Terrorism and fear

From: hal@finney.org
Date: Wed Sep 12 2001 - 16:28:48 MDT

Even if we can reduce the risks of aviation terrorism and other specific
mechanisms, we will obviously never be perfectly safe.

Objectively, terrorism does not pose a significant risk to the life
of the average American. Over 6,000 people die every day in the US.
We'd have to have a WTC disaster at least every couple of weeks in order
to significantly affect overall mortality rates.

Given this limited impact, clearly terrorism is not about death.
It is, as the name suggests, about fear. And fear is largely a matter
of perception.

You don't need to kill 10,000 people to be a successful terrorist.
300 soldiers were killed in Beirut in the 1980s and it sent a shock wave
through the country. 6 were killed in the earlier WTC bombing in 1993
and it had tremendous impact. It all depends on how people react.

We will never be able to control terrorist attacks. But we can have more
success in controlling our reactions. The terrorist wants to instill
fear, but we can control our fear. We can control how we react.

I would suggest that it should be possible to learn to largely ignore
terrorist attacks, at least insofar as they threaten death. The fact is,
the chances of them having a significant impact on anyone's lifespan is
extremely low. Even if WTC scale attacks began happening once a month,
most people could more than make up for the increase in mortality by
starting an exercise program or going on a diet.

The impact on infrastructure and the economic cost may be more
significant. But that should not be a cause for terror, just for
irritation and anger. We've lost a building and some talented people.
Our economy will be hampered for several days or weeks, and the
repercussions will be felt for longer. This is an impediment to our
prosperity. But we should not feel fearful about it.

It may be that the sheer magnitude and scale of the WTC attack will make
the terrorist's job harder in the future. Next time a building gets
bombed or a plane goes down, we may say, so what? It's only 200 people
dead. That's a drop in the bucket compared to what we've been through.
Not much more worth publicizing than a traffic accident on the freeway.

I don't mean to say that we should be callous about death. But rather,
we should recognize that we are surrounded by death. Over a hundred
thousand people die every day, many of them unnecessarily even by
today's standards. It's an inconceivable tragedy. Just being alive
today, we face horrors from which I believe future generations will
shrink in disbelief. Given this reality, the additional increment of
suffering a few terrorists can impose is relatively small. We should
not give them too much weight.


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