About this Issue

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.

Lead Essay

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.


Burns, W. J., Peters, E., & Slovic, P. (2009). Public response to the financial crisis: A longitudinal study. Manuscript in preparation.

Burns, W. J., & Slovic, P. (2007). The diffusion of fear: Modeling community response to a terrorist strike. Journal of Defense Modeling and Simulation 4, 1–20.

Burns, W. J., Slovic, P., Kasperson, R., Kasperson, J. X., Renn, O., & Scrinvas, E. (1993). Incorporating structural models into research on the social amplification of risk: Implications for theory construction and decision making. Risk Analysis 13, 611–623.

Clarke, L. (2006). Worst cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Davis, D. W., & Silver, B. D. (2004). Civil liberties vs. security: Public opinion in the context of the terrorist attacks on America. American Journal of Political Science 48, 28–46.

Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. In P. Slovic (Ed.), The Perception of Risk (pp. 413–429). London: Earthscan.

Fischhoff, B., Gonzalez, R. M., Small, D. A., & Lerner, J. S. (2003). Evaluating the success of terrorism risk communications. Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science 1, 1–4.

Florig, H. K., & Fischhoff, B. (2007). Individuals’ decisions affecting radiation exposure after a nuclear explosion. Health Physics 92, 475–483.

Flynn, J. (2003). Nuclear stigma. In N. Pidgeon, R. E. Kasperson, & P. Slovic (Eds.), The Social Amplification of Risk (pp. 326-352). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haimes, Y. (2006, March). Talk given at Risk Symposium 2006. “Risk analysis for homeland security and defense: Theory and application,” Santa Fe, NM.

Hall, M. J., Norwood, A. E., Ursano, R. J., Fullerton, C. C., & Levinson, C. J. (2002). Psychological and behavioral impacts of bioterrorism. PTSD Research Quarterly 13(4), 1–7.

Herron, K. G., & Jenkins-Smith, H. C. (2006). Critical Masses and Critical Choices: Evolving Public Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and Security. PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ito, H., & Lee, D. (2005). “Assessing the Impact of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks on U. S. Airline Demand.” Journal of Economics and Business 57, 75–95.

Kasperson, R. E., Renn, O., Slovic, P., Brown, H. S., Emel, J., Goble, R., et al. (1988). “The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework.” Risk Analysis 8, 177–187.

Lasker, R. D. (2004, September). Redefining readiness: Terrorism Planning through the Eyes of the Public. The New York Academy of Medicine, Center for the Advancement of Collaborative Strategies in Health. Retrieved January 2, 2009, http://www.redefiningreadiness.net/pdf/RedefiningReadinessStudy.pdf.

Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2001). “Fear, Anger, and Risk.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, 146–159.

Maani, K. E., & Cavana, R. Y. (2000). Systems Thinking and Modelling: Understanding Change and Complexity. Auckland, New Zealand: Prentice Hall.

McDermott, R., & Zimbardo, P. G. (2007). “The Psychological Consequences of Terrorist Alerts.” In B. Bongar, L. M. Brown, L. E. Beutler, J. N. Breckenridge, & P. G. Zimbardo (Eds.), Psychology of Terrorism (pp. 357–370). New York: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, M. G., Fischhoff, B., Bostrom, A., & Atman, C. J. (2002). Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Peters, E., Burraston, B., & Mertz, C. K. (2004). “An Emotion-Based Model of Risk Perception and Stigma Susceptibility: Cognitive Appraisals of Emotion, Affective Reactivity, Worldviews, and Risk Perceptions in the Generation of Technological Stigma.” Risk Analysis 24, 1349–1367.

Peters, E., Dieckmann, N., Dixon, A., Hibbard, J. H., & Mertz, C. K. (2007). Less is More in Presenting Quality Information to Consumers.” Medical Care Research and Review 64, 169–190.

Peters, E., Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Mazzocco, K., & Dickert, S. (2006). “Numeracy and Decision Making.” Psychological Science 17, 407–413.

Schneier, B. (2006). Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. New York: Springer.

Schwartz, P. (2003). Inevitable Surprises. New York: Gotham Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Pocket Books.

Sellnow, T. L., Ulmer, R. R., Seeger, M. W., & Littlefield, R. S. (2008). Effective Risk Communication: A Message Centered Approach. New York: Springer.

Silver, R. C., Holman, E. A., McIntosh, D. N., Poulin, M., & Gil-Rivas, V. (2002). “Nationwide Longitudinal Study of Psychological Responses to September 11.” Journal of the American Medical Association 288, 1235–1244.

Slovic, P. (1987). “Perception of Risk.” Science 236, 280–285.

Slovic, P. (2001). “Perception of Risk from Radiation.” In P. Slovic (Ed.), The Perception of Risk (pp. 264-284). London: Earthscan.

Slovic, P. (2002). “Terrorism as Hazard: A New Species of Trouble.” Risk Analysis 22, 425–426.

Slovic, P., & Weber, E. U. (2002, April). Perception of Risk Posed by Extreme Events. Paper presented at the conference Risk Management Strategies in an Uncertain World. New York: Palisades. Retrieved January 2, 2009, http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/chrr/documents/meetings/roundtable/white_p….

Slovic, P., Flynn, J., & Layman, M. (1991). “Perceived Risk, Trust, and Politics of Nuclear Waste.” Science 254, 1603–1607.

Sterman, J. D. (2000). Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Sunstein, C. (2003). “Terrorism and Probability Neglect.” The Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 26, 121–136.

Sunstein, C. (2005). Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Taylor-Gooby, P., & Zinn, J. O. (2006). “Current Directions in Risk Research: New Developments in Psychology and Sociology.” Risk Analysis 26, 397–411.

Response Essays

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

Dr. Burns’ essay, “The Path Well Taken” is a provocative and thoughtful survey of the academic literature examining the nexus between public fear and public communication. His recommendations, based on this research, therefore have a kind of surface plausibility that may make them attractive to some policy professionals. I am less sanguine. I recognize little of contemporary American politics or media in his discussion. His arguments seem to me to inhabit the abstract world of academe. His approach to dealing with fear caused by terrorism is akin to the old joke about the economist stuck on a deserted island with canned food by no means of opening it whose response is, “well, let’s just posit we have a can opener.” We don’t have a can opener.

In order to get a handle on the challenge we have to first define the structural limitations that define the policy arena.

First, terrorism has become a highly politically charged issue. This was inevitable in a way. Grieving family members, horrifying images, and public fear make an irresistible target for demagogues. But let’s not mince words. After 9/11, the Bush Administration deliberately sought to exploit the fear of terrorism for partisan political ends. They used the attacks to press for long-held policy preferences — such as the desire to overthrow Saddam Hussein — and worse, they took every opportunity to paint policy disagreements as treason by arguing that any resistance to administration plans constituted giving aid and comfort to the terrorist enemy. We simply cannot undo that history, and it is a legacy we will continue to deal with for a generation, much as we dealt with the political recriminations from Vietnam for a generation.

