Thursday, October 28, 2004

Overreacting to Terrorism

Gene Healy, at Brainwash, and Will Wilkinson, at The Fly Bottle save me some typing by offering various quotes from John C. Mueller's excellent article in the most recent issue of Regulation magazine: A False Sense of Insecurity [PDF format]. Thanks to Healy and Wilkinson, I can now get by with just saying this: Mueller offers convincing proof that most Americans worry too much about terrorism.

Mueller points out, for instance, that the risk of dying in a traffic accident outweighs the risk of dying in a terrorist attack by a couple of orders of magnitude. People who reacted to the to the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by making long drives in lieu of flying thus wildly overreacted. Around 3000 died on that sad, but fortunately still singular day, whereas around 100,000 have died in traffic accidents since. Why don't people put those relative risks into better perspective? As cognitive psychologists have amply documented, humans tend to worry more about unusual and dramatic risks than well-known, ordinary ones. Public panic over the threat of terrorism offers yet another instance of that peculiar sort of irrationality.

Does it follow that politicians have overreacted to the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001? Mueller suggests as much, but I am not so sure. American politicians, because they control military and diplomatic policies, can make credible threats against terrorists. Wise public policy thus might reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks. The average American citizen, in contrast, can do little more than try to reduce the harm done by terrorist attacks.

Consider an illustration of the point. Suppose that because devastating tornados strike your hometown only rarely, your $500,000 house faces a 1/5,000,000 chance of destruction by high winds each year. Although you could prevent that threat by extraordinary measures, such as building a concrete box around your house, you rationally calculate that you should spend no more than a dime a year on tornado protection ($500,000/5,000,000). Suppose further that your hometown faces a 1/5,000,000 chance each year of being devastated by a nomadic warrior tribe. Unlike tornados, however, nomads respond to incentives. Following one such raid, you might happily pay more than a dime towards your town's Marauding Hoard Smackdown fund. You calculate that the temporary expense of chasing down and punishing the nomads will teach them a hard lesson, convincing them to take your town off their "to sack" list. The risk of further such attacks will thereafter drop, repaying your defense investment with future security.

The political response to terrorism thus partakes more of game theory than of a simple cost/benefit analysis. A dramatically costly political reaction to a terrorist attack calculated to reduce the likelihood of future such attacks—e.g., invading a country that harbors terrorists with the aim of disrupting their operations and capturing or killing their agents—may prove rational even while a dramatically costly personal reaction calculated to reduce the harm from such attacks—e.g., moving to the country and stocking up on canned goods—proves merely that you've succumbed to an irrational fear of dread risks.

That by no means gives politicians a pass. Being human, they are as likely as anyone to overreact to the dread risk of terrorist attacks. Being politicians, moreover, they will readily exploit the risk of terrorism as an excuse to increase their power. And even granting that political reactions to terrorism should meet standards different from those we apply to personal reactions, we may still condemn a particular military or diplomatic anti-terrorist policy as ineffectual or worse.

In particular, my argument goes only toward justifying a temporary and sharp response to terrorism that acts as a long-term disincentive to future such attacks. In contrast, the present War on Terrorism threatens to impose disproportionately large and indefinitely recurring net costs on us, the very people it is supposed to benefit. I thus do not intend to exempt that political program from criticism. I intend only to explain why I think that no cost/benefit analysis of the political response to terrorism should ring with indignant certainty.


Anonymous said...

Content: A
Style: A
Overall: A- (life is unfair)

Anonymous said...

Actually, the number of Americans that have died in car accidents since 9/11 is not 10,000 - it's more than 12 times that number. (Roughly 40,000 Americans die in car accidents each year.)

Terrorists would have a hard time keeping up with the carnage we see every day on our own roads!

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks, Anon #2, for double-checking my numbers. Page 46 of the Mueller's article relates that 100,000 people (he doesn't specifiy whether they were Americans) have died in auto accidents since Sept., 2001. That gives a figure of about 30,000 a year--not far from the number you cited. The number I used reflects a typo; I must have dropped a zero. I'll fix that, pronto.

Anonymous said...

You also outline why it's generally better to spend money on the Department of Defense and nation-building projects (which alter the terrorist's incentives for participation) than the Department of Homeland Security (which merely makes some targets more difficult to successfully attack).

Extending this arguement, you might discuss which internal targets could cause great loss of life or economic loss if hit (and therefore might have an expected loss worth insuring) and why spending money to protect against terrorism in every congressional district is short-sighted.

Thus, Kerry's "opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them at home" applause line, if true, might also be the prudent course of action for the reasons stated in your analysis.

Bookdad said...

Sir, I take extreme objection to your article that minimizes the loss of life from the overt evil intent that took place on September 11th 2001. For those of us who lost our parents, sisters, brothers, or spouses the pain is no less than that experienced by those in Russia during WWii or any other conflict. Though by scale the loss of life and destruction was less in quantity than in some other events, the pain and anguish felt, as in those other conflicts was personal. The fact that someone was able to cause such a malicious act on our homeland soil was also disturbing at the very least for most of us. How you can be so insensitive to the survivors, the rescue workers, and our boys fighting this evil tyranny is beyond me. I demand that you tender an apology to these folks who have suffered much and deserve our admiration and compassion, not your minimization, detachment, and high handed dismissal of those horrible events.

Anonymous said...

I also take extreme offense at your highhanded dismissal of all the innocents that have been killed in our cars each year. My mother was killed in an auto accident when I was little. She wasn't drunk or anything; she was simply coming home from work at her brokerage firm. She glanced for a split-second in the wrong direction at the wrong time for 2 seconds and our family has endured a lifetime of pain as a result of her bloody demise at the young age of 30. Should she really have to pay the supreme price for a 2-second error in judgement like this? I always thought such things were reserved for convicted murderers on death row! How come our car-dependent economy is not properly responding to the needs of the families of these people? And...finally....why was her life only worthy of a 3 PARAGRAPH article in one big-city newspaper when 9-11 was reported for years and years and years on end in 50,000 newspapers around the globe....thousands of television channels for years on end....not to mention the incredible saturation of internet and radio coverage that lasted (and still goes on!) for years and years and years and years....On a per-capita death basis, these were the most enormously over-reported deaths the entire world has ever seen. Each person killed on 9-11 could have a whole freakin' major college library devoted to him or her in a sum total of news media coverage and it still wouldn't be enough. Is "intention to kill" so important that we can safely ignore the 250,000 Americans lives that have been crushed by our car-dependent society since 9-11?
(And you sure as hell won't see me apologizing for this comment....If anything, I think news media outlets should be punished for over-dramatizing September 11 at the expense of marginalizing other human lives who are (or were) just as important.