Why we think terrorism is scarier than it really is (and we probably always will)
I am arriving in Brussels. The train from London is full of the usual Chinese tourists and bored businesspeople. The city doesn’t, contrary to the impression given by CNN, resemble Kabul. Rows and rows of untouched houses scream bourgeois calm (actually, they gently whisper bourgeois calm).
As I wander out of the train station, grim-faced soldiers with impressively large automatic weapons are rousting a homeless man. He doesn’t look dangerous. There is no gunfire or explosion going off in the background. Daily life in Brussels continues in its usual sunless stupor.
Outside the train station, I think of the 31 people who were so tragically killed in the metro and at the airport while innocently going about their daily lives. I am helpless to resist imagining myself or my loved ones in their place.
But as I watch the Brussels traffic, I’m also thinking about the two or three people who, statistically speaking, died in road accidents that same day in Belgium. They were also going about their daily lives and probably also died tragically.
But we will not have protest marches for them or newspaper profiles lamenting their loss. In fact, we will never know, or apparently care, who they were. Still, there are two or three more of them every day.
Similarly, there were 372 mass shootings in the United States in 2015, killing 475 people and wounding 1,870, yet ending this killing spree is a minor issue in the presidential campaign. But a terrorist attack in a city an ocean away that killed far fewer people has already roiled the campaign.
Along with many, many others, I’ve been researching and writing about this disproportionate reaction to terrorism for more than a decade — about the dangers it poses to freedom and democracy, and even the ways it can encourage more terrorism.President Barack Obama seems to agree.
Yet it is abundantly clear by now that these arguments, as strong as they seem to me, will never have an impact.
Indeed, a phone call from the US reminded me that I haven’t even convinced my own mother. She was not happy that I had dared to visit Brussels. She advised me to stay away from crowds. She loves me, but her fear is stronger than her faith in my analysis (which, she assures me, she does read).
The difference between her image of Brussels and its reality is hardly surprising. Back in the US, the media hype surrounding terrorist attacks, the fear it generates among the public, and the exaggerated policy responses that public reaction inspires in politicians are all now part of the routine.
Why? Why do we continue to choose fear? Why do we care so much more if you are killed by a terrorist than by a drunken driver or an apolitically deranged individual with a gun?
Over the years, I’ve observed three main reasons:
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