We just witnessed a national political campaign where some of the biggest issues were one candidate’s cocktail party at the home of an aging domestic radical and the other candidate’s choice of a vice presidential candidate whose greatest qualification was her state’s proximity to the Bering Straits. There were national television ads invoking Paris Hilton! And the campaigns debated whether it was better to support “change we can believe in” or “a leader we can believe in.” I don’t see how we go from this level of discourse to the kind of thoughtful, disciplined communication Dr. Burns suggests.

Second, even if the U.S. government could speak with one voice — and it can’t; it is simply too large and too undisciplined to do so — the public does not hear one voice. This is one of the surprisingly common mistakes made by scholars and practitioners of public communication. Messaging is all well and good, but we live in a world where individuals have a plethora of channels of information — some reliable, others not; some official, other informal; some well informed, others wholly ignorant; some grounded in science, others in faith or fear; some marked by dispassionate balance, and others defined by their essential outrageousness. Unfortunately, there is no correlation between those channels that embody the “positive” attributes and their actual popularity or influence. Anyone perusing a list of the most popular political blogs or radio personalities will surely see my point. There is no way to control where people will get their information. Engage the “neighbors, first responders, local educators, and community leaders” all you want. People will still tune in to Bill O’Reilly and Michelle Malkin.

Third, there may be a real disconnect between what is good at helping alleviate fear and what is good policy. Jeffrey Goldberg’s brilliant essay in the Atlantic The Things He Carried” highlights this issue nicely. Much of what we do for security falls into the realm of “security theater” designed to give the appearance of doing something, but not really accomplishing much. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security — a bureaucratic disaster that will either be ultimately disassembled or rendered superfluous by the creation of working parallel structures — is an example of “security theater” at the level of government reorganization. The problem is not just wasted effort, it is actively counter-productive effort. By pursuing these reassurance strategies — large, visible, and designed to counter the last attack rather than the next one — we may be undermining our ability to deal with the threat as it emerges and changes. And yet, that is where a policy focused on public reassurance will inevitably lead given the difficulties of cutting through the noise of our daily lives and trying to reach people. As much as I like Dr. Burns’ carefully calibrated notion of community-based discourse grounded in highly differentiated message segmenting based on intended recipient, the fact is that public communication is a blunt, blunt instrument and prone to blow-back. Inevitably, if you want to move the meter on the public’s threat perception, you will gravitate into these “security theater” kinds of programs.

There are two ways of dealing with this policy landscape while acknowledging Professor Burns’ concern that doing nothing risks overreaction and undisciplined response. The first is the response of the cynic, the second of the pragmatist.

A cynical response is simply to say, that while it is true that we are likely to engage in much wasted effort, few of our responses to the terrorist threat are really likely to undermine the fabric of the nation. As a practical matter, for all the concern about American civil liberties and despite the polls showing that American are willing to accept more government intrusions, there have been relatively few genuine impositions on our freedoms. Indeed, we remain much “freer” than even our freedom-loving, open-society Western European friends. We have no national ID card system. No domestic intelligence agency. No system of preventive detention. Our civil liberties benefit from a deeply powerful inertia bolstered by custom, law, and the separation of power between branches and levels of government.

Twenty years ago, at the height of the hysteria over the “war on drugs” there were similar concerns about civil liberties, also based on polls showing that people would accept significant restrictions on their freedoms to combat the scourge of drugs. While many people have suffered from the excesses of the “war on drugs” — mostly low-level dealers and users subjected to police harassment, prosecutorial intimidation, and draconian prison sentences — on the whole, there has not been a massive erosion of our civil liberties as a result. Fear takes a long time to fade. But it does over time, and ultimately, our system of laws is resilient enough to absorb the excesses and return to homeostasis. The “war on terror” is unlikely to make a bigger dent.

So, the cynical response focuses on continuing the sorts of grand, empty gestures we have already pursued since 9/11. We can continue to pack our shampoo in 3 oz bottles and ignore the color coded signs and tolerate the petty annoyances. Over time, fear will fade and it is unlikely that this unfocused motion will result in grievous consequences.

The pragmatic response, on the other hand, accepts the limitations of public communication, but nonetheless aims for a more productive policy orientation. There are three key elements of sound public communication about the terrorist threat.

First, while there are many dangers in overstating the threat, it is also a mistake to understate it. The kind of radicalism that drives groups like al Qaeda is deep-seated and durable. We will continue to have to deal with it for a generation. But we need to refocus the threat so that people understand that it is not just a blind force, but rather part of a system of violent conflict that we ourselves have chosen to opt into. We were not attacked because of who we are, but rather because of our position in the world. Terrorist risk is, in part, a function of the choices we make in terms of our global role, reliance on foreign energy, commitment to human rights, and embrace of economic and cultural globalization. Professor Burns is absolutely correct on this point.

Understanding the terrorist threat can be part of a broader project that American leaders need to undertake — reminding the public that there is no such a thing as a free lunch. You can’t have more services and less taxes. And you can’t have a massive dependence on Middle Eastern oil or a permanent military presence on Arab soil without exposing yourself to the political currents that roil that region. Terrorism is a price that we may have to pay for our choices. This is not a call for withdrawal necessarily, but rather an insistence that our public debates are mature about the tradeoffs we face. Being conscious of the connections between our actions and the risks we face will render those risks comprehensible and as a result more tolerable.

Second, well-respected public figures and institutions will need to take on a larger role in condemning the abuse of the terrorist threat as a tool of partisan politics. What broke the back of the McCarthyist hysteria was an increasingly public rebuke of the Senator by President Eisenhower and by the U.S. Army. Encouraging stern non-partisan condemnation of the politicization of the terrorist threat will ultimately reduce the incentives for demagoguery.

Third, the best way to reduce fear is going to be to reduce the actual threat over time. There is not enough space in this response to detail a comprehensive counter-terrorism approach. However, some of the key elements will need to include a better system for domestic intelligence with appropriate safeguards and oversight, efforts to reduce our exposure to radicalism in the Muslim world, effective counter-proliferation initiatives focused particularly on nuclear weapons and fissile material, and a serious commitment of resources to consequence management. Many of these efforts will need to be quiet, even secret, and will only impact the fear dynamic indirectly through policy success. Yet in the end, this approach will pay greater dividends than any messaging strategy.

In the final analysis, one of the most dangerous fears we face is also the fear of fear. Just as we ought not overstate the terrorist threat itself, we ought not overstate the threat to our national institutions of a bit of hysteria. In the past 70 years, we have panicked about Japanese saboteurs, Communist infiltrators, Soviet Missiles, violent crime, drugs, and now terrorism. Heck, we’ve even managed to get into a tizzy over rock ‘n roll and Janet Jackson’s breasts. In the end, none of our overreactions to those challenges had the dire consequences most feared by civil libertarians and other pundits.

