January 2009

Research on risk response shows that most of us are very bad at knowing what to make of highly improbable but possibly disastrous future events. Risk perception is far from uniform: Some types of risk we tend to grossly underestimate, while others, we overestimate. These biases have been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny following the events of September 11, 2001 and subsequent terrorist attacks around the world. They are also one subject being discussed at the January, 2009 Cato Institute conference “Shaping the Obama Administration’s Counterterrorism Strategy.”


In conjunction with this conference, the editors of Cato Unbound are pleased to bring you a very special edition of the journal, one focused on how to talk about terrorism, how to evaluate risks, and how craft sensible public policy even under the intense pressure of an emergency situation.


Social psychology researchers have consistently found, for example, that threats of terrorism loom far larger in the public mind than natural disasters, although natural disasters have so far proven vastly more destructive. Well-crafted public policy will recognize, and hopefully avoid, tendencies toward overreaction to the threat of terrorism, particularly considering the threat that a panicked reaction itself can pose to our civil liberties and our way of life.


It was not the size of the risk itself, but rather the disparity between the likelihood of risk and the concern given to it, that prompted social psychologist Paul Slovic to dub terrorism a “new species of trouble”: The trouble lies in how terrorism makes people respond, as well as in the actual harm caused by terrorist acts. This month at Cato Unbound we have invited four experts on terrorism and counterterrorism for a discussion of the role of risk, fear, and well-crafted communication in fighting terrorism.


Leading this issue is William Burns, a research scientist at Decision Research and consultant at the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE). Responding to him will be Bernard Finel, a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project; John Mueller, the Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies at Ohio State University’s Mershon Center; and Camille Pecastaing, director of the Behavioral Sociology Project at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.

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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.