The price of terror

Photo: Youssef Boudlal/Reuters

There’s still blood on the ground in Brussels, a city I’ve spent time in with people I’ve befriended. I’d rather not look. But I must. Because this is when we make the worst mistakes.

A friend sent me this observation yesterday:

The optimal level of terrorist attacks is probably small, but not zero, just like the optimal level of crime, pollution, car crashes, and all sorts of other horrible things is not zero. You have to weigh the benefits against the costs (both financial and nonfinancial such as lost civil liberties, hassle at airports, etc.). We do this all the time in our personal lives. We take risks—driving, bicycling, eating fatty foods, etc.—because we think the benefits exceed the costs. The idea that some things are so horrible that we should eradicate them regardless of cost is a prescription for bad policy (and likely futility). Even if we thought that we could eradicate terrorism by spending $1 trillion per year, it’s surely true that we could save many more lives by devoting some of that money to other activities (like safer roads and bridges).

Some part of you is reading that and saying “That’s absurd. What could be more important than safety from terror?” Another part is saying “That’s a balanced perspective. Perhaps losing one life to terror isn’t as bad as losing 100 to something preventable, like plane crashes.” So now your reasoning brain can have an argument with your lizard brain about how you’re supposed to think about this.

Let’s look this in the eye. Why does a terrorist act terrify us as Americans?

  • It’s sudden. There’s no warning. Not like global warming.
  • It’s personal. Not like a plane crash.
  • It’s not comprehensible. We understand soldiers at war. We don’t understand angry bombers.
  • It’s not over. It can happen again at at any time.
  • The victims are people like “us” (that is, white western people). It’s not fair, but if 30 people lose their lives in a car bomb in Iraq or Syria, Americans pay less attention.

It’s amazing what we’ve gotten used to. We’ve gotten used to deadly violence in the Middle East. We’ve gotten used to random Americans getting shot by accident. We’ve gotten used to fat people dying too soon. We’ve gotten used to police shooting unarmed black people. We’ve even gotten used to going to war. It sickens and dismays me that we have gotten used to these things — it’s horrible — but we have.

But we can’t get used to random terrorism, so we demand somebody to do something to stop it.

If a politician promised to spend whatever it took and take away whatever freedoms were necessary to stop people from dying in earthquakes, or from gun accidents, that politician would lose.

But if a politician promises to spend whatever it takes and take away whatever freedoms are necessary to stop people from dying in terror attacks, that politician may well win. Even though such a solution is impossible, we want someone to promise to take care of us.

It’s hard when the wounds are still fresh, but I just wish people would look forward a few years. Whatever promises you hear, ask what they will do to your own privacy, to our sense of honor about ourselves, and to the terrorists’ ability to continue to threaten us. Ask yourself that. How did bombing the Iraqi countryside and waterboarding terrorists in Afghanistan work out for us — are we safer now? Ask your candidates that, and do not let them off the hook until they answer. Because this is a time that Americans really want someone to take care of them and protect them, and are vulnerable to false promises. And during an election in a democracy, that’s a dangerous time time indeed.

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  1. So your site is really just an apologist site for your political views, or someone’s agenda. Pity. Since I’ve joined that is all I see. I was hoping for more. The facts, the rationale are all wrong. We can have both, security and a cure for cancer. We are not numb to 3rd world violence, your implied racism is disgusting. Your oh well shit happens is indeed bullshit.

    1. Nope.

      We still live in a world of scarcity, and you cannot have everything.

      Particularly when — as Josh alludes — we “purchase” Security at the exact wrong time. We wait until something bad happens, then we fritter away our Liberty like it is a renewable resource.

  2. Very well said, Josh. Here’s one more reason a terrorist act terrifies us: It hits us where we live — streets, airports, concert halls — and so it threatens the illusion that we’ve carved out a safe space within a terrifying world. We feel violated. And, yeah, the lizard brain screams “stop this at any cost.” Sadly, the more we let our lizard brains have their way, the more susceptible we are to new acts of terrorism.

    1. I was on the ground in Jaffa when the attacks happened there. Its very noble of you lot to spout this from the comfort of your castle. Scarcity is an economic model that exists for corproations and people not Govt. That is why we have deficit spending. I’ll move along now.

      1. What happened in Brussels can happen anywhere, Kevin. Even in the comfort of one’s (supposed) castle, or slightly outside that.

  3. The desire for closure is so compelling; I’m amazed at the ways we will give away freedom in trade for the illusion of safety. The problem with believing that we can be made safe is that everyone is an expert in their last crisis, the last terror attack, the last mistake, but what we forget is that the nature of terrorism is to do the unpredictabile. It’s inherently terrifying, and that’s the point.

    It’s not that we should be stupid and take no precautions. It’s that we need to accept a certain amount of risk in order to keep living a life worth living.

  4. Your friend’s observation appears to be based on a utilitarianism.

    I think utilitarianism works okay for policy related to non-life and death matters. I.e. free trade is better than protectionism because a greater number of people will be better off under free trade than protectionism.