At the margins we can begin to reform the public dialogue by stressing choices and tradeoffs we face as a nation. We can also actively seek to hammer down those who deliberately seek to profit from the fanning of fears. And finally, we can encourage and support serious professionals as they quietly work behind the scenes to address the challenge. But addressing the public’s fears directly is at best treating a symptom rather than the disease. We are overly obsessed with messaging — whether in the form of trying to convince Americans not to fear terrorism or trying to convince Muslims not to hate us — as if finding just the right words and the right medium will make real problems disappear. It won’t.

Fearing Fear

In discussing risk communication, William Burns quotes Franklin Roosevelt’s famous pronouncement early in the Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It would be interesting to find out what effect, if any, that call had at the time.

Roosevelt was presumably hoping he could charm or browbeat the American people out of the economic terrors that were, he felt, the essential reason ‑‑ indeed, the only reason ‑‑ for perpetuating the economic downslide. The idea was that his call would jolt them out of their fearful mindset and, since fear was the only problem, this transformation would bring the Depression to a speedy end. I am not an economic historian, but it is my distinct impression that this didn’t happen.

There is a darker possibility. Even someone who took Roosevelt at his word might find, when checking with “neighbors, first responders, local educators, and community leaders” as recommended by Burns, that there was still a whole lot of fear out there. If Roosevelt had the mechanism right ‑‑ that fear is the problem ‑‑ one would then be justified in becoming even more afraid. That is, by scaring people about fear, Roosevelt may have made things worse. If fear is the problem and if everybody is afraid, then I am justified in really being afraid.

For people attempting to reduce fears about terrorism, or at least to put the concern in some context, there are two additional problems. The first is that people might react to the efforts by accusing them of being insensitive to their feelings, and the second is that, if another terrorist event takes place, the well‑meaning risk communicator will be deemed a fool.

Therefore, in the case of terrorism, politicians and bureaucrats in particular have special reasons to fear fear itself. And the safest route for them is to empathize with the public’s emotions (I feel your pain), to suggest the public is right to think the danger is just terrible, and to warn of future attacks (if they don’t happen, nobody will remember the prediction, and if they do, everybody will). To those for whom “courage” is a four‑letter word, the wisest course is to play along, to exacerbate, to stoke, and eventually to internalize the fears ‑‑ thereby playing nicely into the hands of the terrorists.

Surely this is the lesson of the post‑9/11 rhetoric. It was in 2002 ‑‑ that is, seven years ago ‑‑ that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice proclaimed, “today America faces an existential threat to our security ‑‑ a threat as great as any we faced during the Civil War, the so‑called ‘Good War,’ or the Cold War.” And in that same year, CIA Director George Tenet assured us that al‑Qaeda was “reconstituted,” planning in “multiple theaters of operation,” and “coming after us.”

And we have, of course, heard this kind of thing endlessly ever since. Only last year the man in charge of our domestic security, U.S. homeland security czar Michael Chertoff, proclaimed the “struggle” against terrorism to be a “significant existential” one ‑‑ carefully differentiating it, apparently, from all those insignificant existential struggles we have waged in the past. (Burns sensibly calls for a “nuanced” dialog on the subject, and Chertoff has clearly risen to that challenge.) And it was in 2007 that our czar disclosed that his “gut” was telling him there would be a terrorist attack that summer ‑‑ that is, he was willfully exacerbating fear based by his own admission on nothing.

As Burns stresses, fear “serves a critical function when it causes us to flee from danger or exercise caution.” However, excessive fear ‑‑ “unreasoning, unjustified terror” in Roosevelt’s phrase ‑‑ has negative consequences.

It can cause health problems, for example. Extensive studies of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown find that the largest health consequences came not from the accident itself (fewer than 50 people died directly from radiation exposure), but from the impact on the mental health of people traumatized by completely imaginary, if officially stoked, fears that they would soon die of cancer. And Americans fearful of terrorism after 9/11 have been three to five times more likely than others to be diagnosed with new cardiovascular ailments.

Another negative consequence of fear itself is that it often inspires or facilitates overreactive policies. If one has really come to deem the threat to be “existential,” all sorts of policies become attractive, even obligatory, such as reducing civil liberties and plunging the country into costly wars in the Middle East.

Given these negative consequences, policy makers and the media, to the degree they want to be responsible, ought to be making an effort to reduce those fears that are, in Roosevelt’s words, unreasoning and unjustified. But in part because of the fear fear inspires in them, they scarcely ever even try.

It is not entirely clear how they might go about reducing fear. In a recent article, The Onion claims to have attended a press conference in which Chertoff made a stab at it. He reportedly urged Americans not to be alarmed and suggested they simply “continue living their lives as they have for the last seven years ‑‑ with the crippling fear that at any moment they, or someone they love, could die in a fiery inferno.”

I have a couple of additional suggestions.

As Burns points out, the probability of being harmed by a terrorist is “extraordinarily small,” and one possibility for the risk communicator would be to put some numbers on that observation. At present rates, in fact, the chance anyone living outside a war zone will be killed by an international terrorist comes in at about 1 in 75,000 ‑‑ that’s not per year, but over an 80‑year period. The chance of dying in an automobile accident over the same interval, in distinct contrast, is about 1 in 80.

That assumes another 9/11 every several years; if there are no terrorist attacks of that magnitude, the chance of death by terror slumps to about 1 in 130,000.

Exposing this arresting detail may not actually work to reduce fear, given the problem of “probability neglect” that Burns notes. However, after all the yammering about terrorism we’ve endured for eight years, the number ought at least to be out there somewhere in the public consciousness. But in fact it almost never comes up ‑‑ either from the Republicans, who have had a political incentive to exacerbate fear, as Bernard Finel points out, or from the Democrats, who for the most part haven’t. And it shows up almost never in the press.

One might also instructively tally up the number of people killed by al‑Qaeda and its clones, lookalikes, and wannabes outside of war zones since 9/11. That comes to maybe 200 to 300 per year.

That’s 200 to 300 per year too many of course, but it hardly suggests the country is under an existential threat ‑‑ or perhaps even under something that deserves to be called a “threat” at all. Maybe with this information under their belt, at least some of the terror‑intimidated will get a life.

In the end, however, Finel is probably right to suggest that “fear takes a long time to fade” ‑‑ at least a fear that has become so thoroughly internalized. Moreover, the constructs and institutions that the terrorism fear has inspired or even made necessary will probably live on after the instigating fear itself fades ‑‑ they have become, in venerable Washington parlance, self‑licking ice cream cones.

The FBI continued to squander resources chasing members of the pathetic domestic Communist Party long after the public had ceased to be concerned about the issue. The drug war shows signs of outlasting not only urgent interest, but also God.

And, after spending enough money on nuclear weapons to buy everything in the country except for the land in order to defend it against a directly aggressive military threat that did not happen to exist, the nuclear arsenal, albeit reduced in numbers, continues to be polished, nurtured, and admired even though there is nothing to point it at.

