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Why not cool down the terrorism rhetoric a little?

ASK THIS | September 23, 2005

Excluding the year 2001, fewer people have died in America from terrorism than have drowned in bathtubs. John Mueller argues that risk and comparative probability should be guidelines in coverage of terrorism.

By John Mueller



Q. Why aren't failed predictors of doomsday held to account?


Q. Why isn't alarmism about terrorism critically evaluated?


Q. How should the press handle claims that the absence of evidence is evidence of existence?


The media appear to have a congenital incapacity for dealing with issues of risk and comparative probabilities—except, of course, in the sports and financial sections. If a baseball player hits three home runs in a single game, press reports will include not only notice of that achievement, but also information about the rarity of the event as well as statistics about the hitter's batting and slugging averages and about how many home runs he normally hits.


Why do front pages never stress, or even note, that in every year except 2001 only a few hundred people in the entire world have died as a result of international terrorism? For all the attention it evokes, terrorism, in reasonable context, actually causes rather little damage and the likelihood that any individual will become a victim in most places is microscopic. Indeed, outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in bathtubs.


Some news organizations used to resist sensationalizing crime reporting because they didn’t want to create a climate of fear. Well, that’s the climate too often created when terrorism is reported without context. That, plus some ugly politics. Reporters need to be alert to both.


The costs of terrorism commonly come much more from hasty, ill-considered, and over-wrought reactions, or overreactions, to it than from anything the terrorists have done. Even in the case of the 9/11, the economic costs of enhanced security runs several times those of the event itself, and the reaction to 9/11 has even claimed more lives than were lost in the terrorist attacks. For example, out of fear, many people traveled by automobile rather than by airplane. According to a study by Michael Sivak and Michael J. Flannagan, the chances are that between 9/11 and the end of 2001, more than 1,000 people who wouldn’t have been in autos at all had there been no 9/11 ended up dying in traffic accidents.


Even in the amazingly rare efforts to try to put terrorism in context, the process never goes very far. For example, in 2001 the Washington Post published an article which attempted quantitatively to point out how much safer it was to travel by air than by automobile even under the heightened atmosphere of concern inspired by the September attacks. The author reports that the article generated a couple of media inquiries, but nothing more.


Gregg Easterbrook's cover story in the October 7, 2002 New Republic forcefully argued that biological and especially chemical weapons are hardly capable of creating "mass destruction," a perspective relevant not only to concerns about terrorism, but also to the drive for war against Iraq that was going on at the time. The New York Times asked him to fashion the article into an op-ed piece, but that was the only interest the article generated in the media, according to Easterbrook.


Why aren't failed predictors of doomsday held to account? In 2004, the terrorism industry repeatedly insisted that some Big Terrorist Event was likely in connection with a) the Athens Olympics, b) the Democratic Party convention in Boston, c) the Republican convention in New York, d) the election campaign, and/or e) the presidential vote in November. When nothing happened, everybody forgot these failed predictions.


If terrorism is so easy and terrorists so omni-competent, why isn't there more of it? For example, why don't they snipe at people in shopping centers, collapse tunnels, poison food, cut electrical lines, derail trains, set forest fires, blow up oil pipelines, cause massive traffic jams?


Why do fear-mongers get so much press? Members of the terrorism industry routinely and repeatedly argue that terrorists present an "existential" threat to the United States or even that they could "destroy civilization as we know it." General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has assured a television audience that if terrorists were able to engineer a catastrophic event and killed 10,000 people, they would successfully "do away with our way of life." The only way a single bomb could "do away with our way of life" would be if we did that to ourselves in reaction.


Ultimately, then, are we as suicidal as the terrorists and is the enemy us? Harvard-based Michael Ignatieff assured us in May 2004 that "we can confidently expect that terrorists will attempt to tamper with our election in November." Undimmed by that failed (and unremembered) prediction, he moved on to warn that "a group of only a few individuals equipped with lethal technologies" threaten "the ascendancy of the modern state" and that "inexorably, terrorism, like war itself, is moving beyond the conventional to the apocalyptic." Why isn't such alarmism critically evaluated? Is it because hysteria and alarmism often sell so well and therefore, in Tocqueville's words, "the author and the public corrupt one another at the same time"?


Shouldn't the public know how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous as driving the same distance in an automobile? The answer, as it happens, is that there would have to be one set of 9/11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out.


Shouldn't there be at least some discussion of the almost completely unaddressed, but seemingly obvious, observation that, in the words of risk analyst, David Banks, "it seems impossible that the United States will ever again experience takeovers of commercial flights that are then turned into weapons--no pilot will relinquish control, and passengers will fight."


Nonetheless, notes Banks, "enormous resources are being invested to prevent this remote contingency." There is a distinction, he argues, "between realistic reactions to plausible threats and hyperbolic overreaction to improbable contingencies."


While a "dirty bomb" might raise radiation 25 per cent over background levels in an area and therefore into a range the Environmental Protection Agency officially considers undesirable, shouldn't there be some discussion about whether that really constitutes "contamination" or indeed much of a danger at all given the somewhat arbitrary and exceedingly cautious levels declared to be acceptable by the EPA?


One prominent member of the terrorism industry likes to begin articles with such dramatic lines as "the United States is living on borrowed time—and squandering it" and end them with "the entire nation...must be organized for the long, deadly struggle against terrorism." However, in mid-course he also supplies a standard for "how much security is enough" and determines that to be when "the American people can conclude that a future attack on U.S. soil will be an exceptional event that does not require wholesale changes in how they go about their lives." Is it unreasonable to suggest that they can so conclude right now?


Why don't the media question the "I think, therefore they are" spookiness from our officials? Thus in congressional testimony in February 2003, FBI head Robert Mueller proclaimed that "the greatest threat is from al-Qaeda cells in the US that we have not yet identified," that this threat was "increasing and that "al-Qaeda maintains the ability and the intent to inflict significant casualties in the US with little warning." Despite that ability and intent and despite presumably severe provocation attending the subsequent US invasion of Iraq, no terrorist casualties, significant or otherwise, were suffered in the US with or without warning. However, in testimony two years later Director Mueller remained unflappable: "I remain very concerned about what we are not seeing," a vaporous profundity dutifully rendered in bold type in his published script. As it happens, a secret FBI report had in the meantime wistfully noted that after more than three years of intense hunting, the agency had been unable to identify a single true al-Qaeda sleeper cell anywhere in the country. Apparently for the Bureau's Director, absence of evidence is evidence of existence.


Well done.
Posted by Maurreen Skowran - The News & Observer
10/04/2005, 01:56 AM

These questions are overdue.

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