Fear of Terror Makes People Stupid

Scientists note that fear of terrorism makes people stupid.

As I’ve repeatedly noted, FBI agents and CIA intelligence officials, constitutional law expert professor Jonathan Turley, Time Magazine, and the Washington Post have all said that U.S. government officials “were trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which the American people would give them more power”.

Indeed, the former Secretary of Homeland Security – Tom Ridge – admits that he was pressured to raise terror alerts to help Bush win reelection.

In the real world, statistics from a 2004 National Safety Council report, the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, and 2003 mortality data from the Center for Disease Control show:

– You are 17,600 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack

– You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack

– You are 11,000 times more likely to die in an airplane accident than from a terrorist plot involving an airplane

– You are 1048 times more likely to die from a car accident than from a terrorist attack

–You are 404 times more likely to die in a fall than from a terrorist attack

– You are 87 times more likely to drown than die in a terrorist attack

– You are 13 times more likely to die in a railway accident than from a terrorist attack

–You are 12 times more likely to die from accidental suffocation in bed than from a terrorist attack

–You are 9 times more likely to choke to death on your own vomit than die in a terrorist attack

You are 8 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist

–You are 8 times more likely to die from accidental electrocution than from a terrorist attack

– You are 6 times more likely to die from hot weather than from a terrorist attack

Here are details on the odds of dying from terrorism versus other causes.

(Moreover, the chair of the 9/11 Commission said that the attack was preventable).

Indeed, much of our debt is due to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.

And yet the top American military and intelligence officials say that debt is the main threat to our national security. See this and this.

So by over-reacting, we are causing real, substantial and lasting damage to our country. (It is admitted by Bush, Cheney and others that the Iraq war was actually about oil, and the Afghanistan war was planned before 9/11, but this essay takes at face value the government’s claims that the wars have been for self-defense.)

Reason noted in 2006:

Already, security measures—pervasive ID checkpoints, metal detectors, and phalanxes of security guards—increasingly clot the pathways of our public lives. It’s easy to overreact when an atrocity takes place—to heed those who promise safety if only we will give the authorities the “tools” they want by surrendering to them some of our liberty. As President Franklin Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself— nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” However, with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn’t matter—because it doesn’t really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.

In April, Reason pointed out:

“Many people will focus, much of the time, on the emotionally perceived severity of the outcome, rather than on its likelihood.” They add, “With respect to risks of injury or harm, vivid images and concrete pictures of disaster can ‘crowd out’ the cognitive activity required to conclude and consider the fact that the probability of disaster is really small.” Activating the emotional centers in the amygdala shuts down the operation of the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex. Taking advantage of this flaw in reasoning, the researchers observe, “In this light, it should not be surprising that our public figures and our cause advocates often describe tragic outcomes. Rarely do we hear them quote probabilities.” In other words, politicians and activists deploy sob stories to scare the public into demanding regulations on activities they dislike.


“If we look across dozens of cases, we can observe a pattern in which salient but extremely low probability risks are sometimes met with excessive responses,”


Satirist H.L. Mencken memorably summarized this democratic dynamic: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Indeed, politicians have known for thousands of years that playing the fear card gives them more power and makes their subjects more compliant:

“This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.”
- Plato

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.”
- U.S. President James Madison

“Terrorism is the best political weapon for nothing drives people harder than a fear of sudden death”.
- Adolph Hitler

“Why of course the people don’t want war … But after all it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
- Hermann Goering, Nazi leader.

“The easiest way to gain control of a population is to carry out acts of terror. [The public] will clamor for such laws if their personal security is threatened”.
- Josef Stalin

Unfortunately, while politicians regularly terrify people with gruesome reminders of 9/11 and exaggerated stories about future terrorism risk, they ignore the high-probability risks – like the destruction to the economy through unchecked fraud and corruption, nuclear plant and deep sea oil rig operators which cut every corner in the book, and the loss of our liberties and the rule of law.

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  • John Thacker

    Moreover, the chair of the 9/11 Commission said that the attack was preventable.

    I’ve always read that statement as simply another attempt to “create an atmosphere of fear in which the American people would give them more power.” The 9/11 Commission *also* called for policies and laws designed to restrict our liberties and the rule of law. Opponents of the war seized on statements about how the Administration “obviously” should have arrested Muslims for taking flying lessons, and so on. Talking about how the act was preventable always leads to this trap.

    The truth is that you can’t prevent all rare events. You can affect probabilities. Pretending that you can prevent all of them leads to people just supporting doing “whatever it takes” to prevent all of them.

  • http://www.RefinedMedia.com Den Bradshaw

    While I agree with the sentiment of this article, whoever wrote it got the statistics all screwed up.
    In the stats cited, there is no number assigned to “shot by police officer”, nor is there a stat for “killed by terrorist act”, so we’re left to wonder where the author is pulling those stats. Of the stats pulled, the numbers are all completely wrong. For example, you are MUCH more likely to die from an auto accident than an airplane accident. (6.57 times as likely) but according to the author’s stats, you’re 11,000 times as likely to die from an airplane accident and 1048 times as likely to die from an auto accident. That would mean that you’re roughly 11 times as likely to die in an airplane crash as you are an auto accident, which is patently false.