Fear itself not merely “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” as Roosevelt intoned. It can perpetuate and ossify the retreat.

The Death and Rebirth of Common Sense

There is not much to disagree with, except maybe on the choice of word, in Dr. Burns’ argument that educating the people about risk is indispensable to prevent the kind of fear-induced overreaction that followed the attacks of September 11. Clinically, anxiety would be a better descriptor than “fear.” And anxiety is not the only possible reaction to a terrorist attack. Outrage is a much more common emotion, especially when there is little to actually fear from terrorists. But whether anxiety or outrage, the emotions that seized the American public in late 2001 kindled a collective hysteria about a possible Jihadist threat — and it is the consequences of that hysteria, more than the attacks, that will be of historical significance.


A few years before those events, in 1995, a bomb destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — and that came just two years after another bomb had failed to take down the World Trade Center. It is remarkable how different the public response was then to what would come in 2001. The Oklahoma bombing had the potential to be a similar national trauma: It was the first large attack against civilians in a country with little experience of terrorism, and was a homegrown threat that should have been more anxiogenic than an external threat like al-Qaeda — yet it is more natural, therefore less stressful, to fear turbaned Muslims than the blond, Scots-Irish next door.


During the same period, the Columbine killings — another act of terrorism, if of the apolitical kind — barely stirred a debate about gun control that was not going to go anywhere. The 1990s came and went mostly unfazed by those attacks. The sale of fertilizers may have been monitored a little more closely, but no one even bothered thinking about locking cockpit doors on airliners or banning knives from cabins — mundane measures already in place on some foreign airlines. Outrage was fleeting, fear nonexistent. Risk, then, was part of American life.


Then came 9/11, and everything changed. What happened? Was a threshold crossed with the number of casualties? Was it the visual element of the towers collapsing live on television? Certainly, the New York attacks had a much greater impact than the Washington attack, which resulted in a more “normal” level of casualties and remained relatively “unseen.” Few people now actually recall this incident without prompting, whereas New York’s slowly falling towers are part of an active, living memory.


Or was it that the Bush Administration was a different animal than the Clinton Administration? The fear that Dr. Burns warns against, the collective hysteria that derails sound policy making, is an elusive feeling. It is also a constructed feeling. There was a conspiracy of the media and government after September 2001 to build it up. The conspiracy was neither organized, nor necessarily conscious, but all the dominant winds were suddenly blowing in the same direction, forcing everyone to fall in line, taking reason for a five-year ride.


Humans are susceptible to collective hysteria because they are, cognitively and emotionally, designed to do just that. This kind of response is evolutionarily adaptive, or at least it was in the circumstances in which the human brain evolved, when our species was roaming the African savanna. But what about present times? What are the costs and benefits of hysteria for a society that runs a $14 trillion economy, employs millions of people, and is endowed with nuclear warheads? Dr. Burns’ research on the diffusion and lingering effects of fear led him to sobering conclusions about the efficiency loss it causes.


Dr. Mueller and Dr. Finel, in their response to Dr. Burns, seem to have a greater tolerance for hysteria. We know there are precedents in American history, such as the self-destructive War on Drugs, the anti-Communist witch hunts, and the mass internment of Japanese-Americans. Before that was the anti-immigrant, anti-anarchist hysteria of the early 20th century — President William McKinley, it should be recalled, fell victim to a terrorist. In each case, resources were squandered and freedom was forced to hunker down, but things eventually returned to equilibrium. American folly, it seems, is recurrent but self-correcting.


Moreover, had there been a hint of hysteria in response to the Oklahoma bombing, had this event teased the imagination of security experts and prompted them to review airline safety guidelines, the 9/11 hijackings could have been easily prevented. Finally, and most importantly, if it is the nature of the people to feel this passionately about something, shouldn’t a democratic government acknowledge those feelings?… Or should it?


Murder, rape, and addiction to intoxicants are also part of human nature, yet democratic governments repress those severely. So there is no moral reason governments should indulge — let alone nourish — their citizen’s irrational emotions when the risk is so low — as Dr. Mueller indicates of terrorism — and the consequences so high. Anxiety can mean alertness, but it can also mean a devouring hysteria, especially when it is a mask for outrage. The 9/11 attacks were not a threat to American life but to American self-image.


The Clinton Administration should have been more alert, in particular with regard to basic safety procedures. The Bush Administration should have been less hysterical — even though, to its credit, it resisted steadfastly the anti-Muslim crusades some demanded. The difference between hysteria and alertness may come, as Dr. Burns suggests, from a sound education about risks and threats. But who should be educated? The American people? The media? The government itself? And, within government, should it be the elected officials or the technocratic staff?


Elected officials are in a unique position because of their direct relationship with the American people. They are both leaders and followers: they make the public discourse, but they also respond to it. The media have a similar relationship with the people: they are not sanctioned at the end of each electoral cycle, but daily, by audience ratings. In that relationship, who manipulates whom? Who educates whom?


The technocratic staff is in a different but not necessarily better place. On one hand, they are the most qualified — by training — to understand the nature of risk and probabilities. On the other hand, they are the most vulnerable — by mission — to the realization of said risk. Homeland security does not have a statistically acceptable casualty rate: it is an absolute, zero-risk paradigm. A fantasy policy objective — zero-risk — is institutionalized as the mission of thousands of public servants, many of whom will be accountable in some form if a failure occurs. For them, public hysteria has no cost: it only pads up their budget appropriations and help accomplish their single-minded mission, if at the expense of everything else.


This is the problem of representative democracy, which absolves citizens of responsibility outside of the symbolic and sometimes grotesque — Paris Hiltonesque, as Dr. Finel points out — electoral theater. The social contract is loaded with unrealistic, often contradictory promises — economic growth, full employment, cheaper energy, fewer taxes, more spending, more freedom, and total security from terrorism, or from anything for that matter — leaving elected representatives to play the crowds with “existential threats” or metaphysical “change” to keep people in line when reality no longer fits the fantasy.


Dr. Burns correctly demands that citizens receive a strong injection of realism, about terrorism and about risk in general. This is vital for the sound exercise of a democracy. But, as Dr. Finel and Dr. Mueller point out, who has a practical interest in doing so? While all agree the public should be better educated about risk, there is no practical indication of how to swim against the tide of the massive public “de-education” undertaken by populist media and politicians. Even the technocrats, who stand on the front lines of reality, have no incentives to share what they know about risk and instead work in a culture of secrecy and dissimulation, barricaded behind “security clearances.”


It is not in the nature of American democracy to organize public education about risks such as terrorism. But it is nonetheless in the nature of this democracy to let academics like Dr. Burns, along with Supreme Court judges, satirists, realists, pragmatists, and retired technocrats speak louder about the real nature of transnational terrorism — a nuisance, a by-product of American imperial reach — and denounce the fear mongers and the populists and the ignorant for what they are. And there are indications that this message has finally reached its audience.


