Terrorism, Part II

On the very first day that our blog was hosted by the New York Times, I wrote a post that generated the most hate mail I’ve gotten since the abortion-crime story first broke almost a decade ago. The people e-mailing me can’t decide whether I am a moron, a traitor, or both. Let me try again.

A lot of the angry responses make me wonder what everyday Americans think terrorists do all day. My guess is that they brainstorm ideas for terrorist plots. And you have to believe that terrorists are total idiots if it never occurred to them after the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings that maybe a sniper plot wasn’t a bad idea. The point is this: there is a virtually infinite array of incredibly simple strategies available to terrorists. The fact that it has been six years since the last major terrorist attack in the United States suggests either that the terrorists are incompetent, or that perhaps their goal isn’t really to generate terror. (A separate factor is the prevention efforts by law enforcement and the government; I’ll address that later.)

Many of the angry emails I received demanded that I write a post explaining how we stop terrorists. But the obvious answer is a disappointing one: If terrorists want to engage in low-grade, low-tech terror, we are powerless to stop it. That is the situation in Iraq right now, and, to a lesser degree, in Israel. That was also more or less the situation with the IRA a while back.

So what can we do? Like the British and Israelis have done, if faced with this situation, Americans would figure out how to live with it. The actual cost of this low-grade terrorism in terms of human lives is relatively small, compared to other causes of death like motor-vehicle crashes, heart attacks, homicide, and suicide. It is the fear that imposes the real cost.

But just as people in countries with runaway inflation learn relatively quickly to live with it, the same happens with terrorism. The actual risk of dying from an attack while riding a bus in Israel is low – and so, as Gary Becker and Yona Rubinstein have shown, people who have a lot of experience riding Israeli buses don’t respond much to the threat of bombings. Similarly, there is little wage premium for being a bus driver in Israel.

Beyond this, I think there are a few more prospective things we can do. If the threat is from abroad, then we can do a good job screening risky people from entering the country. That, too, is obvious. Perhaps less obvious is that we can do a good job following potential risks after they enter the country. If someone enters on a student visa and isn’t enrolled in school, for instance, he is worth keeping under close surveillance.

Another option is one the British have used: putting cameras everywhere. This is very anti-American, so it probably would never fly here. I also am not sure it is a good investment. But the recent terrorist attacks in the U.K. suggest that these cameras are at least useful after the fact in identifying the perpetrators.

The work of my University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape suggests that the strongest predictor of terrorist acts is the occupation of a group’s territory. From that perspective, having American troops in Iraq is probably not helping to reduce terrorism — although it may be serving other purposes.

Ultimately, though, it strikes me that there are two possible interpretations of our current situation vis-a-vis terrorism.

One view is the following: the main reason we aren’t currently being decimated by terrorists is that the government’s anti-terror efforts have been successful.

The alternative interpretation is that the terror risk just isn’t that high and we are greatly overspending on fighting it, or at least appearing to fight it. For most government officials, there is much more pressure to look like you are trying to stop terrorism than there is to actually stop it. The head of the TSA can’t be blamed if a plane gets shot down by a shoulder-launched missile, but he is in serious trouble if a tube of explosive toothpaste takes down a plane. Consequently, we put much more effort into the toothpaste even though it is probably a much less important threat.

Likewise, an individual at the CIA isn’t in trouble if a terrorist attack happens; he or she is only in trouble if there is no written report that details the possibility of such an attack, which someone else should have followed up on, but never did because there are so many such reports written.

My guess is that the second scenario — the terrorism threat just isn’t that great — is the more likely one. Which, if you think about it, is the optimistic view of the world. But that probably still makes me a moron, a traitor, or both.


Great point on how terrorist think. I am sure if they started to read this list it would classify under stuff that has already been thought of long ago. We are just thinking of situations without much discussion when they are putting in much more time and money to thoroughly research all possible ideas.

What we don't know can hurt us, so it is best to get these ideas out in the open. Just like how any protection agency plays out difference scenarios to train people we must get ideas in the open to defend against them.


Nice work, Steven. Keep up the brave work.

Michael Jennings

The lack of terrorist activity in the U.S. can be empirically traced to the increased displays of the American flag in the past six years. They're just simply intimidated. Can you blame them?

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Hmmmm....How could a "moron, a traitor, or both" be as cute as Mr. Levitt? He makes good points, too. Anyway, maybe the terrorists haven't struck for a while because they are gearing up for something really big again. In terms of amount of fear relative to the threat, I am one of those who worry terribly, no matter how "small" the likelihood of my dying in, say, a plane crash. And I do wonder if musings such as how low the risk is to be dying this way would flit across my brain (if I could even *think* with all that screaming going on, including my own) as the plane begins its fatal descent?

Lauren Nichols

We haven't had a major terror attack in the US since 911 DESPITE the Iraq invasion--not because of it. If there is anyone to thank for this, it's not our politicians.


I think the morons are the people who got all fired up about your first post.

