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The Danger of Overreacting to Terrorism--and How to Resist It

15 Aug 2016

Benjamin H. Friedman

For the prosperous and stable nations of Europe and North America, the cost of terrorism is usually dwarfed by the cost of reactions to it. Avoiding such overreaction is the most pressing challenge in security policy today.

The number of Westerners killed by terrorists has grown of late, thanks largely to attacks in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and Nice related to the self-described Islamic State. Still, the threat remains objectively small. Compared to major causes of death in the United States, Europe and Canada, terrorism’s risk is negligible; lightning kills more people most years. And measured in attacks or fatalities, the threat remains limited compared to what Western nations experienced in the late 20th century. Moreover, the vast majority of terrorism’s victims—more than 99 percent in 2015, according to the Global Terrorism Database from the University of Maryland—resided elsewhere. Most terrorism comes amid civil wars.

Objectivity, however, does not drive security policy. Terrorism’s randomness, gore and spectacle provoke dread beyond its actual weight. Even when terrorism is not especially deadly, as with the largely inept series of attacks in Germany last month, the outcry can be great. That is a boon to leaders promising energetic efforts in the name of safety, cost be damned.

Western nations, especially the U.S., are safe enough from terrorism to dream of eradicating its threat and rich enough to try. But the pursuit of total safety isn’t worth it.

Besides hyperbolic rhetoric, three kinds of overreaction to terrorism are common: waste, war and closure. Waste occurs when states respond by inflating security budgets without much consideration of their contribution to counterterrorism. The biggest example is the United States’ doubling of defense and homeland security spending after 9/11. The increase went mostly to capabilities, like customs agents and fighter aircraft, that did little to disrupt al-Qaida.

It is difficult to measure the benefit, in terms of lives saved, of counterterrorism programs and thus definitively identify overreaction. But the cost-benefit analysis commonly used to evaluate health and safety regulations can be applied to counterterrorism to show, at least, how many lives policies must save to be worthwhile. Where that figure exceeds reasonable estimates of what terrorists could do absent the policy, it is an overreaction. With a realistic threat assessment, such analysis shows that few U.S. homeland security policies are worthwhile as counterterrorism measures. The same goes for the military buildup in the 2000s, which added $1.5 trillion to military spending over 10 years. Perhaps that spending had other virtues, but it made sense as counterterrorism only under apocalyptic assumptions about the terrorism it stopped.

War is not necessarily an overreaction to terrorism. Providing airpower to forces taking on the Islamic State, for example, may prove worthwhile. The trouble is that terrorist organizations are mostly in states fractured by internal warfare, like Syria or Yemen. Those eager to destroy the organizations will be tempted to widen the mission to settle the civil war, “fixing” the failed state. That almost inevitably costs more lives and dollars than the attacks it aims to prevent would.

War also tends to cause more terrorism than it prevents. One reason is blowback, where ground forces or drone strikes trigger terrorism by rousing local anger. A related problem occurs when strikes on Islamist insurgent groups that are focused on local enemies, like Somalia’s al-Shabab, convert them into terrorists targeting the West.

Fear of terrorism can also cause terrorism by encouraging Western support for revolutionary wars. The belief that autocracy causes terrorism encouraged the war in Iraq, and to a lesser extent, the limited Western intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. By promoting disorder, both interventions, in different ways, aided the Islamic State’s rise.

Closure, meaning excessive security at borders, is especially relevant today, given the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic. But border security measures that slow goods and travelers, like the U.S. requirement that travelers crossing from Canada carry passports, can impose substantial costs by displacing tourism and trade. 

Immigration restrictions impose larger costs. Some restrictions are justified, of course. Rich nations like the U.S. and U.K. would be overrun if they opened their borders to everyone. Some workers sensibly worry that immigration will depress their wages. Still, Western nations, especially those with aging populations, would generally benefit economically from increased immigration.

Immigration also has moral virtues. Admitting more refugees, for example, is a relatively simple way to help people endangered by civil wars. Western nations do not know how to end Syria’s civil war, but they could easily admit more of the nearly 5 million people that have fled Syria. Settling 100,000 Syrians in the U.S. quickly, instead of 10,000 slowly, might require slightly less thoroughness in screening refugees, given the currently stringent U.S. screening procedures. But the humanitarian benefit would be far greater than anything the U.S. military is now doing in Syria.

The standard prescription to ward off overreacting to terrorism is political courage, where leaders are instructed to hold the line against fear-mongering. While mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg insisted people concerned by an especially absurd terrorist plot should “get a life” and focus on things more likely to kill them. President Barack Obama has recently reminded Americans that the threat of terrorism is hardly existential.

Still, we shouldn’t expect that much political courage. Democracy selects against it, usually long before a candidate gets a sniff of the White House. Whatever they said, neither Bloomberg nor Obama reliably resisted the allure of overwrought counterterrorism policies. Their comments are better taken to show what is possible without great courage: that leaders can get away with some honesty about terrorism’s risk.

Thankfully, other solutions are available for the politically craven. One is to tweak the federal bureaucracy or budget process to heighten competition. If the Department of Homeland Security’s budget competed more directly with the Navy’s, or the Environmental Protection Agency’s, those agencies, along with their congressional backers, would have more interest in questioning wasteful counterterrorism measures.

Another solution is “security theater.” Leaders can manage public fear of terrorism by playing up relatively cheap responses—like minor aid to groups fighting the Islamic State or another effort to combat its social media campaigns. Better yet, they can emulate then-President Dwight Eisenhower’s response to the Cold War-era launch of the Soviet’s Sputnik satellite: Having failed to calm the U.S. public’s fears, Eisenhower decided to employ it for useful ends, like federal funding for scientific research through the National Science Foundation and NASA. These policies helped Eisenhower resist responses he thought overwrought, like a massive military buildup. Today, similar responses could include U.S. funding for Syrian refugee screening and resettlement abroad; increased aid for the relatively stable governments of neighboring countries in areas where terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Shabab operate; and greater medical capacity in major cities to respond to attacks.

Western nations, especially the U.S., are safe enough from terrorism to dream of eradicating its threat and rich enough to try. But the pursuit of total safety isn’t worth it. Leaders should try to explain that, but it is naïve to expect them to risk much in doing so. They are better off encouraging agencies to question terrorism’s danger while promoting a bit of security theater, which may often be ineffective at providing security but effective at stopping fear.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal