Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 381, August 20, 2006

"The sort of slave rebellions that are coming in the next few years..."


Fear Itself
by Chris Claypoole

Credit The Libertarian Enterprise

Why are so many Americans so afraid of the risk of dying in a terrorist attack? It has been pointed out in many venues that such a risk is negligible compared to many of our everyday activities. Recently, Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine's science correspondent, compared the risk of dying from a terrorist attack to dying from events like drowning, being murdered, struck by lightning, or perishing in a "catastrophic asteroid strike." (See While some death from some scenarios are even more unlikely than that from a terrorist attack, he concludes at one point, "your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered."

So why is it that there is such irrational fear of terrorist incidents? I believe that one factor is the same reason that many people are more afraid of nuclear power plants than of those using coal or natural gas to produce the electricity. It's partly fear of a new technology (the unknown), partly ignorance of the science and technology involved. In the case of terrorism, it is the fear of a new phenomenon, part fear of people whose motives are little understood by most Westerners, especially with all the silly prattle about "they hate our freedom."

As FDR famously said, in his first inaugural address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." (This is interesting, since unjustified terror is a politician's stock in trade. Scare the voters, pass legislation or sign an executive order, and benefit from that in various and sundry ways.) As anyone who has studied the psychology of using terrorism to advance a cause would know, the whole point of a smaller, militarily weaker group using the tactics labeled as terrorism is to paralyze the larger opponent, or get him going in circles, wasting energy and money, until he gives up in frustration, or responds in an overreaction, alienating those who may have been neutral or even somewhat against the terrorist group before they became victims of "collateral damage."

A wonderful (and highly entertaining) example of how this can work is the book Wasp by Eric Frank Russell (available from The title comes from a story related to the protagonist by one of his trainers about how a wasp, buzzing around in a car with four large men inside, caused said car to crash. The hero, James Mowry, has the mission of disrupting an entire planet of a rival interstellar empire (to Earth's). The book is a good manual for terrorists, in addition to being a good read. But a well-trained, well-financed and equipped man in such a position can be effective anywhere that a strong central government exists. Like the Sirian Empire in the book, or like contemporary America.

Another factor is that a large, centralized government can remain credible to its citizens only so long as it appears capable of both ruling and protecting them. Terrorist attacks are an object lesson that the government cannot protect you against this particular enemy. Governments like Iran under the Shah or the USSR fell because the people no longer feared the government more than the change, that step into the unknown that comes after the current ruler's fall. Governments like that of Weimar Germany or Kerensky's Russia fell because the people felt that the government was not protecting them from economic and political chaos in the former and those plus wartime slaughter in the latter. So if terrorist attacks undermine the economic, political or social stability of a country, the terrorists can achieve their objectives.

Thus the attacks on the World Trade Center towers was a strike at one of the financial nodes of the United States, and the continuing attempts (do they really want to succeed?) to scare people away from commercial airplanes are intended to disrupt the economic sector. The occupation of Iraq plays into the terrorists' hands, IMO, by creating an arena for terrorism designed to polarize many segments of the American political scene. And, given how Americans have become increasingly intolerant of different opinions, the social structure of the US seems vulnerable also. Are too many Americans granting too much importance to the actions of the terrorists? Almost certainly. Are the actions of our government more likely to negatively impact our lives than some terrorist? Same answer.

So what happened to the storied and gloried American attitude of "can-do" and self-sufficiency? Why has there been such an explosion (sorry, couldn't resist) of feelings of entitlement and dependency? Are we not eating enough meat? Too many processed foods with too many chemicals? Watching too much TV and not enough movies with action heroes?

I think that a large part of this change from previous times is a certain ambiguity about the enemy. Lack of understanding of who they really are (mostly middle-class or higher, not the poor; mostly educated, not ignorant, etc.), what they want (not sure myself; aside from driving all infidels out of Muslim lands and reclaiming previously Muslim lands, like Spain, it's a bit vague), and how to effectively oppose them seems to generate more heat than light. I hear blustering loudmouths on talk radio going on about nuking them all, and similar talk. The Pollyannas in the neocon movement still seem to think the US can win the hearts and minds of the non-radicals, and eventually defeat the terrorists. I have my doubts, as do others (see the August 15 cartoon at

Another factor is that people naturally become less self-sufficient as they learn dependence on government. When you take responsibility for your own actions and their results, when you realize that "shit happens," you aren't as likely to clamor for the government to "do something" about isolated incidents that are unlikely to be repeated. And, as any libertarian knows, as well as anyone who can mentally run the scenario, September 11, 2001 would have gone very differently if airplane passengers had the right to carry concealed pistols on those flights, as Scott Bieser has illustrated so very, very well: In addition, people expect the government to protect them from scary things, despite court decisions to the contrary (see one site among many They get upset when scary things happen, and some people demand that their legislators "do something." The legislators, while having no clue about what would actually improve the situation, are only too happy to pass laws that usually make things worse, even without the Law of Unintended Consequences. Acting in haste, whether on a personal basis or a legislative one, is counterproductive, more often than not.

What is the worst, IMO, is that many, if not most people are only too willing to trade their rights for some perceived (usually ephemeral) security. So the temperature of the water keeps ratcheting upward, driven by the irrational fear, ignorance and unwillingness to act as responsible adults exhibited by far too many Americans.


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