Does the Overreaction to Terrorism Justify the Overreaction to Terrorism?

Vox has yet another great article, this one giving good insights into how the Obama Administration thinks about foreign policy.

I won’t rehash it here.  Instead, I just want to zero in on one point that I found particularly interesting.

Zack Beauchamp interviews Susan Rice, President Obama’s National Security Adviser. He notes, correctly, that the US is spending many 10’s of billions of dollars per year fighting terrorism despite the fact that hardly any Americans get killed by terrorists.  (This recent article  lays out the facts about spending and the threat very clearly.)  Beauchamp continues:

I asked Rice how she could justify this given that roughly as many Americans are killed per year by their own furniture as they are by terrorists. (This is true; it falls on them by accident.)

Rice responds:

“You are correct that the threat to Americans from terrorism is less than the threat to die in car accidents, to die of the flu, or any number of things we could list.”

Hmmm….I find myself unable to pass on the total ineptness of Rice’s reply to Beauchamp’s nice comparison.  It is as if you remark that the US Women’s Basketball team is totally dominant in the world, blowing away the Olympic-level competition by 35 points on average.  I reply “Yes you’re right.  In fact, if they played the St. Mary’s seventh grade team they would win by a lot.”

More than 30,000 people die per year in car accidents and the US is averaging around seven terrorist deaths per year.

Anyway, Rice rambles on about a few things that don’t really address the question and then lands, interestingly, on this:

“The threat, I would argue, has got to be measured not only in the number of lives but in the risk that it poses to our economy, our social cohesion, our international presence, and our leadership,” she says. “It’s more than a question of how many lives are taken.”

Beauchamp then writes:

What Rice didn’t say is that these consequences are all the result of irrational overreaction to terrorism — which is the conclusion implied by her own analysis.

If, objectively speaking, terrorism doesn’t kill very many Americans, attacks really shouldn’t have a major effect on the US economy or people’s attitudes toward their fellow Muslim citizens. And yet people panic out of proportion to the body count, prompting market losses, expensive security policies, and a surge in Islamophobia.

The is interesting.  The idea is that maybe massive spending to prevent terrorism is justified because even small terrorist incidents cause people to go bonkers and engage in all sorts of destructive behaviours.  It is best to pay through the nose to prevent this self-immolation.

I should hasten to add that Rice doesn’t actually say this and Beauchamp doesn’t endorse this position either.  He just says that Rice’s statement seems to imply it.  I’m not endorsing this idea either although I don’t think it can be summarily dismissed.

My Economics of Warfare course outline contains a paper by Bruno Frey that makes a related point.  Frey argues that the overreaction to terrorism strengthens the incentives for terrorists to make attacks in the first place.

Think about it.  If I respond to insults from my enemies by shooting myself in the foot then I will probably be fielding a lot of insults from my enemies.

The next stage in this chain is to say that as long as I expect to keep behaving in this self-destructive way then I had better do what I can to prevent the insults from coming my way in the first place.

Of course, the analogy breaks down because Rice isn’t saying that the Obama Administration plans to overreact to terrorist incidents.  Rather, she says that the broader society does this – which is true.  As long as overreactions continues to be the rule then it’s at least plausible that the overreaction to terrorism justifies the overreaction to terrorism.


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