Why Bloomberg is Wrong About Terrorism Response

The appropriate way to respond to terrorism is the same as it has always been: through effective, targeted law enforcement measures that do not violate the civil liberties of innocent citizens.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted April 23, 2013 in Blog (Last Updated April 23, 2013)

There's quite a bit to like about New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, especially if you like walking, cycling and living in a lively city. But at the same time, Bloomberg's inclination to technocratic paternalism has a dark side that surfaces from time to time.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Bloomberg warned that the country's "interpretation of the Constitution" will "have to change".

"Look, we live in a very dangerous world. We know there are people who want to take away our freedoms. New Yorkers probably know that as much if not more than anybody else after the terrible tragedy of 9/11," he said.

"We have to understand that in the world going forward, we're going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That's good in some sense, but it's different from what we are used to," he said.

There's a glaring problem with Bloomberg's assessment of both the problem and the solution: the world is no more dangerous today than it was when the US Constitution was written.

In fact, by every conceivable measure - including violence of all kinds - it is vastly less dangerous today than just about any time in history.

More to the point, most of the danger we do face today does not come from terrorists. Terrorists are not as interested in taking lives as they are in capturing the public attention - more specifically, the public's panicky attention.

Humans are notoriously subject to a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic, by which we evaluate how likely or common something is by how easily we can call examples of it to memory.

Terrorism plays on this cognitive bias because terrorist attacks are extremely dramatic and high-profile, and thus imprint themselves strongly on our memory.

When the news media, politicians and commentators pile on by focusing disproportionately on such events, they can trigger an availability cascade - a self-reinforcing cycle in which more focus on an event motivates people to think more about it, which in turn leads people to focus more on it.

Reactions like Bloomberg's, in which he argues that Americans need to reinterpret their Constitution to accept a loss of rights in the face of the threat of terrorism, are precisely the wrong way to approach the matter.

There are a few important facts about terrorism that should put our fear in context:

  • Muslim-American terrorism has been in steady decline for the past decade. The risk is getting smaller, not bigger.

  • More generally, terrorist organizations tend to collapse over time, through various combinations of frustration, attrition and overreach.

  • Terrorists themselves tend to be inept, amateurish and incompetent.

  • The preferred methods of terrorism - like homemade IEDs built from pressure cookers - tend to be highly ineffective at killing people.

On the same day that three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombings, approximately 40 Americans country-wide were murdered for various non-terrorist reasons.

Also on the same day, approximately 140 Americans died via guns (this includes suicides, which make up two-thirds of the total, and accidental deaths).

We can keep going. On an average day in the United States, approximately 85 people are killed in automobile accidents, 16 people are killed in falls, 14 people are killed from accidental poisoning, and ten people are killed in home fires.

My point is that the fear that we feel about terrorism is vastly disproportionate to the risk that we will experience it - especially compared to the kinds of things we rarely think about but really should worry about.

Bruce Schneier put it best in a 2005 essay when he wrote:

If a risk is in the news, then it's probably not worth worrying about. When something is no longer reported -- automobile deaths, domestic violence -- when it's so common that it's not news, then you should start worrying.

By no means do I mean to dismiss or demean or make light of the trauma, injury and death experienced by the people who experienced the Boston Marathon terror attack.

However, it will only compound the tragedy if we allow such an event to transform our civilization from one that esteems liberty, autonomy and privacy into one that sacrifices those things for needless and counterproductive expedience.

The appropriate way to respond to terrorism is the same as it has always been: through effective, targeted law enforcement measures that build on good community relationships and do not violate the civil liberties of innocent citizens.