On Remaining Sane in the Face of Terrorism

By James Fallows

(Please see update below.) The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has written recently to criticize attempts by John Mueller and others to put terrorist attacks "into perspective." Mueller has compared the number of people killed in bombings, hijackings, and similar deliberate terrorist assaults with, say, the number who drown in bathtubs each year. His point is to ask whether terrorism should be considered an "existential threat," as many people argued after 9/11, and whether the "global war on terror" has justified the financial costs and the strains on Constitutional liberties we have seen in the past decade.

9-11 Ten Years LaterJeff Goldberg points out, correctly, that not all risks or deaths are the same, and that there is a big difference between an accidental tragedy and a purposeful assault. Roughly as many Americans die from cancer every two days (~3000) as died from terrorism on September 11, 2001, but we rightly regard these tolls in very different ways. He then makes another point I agree with, but from which I draw a different conclusion from his own:

Deaths caused by terrorism, on the other hand, can have a profound effect on society and the economy. The deaths of ten people in bathtub accidents won't cause people to fear leaving their homes; but imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater. And imagine if it happens more than once. The economic impact could be devastating; the impact on the emotional health of parents and children would be profound....

And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. ...Terrorism's capacity to affect the functioning of our society, and to fray the bonds that tie citizens together, and to cause mass-casualty events that would dwarf 9/11, makes it a unique and dangerous challenge.

It is precisely because people and societies can panic about terrorist threats -- and often did ten years ago -- that both the threats and the panic are worth doing everything possible to minimize. Anyone who has ever thought about the long-term effort against terrorism realizes that the threat of attacks will never completely go away. If a society is large, open, and diverse, that is simply impossible. It's like "eliminating" crime, or evil. Or like eliminating the chance of another Columbine-style schoolyard shooting, which is "terrorism" in every way except the conventional name. All of these deserve the best possible preventive efforts, but "best possible" will never mean perfect.

Therefore the next step is to avoid magnifying the terrorizing effects of a murderous attack, and instead to do what we can to keep it in perspective. Parents send their children to school every day, even though we know that some day there will be "another Columbine" (or "another Virginia Tech" or, away from the schoolyard, "another Tucson"). School shootings are absolute evil, which we should take far more urgently than we do. But when they occur, the usual response is to try to dampen rather than intensify a reaction of generalized fearfulness and panic. That is how we should react to something called "terrorism" as well. Which is what Mueller was trying to do.

I think Jeffrey Goldberg agrees with this; but I wanted to spell out that what he presents as something terrorism "can" create is something worth doing our utmost to resist. It's bad enough when people are hurt or killed for any reason -- in car crashes, in random crime, or by someone who says he is waging a holy war. It's worse in all of these cases if we needlessly compound the physical damage with panic and terror.

As an example of an attitude not to emulate, consider this report just now (with emphasis added): 

Washington (CNN) -- U.S. officials say terrorists could try to use small aircraft in attacks, but have no specific information that such a plot is in the works, according to a new notice distributed by federal officials."Violent extremists with knowledge of general aviation and access to small planes pose a significant potential threat to the Homeland," according to an intelligence bulletin issued by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.

But according to the alert, U.S. officials "do not have current, credible information or intelligence of an imminent attack being planned against aviation" by al Qaeda or its affiliates.

Great. (Including the loathsome use of the term "the Homeland." As the joke goes, it sounds better in the original German.) All I have to add is that terrorists could also be sending in stolen nuclear devices via barrage blimps. But I have no specific information that such a plot is in the works. I just thought I'd make you worry.

This is not how a great nation behaves, or thinks. And for a complementary UK perspective, see this biting essay from the Guardian. Happy Labor Day.

UPDATE: A Western reader who lives in central China makes my point more tersely.

Quoting J Goldberg, "Deaths caused by terrorism, on the other hand, can have a profound effect on society and the economy. The deaths of ten people in bathtub accidents won't cause people to fear leaving their homes; but imagine the impact of 10 deaths in a terrorist bombing of a shopping mall, or a movie theater. And imagine if it happens more than once. The economic impact could be devastating; the impact on the emotional health of parents and children would be profound...."

What I take away from it is that if you allow yourself to be frightened, then you'll be frightened but you have thus shown yourself to be weak by allowing the other person to define you. You have handed them the keys. THEY own you if you fear

You can "imagine" yourself into a quivering mass of self-terrorized jello if you want to. Or you can react rationally and not play golf in a lightning storm. And this doesn't even begin to address the interests of those who would have you be afraid because it is in their interests, not yours.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/09/on-remaining-sane-in-the-face-of-terrorism/244543/