Lee, 2005).

Dialog and Change

Right Expectations. Our expectations and public discourse about terrorism, and safety and economic stability more generally, need to better reflect reality. Potential threats also need to be discussed in a way that every American feels they can be part of the solution. This latter point is especially important.

Let’s first acknowledge the facts on the ground. Globally we have contributed to trends that create more severe storm systems, turmoil in global markets, world hunger and disease, and make terrorism all but inevitable in the near term (Schwartz, 2003, pp. 221–235). Let’s admit, personally and as a nation, that there are no easy technological, economic, or military fixes for these challenges; the years ahead will require substantial insight and fortitude and may involve significant turmoil. To move forward we need nuanced policy and dialog that empowers our ability to respond. This includes greater focus on resilient response and less emphasis on perpetuating the notion that we can prevent all or most forms of risk including terrorism. Seeking to feel unduly safe in one area may materially restrict our opportunity to pursue goals we value personally and as a nation. Schneier (2006, pp. 3–43), a leading systems analyst, reminds us that we need to be very mindful of the tradeoffs we make in our security decisions. Risk and policy analysts, working closely with behavioral scientists, have much to contribute to this dialog.

Right Focus. How do we engage America in a sustained resistance against terrorism that does not exhaust our funds or diminish us as people? By encouraging communities and households to address the root cause of what makes terrorism so scary: perceptions of uncertainty and lack of control regarding our personal safety and quality of life. We cannot easily predict when and where terrorists will strike. Fortunately, the probability of being harmed is extraordinarily small and the consequences are likely to be less than what we imagine. But effective resistance does not lie only with the promise of small probabilities or better-than-hoped-for consequences. If this were so, our resolve in the face of terrorism would be as dependable as the next news story that suggested otherwise — and plenty would do so. Rather, our focus must be more fundamental, anchored in what we can predict and control, our personal and collective response to current or potential crises. A bold and shared vision, with a leader who can speak calmly with one voice, is essential. But we must also wage this battle in our neighborhoods, workplaces, places of worship, and living rooms. For here we are invited to remember what we value and stand for. Here we learn that there are many we can depend on and whose lives we may touch during times of trouble. Here we work together to prepare for possible futures, adverse and otherwise, without undue drama. And here we hone skills and pool resources, achieving synergies so often found in grassroots activism. We need to spend less time listening to TV pundits and more time talking with neighbors, first responders, local educators, and community leaders. While it may be necessary for now to fight abroad the real leverage in this battle lies much closer to home.

Right Understanding. Thankfully, most of us only rarely experience terrorism, devastating natural disasters, or violent crime up close. We do however hear of such events through news coverage and conversations with others. But those who study the behavior of systems inform us that this snapshot coverage is shallow, often misleading, and rarely leads to an understanding deep enough to cause beneficial change (Sterman, 2000, pp. 3-39, 845-891; Maani & Cavana, 2000, pp. 12-14). With us are the horrific images and memories from September 11th, but our broader understanding of what these events mean is wanting. What these events signal for our future often serves to amplify our perceptions of risk, and leads to impacts that go far beyond the direct damages of the incident (Kasperson et al., 1988, Burns et al., 1993). Where on the national stage has there been a discussion of the larger patterns of terrorism worldwide that would help us put this event in perspective? It has been several years; do most of us now have a good understanding of the deeper causes behind international terrorism? Policies can have a variety of impacts, some of which are unintended and serious. Are we positioned to make informed choices as to which policies we might support to increase our security now and long-term? Most importantly, have these tragic events caused us to look carefully at our beliefs, values, and assumptions and their impact on world affairs? How we understand and explain the underlying causes may prove pivotal in our appropriate response to terrorist threats.

Seligman (1998, pp. 31-53) in his pioneering work on learned helplessness and learned optimism has studied how people explain the causes of adversity to themselves. He finds that those people who see the causes behind present difficulties as temporary and the effects of such difficulties as not catastrophic, are more hopeful, less anxious, and more likely to persevere. They are, simply put, more resilient. If we want to fear less, the explanations we entertain about world events need to be grounded in science and square with our highest values. We need the kind of dialog, nationally and locally, that leads to fundamental attitude and behavioral change. Journalists are in a unique position to facilitate this dialog. Today there is 24/7 news coverage, but is there more investigative journalism? Images, sound bites, and endless debate are hardly illuminating. Major funding should be directed to the scientific training of our news providers.

In addition to achieving a broad perspective on terrorism, we may also benefit greatly from targeted and well-crafted risk communications. For this we need a careful and fine tuned discussion of the different aspects of terrorist threats. This discussion must involve a collaborative dialog with both experts and the public. Risk analysts have made considerable progress in both the assessment (e.g., identification, quantification) and the management (e.g., communication, mitigation) of risk (Haimes, 2006). Behavioral scientists have learned a great deal about people’s response to different threats and risk communication (Taylor-Gooby & Zinn, 2006). However, Slovic and Weber (2002) caution that there are likely to be meaningful differences between public perceptions of risk and technical risk estimates. They emphasize that risk managers need to be sensitive to these differences, and especially to the level of trust the public places in mechanisms used to address particular risks. Fischhoff and his colleagues have sought to facilitate collaboration between experts and the public, with an approach that is both applied and grounded in risk and behavioral science (Morgan, Fischhoff, Bostrum, & Lerner, 2002, pp. 19-33). When communicating about a certain risk, they suggest that experts be consulted first to develop a representation that captures all important aspects of the particular risk. Using this model as a guide, the public is interviewed and subsequently surveyed to determine what their understanding of what the risk entails. Gaps in public understanding are then used to develop effective risk communications. These messages are submitted to careful testing before being distributed to a wider audience. This approach appears especially promising in communicating about various terrorist threats. Consider the difficulty with communicating about different types of biological and radiological attacks (Fischhoff, Gonzalez, Small, & Lerner, 2003; Florig & Fischhoff, 2007). These are hazards that are complex and likely to be very emotionally charged (Flynn, 2003; Slovic, 1987, 2001; Slovic, Flynn, & Layman, 1991). They require significant public involvement to build trust in risk managers’ recommendations; substantial improvement is yet needed (Lasker, 2004).

