The Danger of Our Fickle Up and Down Fear of Terrorism

We over-worry about terrorism when the latest attack makes news, and grow complacent when the headlines fade, and both our excessive and insufficient fears create risks all by themselves.

Oh how fickle are our fears. We over-worry about terrorism when the smoke is in the air and the ambulance sirens scream. And we under-fear when no one is bleeding and the headlines have moved from the most recent attack back to the normal noise of the day. As a recent encounter with security at Heathrow Airport, before the Brussels bombings, demonstrated…


Something seemed unusual. The security lines were long, moving slowly. The queue at the end of the conveyor belt waiting for our bags was barely moving. Each backpack or briefcase or handbag was being opened, and security officers were pulling out cosmetics, toiletries, toothpaste, deodorants, visually inspecting anything that might contain a liquid, gel, or paste, and wiping them down with swabs that were then inserted into a chemical sniffer looking for explosives. It was a giant hassle that seemed like over-the-top precaution, what critics derisively call "security theater."

An elderly woman in a wheel chair sat with a look of resignation while officials took off her purple tweed coat to inspect it and swabbed each container in her purse. Another woman behind us in line wasn’t as patient, complaining loudly that things were moving so slowly. We were frustrated too. My wife was carrying 15 or 20 containers of various things – "beauty secrets," she calls them – and each one was getting a close inspection.

After several minutes a security guard told us some items would have to be taken to another location for even closer examination, and trotted off. Her supervisor respectfully explained, “We’re sorry but the initial test detected chemicals associated with explosives.” This is getting ridiculous, we thought. Us? Terrorists? We waited. The people behind us waited. The line grew, as did the griping and grumbling.

The first officer returned and whispered to the supervisor, who told us “I’m sorry, but at this point we can either confiscate these items and you can proceed to your flight or if you want to try and keep these materials we can escort you to the police for a further investigation.” We were incredulous! My wife made the only reasonable choice, to say goodbye to more than $200 worth of treasured beauty secrets, so we could go find someplace to sit down and grab a cup of coffee and Facebook all our friends with the over-the-top security bull____ we just experienced.

And now they are counting the bodies in Brussels, and the on again/off again fear of terrorist bombs is on again, and what seemed like annoyingly excessive security a few days ago now seems reassuringly thorough. When the threat of terrorism (or any threat) is real…tangible…our fear goes up, and often exceeds the actual danger. The research on risk perception psychology explains why. It’s called the Availability Heuristic. Basically the more aware of a threat we are the more space it occupies on our risk radar screen, and the more emotional weight it carries.

And as our fear goes up, in the name of safety our willingness to accept excessive security procedures and more invasive government surveillance goes up and we more readily surrender civil liberties. The social psychology literature finds that as our fear goes up, our fear of others goes up too, and we more readily vilify whole groups of people for the acts of a few. To give ourselves a sense of control against a danger that is so unpredictable, we change how we live our lives, how we travel and where to. We close our borders. Our readiness to unquestioningly support political leaders and demagogues who promise us protection goes up. Our clear-headed thinking gives way to the potentially dangerous passions of precaution and self protection.

Then, after a few days or weeks, when the most recent attack has faded from the front pages and awareness goes down, our fear fades off our risk radar screens. But we get no more clear-headed. We grow dangerously complacent; our lack of awareness does mean lack of threat. We grow impatient with those long lines and uncomfortable pat downs at airports. We resist surveillance of our emails and texts and phone calls, which help prevent these attacks in the first place. We blithely call for peace and comity and coexistence, and naively lose vigilance against angry terrorists deaf to such intellectually pleasant pieties. We drop our guard, which is dangerous against a threat that is still very real.

We have been riding the see-saw of our fear of terrorism up and down, for decades, sometimes worrying more than we need to, sometimes worrying less than we should, and putting ourselves at risk with both excessive fear and complacency. We can no more protect ourselves from this risk than from terrorism itself. The nature of risk perception is inherently subjective, a matter of feelings more than merely an objective analysis of the facts. But we can at least recognize this danger, and try to learn from some of the mistakes we’ve made in responding to terrorism in the past, to try and minimize the risk of our own risk perception, as much as we are trying to keep ourselves safe from bullets and bombs.

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