Our Irrational Fear of Terrorism

fear of terrorismTerrorism: noun

  1. the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.

Based on the amount of time politicians and the media spend talking about terrorism, you would think that this is the top threat facing America’s existence.  And all of this talk is having an impact:  in a recent Gallup poll, 51 percent of respondents said they’re personally worried about becoming a victim.   In the last year, I  have met people who are afraid to fly or even leave their communities because they believe they will be harmed in some way by a terrorist.

Fear is an emotion and somewhat irrational.  Psychologists tell us that our fears are exaggerated when we don’t know the probability of an outcome.  So in an effort to calm everyone down, let me at least give this a try with some facts and statistics:

Since 2002,  approximately 200 people have been killed by terrorists on US soil – an average of 14 per year.    That’s 14 people out of 320 million – or 0.0000044% of the population per year.

Let’s compare that to the likelihood of dying in the USA from other causes:

  • 30 people per year die from lightning strikes – so you are 2x more likely to be killed by lightning than to be killed by a terrorist.
  • 150 people per year are killed by deer (usually from a deer hitting your car) – so you are 11x more likely to be killed by a deer than to be killed by a terrorist
  • 400 people per year die of drowning in their bathtub – so you are 28x more likely to die in your own tub than to be killed by a terrorist
  • 1,000 people per year die in train accidents – so you are 71x more likely to be killed by a train than to be killed by a terrorist
  • 10,000 people per year die by being shot to death – so you are 714x more likely to be shot to death by someone in your neighborhood than to be killed by a terrorist
  • 30,000 people per year die in car accidents – so you are 2,143x more likely to die while driving than to be killed by a terrorist
  • 35,000 people per year commit suicide – so you are 2,500x more likely to kill yourself than you are to be killed by a terrorist
  • 80,000 people per year die from drinking too much alcohol – so you are 5,714x more likely to drink yourself to death than you are to be killed by a terrorist
  • 90,000 people per year die of Alzheimer’s, 145,000 people per year die of respiratory disease,  and 600,000 people per year die of heart disease – so you are 6,428x; 10,357x and 42,857x more likely to die from those causes than from terrorist attacks.

AND, in case you are worried about being killed by a terrorist while you are not in the USA, it turns out that the leading cause of deaths for Americans traveling abroad is not terrorism, or murder … or even crime of any type.  It’s car crashes.  The U.S. Department of State reports that  47 U.S. citizens were killed worldwide as a result of terrorism in 2011. That figure includes deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and all other theaters of war.

Regardless of these facts, we apparently are more concerned about being killed by terrorists than all of those other causes of death put together.   But  apparently we find that taking a bath, riding a train, owning a gun, driving a car or drinking alcohol is a convenience we value more than the 112,400 people who die from these activities.  Last time I checked, there was no nation-wide war on taking a bath because 400 people per year die while doing it.

Look, I’m not saying that terrorism isn’t a threat.  It is. But we are over-reacting to the degree to which the terrorists threaten our lives or existence as a country.  This fear is being perpetuated by the media and by politicians who are exaggerating the impact of every terrorist event in the world for their own self-interest (politicians because they want to replace the current government and media who love the ratings).  The fact is that actual terrorist activity in America, while real,  is relatively minor compared to the other things that threaten our lives and our society.   We don’t panic when there’s a multi-car or train accident, a mass murder by street gangs, or bikers or drug dealers or even when we read that death by Alzheimer’s will become even more deadly that it already is.  So why panic now?  Even if terrorist activity doubles next year, you are still more likely to be killed by lightning.

So let’s put this into perspective:  Terrorist activity is a threat and it is a crime and we should take it seriously.  We must continue to fight this crime with the same approach we used when  new medical diseases – like Polio, Malaria, AIDs, or Ebola – threatened our society.  In each of these instances, a calm and rational approach was successful in overcoming the threat. It took some time but ultimately we won the battle.   We did not win by creating irrational fear in the hearts and minds of our citizens.  The same is true with terrorism.  Let’s keep it in perspective.

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One thought on “Our Irrational Fear of Terrorism

  1. There is only one sensible response to terrorism, and it is not fear. It is mockery. Terrorists are more afraid of satire and mockery than any other weapon we possess. I

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