Terrorism, a Bridge Collapse, and the Weather

A reader named Mike Friedman writes:

On Wednesday, storms shut down the NYC transit system and a tornado hit Brooklyn. Last week a bridge collapsed in Minnesota.

It seems to me these are in many ways like acts of terrorism in that it is a seemingly random act of disruption/destruction that affects large numbers of people. And yet, the response is very different after the fact.

Any thoughts?

I think Mike raises a good point.

There are obviously a lot of differences between a terrorist attack and a storm, especially the fact that there’s a human villain in one case and not in the other. (Unless you think of us all as villains in a “we cause global warming and global warming causes storms” kind of way.)

The bridge collapse, though closer to the storm, is somewhere in the middle — if the Minnesota tragedy is ever attributed to some agency, company, or person, you can bet that party will publicly be turned into a villain.

It should also be said that preventing terrorism is an entirely different prospect than preventing a bridge collapse or storm damage, even though many smart people obviously work very hard to prevent all three of these in the aftermath of any such event.

And yet, we’ve seen more death and destruction in the last few days via the storm and the bridge collapse than we have seen via terrorism on American soil — big caveat there, to be sure, since there’s been plenty in other countries — over the past six years.

So, getting back to Mike’s question, why are the responses so different?

Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

Why are the responses so different? Let's see: because I am safe in my assumption that the storm is, in no way trying to do me in? But what do I know? The gods of yore were known to throw lightning bolts down when displeased. But I can't expect that kind of razz-a-ma-tazz from our modern-day deity. Well, not until the second coming, so until then, I will just have to assume that storms have no personal feelings about my cringing in the closet every time the great god Thor (excuse me, I meant *thunder*) rumbles.


one implies an injustice- the other don't (presuming an unjust g-d- see post 268 on Levitt's atheist posting)

The Good Reverend

I think it might spring from the same reason people tend to be more willing to live in a flood-prone neighborhood than a high-crime one. Which is, what? Devastation seems worse when deliberately caused by someone?


I think it's because one of the factors humans use in order to inaccurately tally our risk assesments is agency: we like to have it, but we especially hate when other people have it and we don't. So it's best to be able to avoid all danger; since that's impossible people manage to be philisophical about natural disasters but acts of violence or war really stick in their craws.

Mark Bigelow

The main difference seems to be that, even after our best efforts, we can't prevent a storm, earthquake, etc., but we can lock up would-be terrorists.

Also, a terrorist has a brain and consciously makes a choice to attack. A natural disaster is a result of environmental forces that are largely out of our control.

Daniel Cecil

I think it depends on how you define 'response.' Is response the media's reaction and subsequent populous mindset? Or is response the action taken by the government in an effort to curtail future incidents while simultaneously bringing justice to those responsible (FEMA Director Michael Brown, Bin Laden, etc)? In this context, I think one would have to consider both definitions, although I will not suggest it is narrowed to this dichotomy.

Well first I would argue that the the responses really aren't that different. Any minor incident which gains national attention tends to garner more support for its cause while shifting the focus off other, more pertinent issues. Politicians will not hesitate to use the incident as a PR stunt (did President Bush really need to go to the bridge?) nor will they hesitate to thrust the incident's popularity into politics. So I reject the notion, albeit a generalized argument on my part, that the response from the government is different. It's a different means towards the same end.

And in the populous sector, we see the same thing. As the blog entry yesterday pointed out, people tend to be afraid of even the most minor probabilities of endangerment to their well being. If one bridge collapsed in Minnesota, others around the country could also be in danger! This paranoid way of thinking was realized by the fact that virtually every state conducted bridge inspections following the incident in Minnesota - because they knew people would be demanding such inspections.

Just as sniper shootings create fear among those wandering in the streets, a bridge collapse creates unease for those traveling over a bridge. The responses are the same, the fault just lies with either an enemy or an inevitability... or flat out incompetence (heck of a job, Brownie!).



I think the difference stems from the fact that the American government spends more money 'preventing' terrorism than it spends to update our failing infrastructure or putting in place proper measures to quickly deal with the aftermath of a terrible act of nature. This difference is even more appalling due to the fact that more people die on American soil from those two types of incidents than they do because of terrorist caused incidents. Now the Republicans would claim that this is the case due to our excellent preventative measures in place to deter terrorism, however I think the point made Steven in his articles on terrorism is valid: the actual risk is much lower than what is perceived and thus we overspend to compensate for the fear factor (pun unintentional, I swear).

In the end, the failing of the current government is the intense focus on factors directly out of its control. There are numerous issues presented at home such as the substandard health care system, poor educational standards and, as pointed out in this article, our failing infrastructure. It seems as if we should refocus governmental spending to concentrate on issues which directly pertain to the population on a daily basis and prevent any unnecessary deaths. I do not advocate reducing defense spending so drastically to put us behind the rest of the world, but I do believe that it is time we address these important issues in an effort to maintain and improve the current standard of living for the citizens of this country.



