The Most Prominent ISM; why we fear terror more than we should

Early morning on Dec 11th, a colleague came into my office and said “there’s been a terrorist attack in Manhattan, the good new is that only 2 people were hurt, one of them was the bomber. No one was killed”. “It’s crazy that THIS is our new normal” I replied, “at least only 2 people hurt and no one killed”.

I find myself thinking frequently about the dangers of a terrorist attack close to my home. There are plenty of places where people gather en mass and can be targets – malls, movie theaters, schools etc…I think about it every time I drop my son off in school. It’s incredibly nerve racking when I do.

The irony in my feelings is that the historical statistics on violence point to an overall decreasing trend with periodic spikes (Most notably WWI, WWII, the Taiping rebellion). You can read about that in this book. Here’s a graph that shows trends since 1940:


You’re also far more likely to die in your car than a terrorist attack:

Or with a gun:

Or from many other causes for that matter…but you’ve likely heard of these and other statistics and arguments. Those arguments seem irrelevant. To many people, myself included, it feels like violence is more rampant. It feels like the threat of a terrorist attack is always there. 43% of people polled are now worried about being a victim. In fact, this number has been fairly consistent over time. Here's a graph that illustrates this (we'll examine it more closely in a few paragraphs):

Why? We have so many resources dedicated to it – the largest military budget in the world, an NSA that basically spies on everyone and parses ALL available data in the world for indications of an attack and an FBI and CIA with the largest budgets they’ve ever had – that’s what all contributes to such low terrorism deaths when compared to the rest of the world. Yet, we're still afraid.

One reason is that such incidents have, in fact, increased in number; especially in the last year.

The deaths in 2017 from Jihadist attacks number around 100, which was more than twice that in 2016. However, as noted by the statistics on gun violence, that’s how many gun deaths we have every day. Yes, terrorism attacks have increased in number, but they are still far less frequent then gun deaths.

Another answer is that other forms of violence don’t make the national news as much. As a litmus test, count the number of gun deaths you heard or read about in the news over the last few days; maybe 1 or 2. That’s only a fraction of a percent the total that occurred. On the other hand, the recent terrorist attack in Manhattan was all over the news 24/7 for two days straight. 

Welcome to the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, otherwise known as frequency illusion or recency illusion. This phenomenon occurs when the thing you’ve just noticed, experienced or been told about suddenly crops up constantly. It gives you the feeling that out of nowhere, pretty much everyone and their cousin are talking about the subject — or that it is swiftly surrounding you

So our minds, and our new outlets are playing tricks on us.  It's a good thing that you can change both. Statistically speaking, you should. Be that as it may, there’s another important phenomenon surrounding this topic that’s worth exploring. Let's take a look at this graph again, but more closely.

At first glance, this may not look consequential. Pretty much an even level of concern for the last 20 years, with a few spikes. However, consider this:

  • In 1996 there was only 1 terrorist attack. 1 Person died, although hundreds were wounded. People worried about a terrorist attack: 42%
  • Sep 11th the worst terrorist attack in history: Over 3000 people died. People worried about a terrorist attack: 42%. (To be fair it did briefly jump to 58% after.)
  • 2017 there was a two fold jump in terrorist attacks from 2016: People worried about a terrorist attack: 42%

In spite of the wild variations in people killed and with the exception of a very brief period after 9/11, almost 1/2 of us (or at least a large portion depending on how you look at it) are consistently worried about being a victim of a terrorist attack. It seems odd, because that number should really correlate closer to the actual threat of incidence. But it doesn't - at least not in the way that I expected it to. That's because (In addition to constantly hearing it on the news) terrorism is pretty much completely out of our control. 

Consider the following: I drive on a busy highway to my day job. The rate of accidents is high. I regularly see them. Sometimes I see really bad ones – cars and trucks flipped over or on fire; I even saw a motorcyclist dead once. I’ve been in two (albeit minor) accidents myself. It’s a busy commuter road. I’m aware of the elevated risk of collision. I can take an alternate route to reduce my chances of getting hit by another car, but I choose not to in order to gain a perceived benefit. The same can be said for other dangers – avoiding bad neighborhoods, eating healthy foods, exercise, etc. It’s a choice. I weigh the benefits vs the potential of a negative outcome and consciously make a decision.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, for me to make those kinds of assessments with respect to a terrorist attack.  I don’t have the same intelligence the government does. Whether or not they should is a topic in of itself. For now, I'll go with the fact that they have good reason -  avoid derailing the investigation and public frenzy (which could in of itself cause physical harm).

So when a terrorist strikes, I can't own my decision to be there in spite of the threat. Neither could people in Manhattan on Dec 11th, those who ran and volunteered at the Boston marathon, or anyone who chose to be at a location the exact time a terrorist attack happened to occur. It’s not only the fear of the unknown, it’s the fear of not knowing what, where or when the unknown could even be. That’s frightening when you think about it; and we constantly do regardless of number of incidents of terrorism that actually occur. Unfortunately, this makes sense. Terror is in the name.

Sure, there are other injuries/causes of death that can't always be anticipated, and they dis-empower people just as much, if not more, than terrorism - cancer (2/3 of which has no known cause), rape, and depression among others. But, much like the incidences that are more avoidable, they aren't usually on the news 24/7 when they occur (the exception being the recent increase in accusations of celebrities).  Consequently,  they aren't on our minds as much as the most prominent ism. At least that's the case for me.