Two dynamics stand out about the American response to the 2001 attacks. The first is the massive erring on the side of hysteria, with negative consequences in terms of civil liberty, international law, fiscal discipline, etc. The second is the remarkable speed and magnitude of the correction. By the time of the 2006 elections, the American people had woken up to a terrible hangover from excesses in the exercise of “counterterrorism.” And while the country is still paying the price today, with a recession induced by the economic neglect and fiscal profligacy of a terrorism-obsessed administration, the population has massively rejected the paradigms of hysteria that dominated the 2001-2006 period.


At the close of this first decade of the 21st century, the American people are getting a strong dose of realism from reality itself. Having been fooled by the National Association of Realtors, who told them house prices never went down, by the Federal Reserve and pension funds managers, who claimed to know what they were doing with the people’s money, and by a foreign policy apparatus who monomaniacally pursued a war on terrorism and missed the far more consequential rise of China and resurgence of Russian nationalism, they now face a choice between a deeper leap into blind faith, and common sense.


Despite the messianic character of the last presidential election, there is some hope that common sense is prevailing — at least with regard to terrorism. Part of the public seems to have realized that the very objective of terrorism is not to provoke fear but an overreaction, and that Bin Laden took the United States for a ride even more humiliating than the destruction of the towers. They have realized that erring on the side of hysteria and changing their lifestyle — from their legal system to the way they board aircraft — was playing in the hands of their enemies. It is not certain that these lessons will be durable — that they would resist a significant attack, such as the dirty bomb envisioned by Dr. Burns — but there is hope that the next time around, the challenge will be faced with more aplomb.

The Conversation

Reducing Actual Threat Doesn’t Translate Into Decreased Perceptions of Risk or Changes in Behavior, We Need Solid Risk Communication as Well!

Bernard Finel and John Mueller (I’ll respond separately to Camille Pecastaing’s commentary) offer spirited and at moments insightful objections to my central thesis that our dialog surrounding terrorism should have as its primary goal increased resilience to threats like terrorism. I also advocate we should confront fear of terrorism directly by risk communications grounded in behavioral science and implemented at both the national and community level. I gather from their comments they don’t think resilience is such a bad idea, but that we would do better to focus on reducing terrorism risks and assume the public will figure it out sooner or later. Their recommendation would be terrific if people really behaved the way they assume. Let me address some of the important issues they raise.

Fearing “fear” too much? Can we fear “fear” too much, as my colleagues suggest? Doubtful! Even during FDR’s administration there was no evidence we came to fear “fear” too much. In fact, Roosevelt never suggested that people trade one fear for another but only that they look fear in the face and not allow it to paralyze their motivation to recover or to look forward to a better day. Having witnessed a financial panic that nearly brought the nation’s banking system to collapse, he understood the havoc fear could reap. Through his fireside chats and work programs he helped the nation eventually bounce back. Dr. Mueller rightly points out that simply addressing fear during those challenging times did not turn the economy around (neither did the work programs for many years). But Roosevelt’s tactics may have had a momentous unintended consequence. His approach helped foster resilience and prepare a generation, still in the midst of a depression, to fight villains a lot worse than al-Qaeda. This earned these folks the well deserved honor as our nation’s “greatest generation.” We could learn a lot from how they faced adversity.

Reduce the Threat, Don’t Worry About the Message? We agree the threat of terrorism has at times been used to scare us into supporting policies that we regret now. The war in Iraq is approaching a trillion dollars and counting. However, we part ways on how best to assure the public that this threat is being addressed and that we are reasonably safe. Dr. Finel encourages a largely top-down policy that seeks to reduce the actual threat of terrorism and thereby reduce the public’s fear of terrorism. He advocates disentangling ourselves from counterproductive relations in the Middle East, improving our energy policy, and engaging in better intelligence gathering. I agree completely that we need to reduce this threat and I like his recommendations very much. However, he is mistaken to believe that reducing threat translates automatically into reduced perceptions of risk, and I’ll offer a counterexample shortly. Dr. Mueller recommends that we get real and focus on threats that have a reasonable likelihood of occurring — use our dollars wisely would be his advice. Yes, but what are the probabilities for certain terrorist risks? Clearly the odds of being injured individually are practically zero but the likelihood of another attack in the United States is devilishly tough to determine — we need to be careful with this course. Communicating directly with the public about their understandings and concerns does not appear to be high on my colleagues’ list of recommendations. One believes disciplined risk communication is unrealistic and unlikely by itself to solve real problems. The other thinks sharing probabilities is enough; the public will get it (or not). Let’s address these.

Will reducing the real risks surrounding terrorism necessarily lead to a change in the public’s perception of the threat? Not necessarily, unless we also address misperceptions and concerns. Look around at what people fear: we overestimate crime, but we underestimate diabetes. Perceptions of threat tend to be based on ease of recall and vividness of images. Recall and imagery are highly influenced by news reporting. Editorial decisions don’t necessarily track statistical risk and hence the big disconnect.

For a dramatic example, consider what happened to the nuclear power industry in this country. Industry executives and engineers went down the road Dr. Finel suggests. Arguably, we had the safest protocols in the world. But that didn’t matter after the accident at Three Mile Island. The industry collapsed under enormous public outcry. Outrage was not based on loss of life and property or damage to the environment (there wasn’t any). It was triggered by what the accident signaled to the public about the industry’s safety. Radiation is extremely difficult to communicate about, and there was a huge gap between expert and public understanding. Some economists place it as one of the most expensive accidents in human history. Ironically, our reaction to this accident (along with our lifestyle) increased our dependence on foreign oil, which set into motion factors (bad energy policy) that have contributed to our present terrorist threat. Take-away lesson: To be effective, reducing risk must be accompanied by identifying gaps in public understanding. Otherwise, people will draw their conclusions from the dramatic, often disproportionate depictions in the media and well-meaning associates. I do agree, however, that words not backed up by risk-reducing actions will not work well.

Can disciplined risk communication make a difference and solve real world problems amidst the unruly world of contemporary politics and media? Absolutely, and Barack Obama’s campaign showed us that it could be done. His risk communication challenge was asking the American public to bet on a complete newcomer, of different skin color than the previous 43, who lived in parts of the world that some would say are not as friendly to the United States as they could be, and during especially troubled times to boot. Yes, voting for president is one of the riskiest choices we make considering all that follows from it (Will anyone who’s been voting since 2000 doubt it?). Even non-supporters acknowledge that his victory was due in large part to extraordinarily disciplined messaging. His historic victory and the policy changes it signals may actually reduce the threat of terrorism worldwide.

Security Theater? Related to threat reduction and risk perception is security theater, an issue discussed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article “The Things He Carried.” Here we have a kind of “fake it until you make it” policy that seeks to soothe public fears by engaging in security measures that are more for show than safety until we rid ourselves of the threat. Many activities at the airport fit this description according to some security experts.