We just saw this in Boston with the Big Dig collapse and the woman that died. They just attributed it to the epoxy company. Something similar could happen with Minnesota.


I personally reacted in a way that was like, well, it's too bad that things like the flooding and the bridge collapsing took place, but it doesn't have a personal affect on me. Acts of terrorism, however, DO impact me and how my life is lived. And, if we think about what terrorism IS (forcing people to change the way they live), then terrorism is alive and well in the USA. In part because we live in such a heightened sense of alertness, in part due to wiretapping, and "secret CIA prisons", in part due to fearmongering.


Those of us affected most directly by the transit breakdown do not consider it a "random act of disruption," but one that was foreseen and preventable. The transit system has had infrastructure problems for years. It seems as if the tunnels flood every time it rains. In fact, the system broke down in a similar way in 2004. No one expected the bridge collapse, and obviously no one expects a terrorist act. But everyone knew it was going to rain Wednesday.

Chris Jacques

I think that at the heart of this subject lies the question of agency. As others have mentioned, it seems worse when someone is deliberately out to do us ill.

Storms are random. Who would have thought a tornado would touch down in Brooklyn?

Terrorism isn't. While it may seem to be random to the victims and the public, an act of terrorism would (I presume) be premeditated. Premeditation implies that a process, a process that could, in theory, be disrupted.

Good luck disrupting that hurricane.


Because people are irrational and illogical, and therefore should be subject to extinction.


This is a very interesting question. I think Joseph is on to something with his notion about "agency".

Another factor that might be involved is individuals' egocentric outlook. We have an inclination to think that natural disasters will not affect "us", rather that they will affect "others". Part of the reason for this, I think, is our belief that these events are random. Acts of terror, on the other hand, are not random - they are deliberate. And this is where our egocentrism comes in. Because people tend to think that they are the center of the world, it makes sense for them to think that they would make an excellent target for terrorism. Therefore, people overestimate the probability that they will be the targets of terrorism, but do not make this error when it comes to natural disasters.


Two ideas: We expect a certain number of "natural" disasters. When a disaster occurs as the result of a terrorist attack, it is angering and terrifying because we know we're getting more than our natural draw. Also, the more diffuse and less villainous (think intentional v. negligent) the people responsible are, the harder it is to identify what to be terrified of or angry at.


The same could be said about the Iraq war: less US soldiers have died than are claimed by heart disease, yet those who are pro-surrender are virulently opposed to it still.

Derek Giromini

Three words: Military. Industrial. Complex.

the tailored mouth

When people get shaken up by a natural, or engineering, disaster they lose the peace and comfort they had. When people get shaken up by a terrorist attack, they lose the comfort they thought they had. Terrorism is scarier for people, and gets a much "different" response than earthy disasters, because terrorism signifies that a certain group of people have been planned against for a long time. They have been victims for years (i.e world trade tower workers).

After a natural, or engineering, disaster, people pity and grieve because something terrible happened for no obvious reason. Disasters, on the otehr hand, stun but they do not provoke future fears.

Terrorism is clear: people behind curtains push buttons, pull triggers. Disasters are muggy: who do we blame? The right place at the wrong time? Blah meets blah. There is no way to address disasters so we don't. We do what humans do best: to blame. Unlike natural disasters, terrorism creates exponential victims, and even more exotic fears.



Harry Shearer has audio on his latest LeShow of a network news anchor in Minneapolis discussing her appearance.

Here is one hour of CNN coverage transcripted:

My take on I-35W coverage is that you could learn quite a bit from the internet and from newspapers. Perhaps, TV news is obsolete:


As Rita points out, this distinction is in many ways a product of modern times, and the concept of a distant God or gods who take no direct hand in ordering the events of the world. (Atheism fits right in with this, of course.) Natural disasters in almost every society in history were evidence of the gods' immediate and pressing displeasure. The appropriate response was to make them happy -- so quick, round up the best oxen in town, or start trawling for volcano-ready virgins, or (taking a longer view) everybody quit your immoral lifestyles post haste.

Insofar as Poseidon did send storms, he was a terrorist -- he used random acts of destruction to sow fear throughout the populace to achieve his personal ends: respect the sea, make lots of sacrifices, and don't insult the freakin' god of the sea. He influenced the course of governments with his campaign of ship-sinkings, with most rulers wisely choosing appeasement. ("Let's fight the gods over there so we don't have to fight them here" doesn't work so well.)

Indeed, this viewpoint is alive and well, in exactly the people who think that God takes a personal hand in these things, and never without reason. Fred Phelps is already planning to picket the funerals of those who died in Minneapolis, and all because we're too blind to see that the bridge fell because God hates fags. The same was famously said of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans, and of September 11 (albeit with a slightly wide cast of bugbears), but the beliefs underlying these comments are more common today, on a personal level, than many people realize.



One other thought: Natural disasters don't raise the same specter of repetition in the near future.