Sunday, February 21, 2010

Fear of Terrorism

Fear of Terrorism

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently released an interesting report which highlights the changing priorities of the American public. Addressing the budget deficit, defending against terrorism, and strengthening the military are all areas that have become higher priorities for Americans in the last year. (

At the same time, it turns out that of all the threats to our lives, terrorism is very low on the lists of threats. As a blogger put it: the threat to human lives of terrorism is just a bit greater than the threat from death by shark-bite. Here are some of the relevant numbers:

“In 2008, 14,180 Americans were murdered, according to the FBI. In that year, there were 34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us, 3,320 deaths by fire. More than 11,000Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering 443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society; 5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated 1,760 children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.
Americans living in the United States are in vanishingly little danger from terrorism, but in significant danger driving to the mall; or that alcohol, tobacco, E. coli bacteria, fire, domestic abuse, murder, and the weather present the sort of potentially fatal problems that might be worth worrying about, or even changing your behavior over, or perhaps investing some money in. Terrorism, not so much.” (

A few days earlier a report in the Boston Globe asserted that “In 2009, crime went down. In fact it's been going down for a decade. But more and more Americans believe it's getting worse. The vast majority of Americans - nearly three-quarters of the population - thought crime got worse in the United States in 2009, according to Gallup’s annual crime attitudes poll. That, too, is part of a running trend. As crime rates have dropped for the past decade, the public belief in worsening crime has steadily grown. The more lawful the country gets, the more lawless we imagine it to be.” ( 2010/02/14/ imaginary_fiends/)

The exaggerated fear of terrorists and criminals. in general. suggests different trains of thought. We might want to ask ourselves why, in a world beset by so many threats to our life and well-being, we should ignore a real threats and be panicked over imagined ones. What is going on here?

But a different train of thought suggests that the terrorists, especially those of 9/11 have been successful. The goal of terrorism – as the name suggests – is to instill fear. 9/11 has made us much more fearful of terrorist threats than the facts allow. We are left frightened and our fears get in the way of thinking straight; they lead us into betraying our traditions and institutions.

Consider the current debate over trying persons accused of terrorist acts in civilian courts or before military commissions. The debate is conducted in terms of numbers of people convicted in civilian court or in military trials. Every commentator that I have heard, whether “progressive” or not, assesses the quality of courts by how many people they convict.

In an earlier, less terrified age we valued our courts by whether they dispensed justice, whether the accuser and accused were dealt with impartially, and evidence was weighed carefully. But now all we care about is that our courts convict. We are looking for “hanging judges,” not for fair ones. The fear instilled in us by terrorism has made us less interested in justice and that is a terrible loss.

The role of a just court system is to find those who are guilty and exonerate those who are innocent. But in the pressure to get as many convictions as possible of the Guantanamo inmates and others accused of terrorism, their guilt is already assumed. We already know that they are “terrorists” or “enemy combatants” and we want them punished. In our eagerness to lock up the people we fear, we pervert the functions of the courts. Their role is to find the guilty and to protect the innocent, not to inflict punishment on people whom many Americans have already judged and found guilty.

Another aspect of this debate is also worrisome. Conservatives tend to argue for trying accused terrorists in military tribunals. That goes with a long-standing tradition among conservatives of being distrustful of our court system. They accuse our courts of “coddling criminals” and releasing dangerous persons back into the community. Here again, our court system has been criticized for not protecting us. There is no interest in justice or judicial fairness, or in the protection of the individual rights of all.

This denigration of our court system – one of the most spectacular accomplishments of our political tradition – in favor of military courts constitute an ominous inclination to prefer authoritarian establishments to those of a free society.

In any society there tend to be tensions between the need for security and the protection of individual rights. Our society has traditionally been careful to protect individual rights, not to be sure all citizens, but of a larger number than are protected in many other societies. We can take some pride in our efforts to respect individual rights.

The serious effect of terrorism is that we are much more frightened and therefore much more willing to sacrifice individual rights and established legal procedures for our security. It is the utmost importance for all of us to recover our equanimity, to recover our confidence in our traditional institutions and to see that, while terrorism is a threat, it is a much smaller threat than most people think. We are pretty secure in the society and do not need to sacrifice our freedoms and rights for the sake of security.

Terrorism wins when we weaken our freedoms and rights.

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