    Unfortunately it looks like the author just sort of made these “facts” up.
    odds of dying in an airplane accident: 1 in 552
    odds of dying in a car accident: 1 in 84
    which means you’re 6.57 times as likely to die in a car accident as a plane accident

    Author states 11,000 as likely to die in airplane accident as terrorist attack, and 1048 times as likely to die in auto accident as terrorist attack… This would mean you are 10.49 times as likely to die in an airplane accident as an auto accident… Which by the stats cited by the author is completely false.

    I’m sure you’re way more likely to die from pretty much anything than a terrorist act… but it’s a shame the article’s author couldn’t actually honest research (or basic math) and get their argument straight.

    • drmcrib

      Notice that it says a “terrorist plot involving an airplane” and not simply a “terrorist attack.” I don’t know how the distinction is measured there or where the numbers are coming from, but the scope of terrorist plots involving airplanes is much smaller than terrorist attacks, which would increase the likelihood in that comparison.

  • William F. L. Burgess

    Even if it just means “terrorist plot involving airplanes” the police officer stat can’t possibly be true. If one averages the 9-11 deaths and spreads them out, you end up with an average of about 300 deaths per year. Which means 2400 police related deaths per year on average? This dwarfs the actual number of police shootings for sure.

  • Jon Hamilton

    U.S. government officials “were trying to create an atmosphere of fear in which the American people would give them more power”. – that may not be true but this is still a good article with many good points, too much money and power is given to prevent such an unlikely event. The real threat to your everyday life is the guy in the lane next to you texting.

    • marcvilla

      “Too much money and power is given to prevent such an unlikely event” I imagine you sitting inside a cubicle in some government agency trying to justify your employment to, quote “keep us safe” according to you logic ” an unlikely event” is because of government spending to fight this fictitious war on terror and the power given to President to strip us from our civil rights and embrace a totalitarian state is justified?

  • M Gil

    Thank you

  • Thanks

    I followed the link to the National Safety Council’s page, and I don’t see the odds for “terrorist attack” listed. What is it categorized under?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1411076396 Jeff Vandenberg

      Same here. Better citation please.

  • MyName

    There is no data about terrorist attacks on the NSC site. I’m sorry to say that it seems trusting the data in this blog makes people more stupid than the fear it intends to illustrate… Anonymous blog poster, whomever you may be – prove me wrong…or just confess to spreading conspiracy.

    For example, let’s look at how we are “8 times more likely to be killed by police”:

    According to the National Data Collection on Police Use of Force, There have been an average of 400 justified homicides every year since 2001 (or, ~4,800 total since then). These justified homicides were committed by both police and civilians (self defense killings), so it’s not perfect, but a start at looking at the real likelihood of getting killed by a cop.

    According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, there have been 2,998 terrorist killings since 2001. So, even if all 4,800 of these justified homicides were committed by police, we wouldn’t be anywhere near 8 times more likely to be killed by police than a terrorist.

    • Shug

      The figures pertain to incidents inside the USA.

      Egyptian Hesham Mohamed Hadayet killed two Israelis at the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles airport on July 4, 2002. On June 1, 2009, Abdulhakim Muhammed killed one soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers during a shooting rampage in at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009.

      Checking the Global Terrorism Database, one finds that an additional 14 Americans were killed in broadly defined domestic terrorism incidents since September 2001. Five died from anthrax attacks (2001); two died in an attack on a Knoxville church (2008); two are suspected to have been killed by members of the Minutemen American Defense group in Arizona (2009); an abortion provider was killed in Wichita, Kansas (2009); a guard was stabbed to death at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., (2009); two died in Austin when a man crashed his light plane into a government building over a dispute with the IRS (2009); and a neo-Malthusian terrorist was shot by police during a hostage incident at the Discovery Channel in Silver Spring, Maryland (2009). That adds up to a grand total of 30 Americans killed in terrorist incidents inside the United States in the last 10 years.
      There’s a big difference between 30 and 2,998. Next time maybe quote the relevant figures for a deeper understanding of truth.

    • ~e

      FBI says that there’s ~400 year *reported to them by police departments (who’re not required to report)*, committed by cops. Independent research have found ~600 reported by media on the internet. And even more shootings by cop (where the victim was saved). Under reporting by at least 1/3 and maybe more…

      FBI reports independently on justifiable homicide committed by citizens.

  • Dullhawk

    Why the false distinction between a police officer and other terrorists?

  • socilasatelite

    The Hitler quote is eerie.

  • April Welsh

    An article without proper citation is a fictional blog. I can’t believe how many articles feed off each other without proper sourcing. My high schooler can do better.

  • eman alshazly