Let’s stand back a moment and ask why a smart and largely well-intended security community would get involved with this kind of stagecraft. I’m going to skip the cynical view and offer a constructive explanation and recommendation based on my essay. Many of us have unrealistic expectations for safety because we do not have a good understanding how things go wrong and what it really takes to fix them. Instead of security theater there needs to be honest dialog at both the national and community levels about what we can actually do, and the costs involved. This kind of dialog builds trust whereas security theater only buys time. Dr. Mueller and Dr. Finel rightly encourage us to focus our efforts on likelihoods and tradeoffs respectively. But thinking meaningfully about each requires real communication between experts and the public, as I’ve outlined, in right expectations, right understanding and right dialog. We need to lay the ground work now rather than waiting until we are in the middle of a crisis.

Fear of Terrorism and Personal Freedoms? Survey results over the last few years give reason to be concerned that under some threatening conditions we might be willing to trade personal freedoms for increased security. This evidence may be compelling for some but much ado about nothing for others. There is the argument that despite significant threats over the years we still have more freedoms and protections than other countries. I’ll leave the finer points of this discussion to constitutional scholars and simply caution that we need to be careful about taking these freedoms for granted. There are limits to the protection that our constitutional checks and balances may provide in the same way as there were limits to the ability of our financial markets to self-regulate. Taking steps now to assure a well-informed and resilient public with regards to the threats we face in the future is a wise and prudent investment.

Encouraging a Resilient Public

On most issues, I think the gap between my perspective and Dr. Burns’ is quite small. I don’t think that policy success directly translates into changes in public perceptions. And I agree with his conclusion, “Take-away lesson: To be effective, reducing risk must be accompanied by identifying gaps in public understanding.” Where I am more skeptical is about the role of an explicit communication strategy in bringing about the changes we seek.

Aside from the problem of cutting through the noise that I mentioned earlier, I just don’t think there is any good evidence that nuanced discourse affects perceptions. Indeed, virtually every public policy debate in the United States tends to resolve itself down a set of unsophisticated sound-bites that gain traction through their appeal to broader, inchoate beliefs and norms. We don’t debate the actual merits of policy options. What we debate is whether a proposal looks vaguely like something we like or hate. The public tends to lodge policy debates into quite broad boxes… much to the frustration of policy wonks. But it is what it is.

And frankly, there is nothing really wrong with that. Communication with the public always has theatrical elements. It is often about images and symbols more than about details. Which is why, ultimately, I think that any public reassurance strategy will inevitably gravitate away from the sophisticated discourse envisaged by Dr. Burns and toward the blunt “security theater” approaches that we’ve already seen.

There is also another issue I’d like to raise: national culture. This is a slippery concept and I introduce it with some trepidation. But I can’t help but think it is relevant. Consider Britain, where as a matter of national culture there exists the concept of the “stiff upper lip” in response to threats. Whereas in the United States we value the use of decisive violence to eliminate threats once and for all. These broad orientations don’t define policy choices, but I do think that appeals to calm reflection on risks gain more traction in Britain than in the United States, where we don’t like to see problems fester but rather prefer to “solve” them. It may be that some of the approaches successfully implemented elsewhere just won’t work in the United States because they are contrary to our national expectations of decisive leadership.

Commentary on Terrorism and Risk Communication by Howard Kunreuther

Editors’ Note: From time to time, we receive particularly well-considered expert commentary on an issue of Cato Unbound. This month we received two such commentaries, and we are pleased to run the first of them today. It comes from Howard Kunreuther, the Cecilia Yen Koo Professor of Decision Sciences and Public Policy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. Kunreuther writes,

The essay by William Burns on terrorism is very insightful and raises a number of important issues related to risk communication for events such as terrorism where emotions run high. At the same time one needs to recognize, as Burns does, that over time we tend to become complacent with respect to events that have not reoccurred. In the case of terrorism many people are likely to perceive that another attack will not affect them and hence we do not need to be vigilant with respect to future threats.

Other Factors to Consider

To better prepare the nation for dealing with terrorism, there are a set of elements I suggest we consider to complement the important points that Burns makes:

–Issues of blame

–Lack of interest in probabilities

–Ignoring low probability risks

–Short term horizons


Let me briefly consider each of these points before suggesting the features of a broad strategy for addressing extreme events such as terrorism:

Issues of Blame McGraw et al. (2009) show that policy makers’ decisions may be influenced by the blame they expect for failures to prevent terrorist attacks. Data from controlled experiments reveal that the public’s judgments of blame for failures to prevent terrorist attacks and the perceived likelihoods of those attacks are independent. For example, even though participants felt that terrorists would be more likely to use a truck loaded with explosives or a rocket launcher than a hijacked airplane, they wanted more funds allocated to airline security than to deterring attacks using these other two modes. The data revealed that policy makers would be blamed more if the attack was one that had occurred in the past even if it was viewed to be less likely. In other words, people’s budget priorities for preventing terrorist attacks are more strongly associated with emotional reactions, including blame, than with judgments of likelihood.

Lack of Interest in Probabilities One reason that policy makers disregard likelihood in their decisions is because the public focuses its attention primarily on the consequences of an attack. Several studies show, however, that individuals rarely seek out probability estimates in making their decisions. When these data are given to them, decision makers often do not use the information. In one study, researchers found that only 22 percent of subjects sought out probability information when evaluating several risky managerial decisions (Huber et al. 1997). People have particular difficulty dealing with probabilistic information for small likelihood events. They need a context in which to evaluate the likelihood of an event occurring. They have a hard time gauging how concerned to feel about a 1 in 100,000 probability of death without some comparison points. Most people just do not know whether 1 in 100,000 is a large risk or a small risk. In one study, individuals could not distinguish the relative safety of a chemical plant that had an annual chance of experiencing a catastrophic accident that varied from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1 million (Kunreuther, Novemsky and Kahneman 2003).

Ignoring Low Probability Risks Many decision makers ignore risks that are below their threshold level of concern. Property owners residing in communities that are potential sites for nuclear waste facilities have a tendency to dismiss the risk as negligible (Oberholzer 1998). Even experts in risk disregard some hazards. For instance, even after the first terrorist attack against the World Trade Center in 1993, terrorism risk continued to be included as an unnamed peril in most commercial insurance policies in the United States, and policy holders were never charged a penny for it. When the second and more devastating terrorist attacks occurred on September 11, 2001, insurers and their reinsurers had to pay $35 billion of insured losses (Kunreuther and Pauly 2005).

Short Term Horizons Individuals and firms have short time horizons when planning for the future so they may not fully weigh the long-term benefits from investing in loss reduction measures. This is a principal reason why consumers are reluctant to incur the high immediate cost of energy-efficient appliances in return for reduced electricity charges over time. There is even less interest in investing in protective measures where there is only a small chance that the individual or organization will benefit from having taken such action. The upfront costs of mitigation loom disproportionately high relative to the delayed expected benefits over time (Kunreuther, Meyer and Michel Kerjan, in press).

