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?


In addition to the issue of agency and natural vs. "intentional" catastrophe, we focus on that which is viscerally horrifying-- the horror is then reinforced by extreme media coverage--and we are hyper-vigilant about monitoring outgroup members...terrorists being the ultimate out-group.


I feel that the responses are different in many ways because with the storm or bridge collapsing, there is no person/group/religion/country to blame. It's not as if a group of people in Brooklyn preformed a rain dance thus causing the tornado. With the beidge collapsing, as of now its an accident. There is noone to put the blame on, so people have to accept it as that.

Also, with terrorism, people have an entity to fear..the terrorists. Its not as if people can fear mother nature or fate.


Here is a snippet from "Road kill:
Why are we so worried about terrorism when so many more people are dying on our highways?" By Gregg Easterbrook. August 5, 2007. LA Times.

"245,000 Americans have died because of one specific threat since 9/11, and no one seems to care. While the tragedy of 3,000 lives lost
on 9/11 has justified two wars, in which thousands of U.S. soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, the tragedy of 245,000 lives lost in traffic accidents on the nation's roads during the same period has
justified . . . pretty much no response at all."

One observation is that the horsepower arms race driven by automobile companies marketing machinery has made cars more dangerous and drivers more agressive.

Although statistically, driving is one of the most significant sources of mortality, fear is not part of the marketing. In contrast with terrorism, fear is very much a part of the marketing, both of the terrorists and our politicians.



Because rational humans realize that weather is something that cannot be changed, while acts of terrorism can. If you live in a low-lying city in the southern United States, you implicitly accept the possibility that a strong hurricane could come along and damage the city, and there's nothing anyone can do about that. However, if walls meant to protect the city fail because the government failed to fund them, you now have something to blame other people for.

It's a lot easier to be angry at someone else than it is yourself.


Here is the first paragraph of "Technological Risk" by H.W. Lewis, 1992:
"Fear and risk are different creatures. What some of us fear most-- poisons in our drinking water, radiation in our air, pesticides in our food-- pose hardly any real risk, while some we fear least--driving, drinking and smoking-- kill many hundreds of thousands each year."

TV ratings are generated by fear. Politicians get elected by fear. It is a feedback loop that propagates itself. However, there is hope for future victories of the rational over the scary, as information (and the kind of stuff Freakonomics does) will continue to increase in quantity and quality.


I think one thing all three phenomena have in common is history. History is full of culminations and causal effects. Terrorism doesn't come from nowhere. Such an act is the product of an historic festering of hatred. The bridge collapse is from a history of decay or neglect. The weather, as we are beginning to learn, is not only a development of existing natural forces but also a development of past human activity.


The key to the difference in reponses is blame. Who can we blame for this, and then how can we punish them for it? If there is no one to blame, or if there are too many people to blame, it's hard to respond with any kind of action or punishment. Terrorists, conveniently, always own up to their crimes. Thus, there is always someone to go after and punish. But with the bridge collapse, it's like that a lot of people are only partly responsible. Furthermore, it is likely that none of them acted in a manner that was clearly negligent, i.e. they new that there was a potential for the bridge to collapse imminently and did noting about it. Thus the response is somewhat muted. It's unclear what needs to be done to solve the problem. Lot's of small changes probably need to be made that require a lot of thought and effort. With terrorism the sollution is clear: let's get rid of the bad guys. It may be hard to implement, but the sollution is still clear.


Eric Rachlin

I think a lot of these comments, and even much of Steven's post, is missing the significance of Mike's question. There are clearly ways in which a natural disaster, a falling bridge, and an act of terrorism differ, but since the outcomes are so similar, why is our societal response so vastly disproportionate?

From the perspective of a typical American, all these events occur infrequently at random. They all pose some (not particularly large) threat of injury or death, and they are all costly to recover from. For years, however, people have cited terrorism as a major concern. In the name of terrorist prevention, the US has completely changed it's foreign policy, restructured government agencies, and spent close to one trillion dollars. What has the US done in the name of infrastructure improvement or natural disaster response? Obviously much less.

I'm not saying there aren't good reasons why these threats are viewed differently from terrorism. The assignment of blame to another person does make terrorism seem more menacing. Also it's more difficult to put an upper limit on the amount of destruction terrorism can cause. Still, these difference seem insufficient to justify the vastly different amount of resources allocated towards preventing tragedies that ultimately lead to very similar outcomes.



