Why over-estimating the risk of terror just hands victory to the terrorists

Lars Christensen
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The clear risk is that the cost of the response is larger than what can be justified from the actual risk (Source: Getty)

The terrible attacks in Belgium last month have further escalated fears of terrorism across Europe. As a result, policy-makers all over the continent are calling for new measures to fight extremism and populist politicians have been quick to demand the closure of Europe’s borders. But the clear risk is that the costs of such measures could easily be larger than what can be justified by the actual risks from terror.

The fact is that many fewer people have been killed in terror attacks in Europe in recent decades than in the 1970s or 1980s. Even more importantly, the actual risk of being killed in a terror attack is extremely small.

A 2011 report from the US National Counterterrorism Center noted that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists.

Then compare the risk of being killed in a terror attack with the risk of dying in a traffic accident. Let’s take the most deadly year in terms of terror since 2000. In 2004, the year of the Madrid train bombings, nearly 200 people in total died in attacks across Europe. Now consider the number killed in traffic accidents. Here are the latest statistics: 746 in Belgium (2013), 3,268 in France (2013). The risk of being killed in a traffic accident is quite low, but it is a lot higher than that of being killed in a terror attack. Or put it another way – every year more people die in traffic accidents in France than were killed on 9/11.

This is not to downplay the horrors of terrorism or to suggest that the risk it poses should be ignored. But it is notable that we hear very few politicians talk about road safety, while nearly all of them are currently screaming about the need to “do something” – often something very radical indeed – about the terror threat.

I believe that there are two primary reasons for these “do something” tendencies in European politics (they also regularly appear in environmental discussions).

First of all, psychologists have shown that humans in general are not very good at estimating the risk of very infrequent events and that people psychologically tend to seriously overestimate such risks.

Second, we are what the American economist Bryan Caplan has termed Rationally Irrational Voters. Caplan means that, in elections, voters don’t really have to make rational assessments, as the likelihood that our individual vote will mean anything for the outcome is very limited – we are, so to speak, rationally irrational, irresponsible and ignorant.

As a result, we are much more likely to give into fears and fantasies in the political process than when we decide whether to, for example, buy a car or make an investment. Politicians know this all too well and are happy to play on our fears. After all, politicians are rarely elected by presenting statistics to the voters.

But we cannot and should not cave into fear – not in our personal life or in our political decisions. The best thing is to “keep calm and carry on”. That does not mean that we should ignore terrorism as a risk to the lives of European citizens. But if we give in to fears and let them guide policies, then surely the terrorists have won.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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