How We Are Fighting the War on Terrorism


Feb 3, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in San Francisco Chronicle on February 3, 2004.

Taking the terror out of terrorism

Taking the terror out of terrorism ought to be a central policy goal of the war on terrorism. Unfortunately, too much of our policy feeds the terror, instead of abating it. Terrorism is terrifying. That is the terrorists' purpose. Yet for all the terror, terrorism has not been all that lethal. In 2003, a grand total of 22 Americans lost their lives due to terrorism, excluding the soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, when I speak on terrorism, I'm often asked what people can do to protect themselves and their families from the threat. I always start by giving the think-tank answer, which is: “You don't need to do anything. Your chance of being harmed by terrorism was essentially zero yesterday, is zero today and will be zero tomorrow, unless the world changes dramatically.”

Needless to say, that answer is not very satisfying, and psychologists help us understand why. We can have at least some illusion of control over our fates with regard to other causes of death — from smoking and overeating, to drinking and driving. By contrast, terrorism strips us of any control. It seems random, yet inescapable. Yet, if terrorism will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future, then all the more reason to frame policy to take some of terror out of terrorism. That suggests three “dos” for policy and one “don't”:

  • Better threat information: First, do better at understanding the threat and calibrating the risk. So far, threat information has been in short supply, and, as a result, the nation has not really done “threat assessment.” Instead, it has done “vulnerability assessment.” Because any democracy's vulnerabilities are legion, the result has been mostly to frighten citizens to not much purpose. If threat assessments became better, the terror would not go away but should become more bounded.

  • Fear factor: Second, do take the fear seriously. RAND Corporation research demonstrated just how traumatic Sept. 11 was for Americans, including many far away from the attacks. The fear factor should not drive us to silly policies that do not make analytical sense, but it should affect the calculation of costs and benefits for any particular approach. For instance, as a purely analytic matter, the nation probably spends too much screening airline passengers and baggage. That effort — upward of $10 billion per year and going up — is too much to devote to one particular set of threats. However, given the importance of air travel in modern life and the indelible images of Sept. 11, the fear factor may tip the balance in support of this policy.

  • Citizen involvement: Third, do encourage citizens to participate in the war on terrorism. Psychologists tell us and we know from our daily lives, that acting in the face of fear is better than fretting passively. The fact that airline passengers now scrutinize one another more than they used to is no bad thing.

  • Downplay hype: The “don't” is don't hype the threat, even though doing so can strengthen the nation's resolve to pursue the war on terrorism. War is hell, but it does prompt a surge of patriotic feeling and public support for government leaders of all parties. The popularity of presidents rises, often dramatically, during wartime, as this president's did after Sept. 11.

The American people remain terrorized by the terrorist threat even though very few have been killed. One reason for exaggerated fears of terrorism is the tendency of government officials to “over warn” of impending possible threats. When no attack occurs, the government can plead prudence or even credit itself with a success in averting an attack. But woe unto a president or senior official who failed to warn if an attack actually did occur.

There is no easy answer to this puzzle. Over time, the nation's color-coded warning system will acquire a meaning it does not have now — for state and local officials and for citizens as well. In canceling flights from Europe last month and over the weekend, the government seemed to have intelligence that was specific enough — and could be talked about specifically enough — to be persuasive that the cancellations were prudent.

There is no substitute for frank talk. No set of policies can guarantee that terrorism won't again afflict the nation. It will. But terrorism is way down the list of threats in most parts of the country and even where it ranks higher — in New York, Washington and Los Angeles — it does not rank very high. Terrorists will continue to try to make terrorism terrifying. But policy should try hard not to do their malevolent work for them.

Gregory F. Treverton is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and associate dean of the Pardee RAND Graduate School. He was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council in the first Clinton administration and is the author of Reshaping National Intelligence for an Age of Information (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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