Because there is a known, quantifiable response to natural disasters.

Take the bridge for example: Congress and the state legislature can calculate exactly (or pretty close to it) how much money it will cost to quickly build another bridge, and they can fairly accurately predict how much money will be needed to inspect every other bridge to make sure that a similar accident doesn't happen in the future. They can set up the government programs to inspect and build bridges with relative efficiency

Any response to terrorism is necessarily inexact: no one knows how best to prevent a future attack, much less what a future attack will look like, so are elected officials have no idea how to prevent such an attack.


Am I the only one who ISN'T afraid of terrorism? I think the 'risk' is highly overrated. I have a much bigger chance of getting hit by a car or drowning than being killed by a terrorist attack.


We are really talking about 3 different things here. Natural disasters are the result of a natural catastrophic event, e.g., hurricane, tornado, drought. Man made disasters, such as buildings collapsing, bridges, etc. And terrorists attacks.

In terms of natural disasters, to some extent they can be planned for. For example, we know that we get snow, freezing conditions in the winter, hot humid weather in the summer, etc. Humans can plan accordingly, i.e., you bundle up in the winter and wear cooler cloths in summer and perhaps have air-conditioning.

Even unpredictable natural events, e.g., earthquake, we can deal with by choosing to live in reasonably earthquake free area. Or if we choose to live in the west, for example, we know the frequency is low and that danger or risk of injury is low.

Man made disasters are slightly different in that man-made structures are not designed to fall down and kill people. We know that there is some very small probability that a building or bridge can collapse but we put this in the low range of things that might happen. Some degree of prudence can reduce these probabilities even lower, at least to the point of acceptable risk. But after the fact, we can analyze the event and hopefully prevent future disasters.

Terrorism, on the other hand, is something purely concocted by humans and to a large degree is unpredictable. In fact no degree of prudence or caution can protect you from a terrorist attack. The only hope that you have is that these attacks are seemingly random and low frequency. But since they originate with humans, they hopefully can be prevented or the culprits caught.



Well, of course, human behaviour is traditionally seen to be easier to influence than nature's.

But we are 6 000 000 000 people. If only 1 in 1 000 000 would be a deranged maniac that made already 6 000 of them.

And is this not in a way a natural desaster too, our DNA or whatever it is, simply not being stable enough?


I'd suggest that our responses to both the flavors of spectacular bad things mentioned by Mike Friedman -- bridge collapses, terrorist attacks -- are magnified in part by the 24-hour news cycle and a media industry that uses events like these to draw eyeballs to the screen. Human attention, after all, is the product CNN is selling to its advertisers, and a thumb-sucker on an urgent question like prenatal health care just doesn't draw viewers when your competition is showing images of things on fire. As they say, if it bleeds, it leads.
A second thought: Historically, natural disasters are something we human beings have been living with forever -- and as bad as we are, as a species, at assessing risk, we've dialed in our responses at least a little bit. But terrorism is for us a fairly recent thing, and because of its novelty, we tend to overreact. In nations that have been living with terrorism on their own soil for some time, there's a more resilient, less hysterical reaction -- a more reasonable assessment of risk -- and people are finding ways to get on with their lives.



"Nobody cares" just means that the media isn't hyping it day and night. The reporters don't see it as a "story", for whatever reason, most likely because

a) Whatever made the bridge fall down probably doesn't have a scary beard like Osama bin Laden. Did you ever notice that he's scary but the North Korean dictator, a nut with nukes, is laughable? East Asians don't have beards, which are secondary sexual characteristica displaying agressiveness and power. Arabs make better bad guys.

b) It's hard to scaremonger about the likelihood of a bridge collapsing again.

c) Politicians really don't have a good angle on bridge building - its not sexy like bombing foreigners.

But anyway, you should phrase the question the other way around:

Why has 9/11 had such a long run in the media? Everything else peters out after two weeks. The only thing that came even close this century was Janet Jackson's nipple.



The way we respond to a crisis should be treated, in part, as an investment, and we should fund the investment that will pay greater dividends. In the case of the war against terror, we have made a horrible investment, causing us to be unable to fund other possible investments.

In the last 8 years I have been in range or affected by countless rain and snow storms, including several that made it impossible to commute, probably been over many structurally deficient bridges and have seen exactly one terrorist attack up close and personal that, basically, only caused me to be evacuated from my office and made for an interesting commute home.