In addition, there is extensive experimental evidence showing that human temporal discounting tends to be hyperbolic so that events in the distant future are disproportionately discounted relative to immediate ones. As an example, people are willing to pay more to have the timing of the receipt of a cash prize accelerated from tomorrow to today, than from two days from now to tomorrow. (Loewenstein and Prelec 2001).

With respect to terrorism there may be some reluctance on the part of firms to invest in risk reduction measures just as there is a lack of interest by those residing in hazard-prone areas to invest in mitigation measures against natural disasters. The effect of placing too much weight on immediate considerations is that the upfront costs of mitigation will loom disproportionately large relative to the delayed expected benefits in losses over time.

Interdependencies There are also problems of interdependencies that decisionmakers fail to appreciate fully. For large corporations, a failure in one division can lead to disruption or bankruptcy of the entire firm worldwide. For example, a Bhopal-like accident at a chemical plant can lead to losses that are so large that they cause bankruptcy of the entire operation. An ownership group such as Lloyd’s, which controls a number of semi-autonomous syndicates, can fail if one of the syndicates experiences a severe enough loss. In February 1995, Barings Bank was destroyed by the actions of a single trader in its Singapore unit and in 2002, Arthur Andersen was sent into bankruptcy by the actions of its Houston branch working with Enron. Similar events have happened to other financial services units recently, notably the potential collapse of the American International Group (A.I.G.), the world’s largest insurer, as a result of a 377-person London unit known as A.I.G. Financial Products that was run with almost complete autonomy from the parent company. Given such an institutional structure, what economic incentive does any division have to incur the costs of protective measures that adversely affect its short-term balance sheet (and the annual bonuses of its managers), if other divisions in the organization are not taking similar actions? (Kunreuther 2009)

With respect to terrorism, weak links in an interdependent system can cause problems in other parts that had invested in risk-reducing measures. A classic example is the Pan Am 103 crash in 1988. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am flight 103 exploded near Lockerbie, Scotland. Terrorists had checked a bag containing a bomb in Malta on Malta Airlines, which had minimal security procedures. The bag was transferred in Frankfurt to a Pan Am feeder line, and then loaded onto Pan Am 103 in London’s Heathrow Airport. The bomb was designed to explode above 28,000 feet, a height normally first attained on this route over the Atlantic Ocean. Given such interdependencies among different players in a network, the above example illustrates that security for the entire network may only be as strong as its weakest link. In this case, the terrorists deliberately exploited the widely varying security procedures across the airlines. This problem is common to other transportation modes, where there are interconnections between nodes in the network (Heal and Kunreuther 2005).

Strategies for Dealing with Terrorism

Given these behavioral features, I feel it is necessary to complement Burns’ suggestions for improving risk communication by developing a strategy for dealing with terrorism that involves a private-public partnership that encourages decision makers to focus on the long run. The Wharton Risk Center has undertaken research on natural hazards that may be applicable for addressing the terrorism problem even though there are some differences between these events.[1] In my opinion the Obama Administration should design a strategy for terrorism that incorporates the two features, which are elaborated further in Kunreuther and Michel-Kerjan, 2009. First, counterterrorism measures should include well enforced regulations and standards to deal with the tendency for individuals to ignore low-probability events as well as the interdependency problem. And second, long-term contracts should be used to overcome the myopia problem and encourage individuals to think probabilistically.

[1] Natural disasters are Acts of God where the actions by those at risk have no impact on the likelihood of the event occur. Terrorists, on the other hand, can modify their strategies as a function of the actions taken by those at risk. For a more detailed comparison of natural disaster and terrorism see Table 2.1 in National Research Council (2008).


Heal, Geoffrey and Howard Kunreuther (2005). “You Can Only Die Once: Interdependent Security in an Uncertainty World,” in H.W. Richardson, P. Gordon and J.E. Moore II, (eds.), The Economic Impacts of Terrorist Attacks. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Huber, O., Wider, R. and Huber, O. (1997). “Active Information Search and Complete Information Presentation in Naturalistic Risky Decision Tasks” Acta Psychologica, 95:15-29.

Kunreuther, H., R.J. Meyer and E. Michel-Kerjan (in press). “Strategies for Better Protection against Catastrophic Risks”, in E. Shafir (ed), Behavioral Foundations of Policy, Princeton University Press.

Kunreuther, H. and Michel-Kerjan (2009). “Market and Government Failure in Insuring and Mitigating Natural Catastrophes: How Long-Term Contracts Can Help” Paper prepared for the American Enterprise Institute Conference on Private Markets and Public Insurance Programs Wohlstetter Conference Center Washington, DC January 15.

Kunreuther, H., N. Novemsky and D. Kahneman (2001). “Making Low Probabilities Useful.” Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 23:103-120.

Kunreuther, H. and Pauly, M. (2005). “Terrorism Losses and All Perils Insurance” Journal of Insurance Regulation Summer pp. 1-17.

Loewenstein, G. and D. Prelec (1991). “Negative Time Preference,” American Economic Review, 81(2): 347-52.

McGraw, P., Todorov, A. and Kunreuther, H. (2009). “Preventing blame while preventing terrorism” (in preparation).

National Research Council (2008). Department of Homeland Security Bioterrorism Risk Assessment: A Call for Change. Washington, D.C: The National Academies Press.

Oberholzer-Gee, Felix (1998). “Learning to Bear the Unbearable: Towards and Explanation of Risk Ignorance,” Mimeo, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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.

Risk Communication and the Dynamics of Public Response

Camille Pecastaing offers a number of useful insights in response to my essay and Bernard Finel’s and John Mueller’s comments. He begins by pointing out that what I call fear in my essay is really anxiety. This is a good point, because fear is more visceral but anxiety endures well past the traumatic events. Anxiety and negative affect are closer to the reactions I am most concerned about. He also argues correctly that anger or outrage were common reactions to the events of September 11th. I do object to his use of the word hysteria however; this is a loaded term. I do not think hysteria accurately describes how most Americans responded to the attacks on the Twin Towers or the Pentagon.

Dr. Pecastaing speaks of a kind of conspiracy — dominant winds blowing in the same direction — in which the administration, media, and public together became numb to reason. I believe the public in a state of chronic anxiety ignored the probabilities of future attacks, failed to consider the opportunity costs of going to war, and, being distracted, failed to see other risks that eventually led to the financial crisis. Very puzzling was the media’s lack of serious investigative journalism leading up to the war.

Interesting is the comment pertaining to the Department of Homeland Security paradigm of zero-risk. This fantasy objective, as Dr. Pecastaing calls it, has big implications. If true, it suggests that that no amount of funding is too large in the effort to protect our country. As I indicate above, such focus has large opportunity costs. What do we give up in pursuit of this standard? The public appears to implicitly expect this level of protection as well. There is a sad irony here. The longer we go without being attacked the more pressure there may be for our nation’s leaders to adhere to unreasonable standards to avoid having another attack on their watch.

