Fear Is the Health of the State

I alluded in my response to Ali Soufan’s lead essay that his sensible recommendation for countering violent extremism with empathy and education was likely to be thwarted by an American public disinclined to magnanimity. Americans are afraid, and human beings tend not to make good decisions when frightened.

The evidence of still-high public fears of terrorism has been apparent for some time, but John Mueller and Mark Steward have just assembled the data in a new Cato white paper:

The increase in spending on domestic homeland security since 9/11 has totaled well over $1 trillion, while efforts to chase down and eliminate terrorists abroad have cost trillions more.

However, these extraordinary efforts and expenditures have utterly failed to make people feel safer.

In addition to an impressive collection of polls from multiple sources showing that the public remains fearful despite the absence of any major terrorist attack in the United States, Mueller and Steward speculate on why this might be.

They posit a surprising and somewhat counterintuitive theory: contrary to those who argue that the public responds mostly to elite cues, Mueller and Steward conclude that the public is likely to believe certain things irrespective of what elites say. Public fears, they note, “can often be difficult to dampen”:

For example, in the months before 9/11, public anxiety about shark attacks unaccountably rose. This came about despite the fact that, as Daniel Byman points out, “there was no ‘shark attack’ industry in the summer of 2001.” Indeed, he adds that “officials desperately tried to calm Americans down,” yet “panic ensued nonetheless.” Eventually, officials did sternly forbid the feeding of sharks. But the absurd ban arose from the popular fear; it did not cause it.

Thus, the momentum is substantially bottom-up. Elite consensus has frequently preceded shifts of opinion. But it seems more accurate to say media and other elites put issues on the shelf — alongside a great many others — and that it is the public that puts them on the agenda. As officials found when they tried to dampen fears of sharks, the public often fails to follow.

They conclude with an important insight with respect to policy recommendation:

The public opinion phenomenon discussed in this paper can probably be taken to indicate, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, that public officials are in some sense free to do their job right.


[W]hatever they do about terrorism, they are unlikely to affect fear levels much one way or the other. That is, they are at once incapable of reducing fear and unlikely to scare people even more than they are scared now. If people want to be afraid, nothing will stop them.

Consequently, public officials can expend money responsibly in a manner that best saves lives rather than in one that seeks to reduce fears that are unjustified and perhaps unfathomable.

I’m curious to know what Ali Soufan and Seth Jones think of these findings, or their thoughts on the broader question of why Americans remain fearful of terrorism, despite the many trillions of dollars spent to combat the scourge.

Terrorism works when people are fearful. By that standard, the terrorists are winning.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Ali Soufan recommends dismantling the ideological appeal of groups like al Qaeda and ISIS. He argues for several measures he believes will help, including defusing regional conflict; pressuring the governments of Muslim allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to abandon extremist proselytizing; and replacing pro-terror messages in Islamic education with nonviolent ones that stress particularly those messages that local communities will find appealing. He laments that U.S. actions have done little to further these goals.

Response Essays

  • Seth G. Jones agrees that understanding terrorists’ recruiting tactics is important, as is the need to understand their worldview and motivations. He recommends several steps beyond Ali Soufan suggestions, including taking a much harder line against online jihadist content, which he recommends aggressively removing from social media.

  • Christopher Preble agrees that current U.S. antiterrorism strategy has failed. Yet he despairs of using better education to counter terrorist narratives: Not only does the United States commonly lack the credibility and nuance needed to deliver better messages, but many Americans also share all too much of the jihadists’ own beliefs: that Islam is violent, and that the West is correct to fight against all of it.