Right Dialog. Communicating effectively about terrorism should provide the kind of information that empowers individuals, institutions, and communities to make better risk decisions. It should be based on sound science and a deep respect for public understandings and concerns. Ideally, it should foster resilience and not fear, as skills and self-efficacy improve. Admittedly, communicating about events that were a decade ago “unthinkable” is very difficult (Clarke, 2006, pp. 1-24). Since September 11, we have made mistakes, but we can boast notable successes as well.

Consider first our present color-coded warning system that admonishes the public to be vigilant and aware of all things suspicious. What risk or behavioral science is this system based on? Normal people habituate to this type of message — these alerts have become little more than background noise. In fact, the uncanny timing of threat alerts during political downturns has caught the attention of some journalists. True or spurious, suggestions of manipulation have eroded trust. However, in others areas significant progress has been made. For example, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has taken some steps to incorporate concepts from the risk analysis community into policy and his communications. He has publicly discussed the role of probabilities and consequences in risk policy. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has created national planning scenarios that characterize many of the threats we face. These have proven useful guides to regional training exercises. In 2004, DHS launched the first of its many university centers to enlist the help of the academic community. Collaborative research across many disciplines continues to contribute to our understanding of risk communication as it relates to national security. However, the pool of research talent has hardly been tapped in the area of behavioral science, and much important work remains to be done. Lastly, DHS has sponsored the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program. This program trains neighborhood volunteers to work closely with first responders and local officials in times of disaster. CERT provides excellent training in risks associated with natural disasters and most technological accidents. Importantly, CERT fosters resilience by encouraging community members to be involved with protecting themselves and their neighbors.

Setting the right tone from the top is important. Why not begin 2009 with President Barack Obama or a member of his national security team discussing the broad implications of terrorism for our nation over the next decade? Put matters in perspective and clear up misunderstandings. It would be essential to talk frankly about our progress and mistakes. This would be the time to discuss how individuals and institutions might be impacted and what our policy will now be with respect to the global community. As for particular and emergent threats, McDermott and Zimbardo (2007) advise that, whereever possible, warnings be specific (e.g. region of the country at increased risk, how the investigation is unfolding, what citizens are to do if anything). The idea is to alert as few people as necessary and for as brief a period as essential. Debriefings should be forthright, indicating what went right or wrong in terms of detection or response. Care should also be given to how likelihoods of threat are presented. For those less skillful with numerical information, perceptions of risk may be heightened for some presentation formats, especially for emotionally charged risks (Peters et al., 2006; Peters, Dieckmann, Dixon, Hibbard, & Mertz, 2007). Best practices have also emerged that may be applied to communicating about terrorism (Sellnow, Ulmer, Seeger, & Littlefield, 2008, pp. 19–32). The authors emphasize that risk messages should be policy relevant, culturally sensitive and transparent with respect to what is currently known or uncertain.

Consider how we would plan for communicating with the public following a dirty bomb attack. It would be important to have developed and tested risk messages surrounding policy recommendations (a city mayor would have to order people to shelter in place or evacuate within minutes of the explosion). Such messages would have to be sensitive to different constituencies (parents of school-aged children would need to know their children are safe from radioactive debris). How would city officials advise citizens about known radiation levels throughout the city? Plans would have to address uncertainties as well. For example, officials may not know how the perpetrators obtained the radioactive materials or if they are capable of striking again. Involving the public early would be key. Issues surrounding radiation are very difficult to explain and it would be crucial to identify concerns and gaps in public understanding (dirty bomb is different from nuclear bomb). It is critical to design and test these types of communications in advance of any crisis. It is unlikely that they can be designed properly in the midst of a terrorist attack!


We face enormous challenges on many fronts. International terrorism has rightly given us reason to consider their deeper meaning and our readiness to respond. Confidence in our institutions has been shaken. The minds and hearts of people from around the world are deeply troubled; it is as though the souls of nations are being tested now. In recent years we have seen the awesome power of events to shape our thoughts and behaviors and to guide our public discourse. On occasion we have forsaken reason and empathy, forgetting the larger consequences of our policies and their boomerang effect. Despite our missteps, America may yet offer the voice of calm and deliberative action to a world as shaken as we. And through these travails, we must lead by example, inspired by our constitutional freedoms and drawing from the best of our science and culture. Resilience and compassion should infuse our policies for they offer security at a price we will not regret later. This new administration carries with it the mantle for change. However, we can tread but one path at a time and so must decide what our priorities shall be and how we will carry them forward. In the years to come we will reflect that our choice of direction on this new day made all the difference.



I would like thank Paul Slovic (Decision Research, University of Oregon), Ellen Peters (Decision Research, University of Oregon), Baruch Fischhoff (Carnegie Mellon University) and Tim Sellnow (University of Kentucky) for their helpful suggestions while writing this essay.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers SES-0728934 and SES-0901036. It was also supported by the U. S. Department of Homeland Security through the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) under grant number N00014-05-1-0630. However, any opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect views of the National Science Foundation or the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.


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Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.