While the attack freaked me out and made commuting a challenge for a time, the storms have probably affected me more. Same for the bridges; even if they don't collapse, they will have to be repaired, causing traffic delays. I've had close family members and friends killed due to a motor vehicle accidents and none killed due to terrorist attacks (at least that I'm aware of). So in theory, the greater investment, for me, would be road and storm related repairs.

Obviously, one good terrorist attack, say a dirty bomb at the port of Newark wiping out road, rail, air and my office, would render the previous investments moot, so investing in making sure that a terror attack doesn't happen again makes sense. However, in the case of Iraq, we have invested poorly.

Instead of investing that money into improving our intelligence gathering abilities, we've thrown that money, past and future because, despite what some want, we're probably not going to be able to leave Iraq for many years, into more guns and wasted lives. Worse, this leaves less money going to rectify things that affect my daily life such as subway pumps and road repair.

What is really frustrating is that I recall the President telling Americans that this new war on terror was going to take a long time and would be fought in new ways, implying highly trained covert military teams acting on improved intelligence from specialists, striking key targets, sometimes quietly, instead of a conventional army attacking a nation. Instead, we went right to a play book from the 1960s. Pardon me if I feel less then impressed with the current administration.



the difference is that they really aren't different. the difference lies in our perception. the western culture's need to assess blame takes form whenever blame/guilt can be assessed and sometimes not, placing blame on the most likely suspect. in other words, if we can't blame god then somebody must suffer the blame. the problem lies in western culture's ability to wrap the unexplainable in the blanket of divine providence.


We know that there is some very small probability that a building or bridge can collapse but we put this in the low range of things that might happen.

Apparently someone's never been to Action Park. Whoever designed and built that place never had the slightest inkling in regards to the safety of its clients. They didn't call it "Traction Park" for nothing.

Maybe OBL as a fresh engineering grad was an early hire.

My "terror" plot? Charter a flight to Newark and on approach fly it into Bayway. If flown into the right spot you could have a nice kiloton explosion. Not to worry, the NJ State Police are more than aware of this idea.

Could also do this anywhere near a LNG terminal and have and megaton explosion to kill a couple of hundred thousand.

The thing is, the only reason this would happen was if we stopped giving a hoot about them(and really, if it wasn't for our gas tanks, would we?)


Maurie Beck

Although theological meteorology (or is it meteorological theology?) has largely been abandoned by mainstream Christian denominations, it was a thriving area of religious study and practice (just below the burning of witches) in which natural disasters were often thought to provide the means for God (or gods) to punish sinners and other apostates.

Nowadays, religiously inspired terrorism also provides the means for true believers to punish unbelievers, apostates, and blasphemers.

Unfortunately, many Fundamentalists (Christian and otherwise) still assign agency to a wrathful God for both kinds of disasters.

Days after Sept. 11, 2001, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson initially blamed feminists, gays, lesbians and liberal groups for bringing on the terrorist attacks.

On May 8, 2006, Pat Robertson said, "If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms." On May 17, 2006 he elaborated, "There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest."

I'm sure the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is God expressing his dissapointment and reminding Minnesotans not to vote Democratic in the 2008 presidential elections.



We are a very open society by choice and necessity. We all extensively rely on the goodness of strangers everyday to go about our lives. A motivated individual or groups of individuals bent on murder has the ability to alter our way of life in a greater way than a bridge collapse or natural disaster does. If Americans could no longer trust the stranger on the subway, at the mall, or at the football game with their safety, then every facet of our way of life, for everyone, would change for the worse.

Also, let us not forget that islamic terrorism on American soil is a relatively new phenomena as opposed to highway maintenance and natural disasters. Our institutions by necessity need to adapt to this new threat and naturally the media reports the debate and the changes to our institutions.

Also, its not like we do not spend lots of money and man hours fixing our infrastructure and defending ourselves against natural disasters. We do, people just take for granted the levy or the bridge until it fails. And when it happens, the governmental response is uncontroversial (unlike the response to terrorism); recheck the bridges and the levys.



Terrorist attacks are bold and audacious moves by individuals or groups - they have cunning behind them, human agency, and we wonder at the character of a person who would choose to cause such an atrocity.

There is no agency in a giant storm. Even if all of us created it by encouraging global warming, we didn't mean to do it. More people die in car accidents yearly than will probably ever die from terrorist attacks, but we don't talk about the 'car accident epidemic' because there's no human agency to focus on - none of these people got in their car and meant to kill anyone.