Turn on your TV, radio, or computer screen, and you'll confront the convincing threat of terrorism. It lurks everywhere, not just in media, but in metro stations, airports, and rock n' roll concerts. The words "if you see something, say something" have become a familiar slogan. Florida senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio even bought a gun recently over Christmas, telling CBS that it's there in case ISIS attacks his house or community.
The Truth About Terrorism
If only our expectations of a terrorist attack matched up with the true risk of one. It turns out that Americans' annual odds of being killed by a terrorist fall somewhere between one in 3.5 million and one in 4 million. To put this in perspective, here are some other annual death odds, according to research from John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, and Mark Stewart, a professor of civil engineering at The University of Newcastle:
Death by home appliances: 1 in 1.5 million
Death by drowning in a bathtub: 1 in 950,000
Death by traffic accident: 1 in 8,200
Death from cancer: 1 in 540
"Our odds of dying from hazards in our homes are greater [than terrorism] but politicians and news channels aren't likely to gain followers by talking about those topics," Barry Glassner, the president of Lewis & Clark College as well as author of the book, Culture of Fear, told ATTN:. "I'm all for combating terrorism, but confusing the public about the risks we face is not the way to do that."
Terrorism, John Mueller also explains, is one of a few historical topics that successfully distorts the public's view of reality. These topics are generally connected to a "spooky source overseas," he told ATTN:."I compare [fear of terrorism] with domestic communism in the United States [during the McCarthy era], as well as the witch [hunt] era where you had this spooky outside force copulating and conspiring with the devil."
Terrorism Is A Marketing Campaign That's Uniquely Successful
Politicians and media outlets incessantly evoke terrorism (and the war against it) because it works. "Exaggerating the risks from terrorism attracts attention and little or no criticism," Glassner said. "By contrast, raising realistic concerns about gun safety produces loads of criticism and claims of partisanship, even of anti-Americanism."
Polling corroborates Glassner. Sixty-four percent of Americans believe it is more important to focus on preventing terrorism than preventing gun violence, according to a Huffington Post YouGov survey from December 2015. This is despite the fact that tens-of-thousands of people are killed by guns every year (the most recently reported annual number was 32,251 in 2011, according to CDC data).
Given its convincing marketing nature, terrorism is not only effective for politicians who stake their campaigns on it, but also lucrative for corporations who manufacture and sell equipment to fight it.
"There are a lot of people who are basically selling products," Mueller told ATTN:. "And if the government says, 'I really need an octillion new X-ray machines.' And you have X-ray machines to sell, you are there in about 12 seconds. And when you get there, you play out how great your X-ray machines are. And you don't say, 'You know, you probably don't really need these. The threat isn't that bad.' If people want to buy X-ray machines, you sell to them."