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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.