Terrorism has had a catastrophic effect on US Policy and public perception of what our country’s priorities ought to be. Terrorism, exacerbated by media frenzy, has been able to get more front page space than the majority of the actual threats and issues our country faces. The intent of terrorism, to create terror for a political aims, has so far been fulfilled, with 75% of Americans believing that occasional terrorism will be part of life in the near future, Americans wanting Clinton and Trump to talk more about keeping America safe from terrorism than any other issue during the election debates, and America spending over $3 trillion on the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, which doesn’t include domestic measures that amount to around $1 trillion. The supposed threat of terrorism has driven our current President to install travel bans from areas that he believes harbor some of the worst people on this earth, increase our defense spending, and also increase troop deployment to Afghanistan.
One might expect the threat of terrorism to be rather extreme for such measures and public discourse to be taking place. However, this is not the case. A terrorist attack is no more likely to kill you than unstable furniture. You have a .00003% of dying from a foreign born terrorist and 0 refugees from the countries Trump has a travel ban on have killed anyone in terrorist attacks on American soil. I’ve talked about this in a previous article on why refugees aren’t dangerous. Further stated by the Washington Post:
Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.” Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University, has observed that “[e]ven in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never [comes] close to the number of traffic deaths.”
There are a couple primary reasons why we have misconceptions of the threat of terrorism: the media and risk assessment.
The media uses terrorism to boost ratings, drawing in viewers with images of injured victims and constant updates that can last anywhere from days to weeks on a given attack. The perpetual media coverage has a number of troubling effects on the world we live in. Studies link the media’s obsessive coverage of terrorist leading to further violence. Combined with the media’s attention to mainly attacks on western countries, committed by foreign born Muslims (even though these are far less common than most terrorist attacks) this creates a startling narrative: the West and Islam are at war.
On the flip side, the main stream media has failed to cover topics of importance that effect vastly more people than terrorist attacks from climate change to income inequality. If the number of deaths was driving what the media covers we’d see drastic coverage of cancer, heart disease, overdoses, etc. This in turn distorts our priorities when it comes to what the government should spend money on. For example, Alzheimer’s one of the leading causes of death, only gets $480 million in research funding.
Our misconceptions hamper our ability to access the actually risk of dying from terrorism. Humans are naturally less afraid of things that our considered in their control. This can easily be seen in the average person’s lack of fear while driving even though it is a relatively dangerous activity, resulting in around 40,000 deaths a year. This is demonstrated in a study that showed more people died from avoiding airplanes and choosing to drive instead following the attacks on 9/11 killing than actually died in the attacks. Since terrorist attacks are seemingly random, are disproportionately reported on, and result in brutal deaths, people are more likely to fear them versus the many slow killing illnesses and problems that don’t make the headlines.
The implications for our policy decisions are detrimental if one is hoping to improve our society, especially in our case where political leadership is very focused on the threat of terrorism. By diverting resources and not focusing on many of the long term issues, that effect the majority of our citizens and the world, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and future generations.