9/11/2014: Reflecting on How to Make Smarter Choices About Risks

The odds of a large scale terrorist attack were low before that fateful day, and remain low now. But risk perception isn’t just a matter of the probabilities. It’s how the risk feels, and any risk that feels like a risk to you feels scarier than a risk that only endangers somebody else.

The odds of a large scale terrorist attack were low before that fateful day, and remain low now. But risk perception isn’t just a matter of the probabilities. It’s how the risk feels, and any risk that feels like a risk to you feels scarier than a risk that only endangers somebody else.          


Where were you 13 years ago at 8:46 a.m.? At 9:03 a.m.? 9:37? 10:03? The morning when what had been normal, changed, and the new normal began? At 8:46 American Airlines flight 11 was deliberately flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. United flight 175 flew into the south tower at 9:03. American flight 77 hit the Pentagon at 9:37. Maybe you were watching TV by then, or listening to the radio. Or maybe you were by 10:03 when United flight 93, also commandeered by terrorists and headed to Washington D.C., went down in Shanksville, PA, after courageous passengers gave up their own lives in what they knew was probably a doomed effort to take control of their plane.

A mere one hour and 17 minutes. We usually pass that much time on a normal day without any special notice. But not that morning. That was one of the more unusual, even seminal stretches of 77 minutes in modern human history. It was the flash of time in which all of us, everywhere, suddenly became vulnerable. It was the moment when our blithe innocence was wrenched away and we suddenly recognized that “It CAN happen to ME.”

There had been plenty of terrorist attacks before, by a diverse range of disenfranchised fanatics around the world who, angered by their powerlessness, often invoked an extreme distortion of religion to justify their brutal effort to assert a sense of control over their lives. Airplane hijackings and bus bombings and attacks on government buildings and night clubs and tourist resorts…even attacks against the World Trade Towers themselves, by the same group that attacked on the morning of September 11th. But none had been so bold, so terrifyingly destructive, nor so novel that no one anywhere in the civilized world could now deny that they too might be at risk from such madness.

That’s what permanently changed in those horrifying moments 13 years ago. Most of us hadn’t heard of Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda or ‘global jihad’, and save for a few areas around the world, most of us thought of terrorism as a localized danger that mostly happened somewhere else…that only threatened someone else. But suddenly the terrorist threat threatened us all. 9/11/2001 didn’t change the probabilities of a terrorist attack much. The odds of a large scale terrorist attack were low before that fateful day, and remain low now. But risk perception isn’t just a matter of the probabilities. It’s how the risk feels, and any risk that feels like a risk to you feels scarier than a risk that only endangers somebody else.

That’s why the American public made nary a peep when security at airports rose, when Congress gave the federal government the right to collect our phone and email records, and why small government conservatives said practically nothing as the massive Department of Homeland Security was established in one of the largest and most expensive reorganizations of federal government. It’s why a large majority of Americans bought the lies of the Bush Administration about the threat of Saddam Hussein to the United States and supported the invasion of Iraq. Americans were afraid, of a risk that for the first time seemed to threaten us all.

It’s worth observing how now, less afraid, we lament all those things as regrettable mistakes; the TSA hassles at the airport, the NSA invasion of our privacy, the hundreds of billions spent on homeland security in a country where one child in four lives below the poverty level, and certainly the profoundly destructive invasion of Iraq, arguably the most damaging foreign policy mistake in U.S. history, which has certainly poured gasoline on the fire of global terrorism.

But it’s also worth observing that we still need airport security. We still need the ability to do secret surveillance on those might do us harm. We still need the ability to use unmanned aircraft (drones) to strike against those about to attack when the threat is real and imminent. The likelihood of a terrorist attack may be low, but the consequences in physical, economic, social and emotional terms can be immense. As much as we made mistakes in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, compelled by excessive fear, our increasing complacency can be dangerous too.

But that’s another foible of risk perception. We sometimes worry too much about risks if it seems that they can happen to us, but we don’t worry enough about low probability-high consequence dangers - like terrorist attacks, earthquakes, or hurricanes – because we intuitively assume that if one just happened…well…it’ll be a long time before the next one hits. (Which is, of course, a dangerously wrong assumption.)

Anniversaries are opportunities to apply the wisdom hindsight affords. This September 11th is a reminder that fear - too much or too little -  can be dangerous all by itself. We worry too much about a risk that feels like “It CAN happen to ME”, and we don’t worry enough about high consequence events that are rare - because of an instinctive risk perception system that relies more on feelings than the facts. The lesson is that if we want to make the smartest possible choices about how to keep ourselves safe, we need to challenge ourselves to go beyond what instinctively feels right, and try to blend our feelings with a careful thoughtful consideration of  what might actually do us the most good.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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