I agree that there are two primary dynamics that we need to pay attention to if we are to properly understand public reaction. First, there is the reaction of fear, anger, and anxiety that follows a terrorist attack. These emotions tend to amplify the risk causing us to overestimate the event’s impact. In this state of mind we may favor drastic rather than measured response. Second, we also observe that the public tends to self-correct in the months following an attack. This process helps put the breaks on overreaction. Whichever set of feedback loops is stronger will determine the net reaction at any given point after the attack. We would do well to study this balancing mechanism so that we can design risk communication strategies that help mitigate overreaction. Well designed risk communication may have enormous policy relevance in this regard.

Commentary on Terrorism and Risk Communication by Timothy Sellnow

Editors’ Note: From time to time, we receive particularly well-considered expert commentary on an issue of Cato Unbound. This month we received two such commentaries, and we are pleased to run the second of them today. It comes from Timothy Sellnow, a professor of risk and crisis communication at the University of Kentucky who has often worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Prof. Sellnow writes,

As a professor of risk and crisis communication who has worked closely with the Department of Homeland security on terrorism and public communication issues, I commend William Burns for his compelling overview of challenges and opportunities we face regarding terrorism — “the new species of trouble.” As a communication specialist, I was particularly impressed with Burns’ emphasis on dialog and resilience. Considerable communication research suggests that a genuine dialog — listening to public concerns and responding openly and accurately — between government agencies and the general public creates enhanced perceptions of self-efficacy and optimism. As Burns indicates, risk communication scholars have studied numerous crises in an attempt to generate “best practices for risk and crisis communication.” These best practices are split into three areas:

–pre-crisis dialog with all stakeholders, including the general public, that can help to avert or minimize the impact of a potential crisis,

–communication during a crisis that can help mitigate the impact of the crisis, and

–post-crisis communication that help to restore confidence and coordinate a response to the crisis

Burns is also correct in his emphasis of the need for message sensitivity in a dialog related to terrorism. Research indicates that standard media sources, for example, tend to miss underrepresented populations, particularly new Americans. This research consistently reveals that many individuals outside the mainstream population are less likely to trust standard information sources unless someone they trust has endorsed the message.

Burns’ call for a dialog that creates a realistic understanding of the actual risk and that empowers all stakeholders with the knowledge needed to function before, during, and after a crisis, is supported by an abundance of evidence. Indeed, such planning helps stakeholders accept and manage the uncertainty that is inherent in terrorism.

Additional work has been done to assess the degree to which the media accurately portrays the risk of terrorism. The results of this research are shared frequently with various media groups in hopes of creating opportunities for a synergistic relationship that makes coverage of such issues as bioterrorism as accurate as possible. If this effort is successful, two outcomes will occur:

–The media will reach its full potential to serve as a resource for improving the public’s understanding of risk in complex and evolving issues such as terrorism.

–The media will reflect both public concern and the realistic risk level of the terrorism threat.

Indeed this is the stated research and training objective of the risk communication team at one of the Department of Homeland Security’s Centers of Excellence.

Without a focus on improving relationships with the media, agency leaders miss an opportunity to create the accurate perception of terrorism, the “learned optimism” that Burns correctly contrasts with the problems of “learned helplessness.”

Burns’ essay and this response have addressed only a portion of the research being done in risk communication. Still, the call for an ongoing dialog that encompasses pre-crisis planning, crisis response strategies, and post-crisis needs is essential. The outcome of this dialog is a better-informed and more resilient population. Conversely, the absence of this commitment to dialog is likely to create an increasingly fearful society that lacks a capacity to allocate resources in a manner that accurately addresses the risk of terrorism.

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.

Risk Communication, Resilience, and the Wolf We Nurture

President Obama in his inaugural address squarely acknowledges that our country is facing significant challenges at home and abroad. These challenges, whether they are from the threat of terrorism or the current financial crisis, have brought hardships to many people from all walks of life. We have for a time been knocked down. Even so, the president asks now that we get back up, that we brush our discouragement off and that we help to chart a new course for America, and by our example the world. It is with hope and virtue, he says, that we can and will face what storms may come. In essence, he asks that we be resilient in the face of our current troubles and future adversity. This is no easy request. It will require a sea change in our communication about risk.

Terrorism and times of crisis more generally produce a feeling of vulnerability which is born of uncertainty and lack of perceived control. Following some tragic occurrence we may feel deeply uncertain about what the event signals for the future. We may also wonder what can be done to protect ourselves. Feelings of fear, anger and anxiety are a usual response. These emotions become problematic when they cause us to focus almost exclusively on some dire consequence. This myopia will often cause us to ignore relevant probabilities and alternative consequences. With such narrow focus we have limited capacity to reason very far into the future. Instead we opt for policies with quick and decisive returns at the expense of more enduring long-term benefits. With this mindset we fail to develop resilience in the face of threat.

We can however, engage in risk dialogue that addresses our uncertainties and lack of perceived control directly. There are good reasons to do this. Increased understanding and sense of control lessens the tendency to focus narrowly on a single dire consequence. As a result, we tend to explore more options during personal decisions and policy deliberations. Such dialogue however requires that we identify public misperceptions surrounding such threats and construct risk messages to address these perceptual gaps. This is not easy, especially at the level of the national media. As Bernard Finel points out, the public tends to pay attention to sound bites, not nuanced conversation. However, it is possible to engage the public in meaningful dialogue at the community level where trust is high and attention span is much longer. Camille Pecastaing proposes that we begin such risk communication in our high schools. Tim Sellnow points out that we really need to develop three types of risk messages: pre-crisis messages that encourage mitigation of the impacts of potential events, during-crisis messages that minimize the impacts of an on-going event, and post-crisis messages that help restore confidence after an event.

We can also complement our risk communications with regulatory policy and contracts. Howard Kunreuther suggests that we develop policies that enforce regulations surrounding certain risks so as to overcome our tendency to ignore probabilities that fall below our threshold of concern (e.g. a mortgage crisis). He also advises that long-term contracts be used to overcome our bent toward near-term solutions (e.g. reluctance to invest in mitigation efforts to prevent large impacts in the future).

In my lead essay I suggest that with this new administration we are offered a choice in how we will respond to the threats of the future. Along our present course fear and anger will unduly influence our judgment and chart our way. Following our better history, as President Obama puts it, we will allow compassion and deliberative action to plot our course. Said another way, Rev. Sharon Watkins, in her post-inaugural sermon at the National Cathedral, warns that during this time of crisis we may be led away from our ethical center. It is though there are two wolves struggling within us, she remarks. The one represents anger, resentment, and fear and the other compassion, hope, and truth (taken from Cherokee lore). As we know the wolf that wins is the one we feed. This insightful story echoes the need for deep dialogue surrounding the threats we face. Those risk messages that we chronically attend to and come to internalize determine our collective response. We would do well to consider which wolf we are nurturing.