The Fear of Terrorism?

Thanks to Temple University math professor John Allen Paulos, it can be demonstrated mathematically why the threats to our civil liberties should be of more concern than terrorism threats.

Paulos’ approach to terrorism draws on probability theory and a bit of common sense, specifically, on “the obvious fact that the vast majority of people of every ethnicity are not terrorists.”

Imagine a near-perfect, information gathering and interpretation system that could identify terrorists and stop them before the act of terrorism is committed. Because no system is perfect, Paulos’ system is assumed to be 99 percent accurate. And, of course, for this near-perfect terrorist fly-trap to be really effective it would also have to be able to correctly identify nonterrorists 99 percent of the time.

Such a system would only catch terrorists, right?

“Well, no,” Paulos wrote in an analysis for the LA Times back in 2003. It bears repeating, as the terrorism-centered presidential campaign season heats up, brought to you by Fear Inc.

Paulos applies the near perfect data-mining numbers to a country about the size of America -- a nation of 300 million in which 1,000 “future terrorists” lurk among the citizenry.

With a 99 percent detection rate, the system will identify 990 of 1,000 future terrorists. Pretty good.

But the flip side is ugly. In a nation of 300 million (minus 1,000 future terrorists) there are 299,999,000 nonterrorists. If the system is 99 percent accurate, one percent will be improperly detained as an “enemy-combatant.” How much is one percent of 299,999,000? Just under 3 million. That’s 3 million innocent Americans for every 990 Jose Padillas.

Just to bring it home, we’re talking about 3,000 times more innocent Americans being caught in the dragnet than the number of guilty ones! That alone ought to have each one of us thinking real hard about political priorities.

Despite my miniscule efforts and those of others in the dreaded “mainstream media,” the national media have fallen short on providing context in the “war on terror,” aiding and abetting America’s foreign policy cataracts problem.

How often do you see reports of terrorism with context that points out the relative rarity of actually being a victim of terrorism? And how many articles do you see that call into question the alarmism of say, Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that if terrorists were able to kill 10,000 Americans in an attack, they would “do away with our way of life.”

As John Mueller wrote in a recent of issue of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it’s the subtext of this kind of fear-mongering that’s most interesting. “These hysterical warnings suggest: the ‘existential’ threat comes not from what the terrorists would do to us, but what we would do to ourselves in response.”

Mueller also refers to the 1999 Gilmore Commission, a government-funded advisory group that assessed domestic response to WMD terrorism.

The group “pressed a point it considered ‘self-evident,’ but one that nonetheless required ‘reiteration’ because of the ‘rhetoric and hyperbole’ surrounding the issue: Although a terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction could be ‘serious and potentially catastrophic,’ it is ‘highly unlikely that it could ever completely undermine the national security, much less threaten the survival, of the United States.’ To hold otherwise ‘risks surrendering to the fear and intimidation that is precisely the terrorist’s stock in trade.’”

Over the weekend, GOP Sen. John Warner, who wants U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq by Christmas, said he may support Democratic legislation ordering withdrawals if President Bush refuses to set a return timetable soon.

And, then fear-mongering followed. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is also a member of Senate Armed Services Committee, responded by saying: “I don’t think it’s in our best interest to put so much pressure on the new Iraqi government that it absolutely collapses. We don’t want to allow that to happen, because it would make us less safe here at home.”

Fear isn’t just the “stock in trade” of terrorists. It’s a booming industry in America. And if we continue to trade true freedom for security, in fear, the “war on terror” will defeat us from the inside.


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