Regardless, I believe that you're correct that the real reason we haven't had another terrorist attack since 9/11 is because the Al Queda does not view a second attack as it's highest priority. That organization's goal is not, as many Americans believe, to destroy America because they "hate our freedom." Their goal is a third Islamic caliphate -- essentially to rule the middle east with a new regressive Islamic theocracy.

9/11 was a means to this end. It served to chastise us for interfering in the middle east, and united fundamentalists in the middle east against a common enemy. Our heavy handed response with the Iraq war removed one of the secular dictators that stood in Al Queda's way, openning up the region to more chaos that Al Queda can now exploit.

St. Kitt

We're fighting (and inciting) millions of them over there so we don't have to fight a few dozen of them here.

A good investment? The declining value of the U.S. dollar tells us.


Thinking about terror plots is as bad as committing terrorism.

What we really need are thought police.

And book-burning firemen, etc.


Great response. Of course, you're still going to get a lot of grief flying in the future, but keep up the good work. Bring a laptop so you can work during breaks between interrogations...

Mike Roddy

Thanks for your piece. It's always been easy to destroy. A kid with a match can burn down a house, and even a forest. Terrorist acts are almost as easy.

The police state apparatus we have been developing has two outcomes: compromising our civil rights and increasing the motivations of potential terrorists.


It's interesting that it is basically taken for granted, even by those who dispute the "traitor" characterization in this case, that there is an obligation for the news media in a country (or at least, in THIS country) to protect the interests of that country. Assuming all news providers accept this premise, and all news providers are in one country or another, from where would accurate news be available? Are the typical dismissals of al-Jazeera as being biased not really criticisms, but merely commentary that their bias is not the one appropriate for our country?


I agree fully with your hypothesis that all the furor and overreaction of the government, post 9/11, has been a waste of time, money, and effort. It has all been show. A costly show, in terms of the very freedoms and rights, they purport to protect.

As for the dearth of terrorism in the US, I have come to think that for terrorists to function they need the support, or at least the apathy, of a disenfranchised population. Also, the cost of reprisal must be low or extreme enough to be galvanizing. If so, then US has been an unfertile place for terrorism after 9/11.

Wes Hartline

Excellent thoughts sir. Don't be too concerned about the hate mail. I look forward to the hearing about the hate mail you will now receive after mentioning the abortion/crime rate article for those who hadn't read it yet...


It is not true that there have been no terrorist attacks in the U.S. since September 11, 2001. The anthrax attacks took place later in 2001.

The fact that there have been no attacks by Islamic terrorists in the U.S. since 2001 doesn't really tell us anything. Eight years passed between the first World Trade Center bombing and the September 11 attacks.

Ann S.

There are an infinite array of simple strategies to any person out there who would like to hurt other people. Something to acknowledge, though, there are also troubled people out there who we might not think of as terrorists but people who are looking for ways to hurt other people. I don't think we classify high school and college shooters as terrorists however, your column is also reaching people who are troubled and looking for ways to draw attention to themselves. Yes, there are many other influences out in the world and why provide people with the assignment and solutions for how to terrorize and hurt other people? It's a sad state of affairs when we're asked to provide our fellow human beings with ideas like that. I still believe yesterday's post was an irresponsible waste of words and it's a shame the NYT posted it. We create our world through thoughts and ideas and they are eventually followed up with the reality of actions. Perhaps an apology would also have been helpful.


james singer

You mean Lou Dobbs got it wrong, they're not amassing on the Mexican border?


If we refuse to discuss how terror attacks might occur because the enemy could get ideas then we have muzzled our thoughts. We lose the initiative and we dumb ourselves down.

I would amend Mr Levitt's idea a little. I would send a group of a dozen men to one small american town, an every-town. I doubt they would get away, but it's the kind of attack that is easier to imagine and something that has not happened since Kansas during the Civil War. The feeling of powerlessness is what creates dread.

Patrick Mathieu

I have discussed this point in numerous radio interviews, including Oprah & Friends Radio. My contention is that Osama Bin Laden, bird flu and gang violence are all linked. The factors that link them are FEAR and CONTROL.

Our deepest fear is anything we are powerless to control. Our ULTIMATE fear is the fear of death, which, of course, is generally beyond out control. We fear gang violence, bird flu and Osama Bin Laden precisely because we worry that they could kill us and we feel helpless to control them.

I would submit that they only effective way to circumvent the terror that is invoked by terrorist acts (or bird flu or gang violence) is to begin to come to terms with our own mortality. This is what I do - I help people by using something I call The Power Of Mortality™.

The idea is simple, but not easy. You need to embrace your own mortality in order to regain control over your life and live with vitality. Once you've done that - terrorism loses its power.




@ #15:

do you really think those "troubled people...looking for ways to hurt other people" are too stupid to figure out any ways of hurting people?

Thomas R. Moorer

What ever happened to poor Admiral Poindexter? His suggestion that we open a futures market to speculate on the probability of a terrorist attack was a "wisdom of the crowd" concept long before anybody ever heard of crowd wisdom. Of course, being innovative, the idea horrified Congress and once again relegated the Admiral to obscurity. Sad.