Scaring Ourselves to Debt

Via Gene Healy, this Regulation article by John C. Mueller, “A False Sense of Insecurity,” is one of the most important and enlightening things I’ve read in months, although it has a rather simple point. Mueller’s point is that all things considered terrorism is not an enormous threat, and we should just calm down and get a grip.

Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.

Mueller goes on to argue persuasively that we are in grip of a very costly and very likely unproductive hysteria about terrorist threats.

Mueller’s view needs to be disseminated:

* Assessed in broad but reasonable context, terrorism generally does not do much damage.

* The costs of terrorism very often are the result of hasty, ill-considered, and overwrought reactions.

A sensible policy approach to the problem might be to stress that any damage terrorists are able to accomplish likely can be absorbed, however grimly. While judicious protective and policing measures are sensible, extensive fear and anxiety over what may at base prove to be a rather limited problem are misplaced, unjustified, and counterproductive.

This is right. And people won’t like it.

I remember getting into a spat with an ex-girlfriend about the Beltway Sniper at the time of his (their) reign of terror. She was nervous about going shopping in Northern Virginia. I told her that given the population of the area, and the range over which the sniper was sniping, her chances of being shot were many many times smaller than her chances of dying in a car accident on her way the store. She denounced me for my rationalistic insensitivity to her fear. Such is the nature of our problem.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center