    But when it comes to life and death it starts to break down. HEre’s a thought experiment. If the government came to you and said, “sorry mate, you have to die, but don’t worry, if you die, 1000 other people won’t have to”. Does that sound like something an individual should be forced to accept? Accepting an “optimal” amount of terrorism is accepting that some individuals will have to die.

    I’m not sure that’s something we have to accept, either. In the US, as far as I know, there were no or very few jihadist attacks until the 1980s.

  5. I’ve got good news for you, these questions have been asked and definitively answered (in my opinion), going back many years. I’ll spare you the details, but the upshot is this: deviance and proximity. These two dimensions can explain why we attend to some things and why we dismiss others. Why the same people who say “Terrorism is terrifying and we need to do anything to stop it,” can also say, “the fact that blacks get shot by police is of minor concern.” And, by contrast, how people who say, “police-on-black violence is the defining issue of our times,” can also say, “your chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are trivial so don’t worry about it.”(Did I make it clear enough with those comments that I’m not arguing for or against any side here?) The dimensions of deviance and proximity determine everything. (BTW, deviance has many subdimensions and proximity has a few as well, see the work of Pam Shoemaker on the topic of newsworthiness in her book Mediating the Message). The tricky question is not how deviant and proximal is an event in general, but how deviant and proximal is an event from your specific point of view. That explains why some people can seem indifferent to questions that other people deem very important. Brussels is proximal to me (geographically, culturally, and interpersonally) because of my specific experience. It is to you as well. But to someone in Oklahoma City who has never traveled to Europe, doesn’t enjoy pralines, and has no friends there, the only way Brussels can become proximal is by its symbolic proximity. Which is actually reinforced by the level of deviance perceived by that person in OC. In other words, if the terrorist attack represents a very deviant event (on multiple, overlapping levels, like “Those muslims are deviant people,” “public violence is deviant,” “bombing innocent people is deviant,” “people who kill people in the name of God are deviant,” “peaceful, civilized countries don’t experience terrorism,” and so on), then the brain would overamp its interpretation of the symbolic proximity of the event — Je Suis Belge — in order to compensate for the lack of otherwise more direct proximity. This interplay of deviance and proximity is very dynamic and can change moment to moment (Facebook profiles that announce solidarity with victims enhance the perception of proximity, for example, while also heightening the deviance — as in, everybody I know seems to agree that this act was cowardly and out of bounds so this must be even more deviant than I originally suspected — allowing that feeling to spread on wings of both deviance and proximity).
    I know we all want to believe we are rational and that our view of this event or events like this is cool and collected. But it is not, nor can it be. Because our interpretation of events is not dichotomously divided between the rational and lizard brains you suggest. It is enmeshed in a complex matrix of competing neuronal systems, all of which are subject to emotional influence, processing biases, and social effects. In other words, you are not in control of what you determine is both deviant and proximal. And any post-hoc rationale you offer for why you felt the way you did about this bombing is merely an effort to explain yourself to yourself.
    Every nuance of your reaction — including which historical analogues you think apply or which political implications matter — are all the result of your prefrontal cortex summoning memories that are coded with similar emotions to those you are feeling now. This ensures the comfort-serving outcome of emotional consistency, that is, your brain wants to give you more reason to feel what you are already feeling (even if that feeling is negative) because this reinforces the validity of your current emotional state, which is crucial to your sense of self. Retrieving contradictory memories or experiences undermines that sense. By no means am I saying we are neuronal slaves. We are free to observe these tendencies and interfere with them at any point. We are unlikely to do so unless we have developed a discipline to do so.
    Calculating risk objectively, as you suggest would help here, is precisely that, a discipline that can be applied to reduce the effects of emotion, bias, and social context. But even when people do so, they find themselves tempted to stack the observations (which variables they choose, which definitions they allow, even which visualizations they prefer). The media site Vox does this all the time, applying objective measurement to explore an issue. Sometimes they end up objective, but just as often — perhaps more often — they do not. And they don’t even realize it. Get further from the realm of discipline (say, Huffington Post or The Blaze) and you get in the territory of using agreed symbols of supposed objectivity in order to perpetuate the emotional state (outrage, self-righteousness, etc.) that prompted the original investigation in the first place.
    Oh, and for the record, I have never gotten comfortable with fat people dying too soon!

    1. What a spectacular reply, thank you! The very same concepts of deviance and proximity do, I believe, apply to decision making about EVERYTHING we as humans have to make decisions about. Inclusive in this list of decisions includes how we think about medical advice about medications, lifestyle change, etc. As a physician, I daily fight with the biases of my own lizard and (hopefully) higher thinking brain, in addition to those of my patients. Sigh. It’s a wonder any forward progress is ever made at all.

  6. Josh,
    Every now and again I come across something that I wish I had written, had the capability to distil the furr-ball of thinking into a coherent argument.
    This is one such post.
    Love your work.